A Road Trip to Paso Robles
Paso Robles, a ranch and winery town set halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is my favorite getaway destination in the state of California.
I use the Spanish pronounciation, “Pahhso Rrroh-bless,” instead of the more local/gringo “Pass-o Roe-bulls.” Either way you say it, though, it simply means: “The Pass of the Oaks.”
Though I’d visited Paso Robles many times before, this was the first time I stayed in the area’s sweet, small and historic downtown.
On my recent road trip to Paso Robles, California, I brought along my boyfriend, Eric, for our first multi-day getaway. He had never been to Paso, and I was eager to share the area with him.
We were guests of the Paso Robles Inn for two nights, which is set just across Spring Street from the main square. An ideal place to stay if you want to get a sense of Paso’s history and local community, the Paso Robles Inn was the area’s only hotel when it opened back in 1891. Capitalizing on the natural hot springs that bubble up beneath it, the original property — then a grand, graceful sprawl of turrets and wraparound porches — was a magnet for celebrities and Gold Rush millionaires.
After a huge fire in 1940, the modern-day Inn has been restyled as a modest ramble of Spanish-style brick buildings set around a rear courtyard garden. A separate weddings/events hall features a beautiful collection of vintage photos, postcards and menus from the original hotel.
We stayed in one of the hotel’s winery-themed rooms, where local wineries are given free decorating rein to express themselves. (Our room was designed by Daou Vineyards, a fancy new winery set way up on a hilltop with views that could stop your heart.)
These rooms are designed for couples, with courtyard balconies that feature outdoor jacuzzis (that draw their water from the on-site hot springs) and thick privacy curtains. The vibe is more motel-chic than luxury, but our bed was big, comfortable and faced a fireplace, we lounged out in our jacuzzi twice, and despite a mostly full house, it was quiet at all hours. Bonus: With rooms starting at $139, this is one of the most reasonably priced hotels in town.
For the price, the location, the garden courtyard and the Cattlemen’s Lounge, I’d recommend staying at the Paso Robles Inn during a weekend of town-exploring and wine tasting.
The hotel’s hacienda-style main building is home to a really cool bar, the Cattlemen’s Lounge, where local ranch and winery folk come to drink beer, wine or no-nonsense cocktails. Even if you’re not staying here, I’d recommend a visit to see the salty characters, the hand-painted symbols on the rafters and the annual group photos of the Paso Robles Trail Riders, a historic club that includes descendants of Paso’s first families.
The hotel’s steakhouse is a gorgeous wood-paneled room with a huge fireplace and windows open to the courtyard, but we both found our steaks pretty tasteless. I wouldn’t return here for dinner, but on my next trip to town I want to hit the coffee shop counter and take a spin on the ’50s-style stools.
While we were in downtown Paso Robles, we:
Enjoyed cookies from the new Brown Butter Cookie Company, the second outpost of a local favorite from the nearby town of Cayucos. They have a million flavors, but go with a dozen of the Original (brown-butter-and-sea-salt). They’re rich, chewy and crumbly at the same time, with an occasional hit of sugar crystals. Try to be civilized and not fight over them.
Wandered around the town square. In the leafy center of the square, you’ll find a statue of Jan Paderewski, a 19th-century composer who long ago fell in love with Paso and its hot springs, bought a couple of ranches here, and is credited with bringing (my deeply beloved) Zinfandel grapes to America. Each year in November, Paso celebrates Paderweski with a music festival…while I simply choose to celebrate him each time I drink a glass of Paso-grown Zin.
Highlights around the square itself include the new General Store, a bright, friendly kitchen and home wares store that sells locally-made olive oils, vinegars, spices and gifts, and Studios on the Park, an artists’ collective that smells of paint and pencil shavings, and is full of some extremely impressive works. Here I especially enjoyed the intricate watercolors by nonagenerian Harold Spencer and the quiet pastoral scenes by oil painter Susanna Hoy, and we both wanted to take home one of the bold, evocative landscapes by Erin Hanson.
Hit the Saturday morning farmer’s market. Every Saturday from 9am to 1pm, the Paso Robles Farmer’s Market is held in the heart of the square. Since San Luis Obispo County is essentially America’s produce section, Paso’s farmer’s market is a great place to score cheap, gorgeous fruits and veggies. (Read: Bring a cooler along on your road trip.) Also keep an eye out for olive oil, lavender sachets, delicious salsas and chips, a tamale truck, and the sexiest berries you’ll ever see/eat.
Gloried in the homemade biscuits at Vic’s Cafe. Eric went for a stroll one morning and came back suggesting this wonderful place. A Paso landmark since 1942, the friendly waitresses call you “doll” and refill your coffee before you’ve realized you need a warm-up, there’s Route 66 memorabilia on the walls, guys with big belt buckles discuss local high school sports, and the kitchen serves up enormous plates of perfectly cooked breakfast food all day long. I’d recommend the Santa Fe Scramble or the Paso Robles Omelet, because I love the combination of green chilies and cheese. The big flaky biscuits come in pairs, so feel free to share…or each save one for later.
Had pumpkin everything at the Amsterdam Coffee House. Just north of Vic’s on 13th Street, this popular hangout invites in the whole neighborhood with cheery touches of red and the wafting scent of high-grade espresso. Why resist? We kicked off a breezy autumn morning with a thick slice of cinnamon-scented pumpkin bread (which uses the owner’s grandma’s recipe), a flaky pumpkin scone, and for me, a rich pumpkin latte that blew the Starbucks version away. We cuddled up on a settee, balanced our treats on tiny tables, and contemplated either moving this cozy place to our L.A. neighborhood, or moving our lives nearer to it.
Dined on delicious bar snacks at Villa Creek. Somewhere between an upscale, romantic Southwest-style restaurant and a casual neighborhood bar, you can choose from a few spaces here: a sexy dining room with a soaring ceiling, soft lighting and russet walls; an enclosed, vine wrapped and fairy-lit patio out back; or a bar that spills out onto a small patio facing the town square. Despite the chilly evening (read: 50 degrees Fahrenheit), we opted for the bar’s street-side patio rather then join the crush of singles at the bar, and enjoyed a little people-of-all-ages watching.
We then proceeded to eat our body weight in “Not Nachos,” a heaping plate of tortilla chips topped with mole-basted duck, corn relish and cotija cheese. (I know, right?) Villa Creek has its own winery and tasting room on-site, but after a day of wine tasting, Eric opted for beer and I went for hard cider. And as it turns out, both pair nicely with a trough of Not Nachos.
Had a farm-to-table dinner at Artisan. In mid-2013, this established restaurant moved into new digs on the square, with decor that’s a soothing blend of Danish Modern, Pottery Barn and reclaimed wood. The cocktails are simply spectacular, precisely balanced around the perfect square ice cube; try a rye-based Remember the Maine or the elderflower kiss of a First Date. But though all the food is plated beautifully, main ingredients can get lost in the mix. We could barely taste the red abalone in a sexy-sounding tostada, and in the prettiest slider I’ve ever seen, a dungeness crab cake played third fiddle to a poached egg and a thick shmear of Bérnaise. Our favorite parts of the meal were straightforward: locally-sourced cheese and charcuterie plates, a side of spicy-crunchy Brussels sprouts, and butterscotch pudding with caramel and toffee. The simpler the meal at Artisan, the more delicious the experience.
Danced our feet off at the Pine Street Saloon. Older, younger, sober and otherwise, this is where you’ll find Paso locals on a Saturday night. If you like singing along with a kick-ass local cover band (in our case, The Jammies) and swinging one another around a dance floor, this is your joint. If it starts to get too crowded for you, head out back to the patio, grab a snack at the on-site food truck, and tap your toes to the music from (slightly) afar.
And whether you’re out back at Pine Street or perched on a bench in the heart of the park, take yourselves a seat and tilt your head back. In this small-town version of Old West California, you might just see a clear sky full of twinkling stars.
Some of our travel arrangements were made by
Paso Robles’ visitors’ bureau, Travel Paso,
and included a sponsored stay and dinner at the Paso Robles Inn,
as well as dinner at Artisan Restaurant.
All opinions and observations, however, are my own.
Wine Tasting in Paso Robles