California's Central Coast lies roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Too many tourists just pass through this area, perhaps only stopping to take pictures of the rocky cliffs that lead down to the Pacific Ocean. But there are memorable culinary experiences waiting to be had in nearly every one of the small towns and cities that line Highway 1.
From oyster shucking and seaweed foraging to olive oil tasting and Santa Maria-style barbeque, here are 10 essential foodie experiences along California's Central Coast.
Enjoying Santa Maria-style barbeque
Tri-tip and sweet potato fries from Moxie Cafe — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Santa Maria-style barbeque is a source of pride throughout California's Central Coast. The Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce even trademarked it back in 1978. No trip to the region is complete without enjoying a tri-tip sandwich with a side of salsa. The sandwiches are typically served plain, with simply bread and a whole lot of medium-rare meat. Salsa and another sauce or two come on the side. In Santa Maria proper, Moxie Café is a popular option. In nearby San Luis Obispo, check out Old SLO BBQ or McLintocks.
For a true feel of Central California cowboy country, you should also check out The Hitching Post. You may have heard of it from the movie "Sideways," but that was The Hitching Post 2. At the Casmalia location, the Santa Maria-style barbeque pit is strategically placed next to the main dining room. It's separated by glass, but you can watch the simple rub and season process from start to finish.
On any given day, The Hitching Post serves more people than currently live in Casmalia. Owner Bill Ostini and chef Luis recommend the New York strip or the rib eye. Both are delicious, but the Santa Maria seasoning is even more prominent on the quail.
Fruit picking at Avila Valley Barn
Apple picking in Avila Beach — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
At Avila Valley Barn, they grow several apple varieties as well as three different types of berries. Admission is free, and you only pay for what you pick. The staff will provide you with a bag or basket and even offer you a tractor ride down to the orchard. While most trees will have enough apples to fill ten baskets, letting yourself get lost in the rustic atmosphere is a big part of the Avila Valley Barn experience.
If you don't feel like picking, you can purchase apples and other produce from the large country store near the main entrance. There's also a bakery, smokehouse and sweet shop.
Chef Jesse Smith and his team smoke 850 lbs. of meat per week and do Nashville fried chicken and the Central California staple, tri-tip. Between all of these wooden structures, the smell of Nashville-style BBQ permeates the air, while the voices of curious children mix with the sound of goats bleating and maaing.
Indulging in a slice of pink champagne cake at the Madonna Inn
Pink champagne cake from the Madonna Inn — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
The Madonna Inn looms large between Highway 1 and Laguna Lake Park. Even if you've never heard of their pink champagne cakes, a drive past this large Eisenhower-era resort will pique the curiosity of the most jaded of travelers. Their Gold Rush Steakhouse is straight out of a Scorsese mob movie. The booths, carpets, chairs and tablecloth are as pink as Steven Tyler's favorite crayon.
You can try their pink champagne cake for dessert at the steakhouse, or you can order it at their Copper Café, which is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. People also pull in off Highway 1 to get slices to go from the bakery. For the full experience, we recommend trying it as a dessert after a steak dinner.
The colored white chocolate shavings on the outside make up the pink in pink champagne. On the inside, there are seven alternating layers of airy white cake, almond-flavored Bavarian cream and whipped cream. With the exception of the white chocolate shavings, the cake has a fluffy texture.
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Kayaking out to an oyster farm in Morro Bay
Grassy Bar Oyster Company in Morro Bay — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
On a clear day, the Grassy Bar Oyster Company's dock is visible from the Morro Bay State Park parking lot. You can rent a kayak from A Kayak Shack and row your way out to the dock and the surrounding floats. Waves are minimal, so it's an easy ride, even for beginners. While you won't be able to get onto the dock, you can certainly get close enough to hear the team counting oysters on their makeshift workstations. Please keep in mind that the Grassy Bar team processes up to 10,000 oysters per day. Be considerate and do not interrupt them during the count.
If you want to taste the local oysters, you can head to the nearby Galley Seafood Grill & Bar. The Galley is an ideal place to unwind to the relaxing sound of lounge music with views of Morro Rock across the bay. In addition to fresh local fish, they also sell oysters from the bay.
Morro Bay oysters tend to be firm and slightly salty, with a hint of cucumber. We recommend trying both the raw oysters and the Rockefeller. For dessert, try their toffee mud pie.
Olive oil tasting at Tiber Canyon Ranch
Olive oils from Tiber Canyon Ranch — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
California is the only part of the United States with significant olive oil production. While wine tasting is all the rage throughout the Central Coast, some olive oil producers also welcome on-site tastings. On the outskirts of San Luis Obispo, Tiber Canyon Ranch offers tastings, tours and a place to stay. Whether you want to rent their 100-year-old cottage with views of the olive grove or stop by for a quick tasting, this is an essential experience if you are anywhere near San Luis Obispo.
In addition to their 1,500 olive trees, Chris and Will also grow their own Meyer lemons, mandarin tangerines and yuzu. They use the zest for their infused flavors. You'll be able to taste them all and also find out from Will himself exactly how they infuse these citrusy flavors into their olive oil. Tiber Canyon Ranch is also a popular wedding venue.
Oyster shucking in Avila Beach
Oyster shucking in Avila Beach — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Kayaking out to an oyster farm will give you a sense of where the oysters come from, but you can't call yourself a connoisseur until you've shucked your own. Sinor-LaValle is a local winery with a tasting room one block from the San Luis Obispo Bay.
Their $20 wine tastings get people in the door, but we recommend trying the wine and staying for the oysters. You can order them by the dozen and do your shucking out back. Co-owner Mike Sinor will provide the necessary tools and even show you the proper technique. You'll walk away with a new appreciation for the skill that goes into oyster shucking.
Picking your own fruits and vegetables at a farm stay
Picking raspberries at Bee's Knees Fruit Farm in SLO — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
California is the largest agricultural state in the country. While Tiber Canyon Ranch is ideal for couples and solo travelers, we recommend The Bee's Knees Fruit Farm for groups. After Pattea gives you a full property tour, you'll be humming the chorus from the Foo Fighters song "Enough Space" for the next hour.
There are two bedrooms on the main floor, as well as a basement the size of the largest hotel suite you've ever stayed in. The marble-top kitchen has two sinks and a dining area large enough to fit every touring member of the E Street Band. There's art everywhere you look, as well as enough books to open a bookstore in nearby Downtown SLO.
For an additional charge, Pattea will drive up to Morro Bay and pick up fresh fish from Giovanni's. Everything else you eat will come from her fruit and vegetable gardens. All the essentials, like local olive oil, spices, fresh juice, coffee, tea, pasta, etc. are already in the kitchen. She'll offer to stay and cook with you, or you can have the place to yourself.
Seaweed foraging in Cayucos
Seaweed foraging in Cayucos — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Former commercial seaweed harvester Spencer Marley offers seaweed foraging tours along the rocky Central California coast. Tours start at the postcard-picturesque Estero Bluffs and end with a bowl of seaweed ramen prepared on his portable stove. In between, you'll learn all things seaweed while filling your own rubber basket from the sand and black rocks of the rugged coastline. He'll show you what to pick and how to ensure that it continues to grow from the same spot. And you'll get to take home as much as you can fit.
Trying a slice of Linn's olallieberry pie
The famous Linn's olallieberry pies — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Linn's is to Cambria what Junior's is to Brooklyn. Everyone who has ever visited Cambria knows about olallieberries and Linn's olallieberry pie. A slice of their mouthwatering signature pie adorns an impossible-to-miss billboard a few miles south of Cambria along Highway 1 North.
Olallieberries are stronger and a bit more tart than blackberries. At Linn's Restaurant, olallieberries permeate every part of the menu, from olallieberry lemonade and tea to their milkshakes and signature pie.
The Linn family also grow their own berries, which they use in various jams, vinegar and sweets. They have four different businesses, three of which are in the walkable downtown area. Their Gourmet Goods store is adjacent to their Easy As Pie Café. Both are more practical if you don't have time to dine in at the restaurant, where wait times are common.
Visiting the Downtown SLO Farmers' Market
Downtown SLO Farmers' Market every Thursday night — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Every Thursday evening at 6 pm, the Downtown SLO Farmer's Market takes over five blocks of Higuera Street with smoking barbeque, live entertainment and dozens of specialty food vendors. Both students and locals come out for a festive evening of snacking and people-watching. The smell of Santa Maria-style barbeque mixes with the sounds of live music, which rings out from every intersection.
Vendors change weekly, but McLintock's tends to be the main attraction with their smoky pit. You can see gawkers clustered around their Santa Maria-style pit, which fills the air with barbeque smoke. It's also an ideal chance to try their legendary meats without dining in.
It's worth trying to time your visit to coincide with the market. The Hotel Cerro is just a half-block from the heart of the market. They have a French-inspired restaurant, where they use fresh veggies from their second-floor garden.