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Restaurants & Bars 7

Cambria and thereabouts: lots of good eats! (long)

Will Owen | Feb 9, 201104:00 PM

In celebration of a recent birthday, Mrs. O proposed that we take a long weekend and go up to Cambria, to which neither of us had ever been. I'd never even been through there, having done all my north-south travelling on 101, so I was more than game. We did some research online and asked various friends for recommendations, and last Friday we packed up the Subaru at our place in Pasadena and headed north, intending to make a leisurely day trip of it. We stopped in Carpinteria for lunch at The Spot, fulfilling a longstanding desire and our hunger all at once, most satisfactorily. Mrs. O had a hot dog, her perennial favorite, and of course I had to have their famous cheeseburger. That was a perfect American-classic old-school example, as I'd expected, not fancy but perfectly rendered, very much like the one at Pie'n'Burger in Pasadena (as were the rather boring fries).

After some sight-seeing and antiquing along the way in Santa Ynez and Solvang, we fetched up at the FogCatcher Inn on Moonstone Beach just after a very fine sunset. Our friends from Palo Alto, who'd decided to join us, were there already, and after some discussion we decided that our inaugural meal should be at the highly-recommended Black Cat Bistro. This is a very plain and unpretentious place, the reception was brisk and friendly, and the waiter became our buddy right off the bat simply by treating us as intelligent, amiable adults. The wine list was fairly extensive, with a lot of attractive offerings in the moderate range; Mrs. O generally drinks only bubbly, and was contemplating a bottle if I'd help her with it. However, I asked about the by-the-glass pinot noir (whose name I did not write down, nor is it on the PDF wine list, dammit!) and was offered a taste. It was splendid! I passed the glass around, and the other couple said, "Let's get a bottle!", and Mrs. O said she wished she could drink red. After we'd looked at the menu for a while the waiter came back to tell us of a special for the evening, braised boneless short ribs in a wine sauce with three-cheese polenta and black kale, which struck all four of us as so very right for the cool evening we could hardly imagine eating anything else. So much for our usual bite-sharing … I will have to praise it with a few faint damns, though: First, the dish would have been hugely improved with bone-in ribs, since the boneless ones did not yield the kind of almost-gooey unctuousness the rather acidic sauce really needed, and the meat came out a bit dry, though extremely tender. Second, there was not quite enough polenta on the plate, and definitely not enough kale, though what was there was very good indeed. The bread was delightful in both crunchy crust and soft crumb, but much too salty for my taste, a sin compounded by the salted butter. We finished, however, with a salted caramel fudge tart (and four spoons!) that was stunningly, ridiculously good, and we were still chortling over it while paying the $200+ (with tip) tab. To their credit, though, while we had not asked the price of the special, nor had the waiter volunteered it, it came out to about $23 per serving, very much at the low end of their menu entrées.

Breakfast every morning was an adequate free buffet served in a pleasant dining room at the motel: rubber scrambled eggs (surely poured from a carton), plus make'em-yourself waffles, decent link sausages, a good selection of nice pastries, breads and fresh fruit, very good coffee, and juices. There was also a fairly serious dark-red salsa that perked those miserable eggs up considerably.

For lunch on Saturday we drove towards Paso Robles, then took Vineyard Road for most of its length to Calcareous Vineyards, where our friends remembered both excellent wine and excellent catered food. The item Mr. C was most fondly remembering, a variant of the Vietnamese banh mi, was still to our delight on the menu, and three of us asked for that, while Mrs. C ordered the shrimp salad. The sandwiches came on a split ciabatta roll, filled with grilled pork belly, avocado and lightly pickled fresh vegetables, with a young wild greens salad alongside. Satisfying in the extreme. The shrimp salad was a much larger version of our sides, with a good quantity of nice big shrimp. I recall all of these as being around $13 per order.

Saturday night we decided had to be a LOT less extravagant, and as the Main Street Grill was on our Recommended list, and very close by besides, we dropped in on that. This is a cavernous barn of a place, with giant TV screens and a concrete floor, and I'm sure it was packed for the Super Bowl the next night, but on this night it was sparsely occupied. The meats here are all open-flame grilled, with the tri-tip most highly recommended, so Mrs. O and I got that, plus fries, and I got an order of ranch beans as well. Yes, they were pinquitos, and very good ones too, and the tri-tip was very tasty and amazingly tender. The sandwiches are on foot-long rolls cut in two, and neither of us could finish a whole one without hurting ourselves, so we have two halves in the fridge for supper tonight! I do not remember what the Family C had - I'm thinking chicken, or maybe salmon, I'll have to ask. I got a glass of decent cabernet for $5; I think the food total for the two of us was right at $20.

Mr. and Mrs. C, who were leaving on Sunday anyway, announced that some friends in Paso Robles were expecting them for lunch, so we did the usual group hugs and things and they gave me a couple of bottles of the Calcareous Cabernet as a birthday present and then left. Mrs. O and I then undertook a bit of antiquing, then dropped into Linn's Bakery/Eatery for some lunch. Again we were pleased at the polite, easy informality of the staff we encountered, their competence and good manners. The restaurant was sparsely occupied, this being later in the afternoon, and the server explained that they'd close the dining room for an hour between 4:00 and 5:00, but if we chose to linger nobody would chase us out! Mrs. O wanted to leave room for dessert, having heard about their famous pies, and ordered the three little sliders, while I was in the mood for fish and chips, especially since it featured homemade tartar sauce. We also got some berry iced tea, which was not only delicious but endlessly refillable. The fish was four big hunks of beautifully battered cod and a mound of big steak fries, my favorite, and the accompanying coleslaw was angel-hair fine red cabbage, I'm sure with a bit of beet juice involved, and what appeared to be and tasted like a couple of dried sour cherries. All quite satisfactory. Mrs. O adored her little burgers, a sampler of their three most popular ones, but they left no room for any sort of dessert, so we made plans to pick up some pie on our way out of town the next day.

This being our last night we wanted to get a bit swanky again, and all the signs seemed to point to Robin's. We'd been comparing menus posted around town, and this place looked like the best selection for not too much money. Their menu board and the menu on it had two different times posted for when dinner ended, one saying 9:00 and the other 10:00, so we played it safe by showing up at 8:30. This is another converted house, with three adjoining rooms made into one L-shaped one, and we were given a table at the end of the L. Following the tradition of an English pub, most of the tables are the square oak pub-style with pullout leaves if they're needed, and the chairs mostly various plain ones of oak or other hardwoods, all mismatched but comfortable. The menu is mostly California Modern with Asian influences here and there, and the accent is on fresh farmer's-market produce and sustainable meats. Mrs. O had the roasted half chicken, served on a panzanella (Italian-style bread salad with fresh greens), and I asked for the Korean Black Barbecue Glazed flatiron steak, rare. This comes shrouded in a cloud of crisp, wispy orange sweet-potato fries, more like frizzles, crunchy and strangely delicious; the "Szechuan vegetables" underneath were beautifully cooked and sauced slivers of eggplant, carrot, onion and scallion, a perfect complement to the perfectly-cooked steak. This was one of the best and most thoughtfully prepared dishes I've ever had, its showiest element being really simple and good, and the flavors of meat, sauce and vegetables singing in fine harmony. I *THINK* I had a zinfandel with that - if not, I should have! - and Mrs. O ordered a glass of prosecco, found it both flat and too sweet, and swapped it for a half-split of a nice Spanish cava brut, which made her very happy.

The next day, we stopped by Linn's "Easy as Pie" shop behind the restaurant and picked up a slice each of olallieberry and raspberry/rhubarb pie, packing them in the cooler to take home with us. After sightseeing and antiquing stops in Harmony, Cayucos and San Luis Obispo, we found an Italian deli called Muzio's in downtown SLO for a late lunch. They have a huge chalkboard with about fifty different sandwiches - order by number! - and I got Daily Special B, corned beef and jack cheese on rye bread, and Mrs. O got a hot ham and brie (#36), both of which we washed down with little bottles of San Pellegrino. This is another good place to remember - I also got a medium-sized container, about a pint, of quite good macaroni salad (I asked for and received a small cup to taste) for about $4, which we'll have with those tri-tip sandwiches tonight.

So we have a new favorite place, one that we can drive to in a few hours if we want, or take our own sweet time as we did on this trip. I wouldn't want to be there when it's swarming in the summertime, but for a midwinter weekend it's brilliant. And there's still lots of food and drink to be discovered. Oh, and by the way, the pies were worth the trip all by themselves! Linn's came by their reputation honestly, without a doubt, and any pie they make (going out on a limb here) is hereby recommended without reservation!

Black Cat Bistro
1602 Main St, Cambria, CA 93428

Main Street Grill
603 Main St, Cambria, CA 93428

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