Big Fun in Small-Town California
Story and photos by Katherine McMahon
If you are like me, you have driven up and down the 101 between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo countless times, seen the exit for Arroyo Grande, and told yourself that someday you will get off and explore. Well, I am here to tell you — you should!
Arroyo Grande is an adorable little city nestled in the heart of the Central Coast, about three hours northwest of Los Angeles and 90 minutes from Santa Barbara. Originally inhabited by the Obispeño Chumash, it officially became a city in 1911. Plenty has changed over the years, but Arroyo Grande’s vibe is still classic Central Coast.
The heart of Arroyo Grande is the village along Branch Street just north of the creek that gives the city its name. On a Friday, the village was bustling. Arroyo Grande is the type of place where everybody knows each other; servers and bartenders know their customers by name. I felt like I stepped onto a small-town movie set and I loved how, in some parts of town, time seems to have stood still.
If you are a lover of coffee like I am, then you will be happy with Arroyo Grande’s wide variety of choices. I found my personal favorite at Tribe Coffee, on the west side of town. Tribe brews up some truly delicious coffee and is one of the cutest shops I’ve ever been to. You can enjoy your latte while browsing the gift shop that features so many unique items.
For a healthy but delicious breakfast spot, look no further than Café Andreini right in the center of the village. Here you’ll find open-faced sandwiches, breakfast burritos, açai bowls, and some of the best avo toast on the Central Coast! If you want to indulge a bit then try CJ’s Café, a local diner known for their generous portions of breakfast burritos, omelets, huevos rancheros, pancakes, and chicken fried steak.
Looking for an afternoon treat? Head to Mule Bakery. Their Buffalo Cookie is rumored to be one of the best cookies in the United States. It’s bursting with oatmeal, cranberries, chocolate chips, and coconut. Get one and thank me later!
For dinner you must head to Arroyo Grande’s famous Ember Restaurant. Ember is a chef-driven Central Coast restaurant run by owner/chef Brian Collins, who grew up in Arroyo Grande and spent six years at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Ember Restaurant serves authentic hand-crafted food with a variety of wood oven-fired pizzas and entrées, like 50-layer lasagna and stuffed filet of sole. There is also a menu of hand-crafted cocktails and local wines. Ember is on the west side of town, outside the village, but since the city is small, everything is close by. Local’s tip: It can be crowded, so reservations are recommended; however, the bar area is first come, first served.
Another great option is Mason Bar and Kitchen. It is a “country-chic” restaurant/bar located on the corner of Branch and Mason Streets, right in the heart of the village. In both 2020 and 2021, it won Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, and locals have voted it the “Best South County Bar” six years in a row. The restaurant serves Sunday brunch, lunch, and dinner.
When it’s time for dessert, ice cream at Doc Burnstein’s is where you need to go. Doc serves up hand-crafted and super premium ice cream in a nostalgic setting. Enjoy your ice cream while listening to the model train that circles the shop. With classic flavors like chocolate chip cookie dough and unusual flavors like merlot raspberry truffle, how can you go wrong?
Arroyo Grande is part of the Central Coast wine region, but there are only two wineries actually in Arroyo Grande. Lucky for you, they are both amazing. Laetitia Vineyards is located right off the 101 freeway south of the village, and it has become one of my favorite wineries in California. Laetitia specializes in sparkling wine and makes some of the best I’ve ever had. If you prefer red wine, you’ll be in heaven as they have truly delicious Pinots. Laetitia is a wonderful place to relax and savor a tasting, try some delicious local cheeses, and enjoy the view of their gorgeous vineyards. On a clear day, you can see the ocean from the outdoor seating area.
Another great winery is Talley Vineyards. Nestled in a valley east of the village, this winery is absolutely stunning! With remarkable views and wine to match, you will have a hard time leaving!
If you are more of a beer drinker, Arroyo Grande has a great spot just for you: Humdinger. In the village right next door to Doc Burnstein’s, Humdinger serves delicious food and a menu of its own beer and hard seltzers. This is the type of place that, if I lived locally, I would be at all the time. The service is fantastic, the beers are delicious, and the food is unique and flavorful.
As far as activities go, there is lots to do in Arroyo Grande. One fun and unusual sight is the Swinging Bridge. Originally constructed in 1875, it is the only bridge of its kind in the state of California. It connects the village with a historic neighborhood on the south side of town. The Swinging Bridge is a popular landmark, and during rainy seasons you can see Arroyo Grande Creek trickling underneath.
Right across the bridge from the village is the Santa Manuela Schoolhouse and Heritage House Museum. The Schoolhouse was originally built in 1901 and the Heritage House was built in the late 1800s. They now contain the South County Historical Society, a hands-on museum for historical exploration and learning. Nearby is the Clark Center for the Performing Arts, which features music and theater productions on its two stages.
Looking to enjoy the outdoors? Head to Lopez Lake! Located just 10 miles east of Arroyo Grande, Lopez Lake is fun for the whole family. With miles and miles of shoreline and warm lake temperatures in the summer, there is something for everyone — fishing, camping, equestrian and mountain biking trails, zip-lining, and great birdwatching. There is even a waterpark called the Mustang that is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Arroyo Grande is also next to the Santa Lucia Wilderness, one of San Luis Obispo County’s most striking natural areas. A popular hike is the Big Falls/Little Falls Trail. You’ll come across two dramatic waterfalls — Big Falls and Little Falls — on this easy-to-intermediate, 1.5-mile loop, located in a wooded canyon.
As you can see, I discovered that while Arroyo Grande may be small in size, it has a lot to offer. It’s well worth the visit!
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