Discovering Downtown Paso
Rich in history, culture, and wine, Paso Robles is a gem in the Central Coast crown
By Donna Wolfe
Central California is full of best-kept secret towns. One of our favorites: downtown Paso Robles.
Although the town is officially called El Paso de Robles — “The Pass of the Oaks” in Spanish — locals often refer to it simply as Paso.
The region has historically been known for its thermal baths, wineries, olives, and almonds, in addition to its nearby Spanish Missions (San Miguel, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, and San Luis Obispo). Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new generation of vineyard pioneers settled and flourished in the surrounding hills, bringing acclaim to the rural community.
More recently, the New York Times included Paso Robles as one of its 50 top international places to visit. Paso Robles is ranked sixth on the list for its “accomplished wine terroir,” boutique hotels, and restaurant scene. And it’s no wonder, with Paso’s range of more than 300 wineries, craft breweries, distilleries, and eateries. Artist Bruce Munro’s popular Field of Light installation at Sensorio is also attracting new eyes to the area, with its glowing orbs undulating across 15 acres of hillside.
And the charming downtown square of Paso Robles is the epicenter of it all. Anchored by the 112-year-old Carnegie Library, Downtown Paso surrounds a large rectangular park, Downtown City Park — the hub of activity year-round.
“This is a great community, and we’ve got a ‘can-do attitude,’ and we make sure we get things done here!” says Norma Moye, executive director of the Downtown Paso Robles Main Street Association. For more than 30 years, the organization has helped transform downtown into a thriving economic success. In addition to supporting the city’s businesses, the association has also been instrumental in developing downtown into a tourist destination – and Norma has been a key player in the community. “I am proud of Paso Robles and its community. Plans are to move forward!”
Like cities across the globe, Paso Robles has had its challenges with the Covid-19 mandatory shutdown. But in keeping with that “can-do attitude,” Paso has been re-inventing ways for customers to enjoy their favorite restaurants and shops, while adhering to social distancing and public health guidelines. One of those innovations is the use of Parklets, a deck-style seating area that utilizes empty parking spaces in front of restaurants.
The city has also implemented a program called “Dine in the Park,” which added extra picnic tables to Downtown City Park where diners can enjoy their favorite dishes and the outdoors. The tables are reserved ahead of time and include a concierge and cleaning crew to maintain hygiene standards. Reservations can be made via Yelp.
Other area businesses have adapted to the new guidelines, as well; as such, visitors are encouraged to plan ahead and make reservations. Read on for some of our favorite Paso spots.
Downtown dining delights
One of the newest places to visit downtown is The Backyard on Thirteenth. Repurposed shipping containers make this venue unlike any other place you’ll find in San Luis Obispo County. Owners Russel and Amy Baker opened in February 2020 and have created an outdoor urban setting that invites customers to enjoy a wide selection of local craft beers, wines, and ciders, in addition to games and live entertainment. More live music and family-friendly comedy shows are coming soon.
The Backyard on Thirteenth is at 1300 Railroad St. For reservations and more: (805) 296-3119 or thebackyardpaso.com
Partnering with The Backyard is Roots on Railroad restaurant. Chefs Chris Beckett and Katie Castillo have revisited the street-food concept, offering items from lobster rolls and smash burgers to handcrafted salads made from organic, locally sourced produce.
Their goal is to offer a family and dog-friendly gathering space where visitors can commune in a casual outdoor setting. The Backyard and Roots on Railroad are sure to become a favorite gathering place for both locals and tourists alike.
Roots on Railroad is at 1304 Railroad St. For reservations and more: (805) 296-3040 or rootsonrailroad.com
Craving something sweet? Then SLO Sweets is the place for you. This is a magical store with vintage candies that instantly transport you back to childhood. Owner Miranda Battenburg and her husband, John, opened their candy shop 13 years ago. “I get to see families sharing the candy they grew up on and pass it down to their kids,” she says. “They are making memories right in my store!”
Customers can find gluten-free, sugar-free, organic, vegan, and braces-friendly options, as well. Specialty and seasonal items are also on the menu and, for the virtual world-traveler, there is an international chocolate section. In addition to candies of all kinds, there is a selection of locally made gelatos. For the summer, they’ve added gelato shakes and flavored cones.
The Battenburgs have created programs with the local schools that support the teachers with SLO Sweets certificates to motivate their students.
SLO Sweets is at 840 11th St. For more: (805) 239-1544 or slosweets.com
If you are looking for a fine dining experience, look no further than Il Cortile Ristorante, owned and operated by Chef Santos MacDonal and his wife Carole. Chef Santos has been cooking upscale northern Italian fare in the heart of downtown Paso since 2009.
The menus are seasonally inspired and created with the freshest ingredients. Chef Santos makes an array of exceptional homemade pastas, fresh seafood, top-quality meats, and antipasti. The wine list, crafted by sommelier Carole with the menu in mind, completes the dining experience.
Il Cortile Ristorante is at 608 12th St. For reservations and more: (805) 226-0300 or ilcortileristorante.com
La Cosecha Bar + Restaurant in Paso Robles is the second creation of Chef Santos. Centering on the cuisine of Spain and South America, La Cosecha offers culture-specific Latin flavors by sourcing herbs and spices from each dish’s nation of origin, while taking advantage of the market-fresh produce, meats, and cheeses of California’s abundant Central Coast.
In recent months, La Cosecha and Il Cortile have begun offering curbside pickup of menu items from both restaurants, which has led to some new and creative ideas. “We are keeping the pick-up packages for our customers,” says Carole. “Summer will have a new creative menu and brand-new seasonal cocktails!”
They have also partnered with two tasting rooms downtown to help with the social distance spacing requirements. You can enjoy the wines at Bushong Vintage Company (565 12th St.) and Diablo Paso (1220 Park St.) while enjoying a meal from La Cosecha.
La Cosecha is at 835 12th St. For reservations and more: (805) 237-0019 or lacosechabr.com
Another culinary experience featuring local fare: Thomas Hill Organics. The farm-to-table style restaurant is another treasured restaurant in the heart of downtown. Originally conceived by owner Debbie Thomas as an organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) showcase of local produce, Thomas Hill Organics has evolved over time into a relaxed, elegant restaurant. It ranks among the top restaurants in the nation for locally-minded ethos — always true to its real, organic, local ingredients, and community-sourced gourmet fare. Debbie has been revamping her menu with ethnic dishes for the summer with her executive chef, Libry Darusman, at the helm.
Debbie has been innovative with space limitations after reopening the restaurant’s dining area. Her neighbor, Keller Williams Real Estate, has opened its patio for Thomas Hill Organics customers to dine outdoors on Friday and Saturday nights.
Thomas Hill Organics was voted “Best Outdoor Seating” in 2019 by the Restaurant Guru, and Debbie’s summer plans promise to be just as memorable.
Thomas Hill Organics is at 1313 Park St. For reservations and more: (805) 226-5888 or thomashillorganics.com
Wine fans will also find much to love downtown. The Paso Robles Downtown Wine District is home to more than two dozen unique tasting rooms, representing more than 200 different wines from all 11 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) of Paso Robles. They are small-production, boutique, and award-winning wineries featuring the talent of many of the area’s finest winemakers.
One of those tasting rooms is LXV winery, on the corner of 13th and Pine downtown. A “deconstruction” wine tasting experience with international spices and cheese, it takes wine tasting to a new level. It is an expression of love from Neeta Mittal, co-owner with her husband, Kunal. It is a sensory experience, with deep blue walls, day beds full of vibrant colors and plush pillows, wines paired with spices, and labels inspired by the 64 arts of Kama Sutra. “The 65th Sutra is you,” says Neeta.
Neeta landed in Paso Robles by chance and immediately fell in love with the wine region, which reminded her of Tuscany. She and Kunal made a home in downtown Paso and have been creating unique blends made from high-end small-lot vineyards from the west side of Paso Robles. It is an artisanal wine enveloped in a sensuous experience.
Reservations are required. LXV Wine Lounge is at 1306-B Pine St. For reservations and more: (805) 296-1902 or lxvwine.com
Stay, shop, and play
But Downtown Paso isn’t just about food and drink. The newest place to stay downtown is The Piccolo. The Piccolo seeks to deliver services and accommodations that rise above the typical hotel experience. The intimate 24-room hotel is named after the highest sounding member of the flute family. The wine lounge and tasting room, The Piper, offers a carefully curated wine list sourced from the world-renowned wineries just beyond its doors.
The only sky bar in town, called Tetto (“roof” in Italian), is located on top of the four-story hotel and offers locally inspired craft food and drink. Tetto’s 1,500 square feet of open-air space is the perfect place to take in 360-degree views of the downtown square below and wine country beyond. Tetto is open to the public so locals are invited and encouraged to enjoy the rooftop bar alongside the hotel guests. This hotel has a higher note that grasps impeccable customer service and experience.
The Piccolo Hotel is at 600 12th St. For reservations and more: (805) 226-5920 or thepiccolo.com
Before you head out for a night on the town, why not get some fresh duds? Stop in at Bijou for women’s and children’s fashion, in the center of downtown. Owner Camilla Burns lovingly curates every piece. Her joy of helping you find the right outfit is part of the fun at Bijou.
Bijou is at 815 12th St. For more: (805) 296-3833 or bijouonthepark.com
Another boutique fashion shop is Jayde. Jayde caters to women of all ages and provides a warm and friendly atmosphere in an amazing space. In addition to clothing, Jayde hosts an exclusive line of the Brighton Heart collection.
Jayde is at 823 12th St. For more: (805) 238-3337 or jaydeboutique.com
We could keep going, but the best way to discover all that Paso Robles has to offer is to head downtown! Plan your trip and keep up-to-date on events and public health regulations at the Downtown Paso Robles Main Street Association’s website, pasoroblesdowntown.org.
The Park Street Gallery
The Park Street Gallery is a fine art and craft gallery in the middle of downtown Paso Robles. Owners Julie Dunn and Peggy Turk, both accomplished artists themselves, wanted to give other Central Coast artists — from Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, and Monterey — a place to show their work.
“Our goal has been to provide a beautiful fine art and fine craft gallery that represents some of the best artists who are living and working right here on the Central Coast of California,” says Julie. “There are many extremely talented artists working in a variety of media, and in a wide array of styles, who have a place with us year-round.”
The gallery offers a variety of creations for all tastes including original paintings, sculptures, furniture, jewelry, glass artwork, ceramic pottery, and fiber art. There are more than 40 artists represented in the gallery. Among them are David Settino-Scott, Paula DeLay, Ken Christensen, Susanna Hoy, Sharon Sobraske, Sheryl Knight, Dale Evers, Drew Davis, and Phil Wright.
Julie, who has been working on the Central Coast for more than 25 years, specializes in an unusual and refreshing style known as tempera batik painting on paper. Her current works include desert landscapes, vineyard themes, gorgeous flowers, and endangered and exotic species. Peggy, meanwhile, is a plein air artist and a member of Oil Painters of America, California Art Club, American Women Artists, Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, and American Impressionist Society, and participates in juried shows and exhibitions.
When the duo opened the gallery in September 2017, they knew it would pair well with the region’s top-notch wines. “When we saw the wine culture and tourism taking off, we wanted localized fine art to definitely be a part of it,” Peggy explains. “Our goal was to enhance the art community in Paso by providing a special place for exceptionally talented regional artists to display and sell their work in a fine art gallery setting. Fortunately, we were able to create a synergy with the artists who have joined us, which has made our gallery really special. Not only have we been able to elevate the artwork, we’ve been able to provide our visitors with a lasting piece of the Central Coast to take home with them.”
The gallery will be participating in the art walk the first Saturday of each month from 6 to 9 pm, with a featured artist talk at 7 pm.
The Park Street Gallery is at 1320 Park St, in Paso Robles, and is open every day except Tuesday. Follow them on social media: @parkstreetgallery. For more: (805) 286-4430; parkstreetgallery.com