Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Fine dining (and not) in wine country

The City of El Paso de Robles, also known simply as Paso Robles, has a well-earned reputation as a deserving destination for a brief relaxing jaunt, someplace ideal to take your wife who is a healthcare professional and has spent a year tending those sick and ailing with COVID-19 and other misfortunes when you can see that she needs to restore and recuperate.  The city is home to olive groves, hot springs, and more than 200 wineries; with only 32,000 Paso Roblens living there (and that’s counting what one hopes are non-wine-drinking children), tourism is clearly a necessity for consuming all those libations.

While everyone talks about the wineries, far less is known about the extent of the dining choices in Paso Robles. In an attempt to fill even a gill of this oversight, I offer this list of dining establishments sampled in our four-day trip this past week, in descending order from best to worst.

  1. Catch Seafood Bar & Grill
For the first time in a year, something you’ll want to catch

With the lamentable recent demise of Farallon in San Francisco, the unassuming Catch Seafood Bar and Grill represents perhaps the world’s only seafood restaurant that offers absolutely everything one could ever want in seafood, but done even better. YES, they have buckets of steamers — but theirs come with some buttery vegetable admixture you’d never considered, one that makes you pale when you see it, but which teaches you that the people at Catch know better than you do, and so after sampling these minuscule clams surrounded by diced tomatoes, garlic, and some greenery you cannot identify, you know you will never again think of clams unadorned in this way without a wistful sense of loss. YES, Catch proffers an oyster platter, one of mollusks so delectable that your oyster-hating wife, bowing to pressure, will not only try one, but will also exclaim a la Sam I Am, “Oh! I DO like oysters!” and then have another. Catch’s non-seafood offerings excel as well:  the garlic toast is crisp but moist, the green salad is simple but reassuring, the nutrient-rich escargot, perhaps plucked off nearby vines by angry farmers, simmer deliciously on the tongue. My wife, a contrarian, ordered a steak but relished that, too. Also noted:  your server will do absolutely everything within the law to accommodate your every wish.

Awarded:  Top Honors

2. Impromptu picnic at Graveyard Winery

A bucolic setting with lake, wildlife, and grassy hillside — all of it outside this frame.

Graveyard Winery is called such because of its location up the hill from an abandoned graveyard, and not because it’s “spooky,” to the chagrin of your reviewer’s wife. The winery’s owner and her assistant will offer you a tasting of six very good wines for the cost of $15, which is discounted to free when purchasing wine. The economics of this did not escape me, and so we purchased wine — amply so. Because we arrived at about noon and were still happily imbibing the liquid of the grape two hours later in the lakeside shade, I inquired if there might be “nibbles” available in some way. Directed to the appropriate location inside the winery, I snatched up crackers, a block of French cheese, Italian olives, and a sampler of uncured meats, buoyantly suggesting that it all be added to our tab as I returned to our table with it all in tow. It beggars description just how good this impromptu picnic was. Free of the need to do anything or be anywhere except right there, remarking upon the tern on the lake or the squawking ducks, one is able to sink into the rustic pleasures of such a simple yet sophisticated repast. The atmosphere, the wines, the repast, the atmosphere, the servers, and the company all receive the highest rating.

Awarded:  Best al fresco dining

3. Negranti Creamery

Yes, one can order a flight of ice cream samples. Heavenly indeed.

Eons after animal husbandry was invented, humankind has stumbled upon the ultimate purpose of sheep:  to provide the milk needed to formulate this delectable iced treat. Less fatty than cow-milk iced cream, yet flavorful and providing an excellent base for a wide range of flavors, the sheep’s milk ice cream at Negranti Creamery adds a surprising crisp bite to an old favorite. The confectioners here are not so hidebound as to reject mixing in, say, basil with strawberry, or lavender with blueberry, and you shouldn’t be either. “Half the fat, all the flavor,” their tagline proclaims, and while it’s nice to see their desire for truth in advertising this is, if anything, too humble by half.

Awarded: Most surprising in a good way

4. Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse

Inside this unassuming exterior lurks an unassuming meal.

The Paso Robles Inn Steakhouse is not only associated with the Paso Robles Inn, it also shares a roof. Similar to the general hilly terrain of Paso Robles, the meal has its ups and downs. Your rib eye will arrive appropriately seasoned but not quite as you’d requested, while your baked potato will be intemperately cold. Your wife, again a contrarian, now that she’s in an actual steakhouse will order a salad, which she finds serviceable. The vodka gimlet is excellent, the pinot noir commendable, and the service willing and able, as when you pointedly tell both the hostess and your waiter that there’s a nice tip in it for each if they’ll just move you away from the fucking swinging doors that allow repeated blasts of cold air to suck the life from your lungs. 

5. Templeton Market & Gas

When queried “Where is the best fried chicken in town?” those in the know locally respond, “Templeton Market & Gas.” And they are right to do so. Templeton Market & Gas is what used to be called a “food & fuel,” a small establishment that serves petrol and also some comestibles in an adjacent shack. Templeton Market & Gas, bearing a notable deli, also fries up its own fried chicken. The skin is crispy, the meat moist, and the seasoning perfection. Diners are encouraged to eat this chicken hot from the Styrofoam while sitting outside in their parked car. The accompanying “potato logs” are thick and dull inside, akin to actual logs, and are not to be discarded casually where unsuspecting animals might attempt to eat them. It is the chicken that one comes here for. The chicken, and perhaps the gas.

6. Buttonwillow Truck Stop Popeye’s 

While technically en route to Paso Robles and not within its confines, I would be remiss not to recommend this truck stop for having the best Popeye’s chicken to be found anywhere. I speak from authority, having sampled Popeye’s chicken both hither and yon; none can compare. The service may be surly, with Hector behind the register only very desultorily providing your order or, later, a spork with which you can eat your mashed potatoes with Cajun gravy, but the meal itself is everything you ever hoped a Popeye’s box would contain. Although this is the best Popeye’s chicken found anywhere, I would be remiss if I failed to note, again, that Templeton Market & Gas serves the better chicken.

7. McDonald’s in Paso Robles

A noontime Egg McMuffin? No problem, at McDonald’s in Paso Robles! Ordered appropriately after the mad rush of earlier hours, God’s gift to breakfast food is served freshly made and steaming. Beware, though! Connor, the gangly youth who fixes your coffee for you, unexpectedly doses it with unrequested and undesired Splenda, resulting in a sticky sour taste you’ll discover miles later.

8. Yanagi Sushi & Grill

At Yanagi, the appetizers and beer will arrive instantly, but your main course waits in anticipation of the Japanese new year. The gyoza with finely minced shrimp are delectable, but the pungent clotted salad dressing earns a mixed opinion. As your beer slowly warms, the sushi is finally served, and is fresh yet somehow tasteless. If  if you choose to dine outside, you will find that small groups with rambunctious children waiting for your table will look at you with menace for taking so long.

9. Homemade popcorn with beefstick

Decades of experience have left this seasoned traveler wary of unexpected interruptions in the food chain. Foreknowledge being fore-armedness, one learns to travel with “just in case” snacks, in this case liquor-store beefsticks and a quart-size baggie of homemade popcorn. The beefsticks, when still within their sell-by date, are tender and filling and mix well with bourbon or even water, while the homemade popcorn, popped to perfection in a recipe that includes carefully apportioned extra virgin olive oil, butter, and Himalayan sea salt, beats any and all comers. This meal, coupled with hot coffee from a Keurig, was devoured on the morning of the second day by your travel writer on the patio of his room as his wife slept until noon until finally he couldn’t bear it any more and gently (opinions differ) awakened her. He was admonished that in future such situations, he could make his way to a breakfast of his own elsewhere.

10. Leftovers from the only breakfast place still open

These are leftovers from the only breakfast place still open (see below), which turned out to be serviceably better than the same breakfast when it was newly placed on the plate. Now reheated via your room’s microwave oven, the eggs are better because you’re just glad to have something to eat, and because you’ve left the butter out in the room, therefore ensuring that it’s actually spreadable on the toast.

11. Park Cinemas

After almost a year-and-a-half’s absence from any cinema, you will find yourself enchanted upon entering Park Cinemas on opening night of “Nobody,” starring Mr. Bob Odenkirk in an improbable role. The cinema, with doors open and lights on and two accommodating young women behind the snack counter, will seem like a veritable wonderland, like a Brigadoon you never expected to see again. Unfortunately, Park Cinemas offers only Pepsi products and not Coke, and although the unsweetened iced tea will suffice, the popcorn, evidently popped those 18 months ago when last they were open, will not.

12. The only breakfast place still open

With more than 200 wineries, one might be hoodwinked into thinking that Paso Robles is a cultural metropolis, when actually it is closer to a scale reminiscent of Egg Harbor “City,” New Jersey. Accordingly, the town has odd hours and shibboleths of behavior; there is no need to roll up the streets at night, because there is nothing to do if one finds oneself on them.  After dark, visitors are left to wander aimlessly, conjuring up visions of what might be possible another time. This also means that some places close on odd days, some on odd hours, and many have hours taped to their windows that in no way match up with the hours given on Yelp or their own websites. So, at 1 p.m., one counts oneself damn lucky to come across the only breakfast place still open, after hitting up every other potential dining spot only to discover that each of them closes at 1 p.m.  for reasons that seem obscure yet somehow obvious to the locals. At the only breakfast place still open, you and your companion will agree that sometimes it is better not to find what you seek, and that neither of you has ever had a worse breakfast. The biscuits and gravy are served cold and congealed; the eggs with diced ham, although ordered lightly scrambled, will arrive with the consistency of drywall spackling; and even the grits, which seem impossible to fuck up, are dense and overcooked. Your companion may offer cheerily, “The pancake isn’t so bad,” leaving you to wonder just how one could make a bad pancake. The coffee, for an unfathomable reason, is terrific. “It’s Farmer Brothers!” your waiter will announce cheerily. Ah:  the only thing not made here.

13. The Arby’s outside Tejon Outlet Mall

Technically, this is not in Paso Robles, but you may find yourself tempted, on your way away from Paso Robles, to stop at this Arby’s. Do not do it. Do not do it even though your wife has exclaimed that “There’s an Arby’s!” and that she has been craving Arby’s. (Who says advertising doesn’t work?) Whomever Arby was, and whatever he or she did, Arby in no way deserved the lasting ignominy of having this establishment named after him. Your “roast beef” (please note the quote marks) sandwich will be so heavily processed as to arouse newly fond and undeserved memories of Subway. The “horsey sauce” will turn out to be watered-down horse radish with, probably, a heavy dose of high fructose corn syrup. The curly fries have curled from shame. Carlos, your server who occupies every square inch of the window he works from, will only reluctantly take your order, give you something that resembles what you’ve purchased, or hand over that horsey sauce. Not only that, the area turns out to be a full-on dead spot for internet reception, resulting in your total loss of GPS direction. Carefully scanning the horizon and all access points to identify the entrance back onto the freeway, your wife will sadly say, “I can’t believe I remembered this fondly” as she pitches the majority of this seeming-lunch back into the bag it came in.

I hope you’re found this helpful. In a future installment, we may investigate “best seafood somehow available in distant landlocked localities.”

3 Responses to “Fine dining (and not) in wine country”

  1. Joe Stafford Says:

    An invitation to wanderlust.

  2. Paul Says:

    This reminds me of the hotel reviews by Robert K Wheeler of Pere Ubu fame.

  3. Adrian Burns Says:

    Lee you have no idea how much I revelled in reading this wonderful post. Actually, you probably have. You’ve travelled, enjoyed (exceptions aside) and filled your eyes with fresh scenery on my behalf too. Thank you for that.

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