Although the Central California Coast city of San Luis Obispo hasn't had a specific gay bar for some time, this attractive city of about 45,000 (with about 270,000 in the entire county) that's home to Cal Poly State University, a bustling downtown, and a burgeoning wine country does have a good-size LGBT population. You will find the crowd at many bars and cafes here is quite diverse and mixed. This is especially the case during the week San Luis Obispo Gay Pride, which is held in July.
If you're looking for particularly gay-welcoming places that are popular for dancing, or that have notable settings or food and drink, you'll find a handful of excellent options right in the heart of downtown SLO. Other communities in the area worth checking out for dining and mostly early-evening bar fun include Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, and Cambra. A lot of the better hotels in the area also have notable restaurants - among them the Madonna Inn, Sycamore Springs Resort, Cass House, and Paso Robles Inn.
Here's a look, in alphabetical order, of some San Luis Obispo bars, restaurants, and cafes we're especially fond of.
One of the county's most intimate and romantic spots for lunch or dinner, Black Cat Bistro (1602 Main St., Cambria) is a lovely place for a meal while touring coastal SLO County, or perhaps before or after visiting nearby Hearst Castle. The setting is refined (crystal stemware, white napery) but unpretentious, and the food creative and based on what's in season and farm-fresh, from Paso Robles pork belly with a date-apple-mustard glaze to braised rabbit with olives, prunes, kale, and chevre polenta.
After strolling around tiny and picturesque Avila Beach, soaking up the views of San Luis Obispo Bay, venture to the Custom House (404 Front St., Avila Beach) for a memorable meal while still enjoying the stunning waterfront panorama. This is one of the top spots in the county for seafood - try the ahi tuna tataki tostadas and locally famed cioppino. But you'll also find an extensive array of steaks, salads, and other grills, and during the day Custom House is a terrific option for breakfast and lunch.
Among the most lauded craft brewing operations on the West Coast, Firestone Walker Brewing (1400 Ramada Dr., Paso Robles) has grown steadily and stature and reputation (especially for its crisp IPAs) in recent years, and in addition to offering tours of its brewery, this expansive operation on the south side of Paso Robles also has a restaurant serving above-average burgers, bratwurst sandwiches, fish-and-chips, and other good pub fare. SLO County isn't just about wine these days, either, as Firestone Walker is but one excellent beer-maker around here.
Also earning lots of kudos among ale aficionados are Central Coast Brewing (which has been a sponsor of SLO Gay Pride over the years) and Libertine Brewing in downtown San Luis Obispo, and BarrelHouse Brewing and Beer Garden, also in Paso Robles.
The Hatch (835 13th St., Paso Robles) ranks among the hippest and happiest spots in bustling downtown Paso Robles for drinking superb craft cocktails and local wines and eating absolutely superb Wine Country cuisine. The high-ceilinged storefront space is fun for gathering among friends, and the food is mostly geared toward sharing. The menu changes often and usually includes a few Southern-inspired treats, such as pimento cheese chicken-fat toast with gaunciale and house pickles and fried green tomatoes with Creole mustard. But also consider the half-rotisserie chicken, hearty ramen with collard-greens kimchi and boudin sausage, and grilled Cayucos-harvested abalone.
Operated by the same extremely talented owners (Chris Kobayashi and Michael Kobayashi) behind the fantastic restaurant Artisan in Paso Robles, homey and seemingly always buzzing Kitchenette (105 S. Main St., Templeton) is open daily from 8 am until 2 pm. The dapper little gourmet shop (with both plenty of to-go and dine-in items) and cafe specializes in dreamily delicious homemade pastries and desserts (butterscotch pudding, churros y chocolate). Until noon you can order breakfast, perhaps beer-braised corn-beef hash or pork posole verde with linguica, sliced jalapenos, and a crispy soft-boiled egg. Lunch faves range from turkey banh mi with country pate to a modern take on a classic sandwich: slow-roasted-lamb dip with pimiento goat cheese and caramelized onions. Though only open early in the day, serving superb coffee, Kitchenette does have a nice little selection of wine (still and sparkling) and beer on tap.
With two hipster-approved locations in the county, one in downtown SLO and the other in the heart of Paso Robles, Kreuzberg Cafe (685 Higuera St.) is the perfect go-to for well-prepared house-roasted coffee drinks, plus smoothies, juices, pastries, and light snacks. There's plenty of comfy seating for eating, lounging, or working on your laptop, both inside and out, at both locations.
The team behind gay-popular Novo Restaurant (see below) also operate the terrific nearby restaurant Luna Red (1023 Chorro St.), a stunning spot with a gorgeous outdoor patio that has great views of the historic downtown Mission. Serving lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch and with a decidedly diverse crowd, this chatter-filled, convivial restaurant offers a globally inspired modern menu that includes a long list of small plates along with more substantial platters, including local wild-seafood paella and dry-fried beef curry with ginger and lemongrass. The cocktail list is one of the more impressive in town, and the bar also serves a few refreshing punches and a Malbec sangria.
With a dapper dining room as well as a natty tree-shaded back deck that overlooks downtown SLO's meandering San Luis Creek, Novo (726 Higuera St.) is arguably the closest establishment to a gay bar in the county. It's a full-service restaurant, to be sure, but later in the evening on Fridays and Saturdays there's dancing to DJs, and the crowd is very mixed, drawing plenty of LGBT folks. Novo also has been a huge supporter of San Luis Obispo Gay Pride for years as well. For dining, this lively and sophisticated spot serves brunch, lunch, and dinner and specializes in well-crafted regional cuisine with international influences. The owners also operate Robin's in Cambria (below) and Luna Red, around the corner in SLO.
An inviting option in bustling downtown Cambria for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch, casually sophisticated Robin's (4095 Burton Dr., Cambria) offers delightful seating areas both inside and out in the garden (where there's live music, in summer, on Thursday and Sunday evenings). Like the restaurant's sister establishments in SLO (Novo and Luna Red), the food here is decidedly eclectic and world-beat. Try the grilled naan pizettes, artisan cheese plates, crawfish mac-and-cheese, Singapore chicken satay, chile rellenos, or half-roasted Jidori Tandoori chicken.
Thomas Hill Organics (1313 Park St., Paso Robles) occupies a spacious building with extensive seating in a charming courtyard right in downtown Paso Robles, a block from the main town square. This is one of the hot spots in SLO County for contemporary Wine Country cuisine, which the knowledgeable staff will happily help you to pair with just the right local wines. The menu changes often but might feature brandade fritters with smoked-trout roe, black-lentil tacos with candied jalapenos and pickled watermelon, or grilled sea bass with crispy potato and snap peas. There's a stellar brunch available on Sunday mornings.