In the past, I’ve been guilty of having a PR problem with Paso Robles: PR as in “proper respect,” and lack thereof. I treated it as a mere pit stop for gas and fast food.
But that was then, and this is a more enlightened now. Partly thanks to its exponential increase in wine country status, Paso Robles has become a fascinating destination point unto itself. And for Santa Barbarans, the hip, rustically charming city makes for a great 36-hour getaway.
My wife Peggy and I recently made the trip. First stop was the marvelous Paso Robles Inn as a home base, literally across the street from the city’s large and welcoming Library Park and the easily walkable downtown. The inn is stylish without being pretentious and enjoys heritage points as a modernized descendant of a historic hotel dating back to 1889.
Perched and simmering in the inn’s second-story Vina Robles Spa Room, we plotted our moves and must-dos, and quibbled over the virtues and demerits of Yelp findings.
For the record, Yelp did help lead us to blissful eats, starting with a super-tasty Paso Cheesesteak Sandwich from Savage Spirits & Deli for lunch. The Hatch, a popular dinner eatery and drinkery, is also a winner we decided while savoring baby back ribs and, with our waitress’s gentle and thankful nudging, the to-die-for side of Maitake “hen of the woods” mushrooms with soy, aioli, and parmesan.
Later we visited Eberle Winery, blessed with an expansive view and, conversely, a seductively cloistered wine cellar. Just down the road on Highway 46 is the massive Vina Robles complex, whose tasting operation has been dwarfed by the major act-drawing, 3,300-capacity amphitheater. Speaking of musical draws to the area, the amphitheater is one, and the midsummer Mid-State Fair is another.
Wine is clearly on the brain here, with multiple tasting options dotting the downtown area. But don’t miss the other lures, such as the utterly charming and locavore General Store, and a rare, generously stocked fabric store, Birch. For a spot of history and suds, pop by the Pine Street Saloon, a salty taste of old Paso Robles in the former Cosmopolitan Hotel, circa 1860.
Hardy and spiritually hungry souls should awaken early to hit the 8 a.m. mass at Mission San Miguel. This underrated mission-system gem, circa 1797, is an inspiring Old California retreat in itself, less ostentatious and tourist-glommed than Santa Barbara’s own Queen of the Missions. San Miguel (pop. 1,437) has a sideways, tumbleweed allure, full of vacant buildings and highlighted by the vintage Elkhorn Bar. It’s easy to imagine this tiny town being radically gentrified, à la Los Alamos, in the face of the wine country explosion.
All the more reason to appreciate Paso’s historic remnants. The 1907 Carnegie Library stands like a proud, brick-lined sentry of antiquity in the central park. The statue in front does not memorialize some forgotten local dignitary but the great Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941), first drawn here for the therapeutic effects of the hot springs and later becoming a proud citizen, winemaker (pioneering zinfandel in the area), and Central California booster.
Don’t forget to visit the Pioneer Museum, several blocks off the downtown grid. This lovably ramshackle repository of olden things includes a relocated jail and one-room schoolhouse, carriage collection, and all manner of things Paso-historical.
Later, on the drive up the winding route of Peachy Canyon Road, we passed the Paderewski Winery on the way to our final stop. The hilltop Calcareous Winery poured us a delectable rosé (yes, those words can go together) and a vin gris guvée and afforded a stunning panoramic view of a terrain well worth a visit. Even of the 36-hour variety. Pass by it at your own peril.