Easing back into travel need not mean sacrificing urban excitement. San Luis Obispo is as close as Los Angeles, and thanks to strong curatorial direction at the S.L.O. Museum of Art, the distinctive new Hotel Cerro in the middle of downtown, and some great dining options like Park 1039, it’s a great destination for connoisseurs of contemporary art, design, and cuisine.
My initial impulse to visit S.L.O. was stirred by the announcement that Objectifying, a solo exhibition of new sculpture by artist Elisa Ortega Montilla, would be on view at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through June 27. Having enjoyed the work in a one-day popup in Santa Barbara, I was determined to see how edgy postmodern feminist sculpture would play in a regional museum. Thanks to curator Courtney Davis, who brought Objectifying to SLOMA, and to Leann Standish, the museum’s director, I not only saw the installation but I also experienced how progressive the scene there has become.
Intrigued by the idea that S.L.O. might be hiding other undiscovered gems, I checked into the Hotel Cerro, a recently opened boutique hotel just a couple of blocks from the museum and the Mission. The product of nearly 15 years of painstaking permit gathering, architectural review board lobbying, and historic preservation, this superb small hotel (65 rooms) deserves high marks in every important category: It’s peaceful and luxurious, but it’s also contextually appropriate and green. Secreted within a historic block and traversed by multiple narrow passageways, Hotel Cerro represents a fully contemporary take on urban residential design.
The hotel’s interior designer, Ian Saude, grew up in S.L.O. and has returned after years of living everywhere from San Francisco to Nepal. His deliberate, handcrafted style shows up all over, from the original wool rugs to the bronze tables that adorn the spacious rooms. Faced with the challenge of creating an aesthetic that connects to the location without relying on the Spanish Colonial tropes that dominate the Central Coast, Saude has blended Early Californian, Naturalistic Contemporary, and Wine Country idioms, all of which integrate gracefully with the industrial architectural details of the building’s original Garden Street facade.
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Blocks are shorter and buildings are closer together in downtown S.L.O. than in Santa Barbara, giving it a more intimate vibe. Many of the structures date from the 19th century, when the town was home to ranchers, traders, and Chinese laborers working on the transcontinental railroad. The red brick motif that’s carried at various scales throughout the Hotel Cerro can be seen as an indirect tribute to Ah Louis, the Chinese American storekeeper and entrepreneur who built S.L.O.’s first brick kiln.
The hotel’s restaurant, Brasserie S.L.O., is at once ambitious and comfortably casual. Seated in the serene Mission Fig courtyard adjacent to the cozy lobby, it’s easy to forget the bustling scene outside, even on a Thursday night, when it seems like all of S.L.O. comes downtown for the farmers’ market. Guest chef Vartan Abgaryan’s menu takes full advantage not just of the farmer’s bounty but also of the abundance of fresh herbs growing in the hotel’s second-floor garden. Spacious 750-square-foot Garden Suites have private outdoor seating areas that open onto this secluded natural feature.
Adventurous diners and gourmands will want to make a reservation at Park 1039, a nearby bistro and specialty food shop with an excellent selection of European wines. Owner Steven Goodale cherishes handmade products of every description, from cheeses and charcuterie to glassware and ceramic plates. This attention to detail extends all the way to the custom Hedley and Bennet aprons worn by the staff, many of whom are qualified sommeliers. The stainless steel and glass interior — another Ian Saude project — highlights the quality of the ingredients and underlines the directness and sincerity of the whole Park 1039 approach. Lunch there was delightful, with wine pairings just exotic enough to alert our midday senses without overwhelming the cuisine.
No resort hotel would be complete without a top-quality spa, and the Spa Cerro is a knockout. At 4,000 square feet, it’s big enough to make sure that every guest feels completely at ease throughout the course of one of their imaginative and refreshing treatments. In another deft touch joining the hotel’s design to nature, the cascading bubble panels in the spa’s quiet room were inspired by the kelp forests off the coast.