Raised in Santa Barbara and trained in Napa, Chef Ryan Fancher returned to the Central Coast to run Ox + Anchor, a modern steakhouse that serves meticulously crafted versions of classic dishes. | Credit: Gensler

At its core, the menu at Ox + Anchor is filled with the standard selections that you can find at steakhouses all around America: seafood and salads, steaks and potatoes. But the decadence is in the details: tuna tartare with jalapeño, mint, basil, wonton, and ponzu; beets with herbed goat cheese, quince, and candied walnuts; Kobe flatiron steak from Snake River Farms, topped Oscar-style with Dungeness crab, asparagus, and Béarnaise; potatoes with crème fraîche and chive.

“We’re trying to hit all those notes that you look for in a great steakhouse, but when you get the dish, it’s a super-elegant, beautiful version of that,” explains Chef Ryan Fancher, a Santa Barbara native who runs this and two other restaurant/bars inside of Hotel San Luis Obispo. “You think, ‘Wow, this is artwork.’”

The all-powerful Michelin Guide agreed, adding Ox + Anchor to its list of “New” California restaurants last year, a hint that Fancher’s steakhouse may be in the running for a coveted Michelin star down the road. But the Guide didn’t stop at Ox + Anchor, calling out the Cal-Ital offerings at Piadina across the lobby as “worth a visit.” Fancher is also in charge there and helps oversee much of what’s happening at the hotel, which is still basically brand-new in that pandemic-time-freeze way. Located just steps from both Higuera Street and Mission San Luis Obispo in what was once the city’s small Chinatown, Hotel S.L.O.’s 78 guest rooms, restaurants, bars, spa, and meeting areas of varying sizes opened in October 2019, just before COVID shut everything down. 

Credit: Tanveer Badal

The place was back to full-tilt when I visited on a Thursday in early January, as the crowds emptying S.L.O.’s ever-awesome farmers’ market filled the hotel’s various nooks. Inside Ox + Anchor’s stacked dining room, my friend and I dined like pre-pandemic gourmands on that tartare and that flatiron steak, but also chicory salad, duck confit, and, to finish, a pyromaniac’s delight in the form of baked Alaska, personally prepared by restaurant manager Gabby Ampey. (Note to self: Four bottles of wine is too many for two 40-somethings, even when the staff helps out a bit.) 

After a deep sleep in my room — which strikes the right modern-rustic design note while staying casual and comfortable — I joined Fancher for a tour early the next morning. He walked me through the S.Low Bar, in the lobby by Piadina, and then up to the rooftop’s High Bar, where a culinary garden accents a menu of margaritas, spritzes, and quick bites like crab sliders, Thai chicken meatballs, and scallop aguachile.

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The Dos Pueblos High grad’s earliest restaurant experiences were as a Hawaiian-shirted 15-year-old at Chuck’s of Hawaii on Upper State Street. That was followed by jobs at the Ballard Inn in the Santa Ynez Valley and the San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito, where he confirmed that his calling was culinary. 

“My family was fragmented a little bit, which is why I loved the pirate life of the kitchen,” said Fancher. “Working holidays and weekends, it was the perfect spot for me.”

Credit: Tanveer Badal

Santa Barbara’s culinary scene was still emerging two decades ago, so Fancher headed north to the Napa Valley for a proper education, working at Auberge du Soleil and then under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. In 2004, he was part of the crack team sent to New York City to open Keller’s Per Se — walking to work from a furnished Central Park apartment for four months wasn’t too bad — and then he returned to reopen The French Laundry with a whole new staff. 

Credit: Tanveer Badal

He went on to open El Dorado Kitchen on the Sonoma Square, and then spent nine years at Barndiva in Healdsburg, which is where he met Hotel Healdsburg owners Circe Sher and Paolo Petrone. Under their company Piazza Hospitality, they were opening Hotel S.L.O. and asked Fancher to check it out. 

“I wanted to go off and get an education, but I always just loved this area,” said Fancher of the Central Coast. “The opportunity to come back home was an easy decision for me.” It was a harder sell to his wife and three daughters under 10 years old, but they all quickly fell in love upon moving to Nipomo more than three years ago. 

He’s proud of the young team of chefs that he’s assembled to run Ox + Anchor, which he calls a “technique-driven” restaurant. “Even though it’s just potato puree,” said Fancher by way of example, “it’s like [Joël] Robuchon’s puree. It’s the best.”

Across the breezeway at Piadina, where the casual vibe does brisker business than Ox + Anchor, Fancher is having fun with the pizza oven, blending creative ingredients with wood-fired tradition. “The owner is Italian, so he’s pushing me toward Italian,” said Fancher. “But I’m a California chef. We’re meeting in the middle. We do a soppressata, but we put a fried egg on top of it.”

Credit: Tanveer Badal

Fancher credits the proximity of farms for the quality of his ingredients, particularly boutique growers like Bautista Family Farms in Arroyo Grande and Chavez Family Farms in Santa Maria. “Even if you’re buying commodities like a box of Brussels or a case of artichokes, all that stuff comes from around here,” said Fancher. “It’s at the next level of freshness and quality that would not always get up north, when it had to be on a truck or stuck in a warehouse for a few days.”

Having worked Santa Barbara’s top kitchens decades ago, Fancher always knew that the Central Coast would rise up California’s culinary ranks. “It’s not a surprise to me,” he said of the region’s Michelin-recognized status. “But I think people are just now discovering it.”

Ox + Anchor is hosting a series of wine pairing dinners, featuring Sextant Wines on March 29, Talley Vineyards on April 26, Cass Winery on May 24, and Wolff Vineyards on June 29. See oxandanchor.com and hotel-slo.com.

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