It’s the type of place where wood-burning ovens are de rigueur. Thomas Hill Organics, around the corner from Artisan, has one, plus its own 10-acre farm that supplies the restaurant’s kitchen. So does Farmstand 46, a roadside joint opened last year by former New Yorker Tom Fundaro, who uses his to bake pizza when he’s not manning the stove at his other place, Villa Creek Restaurant.
“It’s a recession, so everybody has two jobs,” jokes Fundaro, who worked for Eli Zabar in New York and at restaurants in Santa Fe before moving to Paso almost 10 years ago. “The concept at Farmstand was high-end deli food, with vegetables that are grown on the property.”
As the original gourmet but rustic lunch spot on the wine route that runs around the west side of town, Farmstand has become a fixture on many itineraries. One day recently, the patio was shared by a pair of hipster foodies in dark denim and stylish sunglasses and a group of well-to-do baby boomers fortifying themselves between winery visits.
In Paso every season seems to bring a new establishment. Il Cortile was opened last fall by veteran L.A. chef Santos MacDonal and his wife, Carole, a reality-television producer. “A lot of people are moving from Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Carole says one afternoon at the restaurant, where Santos can be seen in the open kitchen cranking out handmade pasta. “They’re like-minded people coming to find a simpler way of life.”
The MacDonals’ story is a particularly colorful version of a familiar tale. The couple were perfectly happy in L.A. and had planned to open a restaurant there until 2006, when they honeymooned in Morro Bay, an SLO fishing village. Enchanted by the area, they made further trips and began to toy with the idea of relocating. Around that time Carole went to Hong Kong for an episode of The Amazing Race, where she was met by her translator, who happened to be wearing a vintage T-shirt that read paso robles.
“I sent her picture to my husband, and said, ‘We’re opening in Paso Robles,’” recalls Carole. Although she still commutes periodically to L.A. for work, these days her idea of power shopping is buying squash blossoms for the restaurant at the Saturday farmers’ market in nearby Templeton, where she also visits Pier 46 for seafood. “We have everything we need here,” Carole says, adding with a wry smile, “except shoes.”
The current influx of urban sophisticates isn’t the first wave of cosmopolitans to settle in Paso Robles. The region is rich in mineral springs, and soon after the railroad arrived in 1886, a Stanford White–designed luxury spa hotel was built. Guests included pianist and Polish prime minister Ignace Paderewski, who came to “take the waters” before World War I and wound up buying a huge spread where he planted grapes and bred horses. But Prohibition strangled the young wine industry, the hotel burned down in 1940, and Paso Robles became a sleepy agricultural community.