If you follow the road a little farther, you wind up at Avila Beach, a gem of a harbor with a working fishing fleet. To whet your appetite for lunch, stop by the live seafood stand on the pier, where you can buy anything from sheepshead to half a dozen types of rock cod.
If you don't have your own kitchen to cook the fish, walk out to the end of the pier and have lunch at the Olde Port Inn, where the downstairs floor is cut out beneath the glass-topped tables, giving a pelican's-eye view of the water below. The clams in a buttery broth were intensely garlicky and the Dungeness crab salad was sweet, even if the crabs come from Alaska at this time of year. The Olde Port Inn also has a decent selection of local wines.
For a little less pricey lunch, stop at Louie's on the Pier for chowder or fried fish.
Inspired by the market the previous night, on the spur of the moment we decided to drive 30 miles north to Paso Robles, where there is a Friday-night market. Unfortunately, this one isn't much to write home about, but we did find the Adelaide Inn, a very nice, very affordable hotel (rooms $45 to $60) that managed to squeeze us in at the last minute.
And we found Bistro Laurent, which might be the best restaurant on the Central Coast. At the very least, it is the best-credentialed. Chef Laurent Grangien, who cooked in Los Angeles at Fennel, also has worked with three-star French chefs such as Michel Guerard and Michel Rostang.
He and maitre d' Maureen Herrera have turned a brick-walled old building just off the town square (and across the street from the farmers market) into a truly fine dining restaurant, heavy on nouvelle cuisine-style cooking, in a little more than a year. The four-course, $28 tasting menu, which changes every night, is an amazing bargain.
Of particular notice is the wine list, which is a stunning assortment of great local wines--many of them quite scarce--and French wines. All are very fairly priced. There's also a "finds" list that changes frequently. For our dinner, we had a bottle of 1982 Edna Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir, a nice wine I hadn't seen in 15 years, that cost only $45. It won't last much longer, but it is drinking well right now.
The next morning we set out early to make the Saturday-morning market in Templeton, a small town about five miles south of Paso Robles. It's off the main highway, so you might never pass through it. In which case you'd not only be missing a swell farmers market, but one of the sweetest small towns on the Central Coast. The market starts at 9 a.m. Go early and stop at Templeton Donuts for some fresh-baked crullers beforehand.
Templeton also sits at the beginning of one of the great drives in the area. Take California 46 to Cambria and you'll climb through rolling hills until you reach the escarpment where you catch a vista of the entire coast.
Parsons is a columnist for The Times' Food section.
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Budget for Two
Picnic lunch: 31.13
Garden Street Inn, 1 night: 132.00
Farmers market dinner, including ice cream: 20.00
Adelaide Inn, 1 night: 65.40
Lunch, Olde Port Inn: 45.96
Dinner, Bistro Laurent: 126.71
FINAL TAB: $460.18
Garden Street Inn, 1212 Garden St., San Luis Obispo; tel. (805) 545-9802. Adelaide Inn, 1215 Ysabel Ave., Paso Robles; tel. (805) 238-2770.