San Luis Obispo — 'ROUND about 5:30 every Thursday afternoon, the city's Public Works folks drag out the barricades and close off six blocks of Higuera Street. Then the merchants start rolling in, racing to empty their trucks and arrange their wares -- cucumbers from Coalinga, squash from Santa Maria, nopales from Nipomo -- and at the toot of a whistle, selling begins.
This is how the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market comes to life each week, and before long, Higuera Street is teeming with buyers and browsers, locals and tourists cheek by jowl amid the Visalia nectarines and Atascadero mushrooms.
Is this reason enough to drive 200 miles from Los Angeles?
Well, it's one reason. Count it along with the rolling hills and wizened oaks, the mounting number of wineries and the countrified yet collegiate small-city charms that keep landing San Luis Obispo near the top of the "most livable" lists. And if you combine the marketgoing with a fancy meal and a stay in an eccentric, largely unknown lodging, as my family did last month, the temptation gets even harder to resist.
But let's get back to the Petaluma cheeses and Reedley peaches.
Unlike most of the hundreds of certified farmers markets in the state, SLO's is an evening event, 6 to 9. And because it's on Thursday nights in a college town, it's effectively the beginning of the weekend.
At its peak in midsummer, with about 50 farmers and 70 other vendors, it draws as many as 20,000 shoppers, who naturally veer back and forth between the market booths and the businesses of downtown SLO. Next to the farmers' territory, the other vendors set up shop -- the barbecuers, the flower people, the caricature artist, the Philly cheesesteak operation, the Belgian frites people, the Young Republicans and the war protesters, the market mascot in the bear outfit.
It's basically a county fair without the carnies. And it was all born out of desperation.
Deborah Cash, administrator of the market-sponsoring San Luis Obispo Downtown Assn., remembers that a surge in teen car-cruising in the late '70s and early '80s had driven many shoppers out of downtown. The merchants, groping for a remedy, had persuaded the city's movers and shakers to banish cars from the main drag on Thursday nights. But how to fill the suddenly empty street?
Then somebody recalled that in 1978, Gov. Jerry Brown had signed a bill clearing the way for farmers to sell directly to the public. In 1983 the farmers began their Thursday-night downtown residency.
Twenty-four years later, the San Luis market is a model for other cities looking to do something similar.
To be sure, the SLO event does not match the sheer volume of the Sunday Santa Monica Farmers' Market at Main Street and Ocean Park Boulevard or the foodie-fanaticism of the Tuesdays-and-Saturdays Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco.
But as a California civic ritual, it stands comfortably alongside such old favorites as the Santa Barbara Arts and Crafts Show (Sunday mornings along Cabrillo Boulevard since 1965) and Pasadena's Rose Bowl Flea Market (second Sunday of the month since 1969).
And it peaks in summer, with the arrival of seasonal fruits and berries and lettuces full of "flavors that you just can't imagine," says Peter Jankay, the market's administrator and whistle-tooter for more than 20 years.
Even if late-breaking showers silence the entertainers and dampen the masses -- as they did during my visit -- there is still warm, dry kettle corn to savor, and you can linger next to one of the big tri-tip barbecue rigs, inhaling deeply. And you may see, as we did, two large men, arm in arm, one with dreadlocks, skipping down the street like wayward Brownies.
"What was that?" asked my daughter, who is almost 3.
It's a college town, Grace. These people do all sorts of things.
As do the tourists. Before we prowled the market, we ate at EP Koberl at Blue, an elegant restaurant in a historic building on Monterey Street. (Chef Koberl, who took over about two years ago, emphasizes local ingredients.) Afterward, we checked into our bed-and-breakfast, a converted 1880s Victorian medical office now known as the Sanitarium.
I do suspect that owner Suzi Kyle could boost business by choosing another name for the inn. But once we arrived, we liked her style, from the whitewashed floorboards to the contemporary art on the walls to the wood-burning stoves and metal Moroccan soaking tubs in the guest rooms.
And I love that next time we can arrive by train, stroll a block to the Sanitarium, then stroll six more blocks to the market. Or maybe we'll skip. It's that kind of town.