The Three Reasons to Visit Paso Robles Now

My husband and I had three reasons to visit Paso Robles: a new hotel, a popular art installation, and a popular new restaurant. (Four reasons if you count the home-renovation that is causing a lot of stress.) Neither was enough to justify the two-hour drive on its own, but collectively, they made for a satisfying getaway.

The 24-room Piccolo hotel opened in October. It’s a sister property to the Paso Robles Inn around the corner, and it feels a bit like a corporate expansion into the boutique hotel category rather than the distinctive expression of someone’s sensibility.

The rate is high-ish—our room was $300—for a fairly bare-bones operation: no pool, no spa, no restaurant. What you get is a convenient downtown location; a room with high ceilings and hit-and-miss decor (nice carpet, dorky chandelier, call it even); and a small continental breakfast buffet off the lobby. Our room was quiet, at least till morning, when a neighbor pulled back his curtains so clearly it was as if we were sharing the room. Perhaps that was a fluke, or perhaps we were fortunate to be at the hotel on a weeknight—especially since the rooftop bar, Tetto, is understandably a popular draw.

I have never stayed at Hotel Cheval, the Piccolo’s main competitor, so I can’t say whether it’s worth $50 more. The New York Times reported that the Cheval “is adding 20 guest rooms, a luxury spa and an infinity pool in 2020,” when in reality, the plan is to start construction on the annex this year. If the hotel’s rates go up when the new amenities come online, the Piccolo will look like a better deal.

The art installation that drew us to Paso was Bruce Munro’s Field of Light at Sensorio. For background on Sensorio, let’s turn to the San Luis Obispo Tribune:

Munro brought the solar-powered installation to Paso Robles at the request of Ken Hunter, co-owner of nearby Hunter Ranch Golf Course, who’s been planning to develop the property for years. […] He plans to add gardens and interactive art, in addition to an event center and hotel. Crews will break ground on the 4,300-square-foot event center next month [….] It will overlook the Field of Light and include outdoor patio areas. The 125 acres set aside for a hotel will likely be leased or sold to a developer, although nothing has been finalized.

Timed-entry tickets are $37.50 for the sunset hour and $30 afterward, or you can pay $115 for the VIP treatment, which I strongly advise against. There are a few food-and-beverage trucks, and a band playing music, and on a warmer night I imagine people could make a night of it. (Field of Light is scheduled to be up through June.) But the installation itself can be thoroughly enjoyed in a half hour. Arriving right before sunset is a good idea, because the lights are striking even before they begin to glow.

As you can tell from the above photo, the lights are fiber-optic strands threaded up into the plastic fixtures. I wish they could’ve hidden the strands, which call to mind those many visits to Spencer’s back in my mall-going days. But as the sky darkens and the lights come on, the sheer spectacle is impressive.

Is it art? Instagram bait? Both? Whatever, I enjoyed it until I didn’t, and we left. Besides, we had a reservation at Les Petites Canailles, the new French restaurant right around the corner from the Piccolo. Husband-and-wife owners Courtney and Julien Asseo have created the kind of restaurant Santa Barbara lacks: an upscale, contemporary French bistro that would be at home in a much larger city. Kudos to them for not Frenchifying the interior with smoked mirrors and the like, although a bit more art on the walls would be welcome.

We sat at the bar, because I often find it (a) more convivial, and (b) easier to hear each other, and Les Petites Canailles is loud. (Forget the art; install sound-mitigation panels.) We ate—overate!—the way one does on vacation: beet-and-chèvre salad, moules-frites, rabbit with spaetzle, beef cheek Bourguignon with celery root puree, rice pudding with salted caramel, crème brûlée, and plenty of French wine. Everything was excellent, with the mussels, frites, beef Bourguignon (below, photo courtesy LPC), and crème brûlée as standouts.

In the morning, after a restorative cappuccino at Spearhead Coffee, a walk was clearly required. I find Paso a delightful city to stroll around, because it’s such a state of change. There’s new stuff happening next to old, and quirkiness abounds. Take the Stables Inn, a motel aspiring to be cool, and opening soon on busy Spring Street.

I got all excited imaging what Anything Goes might mean in the context of a strip mall. Alas, it’s a shipping store, but it did have me singing Cole Porter as I continued. Anyway, it’s amazing how one can work up an appetite walking. Thank goodness Twisted & Glazed was right nearby.

Who thought a stagecoach would make people feel more secure about their bank? Who thought We Help You Legal sounded like English?

I was sorry to see that the Couch Potato furniture store went out of business, because I’ve always admired the name. A notice for an off-sale liquor-license application is in the window; it appears that Third Base Market and Spirits of Grover Beach is opening there. A follow-up trip to Paso is might be required….

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