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Quintessential SLO 

Big Sky is always worth the wait

If I were asked to name one restaurant in this county that is quintessential San Luis Obispo, it would undoubtedly be Big Sky Cafe;. As a matter of fact, it was the first restaurant I dined in when my husband Dan introduced me to SLO in 1994. I found both this small college town and this restaurant totally charming and realized their attraction crosses generations.

click to enlarge GETTING FRESH :  Charles Myers insists on nothing but the best local vegetables and fruit for his Big Sky Cafe , and is there any better place to find them than the farmers’ market downtown? - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • GETTING FRESH : Charles Myers insists on nothing but the best local vegetables and fruit for his Big Sky Cafe , and is there any better place to find them than the farmers’ market downtown?

Big Sky had all the bohemian ambiance of my favorite North Beach haunts in San Francisco (I’m a Bay Area native). But this natural eatery was no copy of anything I had experienced before. I thought Big Sky somewhat like the hippie restaurant I once visited in Bolinas, the Bay Area town of reclusive citizens who take down highway signs that lead outsiders to their oasis. The ambiance at Big Sky was just as cool, but Charles Myers served much better food.

Looking back over the past 12-years, having feasted on Big Sky’s gumbo, black bean huevos rancheros, salad Nicoise, their wonderful beignets, and great vegetarian dishes, it’s clear this cafe; was ahead of its time.

I called on Myers after learning that the seismic retrofitting was completed and that they had added a sidewalk patio for dining. The outdoor dining area is smaller than I expected, but it’s obvious size doesn’t matter. It’s a huge hit among diners who are willing to sit in the added waiting area so they can enjoy their meal al fresco.

I’ve always loved the long bar where you can meet interesting visitors who are passing through and found the restaurant, either by sheer luck or because they knew Myers’ Los Angeles restaurant, The Gumbo Pot, in the Farmers Market District. Even though I rarely address service in this column (because too many restaurant people recognize me), I respect the service at Big Sky where the friendly servers know no boundaries, whether you’re a restaurant critic or a tourist. But no matter how well servers treat me, in any restaurant, I also observe their treatment of other guests.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

When I sat down at the bar for lunch my server was more than happy to make suggestions about wine or food. And he wasn’t the least bit taken aback when I chose a different wine, knowing it better suited my taste. When I admitted I had not been there in a while he recommended the Mediterranean appetizer medley so I could try several of their popular dishes. It’s a good choice. The dish, mostly vegetarian, offers their baba ghanouj, hummus, cucumber tzatziki, beet and potato salad, Italian white bean and tuna salad, house marinated olives, and warm pita bread. It’s like a taste trip around the Mediterranean Sea.

 

I’ve long been a proponent of healthy foods, but it doesn’t matter how healthful it is nor how pretty your dish, good taste must come first. After recently chatting with Myers, I know that’s one of the reasons he’s so successful. Myers admitted another reason Big Sky is so popular is its price structure.

“I wanted to make it part of the local scene by making it affordable for everyone. Our customers can be on a fixed income, college students, a young family, or hipsters. It’s nice to be able to eat out and only spend $20 to $30 for dinner,” Myers said honestly. “Not every meal has to be a stellar culinary experience.”

After moving here in early 1996, I came to know the soulful restaurateur behind this retro-looking restaurant and its “modern cuisine.” Actually, the website, bigskycafe.com, describes their cuisine as: “Analog food for a digital world.” His creative eatery is the pinnacle for people who seek out restaurants with personality, and this one is as local as they come.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

Myers, an advocate of farmers markets, has always served quality food and wine from local farms and wineries. He and his chefs strive to offer organic and sustainably produced products whenever possible. Now that our county is blossoming with artisan producers, be it makers of wine, cheese, olive oil or vinegar, they have many more quality choices to stock their larder. The excellent wine list offers an array of local wines, and a great selection of interesting varietals that complement the menu, all reasonably priced.

During the remodeling and retrofitting Myers said, “I wanted to create an old European feel while keeping the old building feeling.” They did it by covering the new support beams with an impressive new back bar, and replacing the building front with a folding glass doors. The roof had to be removed so he adding another sky light. “Old buildings have a lot of charm and they have a lot of problems.”

Before the remodeling Myers had rehired his original chef Greg Holt who helped him redesign and modernize the kitchen, adding three new ovens. Despite the major remodeling he was only forced to close 16 days. “We were lucky to get it done in two weeks. You had to wonder how long customers would be patient,” Myers recalled. “If people have to think about whether or not you’re open they might go somewhere else.”

click to enlarge PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

I’m willing to bet most locals have great memories of meals enjoyed here. I still vividly remember my first Fat Tuesday party here because I was so jazzed about the authentic New Orleans style meal. Before it was over I told Myers, I’m going to write about this dinner in New Times. “Please don’t,” he said with a smile that said he was serious. “We’re already at the point we can’t get everyone in who wants reservations.” After talking with Myers I stayed for lunch, and by noon Big Sky was packed, the patio and the dining room, just as it has always been when I’ve dined here.

Myers doesn’t need a good review from me, everybody loves Big Sky, but he has always had my respect. And as we all know, Big Sky is always worth the wait.


You can reach New Time’s Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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