There was a time — a very long time — when anyone traveling down Highway 101 faced a dearth of dining possibilities. That San Francisco-Santa Barbara trek was fueled by golden arches and Denny’s knockoffs. Now there’s no need to resort to such desperate measures, not when you can pull off the freeway and nosh in style at Paso Robles’ Kitchenette and Arroyo Grande’s Comfort Market. Here’s where to grab a bite, no matter what time you fly through town.
1. San Juan Bautista: Jardines de San Juan
Satisfy your guacamole and taco cravings at this colorful oasis near Mission San Juan Bautista. Grab a seat on the sunny patio and tuck into strawberry lemonade ($3) and Chon’s Guacamole ($8 regular, $6 small), followed by a ginormous, carnitas-filled People’s Choice Burrito ($11) or the Baja Tacos ($15.50) with shrimp, avocado salsa and smoky chipotle sauce. A silky flan ($5) makes a sweet ending.
The exit: Jardines is 31/2 miles off Highway 101. Take Exit 245 toward CA-156 East. Open daily from 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. and until 10 p.m. on weekends at 115 Third St., San Juan Bautista; www.jardinesrestaurant.com
2. Salinas: Farm Fresh Deli & Cafe
Set your GPS for downtown Salinas, and pop into this charming eatery for a quick soup and sandwich. You’ll find everything from grilled sammies to wraps, including the filling Farmer’s Club ($7.50) with turkey, bacon, swiss and avocado, the decadent Ma’s Famous Spinach and Artichoke Melt ($7.50) and the fried chicken-stuffed Cousin’s Caesar Wrap ($7). Add a smoothie, and you’re good to go.
The exit: Less than a mile from Highway 101. Take Exit 329. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, until 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 145 Main St., Salinas; www.farmfreshdelicafe.com.
More: Here for dinner? Try the rustic European-inspired Patria for pork schnitzel and cheesy spaetzle; www.facebook.com/PatriaOldtownSalinas. Sate your sweet tooth with creative paletas — Mexican ice pops — at Paleteria Y Neveria La Michoacana; bit.ly/2nf3j5V. (Psst, there’s a King City location, too.)
3. Soledad: La Fuente Restaurant
There’s artwork and tchotchkes in every nook and cranny of this festive Mexican eatery. Don’t miss the awesome Tostada de Camarones, piled high with shrimp, the carnitas plate and the guacamole served in an avocado shell. Wash it all down with cinnamon-spiked horchata. You’ll be good to go until dinner.
The exit: Take Exit 302 a scant half mile off Highway 101 to 101 Oak St. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sundays from 10 a.m.
More: Nearby Chualar holds treats, too. Find delicious asada tortas, cookies and pastries at Alma’s Bakery and Deli at 25482 Payson St. Go for the tacos at Taqueria Hidalgo at 23477 Grant St.
4. King City: Cork & Plough
Farm-to-table, new wave American cuisine and craft cocktails a mile off the freeway? Yes, please! Seattle chef Travis Childers’ two-year-old eatery traffics in tasty lunchtime salads and sandwiches — try the Pork and Cow ($13), a burger topped with pulled pork and Carolina slaw — and heartier dinner entrees, such as Venison Meatloaf ($22) and Cajun Shrimp ($16) with pork sausage polenta and a tomato-bell pepper sauce.
The exit: A mile from Highway 101. Take Exit 282B and head for downtown. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday and from noon-8 p.m. Sundays at 200 Broadway St., King City; www.thecorkandplough.com.
This two-year-old deli and cafe is technically in Templeton, five miles from sister restaurant Artisan, a dining hot spot for almost a decade. At Kitchenette, brothers and owners Chris and Michael Kobayashi offer up farm-fresh breakfast and lunch items that pack a flavorful, creative punch, from beer-braised corned beef hash ($13) and almond croissant french toast ($9) to a slow-roasted lamb dip ($13) and portobello panini slathered in housemade almond hummus ($13). Salads are divine, too.
The exit: Take Exit 226 at Templeton. Kitchenette is one mile from the freeway. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 105 S. Main St., Suite 100, Templeton; http://kitchenettetempleton.com.
More: Staying overnight in Paso Robles? Get the venison with pumpkin and wild mushrooms for dinner at Artisan, http://artisanpasorobles.com or stone-fired pizzas just across the square at La Cosecha, http://www.lacosechabr.com.
6 Santa Margarita: The Range
This is range country, so terrific steaks and a jeans-clad crowd are not exactly surprising. What you won’t expect is how incredibly sophisticated the dishes are at this cash-only cowboy bistro. It’s so good, Los Angelenos routinely drive up for the pan-roasted elk medallions with garlic mashed potatoes and cherry bordelaise ($31) and coffee-crusted Angus rib-eye ($33) with a Wild Turkey-peppercorn cream sauce.
The exit: Take Exit 211 from Highway 101 and head into tiny Santa Margarita 11/2 miles away. Open from 5-8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, until 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday at 22317 El Camino Real, Santa Margarita. No credit cards.
7. San Luis Obispo: Old San Luis Barbecue Company
This super casual, family-friendly spot is known for its Santa Maria-style barbecue grilled over a red oak pit. Get that hand-trimmed, Angus certified tri-tip (or the grilled chicken or pulled pork) as a sandwich on a locally baked bun or via pit plate ($9.75-$10.95) with a side of apple-cucumber slaw with jalapenos. Salads are great, too, and made using local organic produce. Dine in, on the outdoor patio or get it to-go at the walk-up window. Just don’t forget the chocolate bacon milkshake.
The exit: Take Exit 202B at San Luis Obispo. Old San Luis Barbecue Company is three-quarters of a mile from the freeway. Open daily at 11 a.m. at 670 Higuera St. in San Luis Obispo, http://oldsanluisbbq.com.
More: Staying over in SLO? Head out for light bites and craft cocktails (especially the mezcal and whiskey-based offerings) at Sidecar Cocktail Co. or wake up to their eggs benedicts and bloody marys on Sundays; http://sidecarcocktail.company.
8. Arroyo Grande: Comfort Market
Kari Ziegler’s four-year-old Comfort Market is all kinds of wonderful. The market half deals in picnic offerings, the bistro side offers soups, salads, mains and seven “melts” — amazing variations on the grilled cheese theme, including a bacon-topped, tomato jam-slathered version ($13, or $12 for a half sandwich plus salad) that makes us weak at the knees.
The exit: Take Exit 187A at Arroyo Grande. Comfort Market is a third of a mile from the freeway. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and for dinner Friday-Sunday at 116 W. Branch St., Arroyo Grande; comfortmarkets.com.
More: On the road early? Grab coffee and morning buns at Sweet Pea Bakery, www.sweetpeabakeryag.com. Doing a stopover in Pismo or Arroyo Grande? Try Ember for a wood-fired rib-eye with avocado chimichurri; www.emberwoodfire.com.
9 Los Alamos: Bell Street Farm
The lunch lines are long for this American picnic cafe that serves, dare we say, some of the best sandwiches you’ll ever eat. The Rotisserie Pork Sandwich ($16.75) is the star here, with tender, housemade porchetta (roasted five hours with shallot, garlic and fennel seed). The pork and beef Meatloaf Sandwich ($12.75) with spicy harissa jam is hard to beat. And the salads, such as the tarragon-tinged Spanish Goat Cheese Salad ($13.25), are delish.
The exit: Take the Los Alamos Exit 154. Bell Street is 11/2 miles away. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Saturday, until 4 p.m. Sunday-Monday at 406 Bell St., Los Alamos; www.bellstreetfarm.com.
More: Pick up fresh-baked bread and croissants at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery; www.bobswellbread.com. In town for dinner? Full of Life Flatbread fires up crisp, thin-crust pizzas with seasonal toppings; www.fulloflifefoods.com.
10 Buellton: Industrial Eats
This hip farm-to-table eatery is worth a road trip all on its own. The menu is divided into “Pizza” and “Not Pizza.” Try the succulent porchetta ($17) with squash, greens and fried egg, or Indian-inspired spicy cauliflower ($10), spiked with vadouvan curry. On the pizza side, don’t miss the savory Prosciutto, Taleggio, Parmesan and Arugula ($14) and spicy Tomato and Fennel Sausage pie ($14). Be sure to grab picnic supplies — artisan cheese and charcuterie — from the butcher shop, too.
The exit: Industrial Eats lies roughly half a mile from Highway 101. Take Exit 140A toward Solvang/Lompoc. Open daily 10 a.m.-9 p.m. at 181 Industrial Way, Buellton; www.industrialeats.com.
More: Solvang is so close! Sample the jelly-filled aebleskivers at Solvang Restaurant; www.solvangrestaurant.com. Pick up pickled veggies and salumi at the Succulent Cafe Wine Charcuterie; www.succulentcafe.com.