Nestled on both sides of Highway 101 just south of Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, or A.G. as it's known locally, would be just another town were it not for three blocks of turn-of-the-20th-century charm on East Branch Street — the historic Village of Arroyo Grande. The tab: A weekend stay at the Casitas Estate, about three miles east of the village, was a splurge at $658 plus tax. Dinner for two at the Ember restaurant, including two glasses of San Luis Obispo County wine, was $97.
With magnificent hillside views of the Arroyo Grande Valley, the Casitas Estate (2655 Lopez Drive,  473-1123, http://www.casitasag.com) was built as a private compound in 1992. The eccentric owner created a large, one-bedroom home for herself and four separate casitas for whenever her adult children came to visit. Seven years ago the property was purchased by Tony and Pat Goetz, who were eager to trade their marketing jobs for innkeeping. Today, the estate is a luxurious oasis after a day of shopping, sightseeing or wine tasting. Each spacious casita has a fireplace and private deck. A 25-meter lap pool highlights the beautifully landscaped grounds. And the gracious hosts provide a breakfast each morning that is as spectacular as the views.
Owner-chef Brian Collins, a native of Arroyo Grande, opened Ember (1200 E. Grand Ave., Suite 101,  474-7700, http://www.emberwoodfire.com) with the goal of putting A.G. on the Central Coast dining map. The restaurant features an open kitchen with a wood-fired oven and a brick-and-mortar fireplace. Local produce, fresh seafood and sustainable meats are always on the menu. The wine list emphasizes San Luis Obispo County and features more than 30 wines by the glass. Although Collins likes to focus on shared plates, my wife and I each chose an entree cooked over the embers. She chose the California halibut with leeks, fennel and new potatoes, while I tried Pollo al Mattone, chicken cooked under a brick and served with grilled polenta and seasonal vegetables. These, along with a chocolate cake with sea salt caramel, vanilla bean ice cream and an oven-toasted marshmallow on top, prove that Collins' goal is in sight.
A stroll on East Branch Street is an exercise in time travel, with many buildings, built between 1887 and 1910, lovingly restored. Café Andreini is a bustling hangout on East Branch where locals and tourists rub elbows each morning while sipping from ceramic mugs, some of which say "Arroyo Grande 93420 — Nice town, normal people." Definitely worth investigating is Verena's Go Gourmet, a kitchen store complete with an olive oil tasting bar and a vast selection of vinegars, spices and gourmet salts. And no stroll in the village would be complete without crossing the swinging bridge over Arroyo Grande Creek. Built in 1875, it connects the village to historic Heritage Square and is the only one of its kind in California.
The lesson learned
The area around Arroyo Grande is worth exploring. Venture east and north and you'll find the wine-growing regions of the Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys. The atmosphere is casual and the tasting rooms uncrowded. Head west and you reach the Pacific and Pismo State Beach. But what does it take to make an otherwise ordinary town on the Central Coast a place worth spending the weekend at? It takes a village.
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