Central CA city rolls out welcome mat for LGBTQs

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday September 6, 2023
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Breda owner Florencia Breda, left, a Michelin-star pastry chef and chocolatier, stands in the pop-up shop with sous chef Jessica Garcia. Photo: Austin Ma
Breda owner Florencia Breda, left, a Michelin-star pastry chef and chocolatier, stands in the pop-up shop with sous chef Jessica Garcia. Photo: Austin Ma

Looking for a change of scenery, I was excited to head to San Luis Obispo for a long weekend getaway earlier this summer.

When I arrived, I was surprised to find the idyllic Central California town is maturing from its farming roots. San Luis Obispo, called SLO by locals, is giving travelers more reasons to visit than ever before. The city has leaned into sustainability as well, having many climate-friendly policies.

Since my last visit six years ago, San Luis Obispo has gotten a little more sophisticated and a little more queer. At the time, in 2017, I could count the number of LGBTQ-owned businesses and fine dining on one hand. They included restaurants Luna Red and Novo that are owned by gay restaurateur Robin Covey and the gay-owned SLO Provisions, which opened in 2015. It appeared that little had changed since my family trips from San Francisco and Santa Cruz to visit my cousins in San Luis Obispo, which is the seat of the county that shares its name, when I was growing up. For the longest time, California Polytechnic State University (better known as Cal Poly), was the only happening place in town for young people. The out-of-the-way LGBTQ bar one of my cousins took me to in my 20s closed decades ago.

The Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in San Luis Obispo draws visitors to the Central California city. Photo: Heather Cassell  

The new SLO
During this trip, I was introduced to a whole new San Luis Obispo. The town is maturing, and queer residents are out and proud with thriving businesses. Its history as a pit stop between San Francisco and Los Angeles, or being viewed mainly as a college town, is quickly becoming just that: a thing of the past. The changes are being made intentionally. The city's leadership, businesses, and community are focused on sustainability and supporting independent local businesses and artists collectively to keep San Luis Obispo's reputation intact as one of the happiest places in the United States while welcoming change and growth.

One of the significant changes is the 78-room luxury Hotel San Luis Obispo, which opened in the heart of the city in the fall of 2019. The hotel (where I was a guest) is only a block away from the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and steps away from dining and shopping at the town's eateries and unique boutique shops.

Hotel San Luis Obispo is owned by Piazza Hospitality, which also owns luxury hotels on the plaza in Healdsburg, California: Hotel Healdsburg, h2Hotel, and Harmon Guest House. The hotel was built around historic buildings with sustainability in mind at every stage, Lydia Bates, the hotel's director of sales and marketing, pointed out on a tour. The hotel features a European-style lighting system in the spacious rooms (guests use their key to power the room). The hotel also honored the history it excavated during the building process with a large-scale artwork from the findings. The shadowbox piece greets guests at the main entrance to the hotel lobby. Local artists' works adorn the hotel's hallways and rooms that pay homage to San Luis Obispo's natural beauty, environment, and history.

San Luis Obispo is an outdoorsy town with a mild year-round climate perfect for cycling and hiking. Surfing is an option at Avila Beach and Pismo Beach, both a short drive away. Now the city offers cultural experiences to go with its natural beauty.

Joining Covey in San Luis Obispo's fine dining scene are gay-owned Italian restaurant Nate's on Marsh (2021) and steakhouse Ox + Anchor and Peruvian restaurant Mistura, which opened in 2019. There are also venues for more casual dining without giving up on taste, health, and protecting the environment, such as farm-to-table restaurants Piadina, Big Sky Cafe, Seeds, and queer woman-owned Skipper's Brew, which opened in 2021.

Another significant change is the number of LGBTQ-owned businesses and the expansion of Pride events and projects from the GALA Pride and Diversity Center, the local LGBTQ community center, which also produces the annual Pride celebration in June. Center Executive Director Dusty Colyer-Worth, a gay man, is envisioning ways to spread queer joy in San Luis Obispo, he said at dinner one evening. In recent years, he expanded the Pride celebration to a two-day event by adding a family-friendly day in a local park. He is slowly growing the center's services and projects to meet the needs of the LGBTQ community.

Colyer-Worth did not respond to a follow-up message seeking comment.

In the last four years, San Luis Obispo has exploded with LGBTQ-owned businesses. There were at least eight queer-owned restaurants, bars and cafes, and shops that I was introduced to during this trip. Queer business owners are mostly people who grew up in the area, Cal Poly graduates, and people who relocated due to a job.

Maggie Przybylski, 42, who owns Two Broads Ciderworks, with her wife Morgan Murphy, 44, opened the business in 2019, the B.A.R. previously reported. The queer couple, who started out home brewing while students at Cal Poly, where they met, appreciate the growth of LGBTQ businesses in San Luis Obispo.

Queer people are attracted to urban centers because it's easier to find each other, noted Murphy, who grew up in Orange County. San Luis Obispo is not only a college town but growing. At the same time, it's keeping its charm and is a welcoming place for queer people. This makes it an attractive place for LGBTQ people to live and for queer travelers to visit.

Przybylski, who is from Oakland, encouraged LGBTQ people to check out San Luis Obispo.

"Come play with us," she said.

A few of the latest LGBTQ businesses that have opened in San Luis Obispo are Italian chocolatier Breda, which launched in 2021 and is a pop up at Mistura and other locations, and Junkgirls, which opened in 2018 and sells inspirational souvenirs and holds makers workshops and art parties.

Michelin-starred pastry chef Florencia Breda is from a town outside of Venice, Italy. She worked for Michelin-starred chefs all over the world before briefly getting a short job opportunity in nearby Paso Robles. A year after that gig, she was asked to return to San Luis Obispo in 2019. This time, instead of leaving, she rooted herself into the community, she told the B.A.R.

"San Luis Obispo is probably really in the top three places that you really feel safe," she said.

It was one of the reasons she fell in love with the town, saying, "in Italy, you don't have this privilege if you are gay," because people will make anti-gay comments and give disapproving looks.

"Here it's the opposite. Here everyone is so friendly," said the 35-year-old lesbian chocolatier about how San Luis Obispo puts out rainbow flags for Pride. The people are friendly and she feels safe holding another woman's hand in public.

"It really makes you feel like home, even if you come from somewhere else. It's so important," she said.

Queer artist Maria Molteni standing in front of a portion of the "Seven Sisters (Celestial Subduction)" mural they were invited to create by the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. Photo: Courtesy Stephen Heraldo/Heraldo Creative Studio  

Familiar and different
Visiting San Luis Obispo was like getting to know an old friend I hadn't seen in a long time. The town was familiar as I retraced the steps from my cousin's house, walking downtown to the candy store and adding to the wall in the famous Bubblegum Alley. In our teens, we would party at Cal Poly. Four decades later, San Luis Obispo is the same yet just as different as I am now. My palate welcomed the new restaurants and the mixology class hosted by Krobar Craft Distillery and the pottery and wine tasting class led by Adriana Lemus from Night Owl Pottery Shop hosted by Region.

One of the afternoons during the trip, the group I was traveling with enjoyed music by two musicians from the San Luis Obispo Symphony during lunch at Dallidet Adobe, the home of one of the town's founding families. We learned about the city's beginnings from Thomas Kessler, a gay man who's the executive director of the History Center San Luis Obispo.

I particularly enjoyed the new public art on display around downtown. The vibrant murals and mosaics cover select sides of businesses' walls and bridges. Our walking tour was led by Leann Standish, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. The tour started at the "Seven Sisters (Celestial Subduction)" mural created by queer artist Maria Molteni. The art that brightens up the parking lot behind the Fremont Theater is one of nine murals that take viewers on a journey through the heart of the town to the art museum. Art lovers should check out the museum and head over to the LOBRO neighborhood, San Luis Obispo's emerging art district (at Lower Broad Street and Orcutt Road), where they will find The Bunker SLO, a new artist collective with art studios, event space, and a cafe that hosts exhibits and workshops, among other art spaces and places to eat and drink.

Returning to San Francisco, I drove home with a deeper understanding of my cousin's hometown and what makes San Luis Obispo so unique to visit.

Updated, 9/7/23: This article has been updated to correct the identity of muralist Maria Molteni, who identifies as queer.

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