Contemporary art and sophisticated design in San Luis Obispo
Coming back to travel easily doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing urban excitement. San Luis Obispo is as close as Los Angeles, and thanks to strong curatorial leadership at SLO Art Museum, the new distinctive Cerro Hotel in the middle of the city center, and some good dining options like Park 1039, it is a destination of choice for connoisseurs of contemporary art, design and cuisine.
My initial impulse to visit SLO was prompted by the announcement that Objectivation, a solo exhibition of the new sculpture by artist Elisa Ortega Montilla, would be on display at the San Luis Obispo Art Museum until June 27. Having enjoyed working in a one-day pop-up in Santa Barbara, I was determined to see how postmodern feminist sculpture would play out in a regional museum. Thanks to curator Courtney Davis, who brought Objectivation to SLOMA and Leann Standish, the museum director, I not only saw the installation, but also saw how progressive the scene has become.
Intrigued by the idea that SLO might be hiding other undiscovered gems, I headed to the Cerro Hotel, a newly opened boutique hotel a few blocks from the Museum and the Mission. The product of nearly 15 years of painstaking permit gathering, lobbying with an architectural review and historic preservation committee, this stunning little hotel (65 rooms) deserves high marks in all major categories: it’s peaceful and luxurious, but it’s also contextually appropriate and green. Secreted in a historic block and crossed by multiple narrow passages, the Cerro Hotel represents an entirely contemporary approach to urban residential design.
The interior designer of the hotel, Ian saude, grew up in SLO and returned after years of living everywhere from San Francisco to Nepal. Its deliberate, artisanal style appears everywhere, from the original wool rugs to the bronze tables that adorn the spacious bedrooms. Faced with the challenge of creating an aesthetic that connects to the location without relying on the Spanish colonial tropes that dominate the central coast, Saude blended early Californian, contemporary naturalistic, and wine-growing idioms, all of which blend gracefully with the Industrial architectural details of the original Garden Street facade.
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The blocks are shorter and the buildings are closer to each other in downtown SLO than in Santa Barbara, giving it a more intimate feel. Most of the structures date from the 19th century, when the city was home to Chinese ranchers, traders, and laborers working on the transcontinental railroad. The red brick pattern that is featured on different scales throughout the Cerro Hotel can be seen as an indirect tribute to Ah Louis, the Chinese-American merchant and entrepreneur who built SLO’s first brick kiln.
The hotel restaurant, SLO Brewery, is both ambitious and comfortably laid back. Sitting in Mission Fig’s serene courtyard adjacent to the cozy lobby, it’s easy to overlook the bustling scene outside, even on a Thursday night, when it seems like all the SLOs are coming downtown for the farmers market. Guest Chef Vartan Abgaryan’s menu takes full advantage of not only the farmer’s generosity, but also the abundance of fresh herbs that grow in the hotel’s second-floor garden. The spacious 750-square-foot Garden Suites feature a private outdoor seating area that opens up to this secluded natural feature.
Adventurous diners and foodies alike will want to make a reservation at Park 1039, a bistro nearby and a specialty food store with an excellent selection of European wines. Owner Steven Goodale cherishes artisanal products of all kinds, from cheeses and cold cuts to glassware and ceramic plates. This attention to detail extends to the personalized Hedley and Bennet aprons worn by the staff, many of whom are skilled sommeliers. The stainless steel and glass interior – another project by Ian Saude – highlights the quality of the ingredients and underscores the frankness and sincerity of the whole 1039 park approach. Lunch here was delicious, with food pairings and wines just exotic enough to awaken our senses at noon without overloading the kitchen.
No resort hotel would be complete without a top-notch spa, and the Cerro Spa is a knockout. At 4000 square feet, it is large enough for each client to feel completely at ease throughout one of their imaginative and refreshing treatments. In another skillful touch joining the hotel’s design to nature, the cascading bubble panels in the quiet spa room were inspired by the kelp forests off the coast.
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