By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
One of the highlights of our yearly trips to the Central Coast of California is visiting the quaint town of Arroyo Grande. Located between San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria, it looks like any other modern town when viewed from Highway 101. In other words, you see a Trader Joe’s, In ‘n Out, and the ubiquitous Walmart. But Arroyo Grande is actually as unique and colorful a town as you’ll find anywhere. Starting with the chickens.
Grand Avenue is the Main Street in town and is filled with Victorian buildings and cute shops selling items both old and new. There is even a life-sized Elvis statue outside the guitar store and just about everyone stops to pose for a picture with the King of Rock. Gina’s is our favorite restaurant, serving Italian food with friendly service. And nothing is more fun than wine tasting at Phantom Rivers wines, which is in an old Victorian house with a beautiful lawn outside. You can while away the afternoon with a sandwich from the deli next door, a glass of wine, and watch the people and chickens go by. CHICKENS?? Yep – if you spend more than ten minutes strolling the downtown streets one thing will become very apparent – there are a lot of chickens in Arroyo Grande. But why? Well, according to a city representative (who, for good reason wished to remain anonymous) there have been chickens and roosters wandering around town longer than anyone can remember. Do they cause problems? Well, “If a rooster gets rowdy and tries to attack visitors, we have to take care of the problem.” Which I think means that several of the restaurants in town have chicken as their “special” that night. She said that roosters are welcome in town, but they have to act nice with guests. They are not allowed to terrorize, attack or challenge you to a dual for sidewalk rights.
As you wander the village in search of roosters, you’ll notice them everywhere. They are down by the creek, in the back parking lot of the storefronts, and occasionally crossing the street. You’ll notice the “Chickens Crossing” signs throughout the village. They DO have the right of way. Cars will stop and wait for them to slowly stroll across the busy streets. At nearly every boutique, home furnishings or antiques store there are tributes to the roosters and chickens on everything from cards and hand painted artwork, to kitchen towels and antique porcelain trinkets to take home as souvenirs.
Of much greater interest to me, being an inveterate sweet-tooth, is Arroyo Grande’s fabulous ice cream parlor, Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab. Really, the name says it all. It sounds so scientific. Clearly they have taken ice cream to a new level. There is no slap-dash mixing here. They take developing ice cream flavors as seriously as the guys working on nuclear fusion. In addition to the wonderful handmade ice cream, they have special events, like “Ice Cream for Breakfast Day”.
Really…it’s as if they made up a day just for me. As a kid, I would get up before my parents on Saturday mornings and pour myself a bowl of Wheaties topped off with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. Even at the age of eight I was good at rationalizing my binge eating. After all, ice cream and milk both have calcium, don’t they? But my favorite event at “Doc’s” (we’re now on a first name basis) is the “All You Can Eat” night. Every Tuesday for just a measly $6.99 adults can have all the ice cream they can eat. I think the lovely people at Doc’s seriously miscalculated when they established that event. People like me, who look perfectly sane and reasonable on the outside, lose all remnants of self-control when faced with “all you can eat” challenges. I may gain five pounds in the deal but I’m determined to amortize that $6.99 down to a buck a scoop!
So, if you find yourself driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles and need a great place to take a break, consider stopping in the village of Arroyo Grande. Where else can you find chickens, Elvis and a bottomless bowl of ice cream all in one block?