SLO’s creekside culinary scene

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Novo-Luna-Red

Novo & Luna Red restaurants bring local, fresh flavors to downtown diners

Searching for fine dining in San Luis Obispo is simple: just follow the creek.

Babbling and gurgling through the center of downtown, passing underneath many of its main businesses and streets, San Luis Obispo Creek comes into plain view at the Mission Plaza, an area that is considered the cultural and historical heart of the city, and that can now safely be called the culinary heart of the city, too.

This is due to the genius of restaurateurs Robin and Shanny Covey who brought their successful farm-to-table business model from the nearly 30-year-old Robin’s Restaurant  in Cambria to downtown SLO—and specifically to two eateries perched right on the creek.

“Shanny really is the business mind of the restaurants and Robin is very much creative. That is the balance, that’s what makes it work,” says Marketing Manager Molly Kiely of the duo’s magic touch in building a trifecta of successful local eateries.

Novo Restaurant & Lounge came first, over ten years ago. Robin Covey took one look at the multi-level, creek-side building—the historic site of a cigar factory built in the 1870s, turned into a restaurant in the 1970s—and knew it would be the ideal location for his second culinary venture. Where once cigars were rolled and boxed, and where legend has it that Prohibition-era locals used the building’s creek-accessible underground tunnels to smuggle alcohol, today stands Covey’s vision.

Lights twinkle through the canopy of trees that spread their branches over the outdoor patio; glasses clink as guests enjoy an eclectic mix of globally-inspired, locally-sourced dishes like the lamb chops or the fresh avocado-shrimp spring rolls, and an expansive list of local and international wines and beers; and, of course, the creek whispers and clucks below, offering ambiance that can’t be found elsewhere in SLO.

Unless, of course, you head a few doors down to Luna Red, the second SLO venture of Robin and Shanny Covey.

In 2010, acknowledging their knack at creating lasting restaurant experiences together, they joined efforts again to open Luna Red Restaurant & Bar, then situated near the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo. Guided by the inspired cooking of Executive Chef Shaun Behrens, the stylish, tapas-focused eatery grew quickly in popularity, and in 2012, they moved it to the present location at the feet of the Mission Plaza and directly over the creek.

Just a few doors down from sister restaurant Novo, Luna Red nevertheless brings a whole new flavor to the downtown SLO table, focusing even more heavily on local and fresh ingredients, and even boasting a dedicated produce buyer that frequents the farmers markets each day.

“I want to cook responsibly. I want to feed responsibly,” says Behrens in a recent video interview. “It’s my charge. It’s my mantra. I live and breathe this philosophy and the philosophy is farm-to-table, or getting things as locally as you can.”

This flair for the fresh and local can be seen in exotic-sounding internationally influenced dishes like the piquillo peppers stuffed with herbed goat cheese, or in the bacon-wrapped chorizo stuffed dates. Encouraging family-style dining with specials like its “Pick Six” prix fixe deal (while also offering traditional entrées), dining at Luna Red feels like a rich cultural experience that takes the taste buds on a whirlwind trip from Spain to France to Greece.

But wherever the palate may travel, the patron remains at the true authentic center of SLO, tasting flavors fresh from the famous Thursday night farmers market, and gazing out the back, at the Mission that marked the town’s beginning, and the creek that ties it all together.

Make your way to the water for late-night, tapas, lunch, dinner or brunch, each showcasing the Coveys’ signature fresh, local
focus at Novo, 726 Higuera St., (805) 543-3986, novorestaurant.com
, or Luna Red, 1023 Chorro St., (805) 540-5243, lunaredslo.com. 

— Jamie Relth

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