Not all farmers’ markets are created equal. Most are bucolic and quiet, held in a town square or park during a weekday afternoon or sunny Saturday morning. The wares are, of course, produce, usually representing the local bounty of the surrounding rural area. There may also be a few other vendors with tables strewn with handmade jewelry, exotic plants, or fragrant soaps and lotions. I’ve been to farmers’ markets all over California and there is a pleasant sameness to them all.
But the San Luis Obispo California’s Downtown Farmers’ Market is a one-of-a-kind weekly shopping and social event. Four blocks of Higuera, the main street, are closed to traffic on Thursday evenings, from 6 to 9 p.m. What emerges is an ultra-popular local block party, a weekly happening which spills onto side streets, fills restaurants and keeps the eclectic downtown shops open later than usual, their doors beckoning to boutique treasures sporting sale prices. Local bands provide toe-tapping entertainment, from reggae to rock to Cajun zydeco. There are puppet shows for the kids and balloon animals for them to take home. There are, of course, the usual displays of farm fresh bounty all along the street. In season fruits and vegetables abound in stunning variety. Vendors sell huge bouquets of sunflowers in summer, bundled star-gazer lilies, and roses by the dozens in an artist’s palette of colors. Candles, clothing, nuts, pies, local olive oils, art pieces, and even “Pillow Pals” are for sale on the street. Current causes, political, religious, and otherwise are represented by good-natured zealots at tables covered in pamphlets, buttons and bumper-stickers. The street is filled with people of all ages and life stages: families, retirees, couples, groups of teens, and when local Cal Poly and Cuesta College are in session, even more crowded with college students. You might even spot a celebrity or two. Zac Efron was born in San Luis Obispo and has family in nearby Arroyo Grande. Actors Josh Brolin and Diane Lane live on a ranch in Templeton, to the north.
San Luis Obispo, San Luis or “SLO,” as we locals call it, is a laid-back, cool but very friendly and safe Central Coast California city located half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Far enough inland to escape coastal fog but not so far to be affected by extreme summer heat, San Luis Obispo enjoys a moderate and comfortable climate. Mild Thursday evenings in spring, summer and into the fall make the Downtown Farmers’ Market a nearly year-round event.
The real attraction of this weekly festival is the food. People flock to gigantic black grills set up in the street, drawn to the smokey aroma of Santa Maria-style barbecued steaks, tri-tip, ribs, chicken, and pork served with rustic bread. The grills are manned by chefs from competing hometown barbecue spots. There are also tents set up by fantastic local restaurants. Until recently the only seating was at the curb along Higuera or a side-street. But diners can now carry their mouth-watering selections to tables and chairs near the bottom of the street barricade.
There are other farmers’ markets in the area but nothing can top San Luis Obispo, where every Thursday night is cause for celebration.