Sean Faries, co-owner of Native Lounge in San Luis Obispo, often hangs out near the front of his new restaurant to watch the reactions of customers as they enter.
Faries does this for good reason — he recently completely transformed the former Mission Grill location, on Chorro Street near Monterey Street, into a trendy new lounge-style restaurant and posh night club reminiscent of what one might find in Las Vegas or New York City.
“People are always saying they can’t believe this is in SLO,” said Faries, who co-owns the contemporary restaurant with his mother and grandmother.
Native shows no sign of its former incarnation except for its views of the mission and San Luis Creek. Contemporary lighting design was installed to create a serene yet partylike atmosphere. Near the entrance, a ceiling-high waterfall runs down a clear glass wall that contributes to the chic, upscale ambiance.
Feels like a living room
Behind the waterfall, a long bar with white leather bar stools is surrounded by high tables. On both sides of the bar, loungelike seating creates a space more reminiscent of a living room than a restaurant.
Be warned: There are no dining tables, just low tables with dark leather couches to sit at when dining, an element of the restaurant that has drawn some complaints.
Beyond one area is a private room—also known as the VIP area—where patrons are given their own host and must partake in Native’s bottle service (diners purchase a bottle of alcohol with drink mixers versus individual drinks). The bottle service starts at nearly $200 but despite its hefty price tag, Faries says it’s proven popular thus far.
Happy hour snacks
Native can also be experienced on a budget — I recently visited for happy hour (Monday through Friday, 4 to 7 p.m.) to partake in the restaurant’s stellar deals that consist of tapas and drink specials from $3 to $6 each. After happy hour ends, however, the prices can double or triple.
Crispy yet soft, the Parmesan fries ($3) arrived overflowing a paper cone. A house specialty, they were drizzled with truffle oil and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese — a knockout. The Terra Shoestrings ($3) were a crispy tangled mound of taro root, beets and sweet potatoes served with chipotle aioli. Odd but innovative in their presentation, they are a great appetizer to share.
The Armenian Touch ($4) is executive chef Charles Aghajanian’s tribute to his heritage and includes a platter of baba ghanoush, tatziki, marinated feta cheese and slices of grilled pita bread. Fresh-tasting and authentic, this is delicious especially when paired with a happy hour wine such as their Tolosa pinot noir or Firestone syrah (both $6).
Other happy hour drink specials include the raspberry mojito ($5) and fresh blueberry margarita ($6), both refreshing, tasty and popular with my group of friends.
Other favorite dishes were the mole duck empanadas ($5) and the trio of scallop skewers ($6). The empanadas were filled with duck confit and queso fresco ( a crumbly white cheese) and served with a vegetable slaw of jicama, radishes and carrot. The duck meat brought a rich flavor to the flaky empanadas that contrasted nicely with the cool slaw.
The scallops were elegantly presented and served three ways: nearly rare in a blood-orange ceviche, encrusted with a sesame seed tempura sauce, and simply char-grilled.
The last steal (or so we thought) on the happy hour menu were six raw oysters on the half shell ($ 6). Served with a variety of sauces including rice wine mignonette and ponzu, the raw oysters were also beautifully presented.
Watch the time
Unfortunately, we ordered the shellfish near the end of happy hour and weren’t charged the price we expected (rises to $14 after happy hour). When we mentioned to our server that we ordered before happy hour ended, she shrugged off our complaint —a surprising response to the upscale service we had received previously.
Even so, Native is a drastic but welcome change to San Luis Obispo’s fairly traditional restaurant scene. Although it won’t be appreciated by all, Native’s approach is innovative possibly a foretelling of how we dine at restaurants in the future.
Reach Dawn White at 781-7946.