From its design to its menu, Robert’s in Paso Robles forges a bridge between tradition and today.
For one of the restaurant’s owners, that connection is also personal; Brenda Clouston is a fifth-generation county native, with family roots in Creston dating to 1851.
Clouston and her husband Robert Clouston may own the downtown eatery, but they consider themselves part of collaborative hospitality team led by Chef Ryan Swarthout, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy who spent several years as the chef at Justin Winery’s Deborah’s Room.
Originally, the team was operating its hospitality business out of leased space at another local winery, but as Swarthout explained, “we always wanted to do more.”
When a retail location on Pine Street became available, Robert jumped on it, even though it needed the entire restaurant built out, including a kitchen.
Clouston brought her interior design skills to bear, and the entire team — from chefs to servers — went to work remodeling. About four months later, Robert’s opened on Dec. 3, 2010.
Architectural elements such as industrial ceiling trusses combine with white linen tablecloths, rich woodwork and carpeting to give Robert’s a comfortable ambiance of urban style. The handcrafted chairs are so comfy you may never want to get up, and the iconic black and white photos hanging throughout the restaurant offer nostalgic glimpses at American culture.
To develop the menu, “we had Ryan make us about four months of test dinners, so that’s a good indication of his patience,” joked Clouston. The result is “a fresh approach to classic American cuisine,” explained Swarthout. “The dishes are all approachable and recognizable, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised because they’re not exactly what you think they’re going to be.”
For example, the beef stroganoff features beef, a rich mushroom sauce and noodles, but it’s made with braised short ribs and served over broad pappardelle pasta.
Likewise, the crisp iceberg wedge salad has blue cheese crumbles and bacon as in a typical steakhouse presentation, but it also sports caram-elized onions and a chipotle buttermilk dressing.
Indeed, Robert’s has a bit of a steakhouse feel, especially when you see the aged New York strip, grilled ribeye and rack of lamb on the dinner menu. However, a closer look reveals a broad variety of dishes ranging from panini and pork belly to recent specials such as ostrich, rabbit and venison.
For starters at lunch, choices include Dungeness crab cakes with papaya slaw, a duo of spinach and mushroom tartlets, or a creamy roasted tomato soup drizzled with chive oil.
Main dishes range from battered fish and chips served with a house-made caper aioli, to a burger made with locally raised beef, to a roasted Portobello mushroom sandwich oozing with goat cheese.
Dinner adds an arugula salad and a poached pear salad with blue cheese to the starters’ lineup, while entrées include not only all those steaks, but also items such as pan-roasted salmon, roasted mushroom lasagna and chicken farfalle (bowtie pasta).
In addition to the restaurant schedule, the Robert’s team is leveraging its hospitality experience to host winemaker dinners pretty much every week. The setup works essentially as a turnkey arrangement for the wineries, explained Clouston, and is particularly geared toward those without a facility or staff to put on the dinners themselves.
“We also offer only local wines,” said Clouston, adding that many are available by-the-glass to encourage people to try new labels. “We feel like we’re in partnership with the wineries and with the community, and it feels really good to be a part of downtown Paso Robles.”