Restaurant News & Reviews

Ocean Grill in Avila Beach serves up the sights and tastes of the sea

Seared diver scallops and pork belly are paired with miso quinoa, apple and an apple-fennel salad with an apple ginger vinaigrette and house-smoked bacon at Ocean Grill in Avila Beach.
Seared diver scallops and pork belly are paired with miso quinoa, apple and an apple-fennel salad with an apple ginger vinaigrette and house-smoked bacon at Ocean Grill in Avila Beach. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In addition to boasting one of the best vistas on the Central Coast, Ocean Grill has menus that are a well-executed mix of the expected and the unexpected.

The Avila Beach restaurant opened at the former site of the old Unocal check-in building in September 2013, general manager Eric Kunkel said. A 15-year veteran of the local restaurant industry, the Central Coast native joined Ocean Grill when it was still under construction and assumed the general manager position in January 2014.

Ocean Grill is the vision of San Luis Obispo residents Tim and Lisa Gill, who have been the restaurant’s sole owners from day one. They took full advantage of the grill’s slightly elevated perch on Front Street in Avila Beach, and as a result, its stylish dining area offers a sweeping ocean view of Point San Luis and the piers jutting into San Luis Obispo Bay.

Warm earth tones and natural materials don’t try to compete with the vista, and the largely open-air space brings the outside in. (Only the restaurant’s bar area can be fully enclosed.) The dining room is surrounded by windows, and topped with a solar panel array.

“We’re one of the most energy-efficient restaurants in the county,” Kunkel said.

Ocean Grill’s kitchen is in the capable hands of executive chef Bryan Mathers, a graduate of the Advanced Culinary Program of the Treasure Island Job Corps in San Francisco. He gained rock-solid skills from that vocational program and took full advantage of invaluable on-the-job experience in such top Bay Area establishments as Roy Yamaguchi’s eponymous Roy’s and Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio.

After cooking in kitchens as far north as Alaska and as vibrantly urban as Seattle, Mathers came to the Central Coast and worked in several restaurants before joining Ocean Grill. Except for a brief stint, he has been there since it opened its doors; he became executive chef in September 2014.

Ocean Grill embraces its location as a seaside eatery, and deftly delivers all the usual suspects. New England clam chowder, crab cakes, ceviche and Caesar salad are available throughout the day.

Lunch options include fish and chips and a house-ground burger, while dinner offers options such as mussels in a garlic white wine broth.

However, this is also a place where you can order a wood-fired pizza with fennel sausage and Grana Padano cheese or lunchtime sandwiches made with locally raised, house-roasted and hand-pulled free-range chicken. Seafood options include Thai shrimp lettuce cups or a shrimp salad with housemade vinaigrette, local rockfish tacos or poke tacos with avocado purée.

In the evening, Mathers and his staff further unfurl their culinary sails. In addition to pizzas, pan-roasted pork chops and grilled ribeye, popular entrées include sustainably raised Alaskan salmon with sweet and spicy broccolini, miso-glazed Morro Bay black cod with quinoa and seared diver scallops with pork belly and a fennel/apple salad.

That pork belly, by the way, goes through a weeklong process of being brined, roasted and cooked sous vide before it’s expertly seared to order. That’s just one example of Ocean Grill’s from-scratch mentality.

With the exception of items such as pear sorbet from Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab in Arroyo Grande and breads from Edna’s Bakery in San Luis Obispo, “We’re making everything possible in house,” Mathers said. That includes soup stocks, sauces, salad dressings and a 30-pound batch of brown butter chocolate chip cookie dough at least every two days.

Like many new businesses, “We had some growing pains when we first opened,” Kunkel acknowledged, “but we’ve gotten to a point we’re all really proud of.”

Mathers agreed. “We really have awesome teams both front and back,” he added. “It’s cool to be a part of it.”

Katy Budge is a freelance writer from Atascadero. Contact her at ktbudge@sbcglobal.net.

Ocean Grill

268 Front St., Avila Beach

595-4050, www.oceangrillavila.com

Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. nightly for dinner, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and happy hour 3 to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday; summer will see expanded lunch and happy hour schedules.

The scene: An oceanfront eatery taking full advantage of the coastal view, suitable for a casual lunch or a special-occasion sunset dinner.

The cuisine: A well-executed mix of expected beachside fare and upscale but unfussy dishes, many made with local ingredients from scratch. Gluten-free, vegan and dairy-free dishes designated on the menus. Draft and bottled beer and predominantly local wines available.

Expect to spend: Lunch about $10 to $20, pizzas $14 to $17, dinner entrées $20 to $40.

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