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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Dessert first: Adventures in dining with a man devoted to desserts


Call it a hyperactive sweet tooth.

Call it joie de vivre.

Call it what you want; Gary Bayus has it.

The Pismo Beach resident is whole-heartedly and unabashedly wild about desserts. So much so, that every time he goes out to eat, it’s what he eats first.

“Sometimes it’s dessert first, and sometimes it’s just dessert,” Bayus said. “It is by far my favorite course of the meal—it’s the best looking course!”

The individually sized pineapple upside-down cake made by Gina’s Piece of Cake in Santa Maria is a favorite of Gary Bayus.

There is one exception to his dessert first routine: “If I’m too hungry, I won’t have dessert first. If I’m real, real hungry, I’ll have an appetizer first because I can enjoy the dessert more if I’m not super hungry,” he explained. “And then I can really go slow, and close my eyes, and take [the dessert] apart, and enjoy it.”

Twenty years ago during his wedding reception dinner at a French restaurant in Reno, Bayus got swept up in the moment following a good amount of champagne and called out, “Desserts first for everyone!”

He spontaneously ordered four different desserts; chocolate mousse, citrus cake, chocolate torte, and ice cream, for their dozens of guests, which understandably created a logistical nightmare for the restaurant staff already preparing entrees.

“You could hear the screaming in the kitchen,” Bayus recalled. “The chef was going crazy!”

That was the day he married Teri, who also shares his same zest for life and appreciation for really good food. She is a local restaurant critic and screenwriter. He is a business broker and his wife’s frequent dinner companion.

Together, they have tasted their way around the world.

A trip to South Florida exemplifies the great lengths they will go to satisfy their taste buds. Bayus was determined to track down the best Key lime pie he could find.

Chefs Matt and Jeff Nichols change up desserts with every season at their two Santa Barbara County restaurants: The Brothers Restaurant at the Red Barn in Santa Ynez and Sides Hardware and Shoes in Los Olivos.

“So, when we were driving from Fort Lauderdale down to Key West, every little hole in the wall that I found, we stopped, and I had a piece of Key lime pie,” he said.

“How many pies did you try?” I wondered aloud.

“There must have been 25,” he quickly replied.

“Are you serious?” I asked through laughter.

“Yeah! I wouldn’t eat the whole piece, but I would get it, and look at it, and taste it,” Bayus explained. “I could take one bite and go, ‘OK this is not it.’ And we’d walk out and continue on the quest.”

I had to ask: “Did you ever find that perfect pie?”

“It was in Key Biscayne back around 1992. It was a hole-in-the-wall place most would choose not to go in,” recalled Bayus.

“What makes a pie perfect?”

“Key lime pie can never be green,” Bayus explained. “It needs to have a thin layer of whipped cream on top, not meringue, about 1/4-inch thick. Not graham cracker crust, but a sweeter than normal shortcrust pastry. Can’t be the Key lime juice out of a bottle, but fresh squeezed. It has to be served very cold, but not frozen.”

The Cookie Dough Egg Roll at Comfort Market in Arroyo Grande: “It’s our take on the classic chocolate chip, with dried cherries chopped up in there, wrapped in wonton, and fried up in olive oil. We then top with our housemade caramel, Doc Burnstein’s vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream,” said owner Kari Ziegler. “Can’t get it ‘to go,’ it’s too yummy to leave.”

Bayus’ latest quest is for the perfect vanilla ice cream. As he gets older, he says, “The simpler the better.”

“Right now McConnell’s [the Santa Barbara-based ice cream chain] has my attention,” said Bayus. “I’m going through all of their flavors. I’ve probably got eight pints of McConnell’s different flavors in the freezer.”

Ember restaurant in Arroyo Grande is high on Bayus’ list of favorites; it’s a place where the desserts change monthly. 

He also likes visiting Panolivo in Paso Robles, which has an in-house bakery and a pastry case in the front of the bistro.

“In Santa Maria, there’s a bakery [Gina’s Piece of Cake] inside the mall. They do a really good, single-serving pineapple upside-down cake. Your ratio of the gooey pineapple to the cake is slanted more toward the gooey side.”

Chocolate lovers, pay attention:

“I recommend that everybody goes to See’s Candies and orders one of everything,” urged Bayus. “That is decadent; that is decadent at its finest!”

And then he shared a little secret about See’s.

“Whenever you go there: Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, holidays—a couple of days before the holiday, if you go in there, you stand in line, they line the top of the counter with free samples. The longer you wait in line—I mean, you can wait in line for a half hour—you can put down a pound of chocolate!”

So what does Bayus’ wife think of her husband’s undeviating habit of ordering dessert before anything else whenever they enter a restaurant?

“It is a handy tool to test the waitstaff,” Teri said. “They all react in different ways. The ones that have been a waitress a long time just ignore him and don’t bring it to him. Most giggle and say, ‘Wow, I should do that.’ The only thing that makes me absolutely crazy is that he eats so many sweets and never gains a pound.”


Sun wine and food columnist Wendy Thies Sell believes it is never too late to enjoy 
life to the fullest. Contact her at