California Dreamin’ in San Diego’s Ocean Beach

by Jeff Rindskopf  |  Published April 2, 2016

San Diego encompasses many distinct neighborhoods, but few more distinct than Ocean Beach, a bohemian beach town-within-a-city where tourists and locals alike can live out their laid-back California dreams on the sand, with a cheap taco in one hand and a margarita in the other. 

Sunset Cliffs, south of Ocean Beach (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

Sunset Cliffs, south of Ocean Beach (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

In the early afternoon, the bright green lawn beside the beach is covered with white canopied merchant stands of self-printed t-shirts and handmade jewelry. The sun takes a long time coming down, and in the long dusk, a makeshift drum circle of modernized beatnik-types forms on the same lawn.

This is what I think of when I think of San Diego—I think of Ocean Beach, even though a city as large as San Diego has no single identity.

Growing up in southern California, I found plenty of occasion to visit the city, but somehow I always gravitated back towards Ocean Beach. The neighborhood is like a self-contained town unto itself, like a grimy, unpretentious fantasy of the perfect California beachside paradise.

The Ocean and the Beach

As the name suggests, Ocean Beach begins and ends with the beach. Elsewhere throughout San Diego and the county named after it, I’ve traversed scenic beaches marked with dramatic sandstone cliffs and colorful succulents growing from cracks between the rocks. Sunset Cliffs, only two miles south, offers a myriad of such vistas.

Ocean Beach is the inverse of San Diego beaches—a flat stretch of warm fine sand sloping into big ocean swells, complete with the long arm of the wooden pier pointing west towards Japan on the other end of the Pacific.

At the start of a day exploring the walkable neighborhood, I sit on the sand and enjoy this simple pleasure, watching the birds and the waters and the people all coalescing in this one spot. Though I have no towel, the salty ocean waves inevitably tempt me to dive headfirst into the refreshingly cool waves all the same.

I love seeing the people who congregate around Ocean Beach, an eclectic collection of weirdo locals and weirdo non-locals that gives the area its distinct flavor. An aging hippie lives from a rusted-up RV permanently parked beside the beach. Friendly suburban dog walkers pass through on their way to the dog beach just north of here. A pack of Midwestern farmer’s daughters ask me to take their picture. A runaway white boy with dreadlocks asks me if I have any change to help him score a burrito. A girl with ‘70s fashion sense and a mess of curly hair hands me a pamphlet for a sale at her thrift shop just a block up the road.

True, these brief encounters don’t sound like much, but being there, Ocean Beach feels like a hotbed (but not too hot, in typical California fashion) of humanity where disparate San Diegans congregate to enjoy this ocean-side paradise in mutual understanding.

A drum circle on the lawn beside Ocean Beach (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

A drum circle on the lawn beside Ocean Beach (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

The Blocks

I spend so long ducking beneath waves and moseying along the sand that I almost forget to eat. Of course, this being San Diego, I’m easily within spitting distance of a quality Mexican establishment.

The closest to the beach is the spectacular Mike’s Taco Club, where I enjoy a mouthwateringly massive California burrito. I’m almost disappointed by how filling it is, since it means I won’t have room to try their octopus or scallop tacos and ceviche.

No matter, I take a margarita to-go. Officially, San Diego forbids drinking in public, but no one around laid-back Ocean Beach cares enough to object to a plastic cup of tequila and sour mix—not when many of them have likely been enjoying the same concoction.

Newport Avenue is the essential avenue for shopping and dining around here, its blocks crammed to bursting with dive bars, cantinas, thrift shops and random local fixtures. Cheap, oversized margaritas and shopping discoveries abound.

A few blocks removed from the lively bustle of Newport Avenue, streets of modest homes clogged with parked cars await. Strictly speaking, there isn’t much to see along the residential blocks of Ocean Beach, but the homes are nice and pristine in their own unpretentious fashion. Somehow, I can’t resist a relaxing stroll through.

A beachside hotel with a handmade craft in the foreground (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

A beachside hotel with a handmade craft in the foreground (Photo: Jeff Rindskopf)

O.B. After Dark

The Gaslamp District is San Diego’s go-to destination for night life. It’s a fine area, if you have a bank account to empty and several hours to kill looking for parking, but I suspected Ocean Beach might be better for my purposes.

At the recommendation of a friend, I visit the unassuming cave of alcohol called Pacific Shores, a dingy dive with exceptionally cheap drinks and a jukebox I could browse through for hours.

Outside, crowds of locals amass around other modest bars. I mill around long enough to speak with a friendly twenty-something vagrant who lets me pet the kitten poking its head out of his backpack. He recommends Winston’s Beach Club, a music club with a cover, plenty of room for dancing and a stage frequented by local bands.

The best music I hear that night, however, doesn’t emanate from within one of the bars. Rather, a saxophonist blows his horn to the hushed beat of his boom-box, leaning against a closed storefront somewhere between Winston’s and the darkened beach. He’s soon joined in his toe-tapping display by a child no more than twelve. I don’t know what he’s doing here, but I don’t much care when he has such impressive, infectious dance moves.

He dances and the saxophonist wails into the warm darkness of the late night, and a small crowd amasses to enjoy the show for as long as it will last.

I have the foresight to end my late night after the spontaneous performance, wisely choosing to turn in after so many cheap drinks at Pacific Shores. The next morning, I make a trip to Shade’s Oceanfront Bistro before noon the following day to chase away the lingering effects of my night out.

Nothing really beats an indulgent weekend brunch, and Shade’s is the perfect place to indulge. Their extensive menu boasts generous portions of American breakfast classics improved with the overflowing flavors of the city’s legendary Mexican cuisine.

Best of all, it’s beachside, so I can snag a table on the wooden lawn among all the morning dog-walkers. It’s the perfect spot to savor what’s left of my trip to the perfect San Diego neighborhood of Ocean Beach. I’ll come again—and maybe then I’ll find the time to see some other parts of the city, or not.