Escape to Oceanside, California

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Harbor Beach as seen from the Oceanside Pier; Photo by Christianna Silva
Harbor Beach as seen from the Oceanside Pier; Photo by Christianna Silva

Oceanside may be known for its beaches, but don’t call it a beach town:
It’s so much more than that.

You could drive the six hours to Oceanside just to get the crispy tofu-filled sushi rolls at Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub (1815 S. Coast Hwy., 760-271-0531, seabasstropub.com) and be satisfied with your excursion – but then you’d miss out on surfing lessons, craft beer tastings, kayaking at the harbor and a sandwich from The Miller’s Table (514 S. Coast Hwy., 442-615-7200, themillerstable.com) that will make you tilt your head back, close your eyes and thank goodness that you found your way to this beach town.

Now don’t let the words “beach town” color your mental image of Oceanside. Sure, it has a beautiful beach, a handful of resorts and a cute pier with an old-school Ruby’s Diner at the end, and it’s located in north San Diego County – in fact, it’s just a one-hour drive north from downtown San Diego. But it also has a ’90s grunge aesthetic pumping through its streets and a hometown feel that isn’t overrun by tourists – yet.

Part of that is due to its proximity to the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, with a historically large population of servicemen that gave it a somewhat hardscrabble reputation and discouraged tourism and hospitality. Today, though, tourism has become a priority of city officials. New resorts are under construction right on the beach, and the tourism industry brought in a record $351 million in 2017. As with most change, it’s making Oceanside residents feel conflicted: They’re excited to see their city grow, but nervous to see how it’ll all pan out.

In 2020, you’ll be able to see that change for yourself and maybe even stay in one of those beachside resorts (see sidebar). For my trip, though, I stayed at The Fin Hotel Oceanside (133 S. Coast Hwy., 760-279-6300, thefinhotel.com). It’s a beautiful boutique hostelry that originally opened in 1927 as the Keisker Hotel and still has some of its original bones, including multicolored, mosaic tile flooring in the lobby, a grand wooden staircase and elegant Tiffany windows. Our room had a view of the ocean, if you peeked through the trees, and a massive rain shower, ideal for relaxing sore muscles after a surfing lesson or a day jaunting around town.

cauliflower at Wrench & Rodent; Photo by Christianna Silva
cauliflower at Wrench & Rodent; Photo by Christianna Silva
On the Water

In high school, I was on the varsity swim team for a minute. Today, I am on the varsity reading-on-the-beach-with-snacks team. But it’s difficult to be in a town called Ocean-side and not at least dip your toe into the sea. My partner and I eased into oceanic activities by kayaking with Boat Rentals of America (256 Harbor Dr. South, 855-690-0794, boats4rent.com/oceanside) in the harbor, which was, to my initial terror, full of sweet, happy and cute sea lions. There were even pups! After I overcame my fear that they might tip us over like a ball in a circus show, watching them sunbathe and flip around was truly a delight.

We took our next foray deeper into the ocean the following morning with a surf lesson at Surf Ride Boardshop (1909 S. Coast Hwy., 760-433-4020, surfride.com), a family-owned surf shop and Oceanside mainstay since 1974. We met our instructor, Dominick, at the shop first. He fitted us for wet suits, grabbed our boards, loaded up his truck and drove us to – you guessed it – the ocean. This is where I became familiar with some surf lingo, like taking a “heavy wipeout,” which I did a number of times. Surfing is hard – the ocean is a ruthless mistress – but it’s also really, really fun. Both my partner and I stood up on the board, albeit momentarily, before we came crashing back down into the water. Dang, does that feel powerful.

Off the Water

If you’re ocean-averse, there’s plenty to do on the land side of Oceanside. The town has a formidable art scene, with a beautifully curated Oceanside Museum of Art (704 Pier View Way, 760-435-3720, oma-online.org), which has an impressive collection of watercolors and a delightful mixture of local artists and world-famous ones like Salvador Dalí. If you have time, check out the California Surf Museum (312 Pier View Way, 760-721-6876, surfmuseum.org), just two blocks off of the water, which chronicles the history of surf-related sports and includes pro surfer Bethany Hamilton’s actual shark-bitten surfboard from the attack that took her arm when she was 13 years old.

Not everyone is quite as museum-obsessed as I am, so for those travelers, worry not. You can rent a bike big enough for the entire family from Wheel Fun Rentals (300 N. The Strand, 760-828-0166, wheelfunrentals.com) or take an electric scooter ride around the town with Ride O’side Fat Tire (306 N. Cleveland St., 760-583-8737, rideoside.com). Ride along the boardwalk, or up to the museums and shops inland.

On The Table

It’s not that Ruby’s Diner (1 Oceanside Pier, 760-433-7829, rubys.com) will supply you with the best food you’ve ever had – in fact, the food itself is mostly unremarkable – but the view can’t be beat, and the milkshakes are worth the trek to the end of the Oceanside Pier. For more substantial meals, though, we’d recommend you try out something a little farther inland.

We had time for two dinners, each memorable. Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub, a sushi-with-a-sense-of-humor casual dining spot, made my partner gasp and say, “They make veggies taste good!” Next door is The Whet Noodle (1813 S. Coast Hwy., 760-453-2738, thewhetnoodle.com), a ramen-with-a-sense-of-humor, slightly less casual dining spot. Combine the two, and my vegetarian heart was ecstatic. We started with crispy cauliflower doused in honey-serrano fish sauce from Wrench & Rodent, a warm and delicious palate opener. Next, we tried a round of sushi, picking everything we thought sounded fun: the Mango Madness, a roll with avocado and crab inside, topped with Scottish salmon and fresh mango salsa; Deadites Rolls, crispy tofu-filled rolls topped with avocado and sweet chile sauce; cucumber rolls; and avocado rolls. My partner was partial to the Mango Madness, while I’ll be dreaming of the Deadites Rolls until I make the trek back to Oceanside. Who knew tofu in a sushi roll would be so scrumptious? Next came the Hangry Vagan ramen from The Whet Noodle, a delicious and filling main course of vegan and gluten-free noodles swimming in hot and sour broth with crispy tofu on top.

Bagby Beer Company’s Sweet Ride; Photo by Christianna Silva
Bagby Beer Company’s Sweet Ride; Photo by Christianna Silva
Oceanside Museum of Art; Photo by Christianna Silva
Oceanside Museum of Art; Photo by Christianna Silva

The following day, we tried out The Miller’s Table, a small, romantic joint that seats no more than two dozen guests. The intimate dining experience was simple, fresh and made all the more enjoyable by the company – there’s one large table that fosters chatting with other guests. Over wine tastings, we met Ruth Ritchie, a jazz musician and casino consultant; two couples on dates; and a woman who drives an hour to Oceanside every week for the sandwiches here. With an abundance of fresh produce available in North County, a large portion of the menu is dedicated to local vegetables and proteins, balanced with cheese and charcuterie that creates an army of unbeatable sandwiches. I’m surprised it took me so long to write off Subway, my favorite fast-food shop, but Miller’s Table forced my hand with The Melanie: thin-sliced havarti, spicy curtido, jalapeño mayonnaise, fried green tomato and cilantro piled into a crispy baguette with a side of thin and crispy house-made potato chips. We enjoyed our sandwiches with a flight of wines, expertly chosen by owner Staci Miller, who used to be a wine and beer buyer. We topped off our meal with Mexican chocolate bread pudding.

If you’re anything like me, you can’t visit a city and not take in its local libations. In Oceanside, that’s craft beer at Bagby Beer Company (601 S. Coast Hwy., 760-270-9075, bagbybeer.com), a flagship Oceanside brewery created by award-winning ex-Pizza Port brewmaster Jeff Bagby and his wife, Dande. The location – and I cannot stress this enough – is colossal, with a garden, three large outdoor patios and four massive indoor rooms. The beer is even bigger.

“Try something new. You’ll be surprised,” the bartender tells me. “Everything he makes is so dynamic!”

And she was right: The Schwarz Story, a German-style Schwarzbier, is my favorite of the array of beers offered at Bagby. It’s a dark, smoky and full lager, but if you’re in the mood for something lighter, give the Sweet Ride a try: The bohemian-style pilsner is bright, blonde and extremely drinkable.

On our way out of town, sunburned and satisfied, we stopped for breakfast at Petite Madeline (223 N. Coast Hwy., 760-231-7300, petitemadelinebakery.com) and devoured rich coffee and a fall-apart-in-your-mouth spinach-cheese croissant.

I don’t know what I liked better, the on-the-water sports, the off-the-water activities or the overwhelming flood of good food, but I know one thing for sure: I’ll see you again soon, Oceanside.

WHEN TO VISIT
Though San Diego rainfall is rare in the early summer, the region’s infamous “June Gloom” (e.g. morning marine layer) rankles some visitors. July and August are the most reliably dry, sunny months, with average high temps around 70 degrees F.

COMING SOON
Oceanside amusements in the works: 

Joie de Vivre
This Hyatt-operated beachfront boutique hotel will re-launch the iconic Graves House, which appeared in Top Gun, as a curated food outlet at the hotel. ETA: 2020

Destination Oceanside
Adjacent to Joie de Vivre, this Hyatt property will have an upscale beach house design, 226 rooms and ocean views. ETA: 2020

The Schuyler Building
The 130-year-old landmark is being restored into a three-story, 10-room boutique hotel. Not beachfront, but it will have a restaurant and a rooftop bar. ETA: 2019

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