The Best of Pacific Beach San Diego: Beaches, Bars, Restaurants and Hotels in PB
Pacific Beach San Diego
Pacific Beach San Diego: Relaxing Dr. Jekyll by day, Crazy Mr. Hyde by night
By its reputation, you would think that Pacific Beach San Diego had split personality disorder: By day it is mild mannered, beautiful beach where you can surf, walk, swim, or just relax (let's call it Doctor Jekyll), and by night, it is a den of young partiers wandering, drinking, screaming and generally checking each other (Mister Hyde).
There is a lot of truth to this--the beach is beautiful and relaxing. I do think that the reputation PB has for its night life--young, beautiful college-age kids checking each other out and screaming, "whoooo! whooo! Get drunk!" is not wrong (and if you want that, there is plenty of that to enjoy). This is true but not complete--there are excellent and relaxing bars to go to if you are a bit old for that scene.
Let me show you the best places to eat, drink, surf, walk, and generally enjoy yourself in PB. I lived in PB, and loved it, and this was not by accident. I moved to PB only after doing research and asking friends in San Diego about the best beach neighborhoods. In the end I moved to PB because it was the perfect combination of what I was looking for: a short walk to good surfing for a beginner (like me), a beautiful beach that was fun, relaxing and not too full of tourists, good food, and fun bars.
So let me point you to the things I loved about the neighborhood, especially (1) the beach itself; (2) the best restaurants; (3) the best bars; (4) the best hotels and (5) other tips on visiting and enjoying Pacific Beach San Diego.
(1) Pacific Beach San Diego: A relaxing and beautiful beach
Pacific Beach San Diego is a perfect beach to many people. If you go there, you will see families, older surfers, young kids, young couples, college and high school kids, etc. This is a residential beach for the most part, meaning that people from the neighborhood of Pacific Beach actually make use of the beach.
Pacific Beach is great for a number of things: walking, running, and surfing is incredible in the morning. During the day, join many others to soak up some sun and go swimming, and at dusk, go surfing again or enjoy an incredible sunset.
- General Description of the beach. PB itself is fairly small--between Tourmaline Surf Park to the north and Crystal Pier to the south, there is just under 1 mile of smooth, fine-grained sand--fine enough for regular barefoot walks on the beach. (Please do make fun of me: I lived the cliché of enjoying "long walks on the beach."). The beach, especially towards the northern end, feels secluded, especially compared to Mission Beach or Ocean Beach. Until you get near Crystal Pier, you won't find any beach-side bars or restaurants here, and there aren't any houses or buildings right on the beach. This is because a cliff/sand dune (it is crumbling and apparently erodes every year) keeps houses, shops, bars and restaurants separate from the beach itself for most of the length of the beach.
- Go for a walk or run. If you want to feel like it's just you and the ocean, Pacific Beach is a great place to walk or run in the mornings. As I mentioned before, the sand is soft enough to enjoy a barefoot walk at any time. But if you walk early in the mornings, usually there are few enough people that you can feel like the only person on the beach. If you don't feel like walking on the sand, there is a boardwalk that along the lengthy cliff overlooking Pacific Beach. You won't be in direct contact with the sand, but you do get a great view. This boardwalk also continues through Mission Beach, where. It also makes for a great bike ride.
- Go surfing. Pacific Beach is a wonderful beach for beginning and intermediate surfers--the waves are usually consistent and gentle (i.e., they aren't usually more than 3-5 feet tall, and often lower than that), especially in the morning. Many surfers not from PB pull up in their vans at Tourmaline Surf Park, basically a base camp for parking--not much more than a parking lot with a bathroom for changing (although most change in the parking lot). Most mornings, when conditions are decent, you are likely to see anywhere from 10 to 20 surfers calming bobbing in the water, waiting for the right wave.
- A side note/story for more advanced surfers: Even though PB is a great beginner's beach, I noticed that even pretty decent or advanced surfers seem to enjoy it. One example: once, on a gray Saturday afternoon, I was in the water and spotted a 50-year-old woman (with an unsexy one-piece swimsuit and haircut straight from an early 1980s John Hughes movie) on a short-board paddling out. I watched as she paddled out to the waves without getting wet. She then rode three waves in a row without getting her hair, or one-piece bathing suit, wet! (If you don't surf, you may not know how hard this is--I usually get entirely wet just paddling out to a wave.) After riding a third wave, she decided she wanted to cool off and rolled off her board into the water. If she had just been 20 years younger, she would have been in a movie like Blue Crush. After watching this (to me) impressive display of surfing, I kind of felt like kneeling on the sand and proposing marriage to her. Then I remembered I was already (happily) married.
- A note for new surfers: Pacific Beach is an excellent beach for beginners but it is not well-equipped for complete newbies who have never surfed before. Part of the charm of PB, especially the northern part, is the lack of shops, but this makes it quite hard to get a lesson or rent a board. If you are a complete newbie to surfing, I would suggest one of two things: either go to Mission Beach and get a beginner's lesson there or rent a board (especially if you are with friends who can surf) in Mission Beach and walk or drive back to PB.
- Watch surfing Don't feel like getting in the water? Just watch. You can usually see surfers anywhere you are along the beach, there are two great spots--the best is probably standing on the Crystal Pier--if you stand out far enough, you can watch from the side as the surfers come into the beach.
- Catch rays and go swimming. Don't even feel like watching surfers? Just spread out your beach towel and get some sun (of course, wear sunscreen and don't stay out too late). The water is generally cool. You'll be in more of a mood to go swimming after you've spent a little time in the sun.
- Catch a sunset Feeling romantic? Go sit on a bench at Tourmaline Surf Park (get there early) or just stand in the parking. Another great spot is from the Crystal Pier (which closes to the public at about sunset anyway). Again, surfers are full of their sayings, and you hear people say "it's the greatest show in town," and I think it's cheesy to say that, but it's true: the sunset on the water in Pacific Beach is gorgeous. And free.
- Ride a bike. There is pathway from the top of Pacific Beach near Tourmaline going down to the very end of Mission Beach. It is one of the best paths you will ever bike, and there is nothing like the smell of the sea air here. Get a beach cruiser--the curvy, heavy bicycle that you'll see surfers ride while holding their boards.
(2) Best Restaurants in Pacific Beach San Diego
There are many restaurants in Pacific Beach. All of the chains you would expect are in the neighborhood--Taco Bell, Denny's, IHOP, etc., etc. And these will fill you up. But I think there is really no reason to eat at these chain restaurants when you can have food that is the same price or reasonably priced and excellent (and with all the excellent Mexican food here, you should not eat at Taco Bell, which I like OK in other cities. It's like going to Pizza Hut in Italy). Here is what I suggest.
- For brunch in Pacific Beach, my favorite place is my favorite place isCafe 978, which has indoors and outdoors seating, and both self and table service. The food is excellent and includes a mix of more and eggs, omelettes and savory breakfasts. I always got the acai bowl with granola (Acai is a purple brazilian fruit that tastes sort of like blueberries and chocolate at the same time). They used to also have a crazy mocha coffee drink called the "lethal injection"--hot chocolate and five shots of espresso. I never had that--I already drink a lot of coffee and that just looked insane--but was always curious.
- For fancy restaurants in Pacific Beach, there are several places that are excellent, all in the north of PB. First, for great food and great atmosphere, try Chateau Orleans, great Cajun Food from New Orleans with live jazz. [Update as of September 2014: I think it went out of business!] Generally a romantic place for couples--something I found out by accident, visiting with a buddy and feeling sheepish. I later brought my wife there several times, and she loved it. Another excellent place is The Turquoise, Cafe Bar Europa, a great Spanish wine bar with tapas. This is slightly pricey but has great wines and great ambiance.
- For excellent Mexican food in Pacific Beach, I suggest three places that I visited all the time (enough that I gained 15 pounds 3 months after I moved to San Diego). First, there is Bahia Don Bravo, at 5504 La Jolla Boulevard La Jolla, at (858) 454-8940. (OK, I am cheating a bit. This is actually in La Jolla, just a 2-3 minute drive north of Pacific Beach, but is so close that it counts). Why should you go? It is cheap and has excellent taquitos, fish tacos, and other Mexican standards, but the stand out dish? The Lobster burrito. Second, there Tacos mi Rancho, 5010 Cass Street (between Loring St & Opal St), at (858) 270-6343, which is also cheap and has authentic and excellent food. Go there for the carne asada tacos, the caldo de res, menudo and tacos al pastor. And definitely go there for breakfast or brunch--I lived for the chilaquiles (scrambled eggs on tortilla chips and salsa verde). Again, the restaurant is a real hole-in-the-wall, but. Finally, there is a Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill in the neighborhood at 910 Grand Avenue (between Bayard and Cass Streets), (858) 270-4800. I prefer the other two Mexican places I just mentioned, but Rubios is the best chain restaurant anywhere, not just in San Diego (I have heard New Yorkers rave about Rubios, and I have overheard tourists at Rubios say "why don't they have this where I live?"). Get the fish tacos or any burrito there.
(3) Best Bars in Pacific Beach San Diego
As I mentioned, Pacific Beach at night is totally different from Pacific Beach during the day. Pacific Beach has a specific party reputation that is deserved, for better or worse. For instance, the stars of The Real World: San Diego would come to Pacific Beach, and specifically the party streets of Grand Avenue and Garnet Avenue. I was concerned, before moving to PB, about this reputation that Pacific Beach had--the college-y, "Whooo! Whooo! Get drunk!" sort of reputation. And, actually, there is some of this on Thursday through Saturday nights at certain bars on Garnet and Grand Avenues. Which is good to know if this is what you want to do, but Pacific Beach offers much, much more. I'll point you to some of the scene places, and then I'll point you to my favorites.
- The Best Scene-y Pacific Beach Bars (or: go crazy with Mr. Hyde). I think of two major bars/clubs when I think of the Garnet or Grand Avenue scene: Moondoggies and Pacific Beach Bar And Grill. Both are Pacific Beach institutions, both require you to stand in long lines, and both are great pick up scenes if you are young, beautiful and work out a lot. I have to say, by the time I lived in Pacific Beach and visited these places, I was already married so . . . the picking up was not of interest to me. In any case, as I was no longer young, no longer beautiful, and had stopped working out entirely, the picking up was not going to happen anyway.
- My favorite Pacific Beach Bars. There were two bars that I liked in PB that were not Moondoggies or PB Bar & Grill--and both are at the northern part of PB, away from Garnet and Grand Avenues. My favorite, go-to bar was London's West End. It is definitely a divey bar and gets quickly scene-y again very late on Friday and Saturday night, as the kids who leave Moondoggies and PB Bar & Grill look for somewhere else to close. Still, if you go earlier in the evening or during the week, you run into somewhat more of a late 20s and 30s crowd. If you go in the morning (the bar apparently opens at 6am but I never checked...) or in the afternoon, there is a significantly older crowd in their 40s and 50s, and the bar is pretty empty. I am also a big fan of Froggy's Bar & Grill, at 954 Turquiose Street, (858) 488-8102, which is less divey but still has character. It is a small bar with not too many seats, as well as a restaurant with good food. Go earlier, and you are likely to talk to a friendly local.
(4) Best Hotels in Pacific Beach San Diego
Two quick recommendations. First, Tower 23 is really a fantastic hotel--an upscale beach hotel, one of the first in San Diego. Here is a picture of my wife and sister-in-law in front of Tower 23:
Tower 23 Hotel
My parents-in-law stayed at Tower 23 during their visit to San Diego. The rooms are modern and immaculate and many rooms have a view of Pacific Beach. The bar and restaurant at Tower 23 are both chic (but pricey). This is pretty much the best hotel in Pacific Beach (and Mission Beach, for that matter, since the hotel is right at the border of both beaches).
Second, I would recommend the Crystal Pier Hotel, which is not as upscale at Tower 23 but is absolutely unique. It is a set of cottages built right on to the Crystal Pier the hotel is named after, meaning that your room is right over the water. There aren't many hotels like this anywhere. You can even park your car on the pier. The hotel demands reservations quite far in advance--up to 8 to 11 months ahead of time before the summer season--so if you're interested, book very early.
Here is a picture of my wife and I, in a typical domestic scene, in front of the Crystal Pier cottages:
(5) Some tips on enjoying Pacific Beach San Diego
- If you're on vacation, try to visit the beach during the week or early on the weekend. Parking can be really annoying during prime hours on the weekend, as you're competing with other San Diegans for parking space. You can try to park at Tourmaline Surf Park, but you have to get there early. You can also park anywhere along the street in the neighborhood of Pacific Beach, but make sure not to park in a resident's spot, which is usually marked.
- If you visit the beach, don't forget to bring suntan lotion and shades. Don't stay out too long. And if you forget anything, it is easiest to go to Longs Drugs Store, at 4445 Mission Boulevard, (858) 273-0440.
- If you plan on spending the day at Pacific Beach itself, bring food and water. You can eat out, but it is a bit of a pain to walk, especially from the north part of Pacific Beach.
- If you need to go to the bathroom while at PB, go to the bathrooms in front of Tourmaline Surf Park, at the north of the beach. These are public.
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