Cruising the Coast
By Stuart Sprung
Cruising North County in the 1940s, chances were fairly good of catching Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Desi Arnaz, Pat O’Brien or George Burns in a Del Mar watering hole called La Tienda. If you peeked into the cabaret of what is now L’Auberge Del Mar, you might have seen Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin goofing around. Or Liberace tickling the ivories.
Especially during the heyday of its Thoroughbred Club racetrack, Del Mar was the focal point of coastal North County’s nightlife. These days, though, thanks largely to the abundance of panoramic ocean views, the whole coast is speckled with popular places to enjoy a night on the town.
Starting in Del Mar and venturing north to Oceanside, the following on-the-road account represents a snapshot guide to a Friday night of restaurant/bar-hopping along the North County coast (a designated driver is implied). You couldn’t possibly visit all these bars in one night —and be up at the crack of dawn to talk coherently about it. But it sure would be interesting to try, wouldn’t it?
So come on along on our tour of Highway 101 under all its various aliases (what begins in La Jolla as Torrey Pines Road turns to Camino del Mar in Del Mar; South Coast Highway 101 in Solana Beach, Cardiff and Encinitas; North Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia; Carlsbad Boulevard in Carlsbad and then back to Coast Highway—North and South—in Oceanside, ending at Camp Pendleton with a merge into I-5). The journey starts in Del Mar at the corner of 15th Street and Camino del Mar, where all the hot spots are within walking distance. Del Mar Plaza, at 1555 Camino del Mar, has a prime ocean view and is perfect for watching the sunset. A pair of bar-and-grills, Pacifica Del Mar and Epazote, have front doors that face each other. Patrons move freely between the two.
At Epazote, the beautiful people mill around on the bridge adjoining the deck and bar, trying to catch the “green flash” at sunset. By 8 p.m. on weekends, the subtly lit, classy Southwestern bar area is standing room only. Keep an eye out for Comedy Central game show host Ben Stein.
As at Epazote, there is neither loud music nor forced distraction at Pacifica; two people can have an intimate conversation. Many come to Pacifica simply to enjoy cocktails and appetizers at the stylish, snake-shaped bar. The clientele: wealthy 30- to 50-year-olds. Both Epazote and Pacifica cater to the early-evening crowd and close by midnight.
After heading back to 15th and Camino del Mar, we’ll walk south to En Fuego Cantina & Grill, formerly La Tienda. En Fuego (Spanish for “on fire”) opened in 1995. With its intimate courtyard bar, this hangout is described by owner John Wingate as an “upscale backyard party.” The weekend En Fuego crowd gets in gear around 10:30 p.m.
A sampling of Del Mar nightlife would be incomplete without ducking into Bully’s North. In 1967, George Bullington (hence Bully’s) opened this popular restaurant/bar. The only natural light that illuminates the bar shines through a multicolored, stained-glass wall. Bully’s is known mostly for its food and has a colorful local clientele. If you enjoy a good story, introduce yourself to Danny Noonan, a retired New York firefighter. You can’t miss him. He’s a gruff-talking tower of a man with slicked-back hair and a big bushy mustache.
Head around the corner to J.J. Maguire’s Irish Pub. The pub’s dimly lit interior is built around the brass-rail bar. The large bar is crowned by a sturdy upper balcony, where lads and lasses relax and people-watch. Among the folks who’ve been watched here: actor Matt Damon and pro basketball star Charles Barkley.
We’re traveling now—but we aren’t leaving Del Mar yet. On to the northern border of the city, and the Brigantine. Especially popular during horse-racing season because of a track-view deck, the Brig also has a popular oyster bar. Oddly, the most popular items served at the oyster bar are the fish tacos.
Say goodbye to Del Mar. Hello, Solana Beach.
For many, the Belly Up Tavern is North County nightlife. Since 1974, this anchor of the Cedros Design District has been rocking San Diegans, ages 21 to 81. The Belly Up is part bar, part concert hall, and it starts getting busy around 9:30 p.m. A 25-foot great white shark (feasting on an unfortunate surfer) is mounted above a bar. The Belly Up showcases music for every taste but typically draws the 20s-30s crowd on weekends. Star patrons have included Michael Jordan, Faye Dunaway, Farrah Fawcett and Marcus Allen.
World-class artists like George Clinton (and the P-Funk Band), Jewel and Mick Fleetwood have really rocked the rafters. Celebs who have graced the stage (or disgraced the stage, depending on your taste) include Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves and First Brother Roger Clinton. And one night prior to the 1998 Super Bowl, several Green Bay Packers came in and danced the night away.
After an earful of Belly Up tunes, it’s north to Cardiff-by-the-Sea and the Kraken. Named for the fictional giant squid from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the Kraken caters to all walks of life. So be prepared.
Jimmy Ford, who’s been a bartender here for 23 years, says his customers range “from nuns to bikers.” One sign on the wall seems aimed more at the latter than the former: “No Shooting, By Order of the Board of Supervisors. Ordinance No. 23-104.” Indeed, the Kraken is a favorite pit stop for people cruising the coast on Harleys. Remember, we’re touching all the bases.
Moving on, we’re now up the coast, across from San Elijo State Beach. How about a sports bar? How about Yogi’s Sports Bar & Restaurant? Owner Keith Nordling tries to greet every patron who comes in to look at the 43 televisions (or, perhaps, the attractive waitstaff). The clientele ranges from surfers to doctors—and yes, even surfing doctors make the scene. Contemporary jukebox music plays in the background, keeping the atmosphere lively. On weekends, Yogi’s fills up with young outdoorsy locals around 11:30 p.m.
Surely you’re not tired already? There are still miles to go before we sleep.
Back on the road, Coast Highway has brought us into Encinitas. Find a parking space somewhere around First/Highway 101 and E streets, and we’re in between the two most popular bars in town, the First Street Bar and the Daley Double Cocktail Lounge.
The First Street Bar is a neighborhood pub that appreciates its clientele. This is obvious: The walls are covered with pictures of them. Loyal regulars come here for friendly atmosphere, 25-cent pool tables (find that somewhere else) and none-too-hard-on-the-eyes bartenders. First Street is home of the Road Kill, a drink that—according to legend—tastes like Kool-Aid but will walk up behind you and slap you silly.
The Daley Double Cocktail Lounge is also known as “The Saloon” (that’s what the sign says out front). The place is reputed to have the oldest liquor license in California. By whatever name, it’s been a popular watering hole for decades. Described as “mighty mellow” by 15-year bartending veteran Dennis Higgins, this old-style western bar has dim stained-glass lamps, old moonshine jugs, a nice set of antlers hung over a sturdy 55-foot bar—and no neon. High ceiling fans twirl slowly above, adding to an ambience that might make you look around for Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp.
But when in Leucadia—as we now are—The Leucadian is the place to be. Inexpensive drinks and drink specials bring in a younger crowd. A nautical theme—dim boat lights, dark wood accents, shell bar—creates a relaxed atmosphere. On weekend nights there’s live music, and on occasion, Leucadian legend/Padres third-base coach Tim Flannery performs here with his band.
You knew we’d be stopping in Carlsbad, right?
For the most part, Carlsbad nightlife is centralized in the village. Before we get there, though, take note of the Sandbar Sports Bar & Grill. The Sandbar’s prime location on Carlsbad Boulevard makes this a great sunset place to relax and smell the salt air.
At the intersection of Carlsbad Boulevard and Carlsbad Village Drive, the piñatas and wrought-iron chandeliers of Fidel’s Mexican Food & Cantina draw both professionals and casually dressed beachgoers. We’re too late to get a table—but we can enjoy the fiesta-like atmosphere and firepit patio. Not far from here are Neimans, Coyote Bar & Grill, Boars Cross’n Bar and the Alley. Revelers typically spend time moving back and forth between these establishments.
Where Were We Again
Here are names, numbers and addresses of the spots we hit on our North County coastal bar-hopping trek:
The Brigantine, 3263 Camino del Mar, 481-1166
Bully’s, 1404 Camino del Mar, 755-1660
En Fuego, 1342 Camino del Mar, 792-6551
Epazote, 1555 Camino del Mar, 259-9966
J.J. Maguire’s, 225 15th Street, (619) 259-5766
Pacifica Del Mar, 1555 Camino del Mar, 792-0476
Belly Up Tavern, 143 South Cedros Avenue, 481-9022
The Kraken, 2531 South Coast Highway 101, 760-436-6483
Yogi’s, 2005 San Elijo Avenue, 760-943-9644
Daley Double, 546 South Coast Highway 101, 760-753-1366
First Street Bar, 656 South Coast Highway 101,
The Leucadian, 1542 North Highway 101, 760-753-2094
The Alley, 421 Grand Avenue, 760-434-117
Boars Cross’n Bar, 390 Grand Avenue, 760-729-2989
Coyote Bar & Grill, 300 Carlsbad Village Drive,
Fidel’s, 3003 Carlsbad Boulevard, 760-729-0903
Neimans, 300 Carlsbad Village Drive, 760- 729-4131
Sandbar, 3878 Carlsbad Boulevard, 760-729-3170
Bub’s Whiskey Dive, 301 Pier View Way, 760-757-BUBS
Firehouse Club 215, 215 North Coast Highway,
Neimans is a little more upscale and is elegantly decorated. The building that holds Neimans was built in 1887 and is a historic centerpiece of Carlsbad. Around back and down one level is the Coyote Bar & Grill. The main draw: a firepit patio with live music that’s never too loud. Across the street on Grand Avenue, the sizable Boars Cross’n Bar has five pool tables and live music.
Due east, across the railroad tracks, is the Alley. (Careful crossing those tracks. When that train comes through, it means business.) The Alley provides free popcorn, and a canopied smoking deck for those who enjoy a smoke with their drink. Friday is “guest chef” day, when selected customers take over the kitchen to cook potluck.
We’ve gone this far, might as well go all the way to Oceanside. New hotels and theaters are on tap for downtown Oceanside, and while the makeover continues there are a couple of bars to hit to wrap up our journey.
At Firehouse Club 215, you’ll know owner Jon E. Law is inside if you see his red 1969 Chrysler 300 convertible parked out front. Law says if you’re a first-time customer, and you introduce yourself, the first drink’s on him. The Firehouse is upbeat: loud, danceable music, plenty of decorative flames and fire department memorabilia.
From the Firehouse, face north, walk around the corner, and head toward the ocean on Pier View Way until you see a sign over a door that reads “Git N Here.” Welcome to Bub’s Whiskey Dive. A casual beach bar, it’s a great place to wind down. There are surfboards in the rafters and peanut shells on the floor. Bub’s serves wine and 60 different beers (no hard alcohol).
Okay, we’re done. Now for a little shut-eye. G’night.