Just about every Southern California coastal city likes to advertise itself as a friendly, aw-shucks kind of town. That's not always the case. But in San Clemente, Orange County's southernmost beach town, the description feels as right as a plunge in the Pacific on a hot August day.
Stroll down Avenida Del Mar, the revitalized heart and soul of this seaside burg, and you're immediately struck by two things: Everyone seems to know one another, and they're happy to introduce you to their friends. Browse A Matter of Taste, a stylish gift shop and home design store, and the owner, Kathleen Juhl- Vassiliadis, just might insist that the two of you go next door to her friend's chocolate shop for a sample.
That's a friendly town. Juhl-Vassiliadis, who opened her design store five years ago after relocating from the Lake Tahoe area, says San Clemente's hospitable spirit is what drew her here. "It truly has that small-town feel everybody talks about."
Others agree. Jeff and Linda Tunnell and their kids always enjoyed surfing at San Clemente. After spending part of almost every weekend here for more than a year, they finally decided to make the move, to take advantage of the clean water, good beaches, and booming but laid-back downtown. "Everything is more casual here and less pretentious," says Linda over lunch at Antoine's Café, where surfing videos play on the TV next to the bar. She frequently goes surfing with some of the waitresses at Antoine's, even though most of them are her daughter's age. In fact, as Linda finishes her lunch, she and our waitress, Colleen Alicoate, compare surf notes.
"The break at Uppers was incredible yesterday," Colleen says, using the local nickname for Trestles. "But maybe we should try T-Street tomorrow morning."
"Shhh," Linda says jokingly, stealing a glance at me. "I don't want everyone to know where our favorite surf spots are."
Ever since Ole Hanson went broke after founding what he called a "Spanish village by the sea" in 1925, San Clemente has been the most overlooked of Southern California beach towns, especially compared to Laguna Beach and Newport Beach, just up the road. But lately that's changed.
The turnaround in fortunes is the result of a modest downtown revitalization program, begun three years ago, that resulted in a sudden influx of new restaurants and boutiques―as well as a new-found sense of community pride. Five years ago, if you asked where to find a good restaurant, locals would likely point you toward neighboring San Juan Capistrano. Now they'll argue over the ambience of BeachFire versus Gordon James; or whether just-opened La Galette Crêperie, down by the pier, serves a better breakfast than Cafe Calypso.
In fact, they're both good. At La Galette, a young barista will pull you a true northern Italian-style espresso while chef Todd Kimball makes you a savory ham and cheese crêpe. Cafe Calypso, located in the historic Hotel San Clemente complex downtown, isn't quite as stylish, but in keeping with the town's easygoing aspirations, no one seems to mind. Moms loll over paper-cup lattes while keeping an eye on their preschoolers. Middle-aged surfers, their noses crimson, their hair still wet, tuck into breakfast wraps while answering their cell phones, pretending to be at the office. It's la dolce vita, Southern California-style.
New restaurants are always the first harbingers of sleepy old downtowns coming alive. Can a plethora of art galleries and chain clothing stores be far behind? Locals hope that day is still a ways away. "Walk up and down [Avenida Del Mar] and you won't see a single Gap, Starbucks, or Border's Bookstore," says Linda Tunnell. "They haven't figured out yet that we're hip … and we hope they never do."
Therein lies the dilemma San Clemente faces. What gives it that small-town charm is the fact that, even now, you can drop your loafers off for repair at Sam's Shoes and then cross the street and look at the latest Hoovers at Nic's Vacuum & Small Appliance store. Still, there's a definite sense that as more upscale restaurants and boutique shops move into the neighborhood, the days are numbered for the likes of the local barbershop.
Let's hope not. Town icons like the Del Mar Ranch Market―where most mornings find locals basking in the sun in the plastic chairs out front while drinking their coffee and patting a snoozing dog or two―would be sorely missed. As would the market's homemade chicken, pork, and chile-cheese tamales. As would the sense that in San Clemente, the Southern California beach-town ideal lives on.