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."