5059 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
For a while there, South Beach Bar & Grill was fish taco central for this San Diego transplant. When I moved to Ocean Beach in 2005, the restaurant facing O.B. Pier was so routinely jam packed with customers that the fire marshal threatened to close the place if it exceeded capacity. In those days, you’d have to wait in line until other customers left before you could get in, like it was a freakin’ night club.
Thing was, getting in didn’t mean you had a table. The bar was constantly packed, and there was never a hostess at South Beach to guide the longest-waiting party to the next available table. Once ID’ed and granted entry by the doorman, you entered into a microcosm of social Darwinism. Every table would be full, and several competing groups would prowl like sharks between the bar and a medium-sized dining room, scanning the room for empty plates and glasses, ready to pounce at the sight of a hand reaching for a check.
Sometimes I might strike up a conversation with a table of girls who’d ceased picking at their plates so I could swoop right in the moment they decided to go. On the best nights, I’d wind up sitting with them and making new friends over fish tacos on flour tortillas coated with melted cheese and loaded with too much pico de gallo and too much “white sauce.”
All this effort, and only a couple of people sitting at the end of the bar could actually look out the short bank of windows to see the pier. This restaurant, sitting on some of the most-primo real estate in O.B., should have had one of the neighborhood’s best views, but they built the backstop of a bar there instead.
A few years back, South Beach partly remedied the situation. They installed a set of stairs and built a second-floor dining room with a full west-facing window — a fine (if walled-in) view of the Pacific and the West Coast’s longest concrete pier. But the balcony outside that window remained off limits.
Until last summer. Around mid-June, the doors opened and balcony seating was made available so that guests could sit out in the ocean air. This June I showed up in time for Friday happy hour — historically one of the most crowded times to eat. Back in the day there would have been a line developing outside that would remain till late night. Now, no doorman, no ID check — the entire downstairs is all-ages. There’s even a kids’ menu.
Like me, every group of adults breezed through the downstairs dining room, ignoring empty tables that we might have cut each other for ten years back, herding ourselves up the stairs to hit that second floor.
I couldn’t find a spot facing the pier — for that you still have to hunt and wait during the busy times. Instead I grabbed my tacos and sat overlooking Newport Avenue with a partial view of the ocean sky creeping towards a colorful sunset. More importantly, there was still a giant bottle of Valentino hot sauce within reach. Is it me, or do these tacos taste a lot more bland than they used to?