“Come on in!” a large group of people yelled from the front patio at the Pillbox Tavern & Grill, toasting us with beers while balancing babies on their hips as my friend Valerie and I walked inside. And so we did.
The place in Solana Beach’s Fletcher Cove is tiny — holding about a dozen tables and a snazzy full-bar — but it’s hard to imagine the intimate beach bar used to be a Dairy Queen. (I thought the name came from its diminutive size, but it comes from a nearby surf spot.)
The room was busy, but we found a seat and ordered drinks. Valerie wasn’t drinking for a month, so the bartender mixed her up a ginger spritzer and I requested chardonnay, as usual.
We ordered the small (six-piece) basket of wings for $6.50 and perused the list of 13 sauces. We chose chef Shelly’s maple bourbon bacon, which was sweet and sticky with a side of ranch. We managed to power through the fresh, not frozen (we asked) meaty wings with the sauce evenly coating the chicken before Valerie’s side salad arrived.
Valerie’s salad was big enough to share. It was tossed with avocado, cucumber, sweet corn, and iceberg lettuce. We ate the entire bowl because everything was crisp and fresh — except for the avocado, which was ripe and not mushy.
The pulled-pork sandwich arrived piled high with slow-roasted pulled pork tossed in BBQ sauce. The pork was topped with an onion ring and a brioche bun, and I quickly reached for the pile of napkins. It wasn’t easy to eat, so I pulled out the large onion ring which was crispy and covered a thick slice of sweet onion. I gobbled it up as Valerie contemplated her BBQ plate.
Valerie’s order of slow-smoked tri-tip, served with macaroni salad and BBQ baked beans, arrived on a large platter. It was impressive. I reached over and grabbed a piece of tri-tip. I’ve experienced plenty of tri-tip sandwiches on my many trips through Santa Maria, and the piece I tried was just as good or better because it was blackened on the outside and medium rare and tender on the inside.
118 W. Plaza Street, Solana Beach
As Val and I chewed and wiped the sauce from our faces, we watched the people come and go, smiling, shaking hands, and laughing with their children. Dairy Queen has a history of being the spot where families go to commemorate birthdays and sports teams go to celebrate a victory, and it seems that even though the decor and menu has changed that Pillbox has retained that same neighborhood vibe — only instead of ice cream, there are cocktails.