As I walk among the pastel buildings of Newport Avenue as evening approaches, it’s not hard to tell why Ocean Beach is identified by locals and tourists alike as the most relaxed, bohemian neighborhood in San Diego County.
Many pedestrians are visitors piling into their cars after a day at the beach, but the local temperament is still palpable. Music pours out of every door along Newport Avenue, O.B.’s main drag; it takes about five minutes to determine that reggae is the genre of choice in these parts. It’s simultaneously broadcast by three stores in one block. OBceans are easy to spot. Many men sport long beards and long hair with tie-dye tank tops or other alternative-style T-shirts, and many females wear psychedelic-patterned yoga pants, crystal pendants, loose blouses, and ocean-blue maxi-skirts.
5025 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
5059 Newport Avenue #102, Ocean Beach
Serving as a backdrop to all the quirky fun is the beach itself, resting as it has since long before Newport Avenue, before rock ’n’ roll, before it was known as Mussel Beach (it received the name Ocean Beach in 1887 by developers Albert E. Higgins and Billy Carlson). Its salty breeze serves as the least common denominator to the other scents of the street, like local favorites the BBQ House and Lighthouse Ice Cream — specialty: waffle ice cream).
5083 Santa Monica Avenue, Ocean Beach
Wonderland Ocean Pub is the number one Yelp!-reviewed establishment in the area and sits just off Newport Avenue. The bar sits atop the family-oriented OB Surf Lodge, which emphasizes family dining over nightlife. The bar closes at 10:00.
At Wonderland, the crowd is dressed in sundresses, polo shirts, and casual button-downs. Matchbox 20 and REM play adult contemporary songs of yesteryear matching the bar’s ethos: mainstream, familiar, comfortable. The bar’s signature drink is a greyhound vodka with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. At $10 apiece, the drink in a jar is refreshing , but the real draw to Wonderland is the view.
Unlike most bars in the area, Wonderland’s peak hours are from 7:00 to about 8:30 during sunset. The back of the bar is mostly windows with chairs that face out looking directly to the pier. Every patron questioned cited the view as a highlight. At the moment of sunset, some celebrate with the “sunset toast” — a Wonderland tradition of providing free shots to those at the bar at sunset — some continue intimate conversations, and others silently watch as the ocean slowly swallows the sun, leaving an orgy of orange and blue hues in its wake
“It’s a really classy vibe here,” says Benjamin Martin, 32. “Other than the view, it’s pretty much a straightforward bar. Nothing special, but nice.”
5028 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Sunshine Company Saloon sits about a block from the beach and shows every intention of living up to its name, but it’s essentially a sports bar disguised as a sort of hipster hangout yet somehow older than both ideas. TVs that line the bar area are turned to ESPN channels; most are ignored, but a few patrons keep close tabs on a boxing match. The establishment boasts three bars: one in the main indoor area, an adjacent bar serving the outside smoking area, and a third on the second floor for when the night busies up.
The aesthetic is something like pop-art renditions of Jimmy Buffet imagery, with a 1950s styled mural on the wall depicting a dizzying collage of mustachioed men in Hawaiian shirts, girls in bikinis, surfboards, and tequila bottles the size of buildings. Four pool tables, a lottery machine, and an Aerosmith-themed pinball machine provide additional entertainment for those looking for more than sports and smoking.
Local resident and contractor Jeremy Angus sits against the mural in a smart gray sweater and gray baseball cap that match his stubbled beard, with off-duty sunglasses hanging from his neckline. Angus, who describes himself simply as a “builder” with Angus General Contracting, was walking home when he decided to drop in for a beer and to catch some of the fight. His manner is open, controlled, and friendly. He buys us two pitchers of beer, and his eyes light up when he tells of how he moved down “every beachside community in Southern California” before settling in Ocean Beach 15 years ago.
“It’s Graceland. You never have to leave. It’s the last untouched beach community in San Diego, and a great place to raise children.” He proudly shows pictures of his two young sons, aged three and one. He then playfully takes my notebook and starts interviewing me about my past, my dreams and my future plans.
Angus introduces me to “an old saying by the locals: ‘Ocean Beach is seven blocks surrounded by reality.’” When I ask him to explain the saying, he replies, “That’s for you to find out. Just walk around for a while and you’ll get what I mean.”
I ask several other residents and patrons about the meaning of the maxim. Most of the interpretations boil down to something similar to 24-year-old patron Eric Allen’s take: “Basically, it’s like Ocean Beach is a magical place where anything can happen and you can be anyone. It’s somehow removed from the everyday reality of most people.”
Patron Brandon Brodes offers praise for the area in the kind of language and metaphor one doesn’t often find outside the neighborhood. “People here aren’t attacking the moment, they’re living in it. They live in the moment, not in the pictures. It’s happiness, the place you want to be.” The rail-thin, dreadlocked Brodes speaks with a genial smile. “When people are here, they expose what’s real within the reel that’s inside reality. That second reel has two E’s, like a camera. Get what I’m saying?”
I tell him I understand perfectly.
Brodes clamps my hand in one of the variations of the male handshake, “Good vibes, man. You got good vibes.”
Isabella Long came to San Diego from London to study at UCSD, and tonight is celebrating her graduation with friends. While she also likes North Park, she cites O.B. as her favorite area for its “chill” atmosphere. “It’s not too formal, but not too shit-show,” she says.