The Bro Tai and the Golden Swan
My fancy friend Tina likes to get dressed up in lots of jewelry and perfume to drink martinis on leather bar chairs in the presence of men wearing suits and cologne. So when I drag her to Mission Beach one Saturday night in February, she’s a little out of place at Miss B’s Coconut Club, a beach bar where the menu includes a drink called The Bro Tai.
Miss B’s sits at the corner of Mission Boulevard and Santa Clara, a block from the beach and a mile north of the Giant Dipper roller coaster, and although it has no water view, it does have the distinct feel of a swim-up bar. During the day, particularly on weekends and in the summer, the seamless indoor/outdoor atmosphere beckons passersby with music, laughter, and the sounds of happy day drinking. But tonight, it’s a little sad. A handful of patrons in sweaters and jackets sit at the U-shaped bar, two thirds of them outside, and one third inside.
All voices are somewhat hushed and out of sync with the promises implied by the drink menu, which features shareable quantities of alcohol served in huge vessels with multiple straws. The Chester Copperpot comes in a treasure chest and serves five people for $150. The Lusca is served in container inspired by a mythological sea-creature (or a 6-tentacled octopus) and serves five to ten people for $100. But the atmosphere tonight is subdued. The small group of middle-aged Mardi Gras celebrants in beads and blinking hats that occupy the bend of the U are about as exciting as it gets, even they look as though they expected much more out of the evening.
“Oh, is it Mardi Gras?” Tina asks the woman sitting on the next bar stool over, and a quiet conversation ensues about when the real Mardi Gras is supposed to be, why it seems so early this year, and how the date is determined anyway. If the people with the blinking hats are looking for a party, they’re in the wrong place.
“Mission Beach is chill,” the woman says. Her name is Vanessa. She’s 27, and she’s drinking a glass of cabernet with co-workers from Crushed in Pacific Beach. “It’s more like a beach element than like a downtown club vibe.”
I ask if she lives in the neighborhood, she says, “I do. I live in PB.”
But that’s not Mission Beach.
“Well, Mission Beach is just this, like, little area. PB is the main part,” she explains.
It’s true that Mission Beach and Pacific Beach do share a shoreline and a boardwalk, but opinions vary about exactly where one ends and the other begins. In my conversations with people in the area, the boundary ranges from Grand Avenue to Santa Clara, a difference of almost a mile. According to sandiegocoastlife.com, Santa Rita Place — a mile and a half north of the Giant Dipper — is where the two neighborhoods connect, with Mission Beach extending two miles south to the South Mission Beach jetty, and Pacific Beach extending 1.2 miles north. Most other sources confirm that Mission Beach occupies approximately two thirds of the boardwalk and Pacific Beach occupies the remaining third. Regardless of where the exact boundary is or how much more boardwalk one has than the other, their nightlifes couldn’t be more different. Pacific Beach is the one you want if you’re looking to party like a college kid.
Vanessa confirms, “You’re not going to come to Mission Beach for a night out experience, but just to grab drinks and chill.”
A beachy rendition of Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child of Mine” plays on the overhead speakers. A table of previously quiet women erupts in song to sing along. The moment of joy dies long before the song ends, emphasizing the point that this is just not that kind of night. The group of three women huddling around a $28-drink served in a golden swan vessel (Havana Good Time – vodka, pamplemousse, house grapefruit and cucumber cordial, kombucha) seem subdued and not quite living up to the drink they’re sipping. The bartender whose Hawaiian-style print shirt suggests fun and levity doesn’t seem particularly interested in either. Tina asks if the little instruments on his shirt are guitars or ukuleles. He answers, “Whatever. I don’t have a game plan on my shirts. I just ordered it from Amazon.”
Tina throws back the rest of her Tortuga Heater (barrel aged rum, rye whiskey, mandarin napoleon, sherry, house bitter maple — $11), says, “That’s my kind of drink.” and we head out in search of the Mission Beach nightlife I’d promised a week ago.
There’s gonna be some dancing tonight
On an 84-degree degree day in January, the week before I drag Tina out with me, I meet a man named Jim St. Laurent who warns me of the dangers of Mission Beach nightlife. Sort of warns me. What he actually says is that when he spends the day at Mission Beach, he usually heads home in the early evening when the “east side guys” start coming around.
“You’re talking Lemon Grove. You’re talking East San Diego. You’re talking Southeast, South San Diego. You get a big influx of these guys, and they come in for the nighttime activity,” St. Laurent says from the seashell-print comfy chair behind the driver’s seat.
A self-proclaimed east side guy himself (from Lemon Grove), the 70-year-old musician and retired school bus and taxi driver comes to Mission Beach a few times a week, and always parks his 32-foot RV in this lot off of West Mission Bay Drive.
“This is the best spot. You have the roller coaster right there as the backdrop to look at. In the summertime, you can hear the children screaming. That’s always a pleasant sound,” he says. “I never have any problems at this location.”
He has tried other beaches, but Mission Beach is his favorite. He comes in all seasons, usually by himself, except in the summer, when his grandson visits from Cleveland.
“It’s very quiet here. I can watch people play ball and listen to the roller coaster. I can leave my umbrella on the beach, walk over here and have lunch, play my guitar,” he says. He gestures to the swing set visible out the front window of the RV. “When my grandson was little, I could watch him at the playground there, and I could be in here doing whatever I wanted to do.”
These days, he buys his now-12-year-old grandson an all-day pass to Belmont Park and just tells him to check in at the RV now and again. Today, although the kid is in Cleveland, the little table behind the passenger seat is piled with the parts and pieces of a model rocket St. Laurent is building for him.
“I’m just hanging out for the day,” he says. “I’ll probably go for a bike ride pretty soon up to PB. Go to a couple of second hand stores.”
The RV is St. Laurent’s mobile man-cave. He and his wife like to joke that although it’s supposed to “sleep eight comfortably,” it really only “sleeps one comfortably.” Because it’s a few feet over the allowable vehicle length for parking on San Diego city streets, he can’t get away with parking overnight. In this lot, they close the gates at 10 p.m. and don’t open again until 4:00 a.m. A couple of times, he drove over to Pacific Beach and found some off-street parking to stay overnight, but it has changed drastically since he and his wife used to live there decades ago.
“At 2:00 in the morning when the bars let loose, it’s crazy. It’s a lot of noise. Out here you don’t get that. Around here, it’s much quieter,” he says.
Well, maybe not. The truth is, he doesn’t know exactly what happens here at night because he heads home when the “east side guys” start rolling in.
“We start packing up around 4 or 5,” he says. “We can see them coming in. I tell the kid, ‘There’s gonna be some dancing tonight. If you don’t want to dance, let’s get out of town.’”
It’s an energy thing
June Love and Lola Medved’s shirts match their beach chairs. The two women are spending “some girlfriend time” with their feet in the sand, and I meet them not long after I leave St. Laurent in the doorway of his RV. The matchy matchy thing wasn’t planned, but when they pulled the chairs out of the trunk of Medved’s car and realized each had chosen one the same color as her shirt, Love told Medved it was a sign.
“I took one and she took one, and she has on pink, and I have on blue,” Love says, “and I was like, ‘Oh this is going to be a good day. We’re supposed to be here for a reason.’”
A poet from Minnesota (Medved) and a reiki-healer/metaphysic practitioner/intuitive business consultant from Los Angeles (Love), the two currently live in Chula Vista and Linda Vista respectively. They speak the language of energy and emotion when comparing San Diego beaches.
“Pacific Beach is like the college beach. I like it because it’s cool,” Love says. “It’s a yoga spot, yoga energy, free but beach bum vibe.”
“Yep. Yep,” Medved agrees. “That’s right.”
“I love La Jolla,” Love goes on. “The air is a little bit stuffier, so it’s not as friendly. It’s still nice. You can ignore [the stuffy energy].”
“Yeah,” Medved says, “here the energy is more connected, probably a little more upbeat.”
Today, it seems likely that part of that upbeat energy is the result of relaxing on the beach amongst other happy sunbathers and wave watchers who are not chained to their desks at lunchtime and can take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather. Everyone has their own wide swath of beach sand. A paper coffee cup sits in the cup holder in the arm of Love’s chair, and an open iPad sits in her lap. Medved holds her phone in her lap as well. They’ve both just finished taking pictures of a sand castle a few yards ahead.
“Then we have Sunset Cliffs,” Love continues. “It scares me to death for one thing, because the cliffs are not stable, so that’s probably the exciting energy there, kind of adventurous. But it’s a really powerful place to meditate.”
Medved nods and then brings the conversation back to the beach where they sit now. “I’m working in car rental, and when my customers ask, I always tell them to come to Mission Beach. I mention La Jolla, Sunset Cliffs, and OB, but I do say this one first because of its touristy, nice feel, and they can get their souvenir-ing out of the way.”
Love smiles, makes affirmative noises, and squints against the bright sunlight. Medved goes on to say how thrilled she is to live in San Diego, where she’s been for two years, especially considering what’s happening in Minnesota right now. “They just got dumped on, like 16 inches of snow,” she says. “They had -35 wind chills a couple of months ago.”
A seagull swoops low overhead and we all look up. Love takes advantage of the pause to share her thoughts on another San Diego beach that has crossed her mind.
“I used to live in Imperial Beach, like 15 years ago,” she says. “That beach is lonely to me. It’s gorgeous, but it’s very lonely.”
“That’s my local beach,” Medved says. “I go there and write and meditate. It’s not a bad energy, it’s just solitude.”
“It’s lonely!” Love shouts, laughing.
“But not in a bad way,” Medved says, offering, “If you want to cry, it will be beautiful at the beach.”
There’s no crying today. The two anticipate only happy experiences. If Love says it’s so, then it’s so. Medved confirms that Love’s readings are always accurate, though sometimes, Medved will roll her eyes at the improbability only to turn around later and say, “You were right. I’m sorry if I was looking at you all crazy.”
I leave them to their happy anticipation and their sandy feet.
On a cool Saturday afternoon in early February, a few hours before Tina and I go looking for Mission Beach nightlife, Brooke Shibley and Karly Purvis give me their take on the neighborhood from behind the service counter at Cheap Rentals on the bay side of Mission Boulevard just south of Santa Clara Place.
Shibley, 19, loves the sandwiches at Rubicon Deli and appreciates the neighborhood’s friendly, low-key vibe, which she differentiates from PB, where there are “just parties all the time or whatever.”
Purvis, 21, describes Mission as “the touristy beach with the rides,” and says it’s a good beach for beginner surfers because it’s “not super territorial, like some other local beaches.” She also adds, “One cool thing is there’s a house on the ocean side, and they have this huge light on top of their beach house. We’ve used it to go night surfing because it projects really bright onto the waves.”
But when I ask if there’s any nightlife, Karly says, “Well, they have some pretty big parties,” she says, pointing to the apartments across the street. “I’ve seen a ton of people tripping up the stairs. They had a really big Halloween party.”
A clean-cut guy in a gray shirt and sunset-colored shorts printed with palm trees comes in to rent a snorkel set. He asks for the Blue Water Vacation Homes discount. While Shibley takes care of him, Purvis reluctantly explains that down by the jetty, it can get pretty sketchy at night.
“I’ve heard about a lot of gang activity in South Mission,” she says, “and I’ve seen some of it before. We come down really early on the 4th of July to get parking, and then we just go surfing until it’s time to open the shop. And one time I was driving over the bridge, and I saw a ton of people, like about 20-30 people in an empty parking lot with their hoods all up.”
After the Blue Water discount guy, a woman in a black vest and yoga pants comes in looking for a child-seat for her bike. Purvis explains to her that for legal and safety purposes, she can only rent out the child-seats already mounted on one of their beach cruisers.
When the woman leaves, Purvis ventures away from the idea of sketchy scary nightlife and offers, “Miss B’s is pretty fun. It’s diagonally across the street. They have some crazy drinks you can get that are like really big.”
Besides taking my chances on a giant rum drink or crashing a Mission Beach house party, any other thoughts?
“Backyard is pretty fun,” she says.
But isn’t that PB?
While there may not be much happening at night on Mission Beach streets in February, the boardwalk thrums during the day. On this particular Saturday afternoon, the temperature stays in the 63-64° range, with overcast skies and a damp wind. Granted, there’s not a lot happening on the sand aside from a few solitary walkers, a group of guys playing ultimate Frisbee, and some seagulls. But plenty of people are making use of the boardwalk.
Perched on the wall across from Beach Treats, a thatched roof snack shack fronted by a giant ice cream cone, I set my timer and log the number of passersby and how they’re traveling. In ten minutes, I count: 27 bike riders (0 tandem), 9 skateboarders, 6 scooters, 120 walkers, 11 runners, and 1 roller skater. Nearly every outdoor table and barstool at the Beach House Grill is occupied.
To the right of the giant ice cream cone, I spy a group of three young women and two young men with a video camera on a tripod. Every now and again, a sixth or seventh person joins them for a few minutes and then walks away with a handshake. I decide to approach to see what they’re up to. It turns out they’re all from University of California San Diego, and they’re working on a project.
Caroline, 21, the oldest of them, asks for my credentials before offering a cryptic explanation.
“We’re basically doing street interviews for an extracurricular activity, and we’re just trying to get more information for people at the beach,” she says. “We’re working on a project for a certain brand, and we’re trying to find out their opinions on the brand and about some of the details we’re going to be using for our project.”
Before they’ll tell me more, we make a deal that I’ll do their interview if they’ll do mine. Theirs is brief, and I’m glad to get it over with quickly. When it’s my turn to ask the questions again, Caroline tells me that it’s important for them to do their interviews away from campus to get the opinions of a more varied population. She also explains this particular location has proven successful for street interviews in the recent history of their organization.
Puneet, 20, says, “It’s a calm and relaxing environment. Everyone’s just having a good day, so they’re willing to take about two minutes out of their day to just help.” Interviews have been less successful downtown where she says, “it’s a more fast-paced environment where people have some place to be.”
Anthony, the youngest at 18, says he thinks there’s something special about Mission Beach. “It seems more alive than the other beaches. There’s more of a culture. I haven’t really broken down what that culture is, but I can tell it exists.”
Jonathan, 20, is the only one of them who has spent any time here socially. “I’ve been here once or twice down to the Belmont Park,” he says. “There’s always something going on. Something to do. Something to see.”
As if to emphasize his point, a girl in high wasted jeans rides by on a skateboard. Her long hair hangs down her back and she’s holding a radio blaring gangster rap. Anthony smirks, and everyone else stares, amused, it seems. It’s not just what she’s doing, but how she’s doing it — aggressively, and with a mean smile on her face, though she doesn’t seem to be trying to actually get anywhere because this is the third time she’s skated past in 10 minutes.
“She was playing screamo earlier,” Lucy says.
I would have called it death metal. Are they the same thing? They look at each other and back at me, turn the corners of their mouths down and half-shrug.
“I’m sure to someone it’s not at all the same thing,” Anthony says, “but to us it is.”
Tina and I want to dance. Or at least get a glimpse of whatever excitement St. Laurent and his grandson make it a point to avoid. But it turns out that there’s not a whole lot of dancing going on. Not that we can find, anyway. We drive around the lot where I’d met St. Laurent, the lot outside Belmont Park, and down around the jetty side in South Mission Beach. There is nothing wild about the atmosphere. Maybe a little sketchy here and there, but nothing we would call dancing. The most excitement we happen into is a near miss with a flock of souped-up Evos that rage down Mission Boulevard in a cacophony of engine sounds. Otherwise, nothing. Maybe it’s true that all the action to be found on a Saturday night in February is in Pacific Beach, not Mission Beach.
We’re about to give up when Tina spies a glowing pink sign on a squat white stucco building with octagonal windows: Saska’s. We walk inside and find rounded, red tufted-leather booths, dark wood-paneled walls. Tina sighs happily. She looks right at home on the leather barstool in her silky shirt and expensive jewelry. Even the menu makes her giddy. She orders a bowl of clam chowder and a Brandy Alexander.
For a few minutes, Tina schmoozes with our 25-year-old bartender, Katie Wagner, who has a degree in graphic design from University of Redlands but doesn’t want to do graphic design for a living. She’s excited that she’s been given a chance to design a craft cocktail for the new spring/summer menu. Tina expresses her glee at having found this place, and Wagner calls it, “The classiest dining experience you can get this close to the water.”
A group of three men and two women come in and crowd around the remaining two bar stools. “Curling!” one guy says, pointing to the TV above the bar set to the Winter Olympics. The others erupt in cheer. Their voices add levity to the hushed and civilized environment.
While Wagner makes Tina’s drink, she describes Mission Beach as a “tighter-knit community” (than PB, where she used to live). Here, she says, the bartenders at different restaurants all know each other and she’s on a first-name basis with the convenience store clerk across the street. She loves living here, though there are some drawbacks, such as parking and bike theft (“People call it Missing Beach”), and the occasional homeless person digging through your recyclables, but nothing that would make her want to move.
The group beside us erupts in cheers again. One guy shouts, “Suck it, Finland!”
Wagner places Tina’s drink in front of her. Tina sips it and says, “This is what I’m talking about.”
There is, she says, no need to move on to Pacific Beach. She’s found the bar stool she wants to occupy for the rest of the evening.