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.