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Letter from California: return of the Great American Road Movie

Stanley Moss heads on the road, beginning in San Diego and heading up the Pacific coast
Photographed by the author
March 14, 2023/11.33

Greetings from somewhere along California’s legendary Highway 1, caught up once again in the magic of the mythological open road. After a three-year unexpected and involuntary hibernation, the trusty 2006 Chrysler Crossfire was rescued from storage, we filled the tank with US$5 per gallon gas, loaded up the not-so-spacious trunk, threw the top down, and headed for the highway. Along the shore you are never far away from surf culture out here. Program the car radio to a surf channel and ‘Miserlou’ by Dick Dale and His Del-Tones comes on the sound system. To complete the effect, the car wash sells coconut-scented auto air fresheners in the shape of a Hawai‘ian longboard. Hang it from your rear-view mirror and put the pedal to the metal. The odyssey took us northward and back along the Pacific Coast, as we dropped in on familiar roadside locations and sought out new ones. The world was our oyster, and we sought out many of them.

Miles above the Mexican border our wanderings began.

Above, from top: The Crossfire road-ready. San Diego Beach. Coconut auto air freshener.
San Diego
Old Town San Diego State Historical Park has something for everyone. You can eat, shop, study or ogle, it’s uncrowded and unhurried. You get the flavour of early California, original and restored buildings, shopping, little museums, a multitude of food choices and an outstanding collection of Victorian homes. An easy and satisfying activity.

Above, from top: A well established garden in a traditional hacienda in Old Town. The park has a collection of restored Victorian houses. A typical shopping alley selling Mexican goods like Day of the Dead ceramics. San Diego has miles of clean, empty, open beaches.
Sunset Beach
Harbor House Café

The café sits next to the historic Sunset Beach water tower, and yes, the tower is available for vacation rental. In times past you could order the steak and eggs, or eggs Benedict, but the supply chain has sent the menu a bit south. These days, you can confidently order any omelette, with a pancake on the side.

The decor’s the same as forty years ago, and it’s still a perfect drop-in even at 2 a.m., when the locals tend to arrive.
Santa Monica
Snug Harbor

A classic 1950s-style diner located at 2323 Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. Go for the décor, the hearty diner-grade menu, and the people-watching out on the upper patio in the back. Those ravenous folks at the next table devouring patty melts are authentic screenwriters. Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Nugget

Unchanged for 40 years, Summerland’s the Nugget still has the best daily specials. Ask Logan, the bartender, to shake up an exotic margarita to accompany your burrito of the day. A great selection of tequilas and añejos.
Santa Barbara
Sadly, we had no Harry and Meghan sightings, though we heard they were around. Instead, we prowled State Street, still post-pandemic-deserted and landed at our old favourite, Joe’s (536 State Street) for a great happy-hour menu. Once upon a time this was the hottest date spot in town. The charm—and attractive prices—remain.

Food stand of outstanding quality, La Super Rica has been here for years. This kind lady hand-makes corn or flour tortillas which arrive hot off la plancha with most items. Cash only, and very selective hours. Everybody waits in line to order, then waits for the food in the covered dining area. Well worth a detour, to 622 North Milpas Street.

The Rosewood chain rescued Santa Barbara’s venerable Miramar Hotel and has turned it into an elegant five-star experience with the hottest Sunday brunch in town. Family- and pet-friendly, located right on the beach. But what’s that sound? The Surfliner train speeds by as you eat your fashionable breakfast. Reservations a must.
San Simeon
Just north of Morro Rock we dropped into the Hearst Castle monument visitor centre, which has become quite the destination experience. Avoid the film programme offered with all admission packages—it’s a re-enactment and your time is better spent on one of the two-hour tours at the castle atop the hill. An astounding and vast gift shop experience—all manner of tchotchkes, refrigerator magnets, T-shirts, tourist hats and some really cool kid clothing items. Also available: wine from Hearst vineyards and top-quality cuts of beef from the Hearst Ranch.

A few miles above the Hearst Castle visitor centre you will find Elephant Seal Vista Point. From a distance they look like rocks, but zoom in and you can see these magnificent creatures up close. They take no notice of visitors.

Santa Cruz, Soquel
Located a few miles south of overpriced Santa Cruz, the Ugly Mug Coffee House can be found at 4640 Soquel Drive. This down-and-dirty hyper-real coffee house has great coffee drinks, prices and pastries, and a collection of neighbourhood folks who add colour. Support local small business! Keep places like this alive!

San Francisco
First, never call it ’Frisco. Locals will tell you disdainfully, ‘Frisco’s in Texas.’ If you want to sound like a local, call it ‘the City’. Everyone will understand. Parking is impossible, by the way; Uber suggested. Street crime is everywhere: major stores have closed on once-fashionable Union Square. The homeless problem is just that, a real, visible problem. Snatch-and-grab gangs terrorize branded establishments. And tourist spots have been Disney-ized, like the overbranded Pier 39, which we don’t recommend. You will do much better at the Ferry Building, where all the ferries dock. We especially like coming into town via the Larkspur Ferry, with its up-close-and-personal view of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge off to the west. Such a watery arrival will delight you.

Onshore at the Ferry Terminal, we were pleased to see a satellite location of our old friends Hog Island Oyster Company, whose excellent bivalves we first tasted years ago at their home base on Tomales Bay. Hog Island’s bustling kitchen keeps it cooking: freshly shucked local varieties, chowders, stews, BBQ roasted oysters, fabulous pickled vegetables. Fast service.

The other Barbary Coast oyster option, our old friends at Swan Oyster Depot, 1517 Polk Street, are another scenario altogether. Swann’s 15-seat oyster bar is typically crowded over the lunch hour, and people will wait an hour on the sidewalk outside for a spot at their antique white marble counter where the parade of super fresh mollusks is uninterrupted. Highly recommended for the patient traveller.

In search of a legendary Hangtown Fry, the historic oyster and bacon omelette invented in California’s Gold Fields around 1849, we visited Tadich Grill, where the barman suggested an espresso martini before our meal. The Fry did not disappoint, a house speciality for over a century. Tadich is pricey, but the excellence of the menu and service is world-class. Top-quality meats and seafood. Cioppino a specialty. Ask for one of the private booths along the west wall. One of San Francisco’ great dining establishments, still going strong.

Above, from top: Tadich’s classical graphic design has not changed for years. Paula Sweet at Tadich bar, and the espresso martini.
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.

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Filed by Lucire staff