Our bartender in San Diego scrunched up her face with an incredulous look and asked, “Oceanside? Why are you going there?” This was a common sentiment among citified southern Californians who still hold images of an Oceanside with a reputation for brawling Marines, low-rent car dealerships and sprawling train yards. Human memory is persistent but not always accurate. Oceanside, one hour by train from San Diego, has changed a lot since our bartender last visited. Yes. Oceanside still maintains some of its grit and, unlike other California beach destinations, it has no plans to sand it off. That’s a good thing.

AHEAD, THEN BEHIND

Photos Provided by Visit Oceanside

In the days before Southern California was connected and clogged with its vast network of four-lane concrete arteries, there was one road—Highway One. Early car travelers ventured south from Los Angeles, often headed to Mexico for liquor during Prohibition. To make the trip, they would cross the large un-serviced Rancho Santa Margarita before arriving in Oceanside. The little town became an ideal spot to stop and stay in one of the nation’s first “travelers hotels,” or Motels. When WWII broke out, the U.S. Department of the Navy commandeered Rancho Margarita to build Camp Pendleton. Thousands of raw Marine recruits arrived in town along with builders and their families who followed the work to carve out Pendleton. Oceanside boomed. The post-war ascendance of the automobile made Oceanside a destination for car buyers and the town’s new dealerships became the place for the Greatest Generation to buy its shiny Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Fords.

But then, bust. California sprawl and cheaper land elsewhere saw the big dealers move closer to the metro areas, leaving the husks of giant showrooms behind. These shells were occupied by down-market used car dealers. Meanwhile, the rise of malls and megaplexes in the ’60s and ’70s gutted Oceanside’s once-bustling town center. It didn’t help that one of the state’s largest railroad switchyards, built during the war, was a giant eyesore in the middle of town. (The switchyard was moved in the ’90s onto Camp Pendleton, much to town boosters’ relief.)

But these downsides became upsides, says Oceanside historian Kristi Hawthorne. “We were largely overlooked and while everyone else was tearing down old buildings, neighborhoods and architectural treasures, we were left alone.”

THE ONCE- GREAT BECOMES NEXT-GREAT

Hawthorne and her colleagues at the Oceanside Historical Society lead free two-hour walking tours (visitoceanside.org, 760-722-4786) that highlight this  “lucky” preservation. She points to neighborhoods filled with charming, stick-built bungalows including, famously, the “Top Gun House,” where Tom Cruise’s Maverick famously bedded Kelly McGillis’ Charlie Blackwood in the 1986 film, and palatial movie theaters featuring beautifully garish neon signs. For example, the Star Theater (402 N. Coast Hwy, startheatreco.com) with its space-age marquee, now bills local musical theater performances. Some of the old car showrooms are being gutted to become restaurants and craft breweries like the Bagby Beer Company (601 S. Coast Highway, bagbybeer. com). The works of architect Irving Gill, the minimalist modern architect who designed with subtle North African flair, are also a point of town pride—see The Americanization School (1210 Division St.), the still operational Fire Station No. 1 (714 Pier View Way), The Blade Tribune
Building (401 Seagaze Dr.) and the original City Hall (300 N. Coast Hwy.).

PLAY

 

Photos Provided by Visit Oceanside

At its heart, Oceanside is a beach town and thus home of the California Surf Museum (312
Pier View Way, 760-721-6876). The highlight is the shark-bit surfboard and the accompanying story of pro surfer Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm but ultimately survived an encounter with a tiger shark off the coast of Kauai. Good news: There are no tiger sharks off the coast of Oceanside—its beachfront is a wide, perfectly sandy stretch, marked midway by the state’s longest wooden pier (home of an irascible pelican named Charlie). On either side of the pier, the reliable break brings a daily line-up of surfers waiting for sets. Before you paddle out on your own consider a lesson. The  family-owned shop Surf Ride (1909 S. Coast Hwy., Oceanside, 760-433-4020, surfride.com) offers lessons three times a week as well as gear rental. Or rent a rod and reel from the pier’s bait shop or a bike or 4-person surrey and cruise the strand.

Photos Provided by Visit Oceanside

DINE

Surf towns require breakfast. Oceanside’s go-to is Petite Madeline (223 N. Coast Hwy., 760-231-7300, petitemadelinebakery.com) with house-made pastries and heartier options. But then there is toast. How good can toast be? Find out at Camp Coffee (101 N. Cleveland St., 442-266-2504, campcoffeecompany.com) where cutsey coffee drinks (think S’mores) are served with hearty slices of “camp toast” a panini-style hunk of wonder.

Start a night out with a flight of Santa Barbara wine from Coomber Craft Wines (611 Mission Ave., 760-231-8022, coomberwines.com) on a fantastically chill patio. Up the block is Mission Ave Bar and Grill (711 Mission Ave., 760-637-2222, missionavebarandgrill.com), a whiskey-forward joint (more than 200 tipples in the library) with a meticulously blended Eternal Pour bottle behind the bar.

The phrase “let’s go out for Balinese” is not a thing, yet. But Dija Mara (232 S. Coast Hwy., 760-231-5376, dijamara.com) is well on its way to making it so. For the big meal of your trip, try Master’s Kitchen & Cocktail (208 S. Coast Hwy., 760-231-6278, mastersoceanside.com) where 28-year-old wunderkind Chef Andre Clark has unstuffified the menu. Clark got his start here, left for apprenticeship in some of San Diego’s finest kitchens and has returned with whiz-bang energy. For starters he’s got a thing for albacore. Yes. Ahi’s canned cousin, Clark points out, is caught locally, “Why am I serving tuna from Hawaii when I’m a chef in California?” Why indeed.

STAY:

Photos Provided by Visit Oceanside

Part of Oceanside’s rejuvenation has been the renovation of the old traveler hotels like The Fin Boutique Hotel (133 S. Coast Hwy., 760-279-6300, thefinhotel.com). com). Originally opened as the Keisker Hotel in 1927, The Fin preserves the mosaic tile lobby floor, the original grand wooden-rail staircase and the Tiffany windows , but, thankfully, updates the rest. (read: ensuite water closets). OK, it’s a chain but the Oceanside Springhill Suites boasts a rooftop pool with ocean views and is steps from the waterfront. Beachfront Only
(beachfrontonly.com) is a vacation rental service offering, as the name says, a selection of on-the-beach properties from cozy cottages to 10-bedroom redoubts for the big reunion
(friends, family, whatever).