You won’t find me anywhere near the boardwalk in the summertime. The wall-to-wall crowds and frenetic vibe don’t fit with the low-key, beach-town-of-a-bygone-era fantasy that drew me to San Diego in the first place. In the wintertime, however, it’s one of my favorite places to be.
The sun still shines and the weather is mild when most of the tourists and day-trippers have gone home. It becomes possible to not only shuffle, but to walk or even bike the three-mile stretch of boardwalk that connects Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. The ride requires patience as you weave around walkers and joggers, which is all the better for taking in the kaleidoscopic view of local culture.
At the northern end of the stretch, families and surfers from the surrounding neighborhoods make their way down to Law Street Beach. Dads whiz past on rollerblades pushing baby buggies. Old-timers walk hand in hand.
Past the clubs and souvenir shops, Woody’s signals the end of PB and the beginning of low-key Mission Beach. Here, the boardwalk widens, and you’ll see more yoga mats than margaritas.
Near Belmont Park, crews on lowrider bikes congregate, families have picnics on the grass, and the smell of bonfires and charcoal fill the air. At the southernmost tip of Mission Beach, the lanes narrow and the sand is overrun by tan, svelte beach volleyball teams battling it out.
The boardwalk belongs to the locals in the wintertime, and they know how to enjoy the decidedly relaxed cadence of beach life.
Mornings are for post-surfing breakfast burritos, coffee, or cold-pressed juice. Afternoons are for biking, sunning, and naps. Sunset is best enjoyed standing on the pier, watching the last rays disappear over the sea.
And at night, when the views are no more, it’s time to leave the boardwalk behind and explore the haunts tucked throughout the surrounding blocks.
WHERE TO EAT ON THE BOARDWALK
ON THE PACIFIC BEACH SIDE
Kono’s, Boardwalk & Garnet
You deserve some kind of award if you can finish one of the monster-sized breakfast burritos at Kono’s on your own. They are amazing fuel for a day of biking, surfing, or kayaking. We recommend the #5, which comes stuffed with chorizo, jalapeños, avocado, eggs, cheese, and pico de gallo. Unless you show up right when they open at 7am, be prepared to wait in line for a good 15 minutes or more. Once you place your order, you can find a seat on their pier deck, boardwalk-facing patio, or inside the cozy shop and your food will be out in less time than it took to order it.
JRDN, Boardwalk & Felspar
The seasonal menu at what is unequivocally the nicest restaurant on the boardwalk features fish and produce from local producers. Carrots from Black Sheep and JR Organics star in both the buttery carrot risotto and as a kimchi-roasted side served along with smoked mashed potatoes under meltingly tender short ribs. The dessert menu is playful and surprising. Go for the “chef’s whim” seasonal special and you won’t be disappointed.
Woody’s Breakfast and Burgers, Boardwalk & Pacific Beach Drive
Basic burgers and breakfast burritos come with a view at this PB counter service classic.
JUST OFF THE PB BOARDWALK
Square Pizza Co, Cass & Garnet
Two blocks east of Tower 23, Square Pizza turns out the best thick, crispy Detroit-style pies in town topped with perfectly gooey, fresh mozzarella and a ladleful of garlicky, slightly sweet sauce. Sold by the quarter pie, it can easily be a snack for two or a solid meal for one. They’re open until 2am on weekends, making it a great place for a late-night snack to end your evening.
ON THE MISSION BEACH SIDE
Draft, Boardwalk & Mission Beach Parking Lot
In the Belmont Park complex, Draft is the place for a solid burger and beer overlooking the beach. The attached coffee shop is also a great place to grab a pastry and a morning latte.
El Jefes Taco Shop, Boardwalk & Mission Beach Parking Lot
Get the giant churro for $2.
JUST OFF THE MISSION BEACH BOARDWALK
Juice Wave, Mission Boulevard & Pismo Court
Simply the best, this juice shop sources local fruits, veggies, honey, and even spirulina for their cold-pressed juices, smoothies, and acai bowls. The bowls are topped with granola that’s made in-house along with freshly ground nut butter.
Better Buzz, Mission Boulevard & Pismo Court
The newest location of this perennial SD coffee favorite is right on Mission Boulevard. Get (arguably) the best cappuccino in town or a nitro cold brew and an avocado toast or grilled sandwich like the bacon, almond butter, and banana on sourdough, or a more classic ham, egg, and cheese on brioche.
WHERE TO DRINK
BEFORE DARK (FOR ALL THE VIEWS)
JRDN, Boardwalk & Felspar
The architect was a genius when it came to making the view the star of the show from every angle of this restaurant. The seats at the interior bar offer a front-row seat overlooking the boardwalk, pier, and the sun setting over the ocean. The wine list is solid, the beer list totally respectable, and the creative cocktails, like the Entrepreneur, made with whiskey and pomegranate juice, are balanced and strong.
Lahaina Beach House, Boardwalk & Oliver
The patio of this cash-only dive bar has a mellow, local vibe despite being packed to the gills. If you want a lively, crowded bar sans thumping club music or wall of flatscreens showing the game, this is your spot.
Baja Beach Cafe, Boardwalk & Thomas
This place is home to those fishbowl-sized margaritas you won’t admit you actually want. The food is not going to blow your mind, but the location right on the boardwalk and the fun of drinking out of a glass you can barely lift make it a quintessential boardwalk drinking experience.
AFTER DARK (FOR LOCAL VIBES)