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San Diego Winter Staycation: Eating, Drinking & Biking the Pacific-Mission Beach Boardwalk

Locals know winter is the best time to enjoy the Mission Beach to Pacific Beach Boardwalk

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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.

North of the pier sits the posh Tower 23 hotel and iconic Kono’s Cafe, and to the south, you’ll find the beach bars beloved by frat boys, marines, and party girls.

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.

Use of beach cruisers are just one of the great amenities at the Tower23 Hotel.

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

konoscafe.com

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

t23hotel.com/dine

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

thewoodgroupsd.com

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

squarepizzaco.com

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

draftsandiego.com

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

belmontpark.com/food/el-jefe/

Get the giant churro for $2.

JUST OFF THE MISSION BEACH BOARDWALK

Juice Wave, Mission Boulevard & Pismo Court

juicewavesd.com

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

betterbuzzcoffee.com

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.

Juice Wave is worth the one-block detour off the boardwalk.
JRDN maximizes the sunset views from the interior and patio bar areas.

WHERE TO DRINK

BEFORE DARK (FOR ALL THE VIEWS)

JRDN, Boardwalk & Felspar

t23hotel.com/dine

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

No website.

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

bajabeachcafe.com

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)

Saska’s, Mission Boulevard & Rolando

saskas.com

When the sun goes down, you can’t see the view anyway, so unless you want to party like you’re 21, skip the beach bars and head to Saska’s. This old-timey steakhouse has been open since 1951 (though there was a recent change in ownership), and the interior is everything you want it to be from the red leather banquettes to the plush, weathered bar stools to the crooning oldies playing in the background. Sit at the bar and order a whiskey sour and a boat of creamy artichoke dip or a few oysters. After 10pm they also have a selection of small bites on the bar menu if you aren’t up for a big steak dinner.  

WHERE TO STAY

Even if you only live a few miles from the boardwalk, like I do, a stay on the beach is an absolute vacation. There’s simply nothing like waking up to the sounds of the waves and the fresh sea air.

There are tons of vacation homes for rent in PB and Mission Beach, but to maximize your R&R, Tower23 is the best boutique hotel option with its flawless design, prime location, and steller on-site restaurant.

Beachfront rooms put you right over the boardwalk, while the three beach-view rooms are set a few hundred feet back and overlook the fire pits, deck loungers, and Pacific Ocean beyond.

Valet parking for one car, welcome drinks for two, and free use of beach chairs, beach toys, and beach cruisers are all included in the standard resort fee.

Unless you’re one of the lucky few who already live in an oceanfront house or condo, a stay on the boardwalk at Tower23 will make you feel a million miles away.

Tower23

723 Felspar Street, Pacific Beach

t23hotel.co

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Felicia Campbell
Felicia Campbell is the author of the award-nominated cookbook and culinary history, “The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway...
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