For more than a decade, we’ve been headed to San Clemente, California to visit family. Sadly, there are fewer family members to visit since we started going out there, but our fond memories of being with those we’ve lost (and those who remain) and of the town itself linger. The following are some of our favorite places to grab a bite and/or a drink in this cool surfer town.
Prior to being founded in 1776 by the Spaniards who founded the Mission at San Juan Capistrano (just up the road from San Clemente), the area was inhabited by the Juaneno native people. It was still relatively uninhabited until 1925 when the former mayor of Seattle, Ole Hanson, began developing on the land. “Hanson envisioned it as a Mediterranean-style coastal resort town, his “San Clemente by the Sea.” He had a clause added to the deeds requiring all building plans to be submitted to an architectural review board in an effort to ensure that future development would retain red tile roofs and white exteriors. But this proved to be short-lived; in the oldest parts of town you find an eclectic mix of building styles.” (source: Wikipedia). The Hanson-Spanish style architecture still dots the town and the buildings built in this style are locally referred to as “Ole Hansons”. San Clemente also offers some of the best surfing (we’re told, not being surfers) on the west coast and pros like Kelly Slater make this one of his homes.
For food, here are our top 12:
- Breakfast/lunch or brunch:
- Café Mimosa. Located on Del Mar Avenue (or Avenida Del Mar). This is maybe our favorite breakfast spot. They used to serve dinner, but gave that up several years ago. Nonetheless, this is one of our go-to places in San Clemente. Everything we’ve had is good. The fruit plate and yogurt or steel cut oats are a great split/share plate to start. We often get the egg white frittata, but everything is good.
- Antoine’s Café. Owned by the same people who own Mimosa, Antoine’s has great breakfasts, good salads and sandwiches. It is located on Camino Real, the main north-south road through town.
- Hotel San Clemente. The restaurant in this hotel (which is now apartment units) is run by a couple of Cambodian immigrants. They have great dishes like a breakfast burrito with steamed eggs, good bagels and great coffee. It is located at the top of Del Mar. The cashier, Maya, who works the front provides exemplary customer service and is a delight.
- Bear Coast Coffee. Located across from the train station and the pier, this little coffee shop does have a few breakfast options, but we’ve never tried them. The coffee, however, is fantastic for a morning or evening stroll on the beach.
- South of Nick’s. Right on Camino Real, this place has perhaps some of the best Mexican food north of the border (without the risk of eating unwashed lettuce) we’ve ever tasted. The fish tacos and taco trio are amazing as is the ceviche. Great salsas and sauces and really good flavor in everything we’ve tried.
- You guessed it, Nick’s is affiliated with South of Nick’s and is a chain with other Nick’s restaurants in Laguna, Long and Manhattan Beaches. Great salads, great entrees (the Cioppino and fish sandwich are two faves) and good ambiance. Sit at the bar if you can snag a couple of seats and your party is small or on the covered patio if the weather is nice.
- Sonny’s Pizza and Pasta. No idea what the heck they put in the crust or in the sauce but this place has some of the most delicious and unique tasting pizza we’ve ever had. A longtime family favorite, if you’re in town for a short while put this at the top of your list.
- Brick. Relatively new to town, compared to Sonny’s that is, Brick has a wood fire pizza oven but also offers many delicious pasta options (the orecchiette is a go-to) as well. The meatballs are crazy good and the farmer’s market salad is fantastic.
- Fisherman’s. Located on the pier itself, we like the bar. Its super casual and a great place to watch the sunset, though they could use a remodel to remove the over-bar shelving units to open it up more. During the week, there are appetizer/dinner specials if you’re looking for a budget option. If you go off-appetizer special bar, try the ceviche. Washed down with a cold beer, its a great way to end a great day. The restaurant across the pier is related and slightly more upscale. They serve breakfast and lunch, in addition to dinner.
- The Vine. This place is more upscale than most of the others on the list. Its rustic Italian (much like Brick, and is right across the street so if one has a wait, try the other). If you score a seat on the bar side you can watch them cook your dinner in the open kitchen.
- The Cellar. Affectionately referred to, by us, as “the wine bar” the cellar is a great post-dinner spot at night (though they do serve food too). They started serving breakfast within the last year or so and offer a killer avocado toast. At night, the appetizers, pizza and cheese plate are great. Booze fans beware, only wine and beer sold here. They also have live piano music on the weekends and the more of the aforementioned wine you consume the more likely you’ll be singing along.
- Longtime family favorite, Iva Lee’s offers Cajun in (San) Clemente. The jambalaya and gumbo are favorites. They’ve also got some great salads if you want to go a little lighter for dinner itself and spoil your appetite on their delicious corn bread (I dare you to just try one piece). For you martini lovers, this is your spot. They also have plenty of live music options throughout the week and dinner specials during the week nights. They are closed on Mondays and some Sundays.
There are lots of other great spots to eat in Dana Point (just north up California Highway 1) or Laguna, but we’re just focusing on the spots in San Clemente here. On top of the food, and at risk of spoiling a secret, the beach in San Clemente is the best walking beach we’ve found. Stretching several miles from the San Clemente pier to Richard Nixon’s house we just can’t get enough of this beach. At sunset, the whole town seems to stop and admire the last moments of the day as the sun dives into the Pacific. Sunsets here are hard to beat.
If you’re in Orange County, we highly recommend checking out this cool town.