Living on the coast in San Diego affords a special opportunity to explore eating at the beach, more specifically, on three piers-Ocean Beach, Imperial Beach and Oceanside. Unlike Santa Monica's pier that I knew as a kid in Los Angeles, with its merry-go-round, games and other distractions, our three are long and pedestrian friendly, with a single restaurant at the end.
Piers make for fabulous cheap dates. You can fish without a license, the views are peerless and the food simple, fresh and relatively inexpensive. As you walk to the casual pier cafes, observe pier life: Day fishermen throwing a line over the rail for a chance to catch dinner, or others watching surfers and swimmers. Later in the day, lovers, families and packs of kids walk, talk and gaze on their way for a bite and a drink. Hanging out over the ocean with the pounding surf below can relax the most harried of souls on a hot summer day.
The T-shaped Ocean Beach pier ranks as my favorite spot. Walk all the way to the end to watch fishermen try their luck. At the pier's mid-way point, stop at the Ocean Beach Pier Café, owned since 1990 by the same family that also owns Fatboyz Pizza in Mission Beach. This barely 20-seat wood and windowed room-outfitted with wood tables, captains' chairs, a few patio chairs and nautical pieces you can purchase-is just plain sweet. Sit at a window table and watch surfers below, or take in the coastline view north.
The café opens daily at 7 a.m. and serves breakfast all day. Don't expect real plates; it's paper and plastic all the way. Lobster fans will find an omelet and/or taco, and the menu features a huge platter of nibbly nachos that two of us made a meal. Lemonade hits the spot in place of alcohol (it caused too much trouble on the pier) and clam chowder comes in a bread bowl (a smaller version comes in a small roll bowl). The rich chowder is creamy and filled with clams, potatoes and no thickener. Weekends, I'm told, there's a wait for mango or blueberry pancakes. I had a single scrambled, perfectly cooked egg with some really good homemade thick-cut crisp potatoes served with fresh salsa. Late in the day it made a perfect light dinner. Food can be ordered to go if you want to wander to the end of the pier and watch the unobstructed sunset. 5091 Niagara, Ocean Beach, 619-226-3474.
The Imperial Beach pier is home to The Tin Fish-a second location is in the Gaslamp next to the train tracks and the Convention Center. As you walk on the pier, you get a spectacular view of the Coronado Cays, Mexico and, to the north, Coronado Island.
The food is simple. You order at the counter, they call your number and you sit outside or inside. If you're outside, watch that you aren't sharing food with the greedy pigeons that pounce on your paper plate if you leave for even a minute. A half-order of fish and chips (their most popular dish) comprises three long pieces of cod fish, lightly breaded in a way that reminded me of frozen fish sticks (they aren't). They are good, along with hand-cut, homemade, thick non-greasy crinkle fries and coleslaw with a vinegar-based dressing. Pier End, Imperial Beach, 619-628-1414.
For dessert or a pick-me-up espresso with Calabria coffee beans (my favorite roaster, located at 30th Street and University Avenue in North Park), Cow-a-Bunga, at the foot of the pier, makes fresh ice cream and sorbet. About six months ago, former Loews Coronado executive chef Fabrice Gaunin and his wife Nelly bought the micro-creamery. This is really good ice cream, not overly rich or sweet and worth the visit if you're in the area. Most popular flavors are, you guessed it: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, though I loved the chocolate chip (lots of chips, not chunks). 10 Evergreen Ave, Imperial Beach, 619-628-0508.
Ruby's Diner, the fixture at the end of the Oceanside Pier, is part of a restaurant chain, serving good typical diner food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ruby's first restaurant opened in 1982 on the Newport Beach pier. It's a 1940s diner atmosphere, with good hamburgers and shakes. The Oceanside Pier is the longest wooden pier on the West Coast (1,942 feet); you can get a good workout walking to the restaurant. 1 Oceanside Pier, 760-433-RUBY (7829).
The San Diego Pier Café at Seaport Village sits on pilings, more wharf than pier, has a bar, and a slightly more sophisticated and higher-priced menu than the other cafes. Open for lunch and dinner, you'll find nachos, salads and sandwiches, clam chowder in a bread bowl, and more. 885 West Harbor Drive, Seaport Village, 619-239-3968, www.piercafe.com.
Long time bayside favorite, Anthony's Star of the Sea, closes to reopen in September as Ghio's Seafood and Steaks. Named for the co-founder and CEO of Anthony's Seafood Group, the restaurant will undergo staff, menu and cosmetic changes for a more casual restaurant with classic dishes.
Up Encinitas way, the newly opened Firefly Grill and Wine Bar serves breakfast and lunch until 2 p.m. And while you breakfast, you can check e-mail on their free wireless Internet. 251 North El Camino Real, Encinitas, 760-635-1066.