As I walk among the pastel buildings of Newport Avenue as evening approaches, it’s not hard to tell why Ocean Beach is identified by locals and tourists alike as the most relaxed, bohemian neighborhood in San Diego County.
Many pedestrians are visitors piling into their cars after a day at the beach, but the local temperament is still palpable. Music pours out of every door along Newport Avenue, O.B.’s main drag; it takes about five minutes to determine that reggae is the genre of choice in these parts. It’s simultaneously broadcast by three stores in one block. OBceans are easy to spot. Many men sport long beards and long hair with tie-dye tank tops or other alternative-style T-shirts, and many females wear psychedelic-patterned yoga pants, crystal pendants, loose blouses, and ocean-blue maxi-skirts.
5025 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
5059 Newport Avenue #102, Ocean Beach
Serving as a backdrop to all the quirky fun is the beach itself, resting as it has since long before Newport Avenue, before rock ’n’ roll, before it was known as Mussel Beach (it received the name Ocean Beach in 1887 by developers Albert E. Higgins and Billy Carlson). Its salty breeze serves as the least common denominator to the other scents of the street, like local favorites the BBQ House and Lighthouse Ice Cream — specialty: waffle ice cream).
5083 Santa Monica Avenue, Ocean Beach
Wonderland Ocean Pub is the number one Yelp!-reviewed establishment in the area and sits just off Newport Avenue. The bar sits atop the family-oriented OB Surf Lodge, which emphasizes family dining over nightlife. The bar closes at 10:00.
At Wonderland, the crowd is dressed in sundresses, polo shirts, and casual button-downs. Matchbox 20 and REM play adult contemporary songs of yesteryear matching the bar’s ethos: mainstream, familiar, comfortable. The bar’s signature drink is a greyhound vodka with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. At $10 apiece, the drink in a jar is refreshing , but the real draw to Wonderland is the view.
Unlike most bars in the area, Wonderland’s peak hours are from 7:00 to about 8:30 during sunset. The back of the bar is mostly windows with chairs that face out looking directly to the pier. Every patron questioned cited the view as a highlight. At the moment of sunset, some celebrate with the “sunset toast” — a Wonderland tradition of providing free shots to those at the bar at sunset — some continue intimate conversations, and others silently watch as the ocean slowly swallows the sun, leaving an orgy of orange and blue hues in its wake
“It’s a really classy vibe here,” says Benjamin Martin, 32. “Other than the view, it’s pretty much a straightforward bar. Nothing special, but nice.”
5028 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Sunshine Company Saloon sits about a block from the beach and shows every intention of living up to its name, but it’s essentially a sports bar disguised as a sort of hipster hangout yet somehow older than both ideas. TVs that line the bar area are turned to ESPN channels; most are ignored, but a few patrons keep close tabs on a boxing match. The establishment boasts three bars: one in the main indoor area, an adjacent bar serving the outside smoking area, and a third on the second floor for when the night busies up.
The aesthetic is something like pop-art renditions of Jimmy Buffet imagery, with a 1950s styled mural on the wall depicting a dizzying collage of mustachioed men in Hawaiian shirts, girls in bikinis, surfboards, and tequila bottles the size of buildings. Four pool tables, a lottery machine, and an Aerosmith-themed pinball machine provide additional entertainment for those looking for more than sports and smoking.
Local resident and contractor Jeremy Angus sits against the mural in a smart gray sweater and gray baseball cap that match his stubbled beard, with off-duty sunglasses hanging from his neckline. Angus, who describes himself simply as a “builder” with Angus General Contracting, was walking home when he decided to drop in for a beer and to catch some of the fight. His manner is open, controlled, and friendly. He buys us two pitchers of beer, and his eyes light up when he tells of how he moved down “every beachside community in Southern California” before settling in Ocean Beach 15 years ago.
“It’s Graceland. You never have to leave. It’s the last untouched beach community in San Diego, and a great place to raise children.” He proudly shows pictures of his two young sons, aged three and one. He then playfully takes my notebook and starts interviewing me about my past, my dreams and my future plans.
Angus introduces me to “an old saying by the locals: ‘Ocean Beach is seven blocks surrounded by reality.’” When I ask him to explain the saying, he replies, “That’s for you to find out. Just walk around for a while and you’ll get what I mean.”
I ask several other residents and patrons about the meaning of the maxim. Most of the interpretations boil down to something similar to 24-year-old patron Eric Allen’s take: “Basically, it’s like Ocean Beach is a magical place where anything can happen and you can be anyone. It’s somehow removed from the everyday reality of most people.”
Patron Brandon Brodes offers praise for the area in the kind of language and metaphor one doesn’t often find outside the neighborhood. “People here aren’t attacking the moment, they’re living in it. They live in the moment, not in the pictures. It’s happiness, the place you want to be.” The rail-thin, dreadlocked Brodes speaks with a genial smile. “When people are here, they expose what’s real within the reel that’s inside reality. That second reel has two E’s, like a camera. Get what I’m saying?”
I tell him I understand perfectly.
Brodes clamps my hand in one of the variations of the male handshake, “Good vibes, man. You got good vibes.”
Isabella Long came to San Diego from London to study at UCSD, and tonight is celebrating her graduation with friends. While she also likes North Park, she cites O.B. as her favorite area for its “chill” atmosphere. “It’s not too formal, but not too shit-show,” she says.
“It’s great. You can show up in sweatpants or PJs if you want and still be accepted,” echoes Kaylee King.
The laid-back temperament and chill demeanor of most Ocean Beach locals conceals a fiercely provincial spirit. Many are skeptical of outsiders or new developments and protective of what they see as a special lifestyle.
“People who live here have respect for the beach and what that means,” says Angus. “Tourists are here for a reason, and they just don’t get what we’re about, but we’re going to educate them about that.”
I ask him to be more specific. “Well, it’s a lot of things, really. I hate litter on the beach, and I hate when people don’t act like true OBceans. ‘This isn’t PB. Respect the beach and the people here.’ I’m not from here, but I’ve adopted the lifestyle and culture.”
King says, “Some people want to take it over and make it like PB, but you can’t take over O.B.! We won’t allow it. As long as you’re cool, you can hang here, but if you’re an asshole, you can fucking leave. Judgmental assholes are not a thing here.”
Fellow Sunshine Company patron Alana Johnson echoes the sentiment, albeit in a more subdued style. “The people that live here respect the area. We want to keep it original. It’s the one place in San Diego that hasn’t sold out.”
Many locals take great pride in relating the community’s resistance to opening a Starbucks in the area, including a short-lived trend of “No Starbucks in O.B.” bumper stickers. While a Starbucks location eventually did open (at 4994 Newport Avenue), many in the community are voicing opposition to a proposal to open a Target.
Angus expresses common concerns about new developments. “I really don’t want to see too many new developments in the area, but sometimes I wonder if it will gentrify like North Park.”
An eavesdropper from the next table (who declined to be identified) pipes up, “Not if it gentrifies, but when. Don’t make it sound cool so more people come here. Then we’ll just get a bunch of assholes.”
It’s becoming clear that not being an “asshole” is one of the primary community values.
Two girls sitting at the bar motion me over to talk. “I’m going to write something down for you,” says one. She takes my notepad and pen and hands them back a few seconds later with the page covered in obscene (albeit finely detailed) drawings of male genitalia and the phrase “Hey Penis Boy!”
I decide to move on.
Music is an important part of the local culture. It’s common to see people walking with an acoustic guitar in hand, sometimes as part of impromptu musical groups singing along with a guitarist strumming the chords for songs like “Wonderwall” by Oasis or “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Many bars in the area host nightly music performances.
1921 Bacon Street, Ocean Beach
Winstons Beach Club has been hosting live music since 1986. Its nightly entertainment roster includes stand-up comedy, punk, roots and oldies, mixing local and touring bands. One of the bar’s most consistent draws is Grateful Dead cover group Electric Waste Band, which has played every Monday night for the past 25 years, with many fans referring to the ritual as “going to church.”
According to Winstons manager Tara Hill, “The crowd really depends on the night and the music playing. We get so many types of crowds here.”
Security man Johnny Mira says that whatever the night, the crowd is “a good set of people with good vibes. No fights or violence. The biggest problem we get is with noise ordinance, ’cause we got a kick-ass sound system.”
Club manager Ted Wigler, who’s also worked in downtown and East County, says there’s something special about the O.B. community. “I’ve been here a while, and believe me, people aren’t as chill in other areas.”
Wigler credits a loyal customer base, friendly staff, and a history of hosting strong entertainers. Apart from Electric Waste Band, Wigler names Ocean Beach–bred reggae/alternative band Slightly Stoopid and Santa Barbara’s reggae heroes Rebelution as examples of past acts.
Tonight’s entertainment is reggae veteran Winston Hussey with fellow Jamaican Robbie Forbes as opening act. The crowd gears up for the concert, with four groups (four to five patrons each) gathered in circles in the alley behind the bar passing joints beneath a mural depicting Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash in a dreamy swirl of grays and pale blues. The air is so heavy with marijuana smoke that one may want to think twice before walking through the alley if one faces an impending drug test. The patrons’ Rastafarian beanies, Bob Marley T-shirts, and shorts with flip-flops set the tone.
Many, such as 45-year-old IT worker and “part-time pimp” Ricky Cinco, came exclusively for the show. Patron Air Nandez reports that he comes frequently to O.B. for love of the local spirit. “It’s a great place! It’s like a 24-hour music festival. It’s a combination of peace and love and grit. It’s kind of ’hood, and very hippie.... It’s the same as it was 20 years ago, real well preserved.”
Nandez offers me a drag on his joint, saying, “Mostly I come down here when I want to get high and eat some Hodad’s.”
At 10:18, management announces that the event (at $20 a ticket) is sold out, and there’s a collective groan from those still standing in line who must now find a plan B for the night.
I’m speaking outside with doorman Pierre — an engaging and personable young man who has worked at Winstons “for about three months” — when he is approached by two girls. “Hey, is there anything we can do to get in? We really, really, really want to see this.”
“If you got $40 apiece I can see what I can do.”
The girls confer among themselves before returning to Pierre to confirm that they have the cash.
“All right. Let me see what I can do.”
The inside of Winstons features low lighting, gray walls and floor, and a disco ball that provides the strongest source of lighting while the band sets up for the show. The other source of lighting is the deep red “LIQUOR” sign that presides over the bar area. The wall is decorated with posters of previously hosted bands that take aesthetic cues from pop art, comic books, and posters for the blaxploitation films of the 1970s.
Robbie Forbes takes the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and sunglasses. The crowd cheers, then listens reverently as the 63-year-old sings a few solo acoustic songs (all of which refer to love and peace repeatedly) before the full band joins him onstage for the upbeat reggae number “Here I Go.” Many in the crowd jump to their feet to enjoy the richly percussive set that follows.
When Winston Hussey begins his set, the energy level of the whole place rises a notch. Sporting a full white beard, Wilson is relaxed, gregarious, and a little mischievous as he preens across the stage, relishing the lines as “let’s make it baby girl/ let’s make a baby girl.” He seems at home bathed in the green lights that flood the stage. His thin body responds to the rhythm of his vocal lines more than the backing music, making for entertainingly sporadic movements. The crowd joins in the standard reggae body sway, ranging from subtle head bobs and knee bends to full-on body rocks in which every muscle group gets in on the action. For many, it is clearly not their first reggae concert.
After the show, Hussey smiles as he returns the enthusiasm of the crowd. “The people here are very warm, clean, and united. Wonderful area!”
Both Pierre and Winstons security worker Johnny Mira report that at Winstons — and Ocean Beach, in general — there are few fights or violent interactions among patrons.
“The most we usually have to do is refuse over-intoxicated customers. We keep our problems at the front door, not in the bar.”
The high number of homeless and transients was mentioned by many O.B. residents I talked to. San Diego police officer Louis Roman acknowledges the problem but says that in general the transients in Ocean Beach are less aggressive or intrusive than many transients downtown.
“Not as many tourists on Ocean Beach, so there’s a bit less panhandling and stuff like that. They tend to keep to themselves, and it seems to work out for the most part, but it’s still something we keep an eye on.”
Another concern in the area that Roman cites: public marijuana consumption. “A lot of people are either ignorant of the current laws concerning marijuana consumption or they play dumb about what the laws are.”
Roman describes the marijuana-consumption laws as being similar in many ways to those concerning alcohol: marijuana is still illegal to consume in public and is sanctioned only in private homes/spaces. Even privately owned bars that allow for cigarette smoke in designated areas are still considered public spaces and are not allowed to host marijuana consumption.
“It’s pretty much only allowed in the privacy of your own home.”
Roman states that the problem has increased since pot was legalized for recreational use in California in November 2016. “There will be no more physical arrests based on marijuana consumption alone. Now, public consumption of marijuana only elicits a moderate ticket with a fine.”
5046 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
The Holding Company is another of Ocean Beach’s highest-rated nightlife establishments, and one of the area’s prized music venues. It’s a name that comes up a lot with the younger crowd. It has a rustic, wood-colored aesthetic, utilizing barrels as tables and planks as walls. At 11:50 p.m., the place isn’t particularly busy, but those in attendance are enthusiastic. A single couple bounces around the dance floor to the manic beats and processed vocal blurbs coming from the DJ’s speakers. Green and blue lights swirl around the otherwise empty dance floor, while most customers are either smoking in the outside patio or gathered around the bar.
Matthew Gray, 23, came to O.B. for Hodad’s burgers and to Holding Company for its beer selection and reasonable prices.
“It’s a super-legit place. Great drinks at great prices, a cool look, loud music. It’s good. Everything’s good. Tonight’s good. What did you ask again?” Gray sometimes has difficulty following the thread of conversation, but there is nothing loud or obnoxious about his manner.
“As long as people come to have a good time, all are welcome here,” says owner Steve Yeng, who attributes the bar’s success to a combination of the friendly vibe, strong live-music roster, and community activism. Yeng hosts a combination of local and touring bands and has hosted such successful alternative acts as Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Yeng takes pride in describing the eclectic variety of music featured at the venue (including gypsy, punk, bluegrass, and brass bands), but places more emphasis on the establishment’s involvement in the local community. The Holding Company recently raised $15,000 for the O.B. community and distributed the funds between local schools, Fourth of July fireworks, and the O.B. Woman’s Club. A man carrying a woman piggy-back style passes by and thanks Yeng for a great night at a great place.
Another draw to the Holding Company: peanut butter whiskey, developed by Yeng himself, and served exclusively at the Holding Company and affiliate business OB Noodle House. Yeng shows me several celebrity reactions to the drink, all overwhelmingly positive (he declined to have the celebrities identified by name). When I try the drink, I am stunned: it’s thick, creamy, and flows past the mouth easier than chocolate milk. It may be the tastiest drink I’ve ever had.
The reasonable cost of a night out in O.B. is a commonly cited perk of the area. At Sunshine Company, tap and bottled beers range from $6.25 to $8.50, with well mixed drinks starting at $5 a piece; the place also offers a power hour from 9 to 10 that offers well drinks for $2.50. Prices at Wonderland are similar, with mixed drinks starting at $6. The Holding Company offers an ample selection of beers that range from $7–$15. A peanut butter whiskey shot is $5.50.
Some favor Ocean Beach for the general tone of male-female interactions here, which appear to be less contentious than in other nightlife centers in San Diego.
“In a place like the Gaslamp, there’s, like, nine dudes to one girl, but it’s definitely quantity over quality down there. [Gaslamp] dudes are really pushy and just want to get laid,” says Wonderland patron Meagan Johnson. “Here [in O.B.] the guys will actually talk to you and verbalize and stuff.”
Isabella Long agrees. “People in PB are... How should I say this... A tad immature. I have self-respect, and I expect more from the people I meet in O.B. People here are more willing to accept things as just a night out and nothing more. It’s a respect issue. I mean, I don’t even want to be associated with the women who go to PB at night.”
Alana Johnson, who moved from PB to O.B., agrees. “As a girl, you just had to be more aware of your surroundings. I feel safer here.”
“Look, there are always going to be guys that are trying to get laid,” says Holding Company patron Liz Sterling, 26. “In O.B. it’s a bit less aggressive and less common. It’s not really a problem like it is downtown or in PB.”
In turn, the men in the area didn’t have many complaints about the women.
“The girls here are very friendly,” says Wonderland patron Eduardo Marmolejo. “I think they really do want to find that one, good guy in the end.” He then gives a smile, as if to indicate that he is one of those “good guys.” He then turns to a pretty blonde woman ordering drinks next to him to confirm that he and the fairer sex are on the same page. She agrees and promptly takes her drink back to her table.
Other men describe the girls that frequent Ocean Beach as cool, nice, and relaxed. I got one, “Depends what girl you’re talking about.”
“Just be ready to talk about your [astrology] sign,” suggests 26-year-old Don Harland. “Chicks around here like talking about that [stuff].”
5010 Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach
Outside local burger joint Hodad’s, 64-year-old transient Phil Kaufman sits on his suitcase, having recently packed up the guitar he was playing for passersby on the sidewalk. In a gray sweater and black pants, he looks something like a world-weary Tony Bennett as he savors one of Hodad’s burgers.
“The area’s changing too fast, and it’s not in the right direction,” Kaufman laments. “The kinds of businesses we have around here are changing, and we all just need to slow down. It’s hard enough paying rent for all these greedy bourgeois landlords as it is. Might be getting a Target here soon. I’d hate that.”
Kaufman has been living in Ocean Beach “for a long time” but declines to specify how long. He looks sad while he describes the friend he used to live with who passed away last year. Without a place to stay or “many friends left,” Kaufman finds solace in the Eric Clapton–influenced guitar stylings he plays on this sidewalk almost every weekend.
“Sometimes I play for them, sometimes I play for me.”
As last call rings out and the bars close, a friend and I walk down Newport Avenue to its beachside conclusion. I strike up a conversation with Angela Diveglia and her local friend Josephine, who are sharing a slice of pizza by the coast. Angela singles out Ocean Beach as her favorite area in San Diego, citing its independent spirit as the main draw. “All the businesses are like these ma-and-pa ideas. I just love that there’s nothing really commercial around here.”
She abruptly changes the subject. “Would you take some pictures of me for my Instagram account?” She hands me her phone, unzips her black down jacket and nonchalantly takes off her striped T-shirt and shoes, leaving a sports bra, fashionably torn jeans, and a backward baseball cap. She steps on top of the concrete seawall and winds into yoga poses with the ocean as a backdrop. Her body is slender and her movements are graceful as she fashions herself into poses more reminiscent of a static ballerina or a human sculpture by Henry Moore than exercise routine. The breaking waves behind her provide a soothing soundtrack to her movements, and for a moment, I feel like I’m in one of those magical O.B. blocks I heard about earlier: surrounded by reality.
She stops suddenly. “All right, that’s enough. I’m freezing.” Reality would make a full comeback later, when she cried to me about some of the challenges of her job as a topless dancer and sad details about her early life. Angela puts her jacket back on and someone passes around some marijuana. The majority of those present participate.
I decide to walk further down the coastline since a nearby man on the beach with jeans and no shirt is growing increasingly intimate with the dark-haired girl he’s lying on. I can’t tell what she’s wearing.
A short walk later, I come across an oceanside bonfire surrounded by attractive 20somethings who are clearly dressed for a night out and somehow found their way to the seaside fire. They are welcoming and friendly and say that no one in the group knows who started the fire. “We didn’t start it, but all are welcome,” says a pleasant male voice from the crowd. All present gravitate to its warm crackle. A little further down the beach, two men in their 20s strip to their boxers and run into the ocean with seemingly boundless energy. They make it waist-deep, wrestle in the water for about ten seconds, and return to shore panting and smiling.
After warming up for a few minutes, Angela and Josephine ask my friend and I to walk them home. We oblige and walk with the girls for a few minutes to their destination. The group exchanges numbers, says goodnight, and my friend and I start the quiet 3:00 a.m. walk back to the beach to wait for an Uber ride. My friend tosses his head back and says with a big smile,
“Man, there’s no place like O.B.!”