San Clemente—A Nice Change of Pace

San Clemente—A Nice Change of Pace

Ariel view of San Clemente Coastline with coastal view homes and railroad tracks. (CameronCreatives/Shutterstock)

Kimberly Hayek
Kimberly Hayek

6/29/2024

Updated: 6/29/2024

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SAN CLEMENTE, Calif.—Surfin’ Donuts sits just east of the 5 Freeway I-5 in San Clemente, a great stop for a hot coffee or fresh squeezed orange juice and donuts. This morning, it’s one each of chocolate, glazed, and raspberry-filled donuts before I continue my way west along El Camino Real towards Avenida Del Mar, where I’ll park and go for a stroll in this sleepy coastal town.
In 1928, when the city was founded, San Clemente had more than 500 buildings in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, known for its red roof tiles, white stucco walls, patios, and verandas. Deed restrictions at the time permitted only such architecture.
Ole Hanson, one of the founders of San Clemente, wanted it to become what its present day motto suggests: a “Spanish Village by the Sea.”
Today, only about 200 of those original buildings are left. By 1933, the city’s architectural restrictions were viewed as a possible hindrance to construction, and Spanish style had fallen out of favor. From 1947 through the 1960s, Mid-century futurist Googie architecture—like Pedro’s Tacos on El Camino Real—Art Deco, and tiki architecture, flourished.
However, many newer buildings are also in the Spanish Colonial style, since San Clemente now requires new construction in the old parts of town be built in that old Spanish style.
Aerial view of the coastline and beach town of San Clemente in Orange County, California. (Unwind/Shutterstock)

Aerial view of the coastline and beach town of San Clemente in Orange County, California. (Unwind/Shutterstock)

These days, San Clemente, a quiet, conservative town of nearly 63,000 that lays claim to the “world’s best climate,” is a laid-back alternative to the hustle and bustle of many Southern California beach cities.
On a hill overlooking El Camino Real, the Art Deco Red Fox Lounge and Oles serve drinks late at night. Just north from the old city hall building, offices are located on the second floor on top of the shops along Avenida Del Mar, the main shopping street, and El Camino Real. A sign prominently reads “Old City Hall” on the Moroccan-influenced building, though it was only used briefly for such purposes. Today, the city hall is a more modern building on Calle Negocio.
On the northwest corner of Del Mar and El Camino Real, an official sign on a lamp post gives you a feel for the town: “Preserve America: Explore and Enjoy our heritage. Welcome to San Clemente. A Preserve America community.” It’s one of hundreds of towns across the nation that encourage the preservation of their historical and cultural heritage as part of the “Preserve America” initiative. This federal program ran from 2004 to 2016, allowing communities to apply for official designation and grants to educate visitors and boost tourism.
As I admire the rustic charm of Avenida Del Mar on a weeknight, the boisterous Artifax Brewery is closing up at around 10:30 p.m. Along the north side of the street, Stanford Court stands out with lofts above the Antique and Decorative Arts Center below. Slow jazz spills out of Nick’s San Clemente, one of the area’s popular restaurants, onto the streets. Wind chimes from a private residence above gift shop The Warehouse on Del Mar ring out above the street.
A colorful mosaic at the entrance to San Clemente state beach, where trains whip by the short pier, in San Clemente, Calif., on May 29, 2024. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

A colorful mosaic at the entrance to San Clemente state beach, where trains whip by the short pier, in San Clemente, Calif., on May 29, 2024. (Kimberly Hayek/The Epoch Times)

It’s not long after Memorial Day, and Rascal’s Ladies Boutique is honoring locals who gave their life while serving the country, with large cardboard cutouts depicting them on its front windows.
At the intersection of Ola Vista and Del Mar, there’s free parking, and a Hobie surfboards shop is across the American flag-lined street. That’s where I meet Joe and his Yorkie.
The story goes that Joe had heard there was a Yorkshire Terrier at a shelter. So he went. There, a volunteer pointed out the dog’s crooked teeth matched Joe’s crooked teeth. According to Joe, it was love at first sight. A local surfer, Joe has lived in San Clemente for the past 30 years and is still in love with the town after all this time.
Many old shops are still here, such as Nic’s Vacuums and Small Appliances, established in 1961, selling premium appliances like handheld vacuums made by Miele. New establishments can be found, too, like chic Rare Society, a restaurant built in the Spanish Colonial style that opened in 2023. The grand Del Mar Plaza is home to Beachfire California Bar and Grill, Trestles Clothing Company, and El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant.
Just south of San Clemente at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton are world-known surf spots Trestles, San Onofre, and Church—named after a church that once stood above the beach. It’s the last stretch of undeveloped California coastal land from Santa Barbara to Mexico.
Footbridge along the ocean trail near San Clemente pier. (Wayne Via/Shutterstock)

Footbridge along the ocean trail near San Clemente pier. (Wayne Via/Shutterstock)

Visitors can also try Docent on Del Mar—which proudly advertises the word “BEER” on its window painted in two-tone gold. It also serves a birria taco featuring beer-braised beef, a SmashBurger with wagyu beef, and more.
The San Clemente pier juts out from the center of the main beach just west of Avenida Del Mar, next to an Amtrak station. The street loops along the shoreline and then up a hill through a residential neighborhood and back toward El Camino Real.
The houses are mostly in the Spanish style and are neatly manicured and maintained. A free trolley along Avenida Del Mar and El Camino Real transports riders to the pier and the Outlet shops, with several stops along the way.
Whatever the reason, time spent in San Clemente is sure to evoke a feeling of coastal Spain or southern Italy—not so much the Los Angeles Metropolitan area.
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