Pacifica, Calif.—The velvety voice of Argentinean crooner Claudio Ortega passionately echoed from the stage, backed by the intense tango sounds of four talented musicians of the group Tangonero. The hypnotic melodies of the crying violin and bandoneon complemented the intricate footwork of the two tightly embraced dancers.
Surprisingly, I was admiring this artistry at the Mildred Owen Concert Hall (a former schoolhouse) in the quiet, coastline community of Pacifica—known more for its surfing and seafood. Times have changed, though, and this slice of ocean paradise now offers a delightful diversity of cultural and culinary experiences to its visitors.
Adjacent to the Concert Hall also stands the Sanchez Art Center featuring exhibits of emerging and established California artists. The elaborate mural on the outside of this structure was painted by prideful local artists.
Just 15 minutes from San Francisco, the serene seaside town of Pacifica was filled with constant unexpected tastes and sounds during my recent weekend escape. I even experienced Pacifica’s first Hawaiian Festival at Surf Spot, an outdoor restaurant across from the popular community of Rockaway Beach, where I stayed for two nights at one of the comfy beachfront hotels.
In this dollhouse-sized neighborhood, alone, there are four eating establishments, three with nightly weekend entertainment ranging from Brazilian sounds to jazz, rock, and country music.
On my first night there, I danced non-stop at the popular Nick’s Restaurant to a pop/rock band until the wee hours of the morning. The warm, inviting staff added to my enjoyment.
The newly-opened wine bar, A Grape in the Fog, Pacifica’s first and only, is located here. A lifelong dream of resident/owner Beth Lemke, the welcoming establishment offers 30 wines from California to Austria and Argentina, along with live music and a tasty menu in its intimate setting.
Around the corner, atop the Best Western, sits the Moonraker, a great place for a happy hour and also live music. The succulent coconut encrusted shrimp appetizer was enough to satiate my appetite along with a glass of sangria embellished with fresh berries. The all-you-can-eat brunch buffet features a Berry Belgian Waffle, Broccolini Fritatta, and a Bacon Cheddar Omelette—enough to start one’s day.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected treats at Rockaway Beach is Lovey’s Tea Shoppe for the quintessential Victorian tea-time experience, from luscious homemade scones to an endless selection of fragrant teas that could even convert a coffee drinker such as me.
The White Peach and the Chestnut tea were quite addictive.
The surrounding shops add a further charm to this locale. Particularly eye-catching is Urban Succulent, an unusual shop featuring hand-knitted socks and leg warmers coupled with owner Kevin Easton’s plant designs.
Next door stands the friendly Chamber of Commerce where I was supplied with maps and information on Pacifica for my weekend junket, which included a step back into history and nature.
Pacifica was discovered in 1769 by a Spanish expedition party led by Gaspar de Portola, who also discovered San Francisco Bay amid the scenic summit of Sweeney Ridge riddled with wildlife and wildflowers. The city’s history stretches way beyond its six-mile scenic coastline.
Farmers from Italy and Ireland were attracted to Pacifica’s cool, Mediterranean climate. In the late 1800s, the area touted the largest artichoke crop production in the country. Up to WWII, Pacifica was the artichoke capital of the United States. Ocean Shore Railroad passed through this developing area in the early 1900s, bringing along a cavalcade of colorful characters.
Once a whistle stop, Vallemar Station Restaurant houses railroad memorabilia to preserve Pacifica’s rich history. Speculators were hoping to create an onslaught of vacation homes away from the big city, as seen by the alluring ads displayed from the past. In addition, the restaurant serves an enormous breakfast with an incredible crab-stuffed omelette enough for two.
Directly across from here is the community-built Liberty Garden created as a result of 9/11—and well worth a stroll to work off the hearty breakfast.
Many tourists avoided Pacifica and its winding scenic route because of the treacherous roadway around Devil’s Slide on Highway 1. Recently, this area has been renovated with the environmentally sound Tom Lantos Devil’s Slide Tunnel carved through the mountainside. A bike and hiking path are slated by midyear of 2014.
According to Kathleen Manning, president of Pacifica Historical Society, “I’ve lived here for more than 20 years, and in the past 10 years, I’ve seen a progressive movement of young, environmentally aware families settling here and creating a refreshing community spirit.”
The care of the land is a major concern and hiking trails abound. Approximately 1,000 acres are protected by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GNRA). Beginner or serious hikers can visit San Pedro Valley Park, coined as a walker’s paradise. Acres of lush hiking trails are cushioned between the Santa Cruz Mountain range and the foot of Pacifica, offering stunning views of waterfalls and ocean vistas. Note that no dogs are allowed in the park. The area can be accessed off of east Linda Mar Boulevard.
At Sweeney Ridge, tucked between San Bruno and Pacifica, the hiker can enjoy steep coastal views. Mori Point, once a haven for settlers and bootleggers, and also a GGNRA protected area, is a coastal extension of the Sweeney Ridge property. On a clear day, one can see as far north as the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes.
North of here is Sharp Park. The area houses the second oldest building in Pacifica, a former church and now an historical museum. For fishing or crabbing, head straight to Sharp Park’s Pier—and maybe even catch a spectacular sunset.
The contemporary-style Puerto 27 Peruvian Kitchen & Pisco Bar, enhanced with ceiling to floor glass windows, gave me one of the best views of the coastline as well as a memorable meal on my introduction to Pacifica. The Jalea Mixta (crispy calamari, shrimp, and scallops with yucca and black mint tartar sauce) was just one of the mouth-watering appetizers. My Lomo Saltado, the sautéed sirloin steak strips with onion, cilantro, and soy sauce, touched my palate with a surprising combo of creative flavors. I tasted my first Chicha Morada, a purple corn cider drink with unforgettable cinnamon accents.
Pacifica definitely has the gift of titillating the senses from tastes to sights and sounds.
On my final morning, as I strolled along Rockaway Beach just outside my hotel, I heard the soothing rhythms of the waves brushing against the rocks. Simultaneously, I observed a blanket of white mist dissipate across the sky and sandy beach revealing a sculptured landscape of craggy rock formations encircled by a ribbon of foamy crests of waves.
As the sun broke through the mist, it added a final golden touch to this dramatic ocean landscape. My thoughts were miles away, and it was difficult to imagine that I was really just moments from my San Francisco Bay area home and city life.
Beverly Mann has been a feature, arts, and travel writer in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past 28 years. She has received numerous accolades in the fields of travel writing, education, and international public relations, including a Bay Area Travel Writers Award of Excellence in Newspaper Travel Writing; www.beverlymann.com
For further information on Pacifica, contact www.visitpacifica.com, or in-person at 225 Rockaway Beach Avenue, Pacifica, Calif.