Encinitas is an oceanfront town of about 60,000 people located just five miles north of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Calif. It's a beautiful drive alongside the public beaches through Solana Beach and Cardiff by the Sea on the 101 South Coast Highway to this funky little beach enclave sprinkled with interesting restaurants, bars and surf shops.
If you're coming into Encinitas from the north, the first thing you'll see is the “Encinitas” sign that arches across the 101. The sign is adjacent to the historic La Paloma theater and was put up in 1928, the year the La Paloma – among the first movie houses in the United States to show “talkies” (movies with sound) – had its grand opening featuring a special appearance by Oscar-winning actress Mary Pickford. Legend has it Pickford bicycled in from the inland Fairbanks Ranch to appear at the premier of the movie, “The Cohens and Kellys In Paris.” The La Paloma is an important part of Encinitas' past and present; in addition to its regular schedule of movies and live shows it's a focal point of the city's charitable events.
If you're arriving from the south into Encinitas, you can't help but notice the interesting gold-spired buildings within a compound on the west side of the 101. This is the Self-Realization Fellowship, the San Diego branch of an international religious organization founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda that communicates the teachings of Kriya Yoga. The grounds of the Self-Realization Fellowship are free and open to the public daily (closed Monday). There is a chapel and peaceful meditation gardens that meander along pathways that eventually lead to cliffs above the Pacific Ocean and offering a stunning view.
The area around the Self-Realization Fellowship is known as Swami's and includes a well-known surfing spot that made its way into the 1963 Beach Boys hit, “Surfin' USA.” The beach was nicknamed Swami's by surfers, but the name stuck and it's now part of the California park system.
Across the road from the Self-Realization Fellowship (via the Swami's crosswalk) is Swami's Café, serving up healthy and delicious breakfasts and lunches (including the Acai Bowl that seems to be a staple of menus throughout the area). This is the original Swami's, which has expanded to 11 locations in the San Diego region.
Swami's Café is one of several businesses on Highway 101 in Encinitas that have an outstanding breakfast menu. There can be lines, especially on weekends, but you can't go wrong at either the 101 Diner or old-school Encinitas Café on opposite sides of the street in the heart of old Encinitas. While Swami's is an order at the counter and have the food delivered to your table eatery, the 101 Diner and Encinitas Café offer traditional table service.
This is a small town, where you can walk from one end to the other in 15 or 20 minutes along Highway 101.
At the south end of Encinitas on the west side of Highway 101 is the Fish Shop, which often has lines out the front door because of its simple yet tasty menu of fresh fish, which are shown in a refrigerated display case as you approach the counter. It's a “1-2-3” ordering process: 1) pick your fish, 2) marinade and 3) style (tacos, salad, sandwich, or plate), plus sides. If you like seaweed salad, the Fish Shop's version is fantastic as a side dish. Local draft beers are the perfect accompaniment.
Moving toward the north is my favorite Italian restaurant in the area, Trattoria I Trulli, on the same side of the street as the Fish Shop. It's small and often busy but they do take reservations. I've never had a meal there I didn't love.
Like the Fish Shop and many other restaurants in town, Trattoria I Trulli is an open air eatery, taking full advantage of the region's mild weather. If you have dinner here, be sure to save room for dessert.
Further north and on the opposite side of Highway 101 is another Italian restaurant that I've had mixed results with, that being Maurizio's Trattoria. A sidewalk table affords excellent people watching on a busy Encinitas evening. I've had some memorable meals here and some that were so-so.
Encinitas isn't all about food and drink. There are many shops, none more interesting than Art N Soul on 101, which showcases local artists and supports local charities. Just to the north, in an old strip mall at the corner of Highway 101 and E Street, is a used book store, perfect for beach reading, and the Thrifty Threads clothing store that can complete a Del Mar racetrack outfit for those shopping on a budget.
Saving the best for last, there are two “must do's” in Encinitas.
The first is The Taco Stand, which almost always has lines snaking out from the cash register onto the sidewalk. The extensive menu offers delicious, fresh Tijuana style tacos and burritos, plus some interesting side dishes (the carne asada fries and grilled corn on the cob are especially popular). I highly recommend the al pastor and shrimp tacos, but I doubt you'll be disappointed by anything you get here. All the food is fresh, including the tortillas, which are made in front of you as you order. The Taco Stand is a perfect late night stop if you're out on the town, as it's open till 1 a.m..
The other spot is Handel's Homemade Ice Cream, a chain with roots in Youngstown, Ohio, located on the north end of town. Like The Taco Stand, Handel's is popular throughout the day and night, so expect to wait in line. But it's well worth it, with dozens of homemade flavors offered daily. If you like ice cream, you've got to find your way to Handel's.
Encinitas is a mix of old and new, a California beach town that is being transformed, slowly but surely into a destination with modern, upscale dining establishments and bars. Some might call part of “old” Encinitas slightly seedy, but I prefer to think of it as an eclectic place with character.
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