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Four Hours: Train down to San Clemente for Brussels Bistro and an afternoon adventure

A train runs between the coast and the San Clemente Coastal Trail.
A train hugs the coast along the northbound San Clemente Coastal Trail. The trail is partially off-limits because of a landslide north of Linda Lane. The shorter version is just as lovely and stretches north and south of the pier.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)
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With its majestic views and enchanting beach-town charm, San Clemente is a delightful destination for an afternoon adventure. The hilly terrain of Orange County’s southernmost town led visionary Ole Hanson to dream of a Spanish city by the sea: The former Seattle mayor began development in 1925 and, initially, all homes were to be built in the Spanish Colonial style, giving the town the alluring Old World ambience it has today. In 1969, President Richard Nixon was also drawn to the area and the historic La Casa Pacifica, the mansion that he would use as his Western White House during his presidency.

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11:22 a.m.

You could drive. But for a true adventure: The southbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner deposits you daily at 11:22 a.m. at the San Clemente Pier seven days a week. Other southbound stops are at 10:04 a.m. Monday to Friday and 9:48 a.m. Saturday, Sunday and holidays. In the afternoon, the northbound Surfliner boards here at 4:10 p.m. and 5:19 p.m. daily, so make sure you keep track of time if you’re planning a round trip.

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11:45 a.m.
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens is the 1927 home built by San Clemente founder Ole Hanson in the Spanish Colonial Revival style.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

First stop, the Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens at 415 Avenida Granada. The home was built by San Clemente founder Ole Hanson. He chose the magnificent overlook of the California coast to create his historic 1927 Spanish Colonial Revival home, which is now a busy cultural center with gardens and spaces from which to take in the sweeping ocean vistas. At Casa Romantica, activities include arts programs, concerts, family movies, weekly kids story times and the family-friendly D. Yoder Family Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the first Sunday of each month. (Before you go, check out the online calendar of activities at casaromantica.org.) A must: the art gallery, which features a rotation of mostly California artists.

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Should you choose to head there on the first Wednesday of the month, $10 will reserve you a 9 a.m. yoga class overlooking the Pacific ocean.

Make time for thrift shopping, grab short rib tacos at Pour Vida Latin Flavor, pick up baked goods and explore the Anaheim Packing House.

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12:15 p.m.
People in downtown San Clemente.
The downtown district of San Clemente runs along Avenida Del Mar.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

An uphill four-block stroll brings you to the heart of the downtown district on Avenida Del Mar: Downtown San Clemente is a true charmer. Avenida Del Mar clings to its retro allure and is still home to several old-school, mom-and-pop shops that more developed SoCal beach towns seem to be losing. (Beginning in May, a trolley will make this trek much easier and will even connect to the Dana Point trolley line.)

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12:30 p.m.
Owner Julie Brawner and customer Rob Feuerstein, sampling oil, at Oliver’s Olive Oils.
At Oliver’s Olive Oils, Rob Feuerstein samples olive oil, guided by owner Julie Brawner. The olive oil and balsamic tasting gallery has a selection of more than 30 kinds of balsamic vinegar and 20 olive oils.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

Head to Oliver’s Olive Oils at 211 Avenida Del Mar, an olive oil and balsamic tasting gallery nestled in the midst of small, unique boutiques (and shoe repair and vacuum repair shops). Owners Bob and Julie Brawner relocated from Laguna Beach for San Clemente’s family-centric feel. “What’s special is the relationships with local people here,” Julie Brawner says. ”We see children grow up and pets come and go.”

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Oliver’s artisan selection includes at least 33 kinds of aged balsamic vinegar and 20 olive oils from California and the Mediterranean. How about a chocolate or espresso balsamic, or olive oils infused with jalapeño or Meyer lemon? The bestselling Buscionetta Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is produced in Caltabellotta, Italy, by a local resident who heads to Sicily for the family olive harvest and returns with EVOO.

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1 p.m.
Moules frites, or mussels and fries, is the specialty at Brussels Bistro.
Moules frites, or mussels and fries, is the specialty at Brussels Bistro. The mussels are flown in from Washington.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

Did you work up an appetite? Brussels Bistro at 218 Avenida Del Mar is known for its moules frites — mussels and fries. (The mussels are flown in from Penn Cove, Wash.) We suggest sampling the beer flight — perhaps the Grimbergen Dubbel beer — with mushroom soup served in feather-light puff pastry, or the boeuf bourguignon, slow-cooked for 24 hours. The eatery offers 25 varieties of Belgian beer with the warmth of Belgium’s comfort food and conviviality. “It’s less fussy than French cuisine,” says co-owner Thomas Crijns.

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2 p.m.
The Abode sells vintage and new housewares.
The Abode, selling vintage and new housewares, is housed in another residence built by city founder Ole Hanson.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

When you’ve had your fill, stroll to the Abode at 228 Avenida Del Mar, housed in a residence also built by Ole Hanson in the 1920s in the town’s signature Spanish Revival style. Filled with a mix of vintage and new eclectic decor, you may find rare vintage drawer pulls, milk glass dishes and 1930s light fixtures, as well as soft furnishings and vintage clothing. You can pick up some Annie Sloan chalk paint products for that DIY project you’ve had in mind. Crafting classes and tutorials are available.

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2:30 p.m.
The outdoor seating area of the waterside Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar.
Nab a waterside seat at Fisherman’s Restaurant and Bar at the base of San Clemente Pier.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

Your return walk is a downhill breeze along Avenida Del Mar. Enjoy the pier and the ocean views expanding before you as you connect to the San Clemente Coastal Trail stretching north and south of the pier. Done with your hike a bit early? Stop for a drink at the bar side of Fishermans Restaurant and Bar at the base of the pier, 611 Avenida Victoria. The bar side is seat-yourself, so get ready to stalk a good ocean-view table. Few bars or eateries offer such magnificent coastal sunset views at the edge of the sand. Pair a dry martini with the salty air as you people-watch pier strollers and surfers directly below you.

In silhouette, kids play around the bubble man known as Frenchie near San Clemente Pier.
The San Clemente bubble man known as Frenchie regularly releases his creations near San Clemente Pier.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

Watch for bubbles, as in a beach bubble fest created by a local who goes by Frenchie. He regularly sets kids in a leaping frenzy with his show of gargantuan bubbles interspersed with flurries of smaller bubbles. Frenchie is undoubtedly San Clemente’s most photographed resident.

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4:10 p.m.
A surfer sits on the beach, holding his board, and watches the sunset.
A surfer savors a magical sunset at the San Clemente coast.
(Ana Venegas / For The Times)

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With great reluctance, it’s time to catch the northbound train home. The Amtrak Surfliner makes its daily pier stops at 4:10 p.m. or 5:19 p.m. Take in the sunset through the window as your train follows the winding coast on a stress-free, traffic-free trip back home.

Whether your resolution has you experimenting with veganism, meditating or spending more time in nature — or some impressive combination of the three — the Pacific Palisades provides an ideal place to take a breath and recharge before diving into 2020.


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Ana Venegas