California Fool’s Gold — San Clemente, The Spanish Village in Orange County

California Fool's Gold

San Clemente postcard
Mid-20th century postcard from San Clemente


Until the visit that Una and I took to San Clemente this past weekend, I don’t think that I’d ever visited the place. I’m not entirely sure because nearly all of my trips south on the 5 have ended in Mexico and the stretch of freeway between South Orange County and San Diego County has blended together in my mind into a white-walled, red-roofed blur. I may very well have stopped in San Clemente to refill the gas tank on at least one occasion but, again, I have no recollection. Now, however, after having spent a weekend there and exploring mostly on foot (the best way to explore) I promise that I won’t confuse San Clemente for any other red-tile community.


San Clemente is the southernmost city in South County. This is inarguable in a geographic sense and arguably in a symbolic sense as well. South Orange County is generally and night entirely inaccurately characterized as a predominantly white, politically conservative, and wealthy place.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of South Orange CountyPendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s map of South Orange County

San Clemente is predominantly white — 76% white (compared to 44% for the county as a whole) although to me it seemed even whiter. However, slow change is afoot and in the past thirty years, the Latino population has more than doubled whilst the Anglo population has shrunk by 14%. According to the 2010 census, the population of San Clemente is 17% Latino but that seemed to me much lower. My perception versus the facts might have to do with the fact that I stayed near North Beach and spent most of my time exploring Downtown and the area next to the ocean — areas that are possibly much whiter than others. In two days I only heard Spanish being spoken on three occasions, including once in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant.Asian-Americans make up just 4% of San Clemente’s population, and blacks and Native Americans both make up less than 1% of the population.

Politically speaking, 56% of San Clemente’s population are registered Republicans (compared to 42% for the county as a whole) which is, of course, a majority although maybe less of one than the prevailing stereotypes suggest.

Finally, although there are definitely some very rich folks in San Clemente, the median household income of the community lies somewhere toward the middle, not just of South County, but of all of Orange County. Those seaside and hilltop mansions surely command a high price but it’s not every blueblood that would choose to live near an occasionally leaking nuclear energy plant and a military base.

The city seal and flower (bougainvilleas)

It’s hard for me to generalize after one weekend but it does seem to me like San Clemente has accepted that it’s not a village in Segovia — white and brown residents alike seem to eat la cena when Spaniards would still be munching on la merienda. The prevailing fantasy nowadays seems to be that it’s located not in South County but in the South Pacific. It seemed like everywhere I turned I saw Hawaiian shirts, tikis, and of course, non-native palm trees. I was more surprised to discover signs and menus containing terms like “a hui ho,” “mahalo” and “haole.” By the time I heard Israel Kamakawiwoʻole emanating from an unseen speaker, I barely took notice. I will also generalize that, aside from the truckload of town boys who yelled at me to “go back to” (something unintelligible), the populace struck me as one of the most friendly that I’ve yet encountered.



San Clemente is a small city comprised of several areas and neighborhoods with various levels of distinguishability. Una and I stayed in the proposed North Beach Historic District which has a vibe different from much of the municipality. There’s also a small Downtown, as well as tracts and subdivisions, includingCantomar, Compass Pointe, Cotton Hill, Forster Highlands (including Ashton, Forster Ranch, Las Veredas, Marblehead, Marblehead Coastal, Montego Homes, Rancho Christianitos, Rancho San Clemente, The Reserve, Ridgemore, and San Angelo), Sea Point Estates, Shore Cliff Villas, Southwest San Clemente, Talega, and probably others. Shortly before returning to Los Angeles we took Big Red up into the Santa Ana foothills where ridiculously grand triumphal entrance signs proclaim the existence of seemingly brand new suburban tracts that seem to have been just planted at the edge of civilization.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of San Clemente
Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s map of San Clemente
Beyond these scrubby hills to the northeast are the peaks of the Santa Ana Mountains and the largest of the unincorporated areas of Orange County. Beyond that lies Riverside County. To the southeast is the mostly undeveloped northwestern corner of San Diego County that’s home to a nuclear station and military base. To San Clemente’s northwest are the communities of Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano. To the west is the Pacific Ocean. About 70 kilometers across the water is Santa Catalina Island and south of that, San Clemente Island — the two large, actual Islands that are part of LA County.
San Clemente Island on the horizon
Although you can’t really make it out in the photo, that’s San Clemente Island on the horizon


For most of human history the area that’s now home to San Clemente was home to the Acagchemem nation. For about 8,000 years their homeland extended from Aliso Creek in the north to Las Pulgas Canyonin the south. One of their largest villages was Panhe, situated near San Mateo Creek and home to an estimated population of 300 or so people. Nearby to the south, along San Juan Creek,  was another significant village, Sajayit.


In 1769 (long before Ole Hanson dreamt of a Spanish Village by the Sea) actual Spaniards arrived in the area as part of Gaspar de Portolá’s overland expedition to Monterey Bay in the north and claimed the land for New Spain. The expedition passed through modern-day San Clemente in late July and, while there,Father Crespi baptized two Acagchem in Cristianitos Canyon which are said to be the first baptisms conducted in Alta California. An historical monument, La Cristianita Monument, commemorates the occasion. The Spanish established Mission San Juan Capistrano nearby (in modern-day San Juan Capistrano) in 1776 and re-named the newly-subjugated aborigines “Juaneños.” The mission imported herds of cattle to graze the area and produce tallow and hides, much of which was traded at the embarcadero in what’s now Dana Point.


After eleven bloody years of conflict, New Spain achieved independence and Alta California became part of the new nation of Mexico. Under Mexico the Spanish Missions were secularized and their lands divided amongst private owners. The lands formerly belonging to the nearby Mission first became the property of Mexican Governor Pio Pico. In 1837, Scouse-Mexican John “Don Juan” Forster married Pio Pico’s sister,Dona Ysidora Pico, and therein acquired part of Pico’s lands. Much of the land that now makes up San Clemente was also part of Rancho Los Desechos, which was granted to Felipe Carrillo and subsequently acquired by Don Juan. Rancho Boca de la Playa (the lands of which included parts of modern dayCapistrano Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente) was granted to Emigdio Véjar, who’d overseen operations at the mission until 1845.


The US conquered California in 1848 and admitted it to the Union in 1850. As required by the Land Act of 1851, the previous land owners continued their ownership under their new rulers. Véjar sold his ranch toJuan Avila, who already owned Rancho Niguel, and who passed away in 1863. After that, the land passed to Avila’s son-in-law, Pablo Pryor, who died of poisoning in 1878. In 1883, a large portion of land passed to John Forster’s son, Marcus, and by 1887 the Forster family had acquired most of the land in the area.


The Transcontinental Railroad extended into Southern California in 1876 but the lands that would become San Clemente were still primarily traversed by stagecoach along the Spanish El Camino Real until 1888. That year the Santa Fe Railroad arrived from the south, terminating in neighboring San Juan Capistrano and thereby linking southernmost Los Angeles County to San Diego. In 1901, rail reached San Francisco. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe ultimately built a train depot in San Clemente in 1931 although it closed in 1940 and was demolished in 1964.

EARLY ORANGE COUNTY ERA Orange County seceded from Los Angeles County in 1889 and Santa Ana (about 50 km away) was made the new seat of the newly formed county. In 1906, Max and Herman Goldschmidt formed a partnership withCornelio Echenique (one of Don Juan’s grandson-in-laws) and they acquired 10,500 acres of land. The Goldschmidts planted vineyards in what has been cow pastures but, with the advent of Prohibition in 1919, their booze farm fell on hard times and they sold their land to millionaire oil baron, banker, cotton broker, businessman, rancher, and DemocratHamilton H. “Ham” Cotton.

Ole Hanson cartoon
The next significant figure in the history of San Clemente was the most important — Ole Hanson. Ole Hanson was a Norwegian-American born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1874 and passed the Wisconsin bar in 1893. He began working in real estate and co-founded the planned community of Lake Forest Park, Washington in 1912. In 1914 he ran for US Senate on the Bull Moose ticket but lost to a Republican.

In 1918 he was elected mayor of Seattle. Early in Hanson’s mayorship, the Seattle General Strike of 1919took place in which over 65,000 workers attempted to gain higher wages and better working conditions by staging a general work stoppage. Hanson compared the striking workers to Bolsheviks (this was the beginning of the Red Scare), claimed that the strike was a Communist revolution (although he acknowledged that their means were non-violent), and brought in thousands of police and special deputies who he threatened would shoot any man who attempted to take over the government. The strike ended after five days.

Two months after the strike was broken, an attempt was made on Hanson’s life by anarchist disciples of Luigi Galleani and four months after that he resigned. Hanson next toured the country lecturing audiences about the dangers of Bolshevism in America in which he warned audiences that unless the American labor movement was squashed the country would witness widespread “murder, rape, pillage, arson, free love, poverty, want, starvation, filth, slavery, autocracy, suppression, sorrow and Hell on earth.” [The fact that “free love” is included in that list of terrors amuses me endlessly].


In the 1920s, Hanson re-entered the real estate development world, this time in Southern California. The Spanish Colonial Revival fad had really taken off after the 1915 The Panama-California Expositionin San Diego and in 1921 Hanson bought and developed the Slauson Tract in South Los Angeles with 2,000Spanish Colonial Revival homes. He also became part owner of the Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara and, after the 1925 earthquake that destroyed much of town, saw Santa Barbara rebuilt as a Spanish Colonial community.

In 1925, Hanson and a syndicate headed by Cotton designed an 8km2 planned community located roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego and named after San Clemente Island. It too would be a Spanish Colonial village and all plans were required by deed to be reviewed by an architectural board to ensure that they were in keeping with his vision, which he described as “…hundreds of white-walled homes bonneted with red tile, with trees, shrubs, hedges of hibiscus, palms and geraniums lining the drives, and a profusion of flowers framing the patios and gardens.”

Architects employed in the design of early San Clemente structures included Carl Lindbom, E. W. Klausen,Eli Simonson, J. H. Nicholson, J. Wilmer Hershey, Leo Smith, Paul McAlister, Paul R. Williams,Richard Sears, Virgil Westbrook, Wessel Kousen, and LeRoy and Arthur Sprang.


San Clemente was officially founded on St. Nicholas Day (6 December) in 1925. The earliest buildings of this instant Spanish village were spread around 125 acres crisscrossed with freshly laid and deliberately winding roads. Hanson wanted the community to be self-contained and self-sufficient and established an iron works, encaustic tile manufacturing plant, a school, a church, a hospital, and other things he thought a self-sufficient town might need. Hanson’s vision seems to have convinced others and just 22 months after its foundation, the Los Angeles Times declared the overnight city as “a complete modern community.”

Casa Romantica (1928)Hanson’s family home, Casa Romanticawas designed by Carl Lindbom and built overlooking the sea in 1927. It was actually named “Casa Romantica” in 1946 by its then owners, Lambert and Patricia Schuyler.
Inside Casa RomanticaIn 1952 it was re-named “Casa Blanca” by Muria and Leslie Whitehouse, although its name at some point reverted. In 1960 it became a home for seniors, which it operated as until 1984 when it became a private event space. In 2000 it became a cultural center and garden and to this day its open to visitors and is asolutely a must-visit both for the home itself and the amazing views of the Pacific, the Channel Islands, and Dana Point that it affords.


Carl Lindbom also designed the Cotton Estate, with the centerpiece home modeled after a country home inSan Sebastian, Spain. When Cotton lived there he hosted on at least one occasion, President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1969, newly-elected president (and Orange County native) Richard Nixon bought the home from Cotton’s widow. Nixon christened the home La Casa Pacifica but it was more popularly known as “The Western White House.” During his presidency Richard and Pat played host to political figures like Eisaku Sato, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, Hennry Kissinger, Leonid Brezhnev, Lyndon Johnson, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu as well as Richard’s buddy, Bebe Robozo.

After his resignation from office in 1974,  the Nixons lived at Casa Pacifica and the former president there wrote his memoirs. During the same period Pat was the subject of Lester David’s The Lonely Lady of San Clemente (1978). The famous Frost/Nixon interviews were planned to be taped there but were moved due to radio interference. In 1980 the Nixon’s moved to Park Ridge, New Jersey but Nixon still has a special place in the hearts of many in San Clemente and there’s even a Nixon Room downtown, which looked from the outside to be a sort of restaurant/museum/exhibition room. Meanwhile over at Casa Pacifica (4100 Calle Isabella) a guard and gates prevent visitors from finding out whether or not the private home has been preserved as a sort of ’70s time capsule.

The Nixon Room
The exterior of the Nixon Room (note the chimney)

Administration Building, 1926. It served as Ole Hanson's offices and now houses Gordon James and Baskin-Robbins.
The Administration Building (1926), which originally served as Ole Hanson’s offices
The Bartlett Building, built in 1926 for Edward Bartlett. It's the second oldest building in town.
The Bartlett Building (1926), built for Edward Barlett, is the second oldest building in town
The Ann Harding House, built for actress Ann Harding in 1926.
the Ann Harding House (1926), built for actress Ann Harding
418 Cazador Lane
418 Cazador Lane, built in 1926
Hotel San Clemente, built in 1927
Hotel San Clemente (1927) — now apartments
The Community Center
The San Clemente Community Center, the Ole Hanson Room of which dates from 1927
Sea Cliff Villas (aka the Robison House), built in 1927 for Bertha and Emma Wierk
Sea Cliff Villas (aka the Robison House), built in 1927 for Bertha and Emma Wierk

San Clemente was incorporated as a city on 27 February, 1928. A few months later, Tod Bates wrote a piece about the fledgling community titled “City of Spain Reproduced in Southern California” for an issue of Saturday Night, echoing the Times’ amazement at the development.

San Clemente PierThe first San Clemente Pier was built in 1928 (it was rebuilt in 1939 and 1983). When we visited there was a clam chowder contest (part of Seafest, I think) underway. Unfortunately for many, the urge to gratingly attempt to yell in the non-rhotic New English dialect proved impossible to resist. The lines were really long — as is the 365 meterlong pier. At the shore end is Fisherman’s Restaurant but it also had lines out the door so we returned to the land.

Looking back at San Clemente from the pier
Looking back at San Clemente from the pier

Old City PlazaSan Clemente’s first fire house and city jail were built in 1928 in what’s now called Old City Plaza. An iron works and warehouse were added shortly after. Most of the plaza’s municipal facilities relocated in 1962 although the building was still used as a maintenance yard until 1974.

Historic City Yard restaurant
Historic City Yard Restaurant — obscured by a windowless vehicle demanding that you “get stung”

Now the Old City Plaza is a quaint shopping center although both times I visited the jail house I found a heinous yellow vehicle parked in front — apparently a TARDIS that blew its chameleon circuit in the totally eXtreme 1990s.


Ole Hanson Beach House
Ole Hanson Beach House (built in 1928)
Second story of Ole Hanson Beach House
The second story of the Ole Hanson Beach House
San Clemente Inn
The San Clemente Inn (1928)
The Goldschmidt House
The Goldschmidt House (1928) designed by architect Paul R. Williams for Adlai Goldschmidt
San Clemente City Hall (aka the Easley Building), built in 1929 for Oscar Easley and never actually used as the City Hall. It was once a live music venue called The House of Music.
Historic City Hall (aka the Easley Building), built in 1929 for Oscar Easley and never actually used as the City Hall
The Moulton House (1929), designed by Virgil Westbrook for H.G. Moulton
The Swigart House, designed by Virgil Westbrook and built in 1929 for electrician Ralph Swigart.
The Swigart House, designed by Virgil Westbrook in 1929 for electrician Ralph Swigart
Warner House, built in 1929 for Judge Warner, founder of the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce.
The Warner House, built in 1929 for Judge Warner — founder of the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce
St. Clement's By the Sea
St. Clement’s By the Sea (1929)


The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression changed San Clemente’s course for ever. After 1931, the further development of subdivisions ceased. From 1930 to 1940 the population of San Clemente plummeted from 1,200 to just 479 people. Hanson himself lost his home in 1932 and moved to Los Angeles where he died of a heart attack in 1940. In 1937, in order to encourage new development, Bank of America successfully lobbied city officials to loosen its Spanish Colonial Revival restrictions to encourage growth.


Some of the first new buildings constructed in the late 1930s incorporated a mix of architectural styles. Architects like Aubrey St. Clair, E.A. Myhre, Fay R. Spangler, Herman Light, and William Ayer mixedSpanish Revival with Modernist elements as well as others to create a interesting hybrids. Still extant examples from this era include the Casino San Clemente (1937), the San Clemente Theatre (1937)…

The L.S. Frasier House, built in 1938 for Thomas Loncono.
The L.S. Frasier House, built in 1938 for Thomas Loncono

…and the Hollywood Regency-style Campbell House (1941) which proved too difficult to do justice to with my camera.

Casino San ClementeConstruction of Casino San Clemente began in 1936 and was completed in 1937. Like Catalina Casino, it’s not a casino in the common gambling sense but rather in the antiquated sense of a sort of social gathering place.

Main room of Casino San Clemente
Inside the Casino San Clemente
Early on, casino entertainment was provided by orchestras including Bert Smith and the NBC OrchestraDean Holt and his Trocadero Orchestra , and Sterling Young’s Columbia Network Orchestra.

The casino was a popular hangout for Hollywood stars such as Dorothy Lamour, Mickey Rooney, Pat O’Brien, Vivien Leigh, and others. One frequent guest, Judy Garland, took to the small stage and treated guests to a rendition of “I Cried for You” from Babes in Arms in 1939 (the event is one of many documented on wall displays in the venue). During World War II the casino was commandeered by the military who used it was a lookout station. In 1961 it became a Moose Lodge. From 1973 until 1980 it was home to Sebastian’s West Dinner Playhouse. In 1980, Southhampton Dinner Theatre took over. for a spell. In 1991 it became something called Cabos ‘n’ Wabos Caberet Cantina which sounds atrocious but still preferable to it being shuttered, which it was in 2004. Thankfully, in 2009 it was acquired by new owners who renovated it and re-opened it as an event space — and one devoid of any suggestions of Sammy Hagar.SAN CLEMENTE THEATRE
San Clemente TheatreSan Clemente TheatreThe 650-seat San Clemente Theatre was constructed next to the casino in 1937 and opened in 1938. It was designed by celebrated Clifford A. Balch, and also included a bowling alley and used to host live music performances. At some point it was renamed The Miramar Theatre. It was restored in 1986, closed in 1995, and placed on a list of the nation’s most endangered historic theatres in 2001. It currently it remains boarded up.WORLD WAR II ERA As mentioned previously, Casino San Clemente was occupied by the military when the US entered World War II in 1941. Not in San Clemente, but no doubt far more impactful on the community, was the establishment of a marine base just on the other side of the county line to the south. Camp Pendleton was established by president Franklin Roosevelt in 1942. Economically, it helped revive San Clemente, providing a large customer base who spread word of the quaint Spanish hamlet. The war ended in 1945 and many military families stayed in the area. In 1946, the base was declared a permanent installation and suburban development in San Clemente resumed for the first time since its cessation fifteen years earlier at the dawn of the Depression.
Beachcomber Hotel
The Beachcomber Hotel, established in 1947, and the city’s longest continually-running business


By 1950 the population of San Clemente had once again climbed, reaching 2,000. That year and for the next three, the US fought in the Korean War and more military personnel were drawn to the nearby base and in many cases settled after war in San Clemente with their families. At the same time the Downtown business district experienced a new wave of commercial development along its core around Avenida Del Mar and El Camino Real.

San Clemente Chamber of Commerce
San Clemente Chamber of Commerce

Freed of the Spanish Colonial Revival restrictions, architects turned to other styles and like Googie and Tiki. Two of the finest examples – both still existent – are Pedro’s Tacos and the Chamber of Commercebuilding. I’m not sure what occupied Pedro’s Tacos before they moved in and introduced Orange County to fish tacos in 1986 but my guess is that it was formerly a burger stand.


San Clemente’s population reached 8,500 in 1960 – the same year that the 5 Freeway reached town. The freeway’s construction came at a cost – the destruction of many of San Clemente’s older buildings. In that era of destruction and construction, the huge Shorecliffs development was San Clemente’s first big, modern housing tract, begun in 1963.


The SONGS, a cute acronmyn for San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, was the world’s largest nuclear plant and was constructed just south of San Clemente. The first reactor began operation in 1968, four years after construction began. The second and third reactors followed in the 1980s. If you’ve driven this section of the five you probably know them as the “Giant Boobs” that serve as a gateway to San Diego County. In 2012, radioactive mist leaked from reactor three and nearby residents were issued iodine tablets. The rising water temperature and increased cloudiness around the reactor devastated the local marine ecosystem and a 150-acre kelp forest/artificial reef known as Wheeler North Reef was planted in 2008 to help mitigate the damage. The plant was shuttered in 2012 and the kelp on the artificial reef seems to be thriving although the population of marine fauna hasn’t yet rebounded.


Before the 1960s, gangs seem to have been unknown in San Clemente. Back then San Clemente’s Varrio Chico (SCVC) gang and San Juan Capistrano’s Varrio Viejo were car clubs rather than gangs in the way that we think about them now. In the decades since they’ve evolved into street gangs and there are still unfortunate incidents of gang violence but the idea of anyone being afraid to visit San Clemente is ludicrous.


Until 1972 the stunning Bartow Mansion stood as a symbol of San Clemente. Unfortunately, it was reduced to rubble by its final owners and replaced by an exceptionally hideous condominium. By then, roughly 500 of the old Spanish Colonial structures in the small city had been razed. The silver lining of the destruction was that it served as a catalyst for the organization of the San Clemente Historical Society in 1973. In 1999 the society received a grant to establish the San Clemente Historical Museum (although right now it’s closed).


In 1974, Jay “Sparky” Longley founded Rainbow Sandals, which, in researching this piece I learned are “world famous.” I’d never heard of them but then again, the only sandal brand that I’m familiar with isGermany‘s Birkenstock. I asked Una if she’d heard of them and she said that she hadn’t. Then, after paying attention to the footware of people at her work, she told me that a patient had been wearing them. As we walked around San Clemente, she pointed out a group of people wearing them on the pier.


n 1975, a sex motel called Riviera Adult Motel opened in San Clemente. According to the OC Weekly it boasted theme rooms with large bathtubs and offered guests toys, complimentary adult movies and more. It seems as though it was demolished a few years ago. I doubt the Historical Society made saving it one of their causes.


As with World War II and the Korean War, nearby Camp Pendleton trained thousands of marines that were sent off to fight in Vietnam. 50,418 refugees from Vietnam entered the US through the camp. 165 children were born there. Although presumably a significant number of Vietnam War veterans settled in San Clemente after the war, most of the Vietnamese settled further away in North Orange County (where they established Little Saigon) and the San Gabriel Valley‘s Far East Side.


By 1980, the population of San Clemente passed 27,000, 8% of whom were Latino. By 1990 that percentage had increased by 4% as the Anglo population decreased by the same. Some tensions arose, particularly between young men from both communities. High school Greaser vs Surfer rows go back at least to the1950s. The most famous violent incident between young Latinos and Anglos occurred at Calafia Beach County Park in 1993, which ended in the death of 17-year-old Steven Woods. Like the Sleepy Lagoon Murder of 1942, it serves as a lightning rod for ethnic hostility, especially after the victim’s mother (a legal immigrant from the UK) blamed the violence on illegal immigrants. After throwing her weight behind Prop 187 — which aimed to deny education, healthcare and social services to the undocumented — it picked up considerable steam. Meanwhile anti-gang organizations formed, high school students staged a walkout, and a banner stating “Take Back our City” was hung from the 5 Freeway. Prop 187 passed with a large margin.


Metrolink at San Clemente Pier StationThere are several train options to San Clemente: Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink’s Orange County and IE/OC Lines. Metrolink began service in 1992 and yet I’ve still yet to ride one of their trains. Until the morning that we headed to San Clemente I had planned on us grabbing $10 weekend passes and taking the train to the pier station but it turned out that service was temporarily halted while crossing improvements were made and the closest that we could get via Metrolink was to Laguna Niguel.

Green Studebaker
Unable to get a picture of an OCTA bus, here’s a green Studebaker that I liked

From Laguna Niguel we could’ve taken advantage of Orange County’s other great public transit service, OCTA, but that would’ve added another 80 minutes to the already long commute so we decided to drive this time. Orange County Transit Authority was formed the year before Metrolink when seven separated transit agencies combined forces. In 2005, OCTA was proclaimed “America’s Best Public Transportation System” by the American Public Transportation Association. The organization serves Orange County with 77 bus lines, four of which (1, 91, 191, and 193) serve San Clemente. Not long ago, in 2011, San Clemente and OCTA made headlines when someone briefly stole one of their buses and abandoned it after an apparent joyride.

I mostly got around San Clemente on foot and found that it’s not the most walkable city. Although most of the sites of interest to visitors are located within a small area that is fairly flat, it’s iverall much hillier than I expected. Furthermore, sidewalks are quite rare and usually only exist in small, disconnected sections. Therefore, I did most of my walking in the street, something which local drivers seemed tolerant and respectful of — probably because so many people do so. For the record, Walk Score gives the city a ranking of 47, on par with notoriously sprawling places like Phoenix and Dallas.


Of course no visit to any destination is complete without sampling the local cuisine. San Clemente’s main claim to culinary fame might be that it’s home to a chain called Pick Up Stix Fresh Asian Flavors. In November is the Taste of San Clemente and many other events throughout the year involve food. The food scene of San Clemente, it has to be noted, isn’t the most diverse. The most numerous type of restaurants areAmerican followed by Mexican, pizzerias, Italian, and burger joints.
Rider's ClubWe first ate, on recommendation, at one of the burger joints — The Riders Club Café. There we enjoyed some rather messy (silverware recommended) sandwiches and beer. A lot of the dining options were too upscale for my taste and my favorite meal was a good, filling and very cheap dinner at La Tiendita, a Mexican restaurant and mini-market. Out of sheer desperation we ate at a noisy sports bar, Sunsets at the Pier, which was fine and afforded a lovely view of the ocean if also — and expectedly — sports blaring in every direction and boozy jocks grunting with excitement. Afterward I took off to explore more and Una went to the pier to eat a lobster at 26th Annual Seafest and reported that it was very good.

Other local food options include: Adele’s Café, Antoine’s Café, Avila’s El Ranchito, The Bagel Shack, Bamboo Bamboo’s Chinese Cuisine, Beach Garden Café, BeachFire, Biggie’s Burgers, Billys Meats Seafood and Deli, Board & Brew, Bread Gallery, Brick Pizzeria, Bud’s Famous Hot Dogs, Bull Taco, Buonos Pizza and Pasta, Burger Junkies, Burger Stop, Butterfly Orchid, Café 207, Café Calypso, Café del Sol, Café Mimosa, Café Rae, Calafia Beach Café, Captain Mauri’s Counterculture,

Carbonara Trattoria Italiana, China Well Restaurant, Chronic Tacos, Cinnamon Productions, Corky’s Family Restaurant, CourtsideDaphne’s California Greek, El Jefe Café, El Mariachi Restaurant,Fratello’s, Golden Chicken, The Grill at Surfin Donuts, Guicho’s Eatery, Hapa J’s, Hot Dog Heaven, Ichibiri Restaurant, Inka Mama’s, Italian Cravings, Iva Lee’s, Izza Pizzeria, Kahuna’s Grill at North Beach, Kelly’s Donuts, The Kultured Kitchen, La Cocina de Ricardo, La Galette Creperie,

La Rocco’s Pizzeria, La Siesta Restaurant, Las Golodrinas Mexican Food, Little Thai Hut, Los Patios,Maxim Restaurant, Miyako, Mongkut Thai Restaurant, Mr. Pete’s Burgers, New Mandarin Garden,Nick’s San Clemente, 9 Style Sushi, Nobu Sushi, Nomad’s Canteen, Olamendi’s Restaurant, Pacific Taste Restaurant, Pada Sushi at Albertson’s, Papa Murphy’s Take N Bake Pizza, Peppino’s Italian Family Restaurant, Pho Thanh Binh, Pier Shack & Grill, Pipes Café,  Pizza Port,  Poke + Roll 808,

Rice Temptation, Rocco’s Restaurant, Romano’s, Rose’s Sugar Shack Café, SC Café, Selma’s Chicago PizzeriaThe Shore, Signature Grille, Sonny’s Pizza and Pasta, South of Nick’s, Stillwater Café, Stuft Pizza & Brewing, Sundried Tomato Café, Sunrise Café, Super Bowl Express,
Super Suppers, The Surferosa Café, Surfin’ Chicken, Surfside Pizza, Sushi Sono,

Taka-O Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, Taste of China, Tequila’s Chophouse, Thai Palace SC, Thai Paradise Restaurant, Tina and Vince Italian Deli, Tommy’s Family Restaurant & Coffee Shop, 2 For 1 Pizza Company, Two Guy’s Pizza, Village Mediterranean Rim, and  Waba Grill Teriyaki House


Inside the Red Fox Lounge
Inside the Red Fox Lounge

Although the dining scene overall seems kind of fancy (a place with $35 entrees is listed as “$$” out of “$$$$” on Yelp), the drinking scene occupies a similar range. Bars include Big Helyn’s Saloon, Board & Brew, The Cellar, Chill Lounge Via Fontibre, Duke’s, Goodys Tavern, Molly Bloom’s Irish Bar and RestaurantMulligan’s Sports Bar, OC Tavern Grill & Sports Bar, Ole’s Tavern, Outrigger, Pride of the Pacific Bar & Grille, San Clemente Wine Company, St. Roy Chef’s Pub at Vine. If you prefer coffee, there’s Zebra House Coffee. We checked out the Red Fox Lounge, one of the older bars in the city, having been established in 1955.


Walking around San Clemente I couldn’t find any dedicated music venues. Back in the day, in addition to the Casino, City Hall was home to the House of Music. On Yelp, places like Adele’s Café, Knuckleheads Sports Bar, OC Tavern Grill & Sports Bar are all listed as music venues although I’m not sure how accurate that is. The sign on Goody’s Tavern, established in 1929, promised live music, dancing, pool and other sinful activities but we didn’t venture inside to confirm. From May to August, since 1999, San Clemente has hosted the annual Summer Beach Concert Series.

There was music everywhere, however and in the course of my walks I also heard music bouncing around the hills and canyons. There was pop-punk coming from somewhere near the pier at one point. A day earlier I could hear a band run through a medley of Bee Gees, Wild Cherry and other ‘70s tunes. As I walked downAvenida Del Mar, a man on the sidewalk plucked at his banjo. Floating from store, car and home windows (and jukeboxes) I heard Snoop Dogg, C.W. Mccall, death metal, Michael Jackson, Metallica (which Una asked me to stop singing along to), Willie Nelson, and more. I saw a Rasta hawking CDs of his reggae to a tie-dyed family whose patriarch gushed “I love Bob Marley” but passed on buying the disc.

Probably the best known musician from San Clemente is Annie Hardy of Giant Drag, who if I’m not mistaken, was at one point something of a regular on Amoeba‘s mezzanine. Other local performers includeAbsynth & Orange, American Restless, Buddhafinger, Brewcifer, Clam, Collective (And the Influence of the Individual), CursorDavid Greenwood, Dr. Bob’s Nightmare, Dubluva, Dustin Franks, Garrett Grimm, Grady Penna, Half Blonde, Maddie Miller, Man Flesh, Mario Di Sandro, Methadone Kitty and the Daily Dose, No More Saints, Phigure, Red Asphalt, The Red Kapps, The Resurrectionists, Rock Bottom, Scarletfields, Shit Wizard, Shtar, Skunkemusic, Sunday Night Drive, and Tony Milosevic.


Probably the best-known film that really made use of its San Clemente setting was Rian Johnson’s neo-noir film Brick (2005). Ron Howard’s Frost Nixon (2008) included some shots of San Clemente — possibly of the Western White House (I didn’t see it). Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge (1986) featured a scene filmed in San Clemente’s storied Wagon Wheel bar (now Mulligan’s). At least some scenes of Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and The Naked Gun (1988) were also filmed in San Clemente. On televisionSan Clemente was featured in at least some episodes of Dynasty, Sports Talk, and Not Now John. San Clemente is the setting for an MTV show called Life of Ryan, although I don’t believe that it’s filmed there. San Clemente is also the birthplace of actress Cara Fawn (aka Cheyenne Silver).

After the old San Clemente Theatre was permanently shuttered in 1995, Krikorian San Clemente Cinema 6opened in 1997 and is currently the only movie theater in town. San Clemente is also home to Inspirational Films, a production company that produces Christian-themed films. Their biggest hit to date was Jesus(1979), the three (!) directors of which were John HeymanJohn Krisch, and Peter Sykes (To the Devil… A Daughter, The House in Nightmare Park, Demons of the Mind).


Though not quite a South County art mecca on the same level as Laguna Beach, San Clemente is home to a vibrant and well-established art scene based around galleries, street art, surf boards, public art, tattoo parlors, &c.

Mint Fine Art Gallery
Mint Fine Art Gallery

The San Clemente Art Association first organized back in 1953 with seven members. They had their first show in 1954 and opened an art gallery in 1972. Nowadays they host eight art shows a year, including the August Art-Craft Fair in the third week of each August which has taken place since 1960. The city and the Art Association have paired together to turn traffic control boxes into art canvasses. The Village Art Faire takes place on the first Sunday of every month and Una and I checked it out as we made our way toward the sea. San Clemente is also home to a street artist who goes by Bandit. Bandit organized the firstPublic Art of San Clemente Art Show in 2012.
Rolling Stones muralArt supply stores and galleries including Bamboo and Beyond, Gallery 104, GRC Ceramic Design, Ink Gallery, Jennifer Joyce Ceramic Arts, Kona Gallery and Photojournalism Center, Liquid Art Studio,Solitary Exposure Ocean Fine Art Gallery, and Studio Artique. We stayed near San Clemente Art Supply which offers classes. I’m not sure if it’s connected to the store, but in an alley nearby a garage has a mural celebrating the first half century of The Rolling Stones. A bit further up the road I snapped a picture of the Mint Fine Art Gallery and met the owner as he was leaving.


Surfing has been popular in San Clemente at least since the 1930s and really took off in the 1950s. Popular surfing areas include the Trestles (mentioned by the Beach Boys in “Surfin’ USA”), the Lowers, theMiddles, the Uppers, the Riviera, Lost Winds, the Hole, T-Street, the Pier, Linda Lane, 204, North Beach, Calafia, and Poche Beach.

There are several surf-centric shops and manufactures like Cole Surfboards, Dewey Weber Surfboards,Lost Surfboards, San Clemente Surf Company, Son of the Sea, Stewart Surfboards, Terry Senate Surfboards, and Timmy Patterson Surfboards. There’s also an annual San Clemente Celebration of Surf Music and Art Festival. For more than 20 years, San Clemente has also annually hosted the largestWoody exhibition in California.

They used to show surf films at the Miramar and surf films and series like Innovators (2005), School of Surf(2009), Farmer’s Tan (2010), and BoardRoom (2012) were filmed in San Clemente. San Clemente is also home to the Surfing Heritage Foundation and the Surfrider Foundation. The publications Longboard Magazine, Surfer’s Journal, and Surfing Magazine are (or were) all based in San Clemente.


Max Berg Plaza Park
Max Berg Plaza Park

San Clemente is home to a number of beaches, parks and hiking trails. The oldest beach is San Clemente State Beach, established in 1937 and home to the Historic San Clemente Cottage.

San Clemente Historic Cottage
San Clemente Historic Cottage
Inside the historic cottage
Inside the historic cottage

Other parks include Bonita Canyon Park, Calafia Park, Forster Ranch Community Park, La Pata Vista Hermosa Sports Park, Leslie Park, Liberty Park, Linda Lane Park, Marblehead Park, Max Berg Plaza Park, Parque del Mar, Rancho San Clemente Park, San Clemente Dog Park, San Gorgonio Park, San Luis Rey Park, Sunset Park, Verde Park, and part of Rancho Mission Viejo Ecologia (part is within San Diego County).

Most of the hiking trails are in the semi-arid, rather forebodingly tree-less (and therefore shade-less) foothills. They include the the 8km Prima Derecha Trail, 6.75 km Forster Ridgeline Trail, 5.5 km Cristianitos Trial, the 5.5 km Rancho San Clemente Trail, and the 4.5 kilometer Talega Trail. Nearer the coast there’s the 5km San Clemente Pedestrian Trail.


There are, of course, other things to do when in San Clemente.

Cabrillo Playhouse, established 1953
Cabrillo Playhouse (1953)

As a fan of live theater, I was pleased to stumble upon the Cabrillo Playhouse, established in 1953 and home to the San Clemente Community Theatre. Every August for the last 60 years the Annual San Clemente Fiesta Street Festival has taken place and offers attendees bands, beer, games, arts and crafts, car and motorcycle shows, and a salsa challenge. There’s also the Rancho San Clemente Tennis & Fitness Club. The family-oriented Ocean Festival has taken place annually since 1977. On the 13th of October is the Carnival Colossal & Expo.

arcade games
More entertainment options: parking lot grill-outs and laundromat arcade games

For golfers, there are a few options. In addition to the Bella Collina Towne & Golf Club and Shorecliffs Golf Club, there’s the San Clemente Golf Club. The San Clemente Municipal Golf Course was designed in 1928 by the renowned golf course architect William P. Bell, initially as a nine hole course. It was touted as the only all-grass course between Long Beach and La Jolla. Nine more holes were added in 1956. Sadly, the elegant clubhouse was destroyed to make way for an apartment complex.


In addition to the aforementioned San Clemente Historical Society, San Clemente is home to the San Clemente Junior Women’s Club and San Clemente Women’s Club (established in 1948), Kiwanis Club of San Clemente, San Clemente Rotary Club, San Clemente – Capistrano Bay Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and the San Clemente Friends of the Library, among other organizations.


There are several bookstores in San Clemente including Joy’s Christian Bookstore, Mathom House Books, and Village Book Exchange. Additionally, there’s the San Clemente Library.

If you’d like to read more about San Clemente there have been several newspapers including the first, El Heraldo de San Clemente and currently the San Clemente Times, the Orange County Register‘s Sun Post News, and the online San Clemente Patch.

There are also books worth checking out such as Homer Banks’s The Story of San Clemente: The Spanish Village (1930), Lloyd Hanson’s Inside the Casa, Elizabeth Mcmillian and Melba Levick’s Casa California: Spanish-Style Houses from Santa Barbara to San Clemente (1996), Doris Walker’s The Heritage of San Clemente (2000), Mike Newel’s San Clemente California Spanish Village by the Sea(2009), and Jennifer A. Garey and The San Clemente Historical Society’s San Clemente (2010). There’s also a children’s book from 1973, Blythe Welton and Mary Lou Nicolai’s From Fishcarts to Fiestas.

And if you want, check out Lucas “Toddler Boy” of “Look Who’s Traveling” (who beat me to San Clemente by a week or so!) by watching the clip below:


To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from Saatchi Art and 1650 Gallery. Other merchandise is available on Tee Public.
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4 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — San Clemente, The Spanish Village in Orange County

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