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A day at the beach

During the gorgeous San Diego summer, there's nothing like a day at the beach. Or, perhaps, dinner "at the beach." I'm referring to one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Nick's At The Beach in Pacific Beach.

Lots of diners apparently feel the same way. Nick's At The Beach has been voted "favorite neighborhood restaurant" two years in a row. It also won the silver award from the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association last year.

Actually, Nick's At The Beach has been in the neighborhood for many years. It was established by Mike McCaart and his partners. "When I travel," McCaart said, "I always ask the hotel staff where they eat. I prefer to dine where the locals do."

He then adopted this approach for himself. When he designed his seafood restaurant, Nick's At The Beach, McCaart created the kind of place he would enjoy on a trip. Nick's is a restaurant that offers a comfortable ambiance for locals and also features the high level of cuisine that visitors seek.

The two-story building is only a short block away from the water and has an ocean view from the top. Breezes off the water's surface usually cool the place comfortably. A small parking lot in front can hold 10 cars but street parking is available nearby.

A choice of patios features outdoor dining. The sidewalk cafe is at street level. The larger patio upstairs faces the ocean and usually is bathed in the setting glows of the sun. It contains high tables with high bar-type stools that are often filled with friends sharing food and huge tankards of beer.

The rest of the second story is one huge bar and pool room. Three pool tables share the space with a long bar. There are islands of more high tables surrounded by more high bar-type stools.

Television sets are everywhere, hanging from the ceiling or mounted in racks along a far wall. This is the ultimate sports bar. One could easily follow many broadcast sports event by barely moving one's eyes from screen to screen. The upstairs area is noisy but it is a good kind of noise, the warm sounds of people having a good time. Of course, one has to be over 21 to be allowed upstairs.

Ed Moore was another of the leading partners in the restaurant, another tip-off that the food has to be great. Moore was a trained chef who owned and operated Thee Bungalow for a long time until he sold it several years ago to the Cohn Restaurant Group. Thee Bungalow had an outstanding reputation for cuisine and one of the city's best wine lists. Moore helped to develop the recipes that are used to this day. Chef Scotty McElroy, who worked with Moore, keeps up the tradition.

Business was so good that the restaurant expanded to a second location. Nick's At The Pier is located in Ocean Beach in the old Qwigg's location that has been completely rebuilt. The interior is spacious, comfortable and offers remarkable views of the Ocean Beach pier and stunning sunsets.

Ocean Beach is an eclectic place, with many small older homes, small shops and a '60s feel. The pier stretches out into the ocean, one of the longest on the west coast, and is often crowded with fishermen angling off the sides. Surfers can often be seen in the water, darting between the pier's pylons. A brisk walk on the pier, sucking in fresh air, is a great way to build up an appetite.

The locations are several miles apart but the menus are similar, as are the high standards of quality. Both are also open late at night, a great benefit to night owls or to people looking for dinner after the theater or concert. Breakfast is available on weekends and there is a truly "happy hour" with great prices on drinks and food.

Menu prices are inexpensive to moderate. Appetizers are mostly seafood, such as chowder, steamed mussels, steamed clams, oysters and shrimp. The scampi came with garlic, lime, cilantro and was flamed in tequila, all to add a delightful "south of the border" flavor. I could have ordered it with rice and made a meal. But I chose one of the "specials" for the evening, a crab bisque that was tantalizingly creamy, with large chunks of crab to give the broth (and me) lots of body.

The Chilaquile Sea Bass came baked in a corn husk with sautéed tortillas, topped with a roasted pepper salsa. Sea bass is a very popular fish because of its mild taste and firm texture. The corn husk gave it a unique flavor that went well with the salsa and tortillas. Very different. Very good.

Tortilla Crusted Mahi Mahi combines a popular Pacific rim fish with a Mexican taste, using chipotle seasoning and salsa fresca. Salmon came in two choices -- Yucatan, with black bean mole sauce and Jamaican, with a spiced rum pepper sauce. Hard to decide which to order! Yellowtail, ahi and catfish rounded out the seafood selections.

A good top sirloin, stuffed chicken and pork chops are available for diners who do not prefer seafood. Nick's Meat Loaf, with a thick, tasty mushroom gravy, is very tempting.

There are limited but good representative selections of beer and wine. I was delighted to see that many wines are available by the glass.

I like Nick's At The Beach. Going there is always a treat for me because of the casual air and terrific food values. Reservations are recommended, particularly on weekends.

Nick's At The Beach is located at 809 Thomas Ave., at the corner of Mission Boulevard. Call 858-270-1730 for information and reservations.

Nick's At The Pier is located at 5089 Santa Monica Blvd. in Ocean Beach, right across from the sand. Call 619-222-7437 for information and reservations.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a member of the California Restaurant Writers Association and the restaurant critic for sdgodowntown.com. Send comments to the editor@sddt.com. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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