Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Carpinteria-A Flash Back to a REAL Beachin' Town

In keeping with our New Year’s theme of more closely examining some of the neater towns along some of the routes I’ve been nattering on about over the past few years, let’s take a look at one of Marianne and my favorites: Carpinteria.
It’s just up the 101, or, take the 5 to the 126 to the 150 in Santa Paula, up to Ojai, continue on the 150 just south of Ojai, then a right on the 192 and a left on Linden. It’s a really pretty drive and one of the first I detailed. Another great way to get there is Amtrak! Yeah, take the train and relax! 
This is how beach towns are supposed to be. Although it’s growing up the hillsides, there are still lemon (wrong climate for oranges) and avocado groves galore that keep the agricultural ambience alive. Downtown Carpinteria is full of neat shops and eateries, the beach is one of the best in the world, and there are decent places to stay. You can even camp in the state park, if you are more adventurous and hardy than I am!
We used to do this when I was a lad. A couple of families in our neighborhood would trek on up, station wagons loaded with gear (no trailers for US, mind you!) and set up a couple of huge canvas tents. Then, for a glorious week, we kids would run free, the moms would sit in the sun, and the dad’s would go back to LA during the week to work, then back up on Thursday night. We’d (we’ll the moms) would cook on the Coleman stove or over the campfire, one of the dads was an accomplished classical guitar player and he’d play while we sang all the usual campfire songs. Once us kids were “asleep”, the folks would all head over to PeeWee and Irene’s Country Western Bar and Grill and whoop it up into the wee hours. 
On of the great things about Carpinteria is how little it’s changed from those halcyon days of golden youth. It’s still the world’s safest beach, you can walk a good half mile or so out into the surf before the water gets chest high, and kids can walk the town unguarded by wary adults, convinced that Danger lurks on every corner. Like all towns, some things have changed. The huge hardware store that supplied up with firewood and Coleman stove/lantern fuel is closed up, and most of the shops have become more tourist oriented. Still, the key elements are still there.
First has to be The Spot. This burger stand opened in 1950 (damn, that makes it as old as I am!), and despite a small addition of a covered patio, is the same place, serving the same burgers with just the right amount of grease to make them taste great in the salt air. the menu is more expanded, there’s fish tacos, and even some veggie associated slop to cater to modern tastes, but get the bacon cheese burger. The bacon is REAL. Thick and smokey, it adds that extra layer of taste essential to a good feed. Kids still hang out there, coy girls and blustery boys, all learning the opening moves of the American Mating Ritual. 

Our next favorite is Tony’s Italian food. They’ve been in the “new” place for decades now, but they still make a proper pizza. All the toppings you could hope for and a well done thin crust. Yeah, thick crust has become the norm these days, but there is a nostalgic blast from a nice, crunchy pizza pie. 
The best place for breakfast is the Worker Bee Cafe. This is literally a mom and pop diner. Bob’s on the grill and Janet waits the tables. She’s a bubbly motherly type and he’s a crusty old fart who will come out of the back and razz the regulars and even casual visitors as the mood hits. The waffles and pancakes are thick and tasty. 
Now there are other places to eat in town. There is an organic bakery that offers fabulous breads if a picnic up the road or on the beach strikes your fancy, there are good Mexican and Thai places as well. Enough restaurants to give you a different taste every day if you stayed a week. Discover your own favorites. 
One of our mandatory stops in town is Robetaille’s Candy Shop. This is a diabetic’s nightmare (although the DO have sugarless candies there that aren’t too bad), you could drop into a coma just waling in. They make their own fudges and peanut brittle and all manner of chocolate goodies. The really cool thing is that they stock all the favorites from your own kiddom. Yep, those wax tubes with the sugar water, chocolate rocks, sour balls, the whole gamut of unwholesome goodness. They even have a cooler that stocks real  glass bottled sodas! Yep, Coke and Pepsi, Bubble Up, Nehi (grape and orange), all the old, long gone favorites. The best thing about this place is it’s obviously giving the finger to political/gastronomic correctness. They have bubble gum cigars and candy cigarettes! I’m really surprised the Health Nazis haven’t shut them down! 
Antique shops with a wide variety and clothing boutiques round out the town, all on one street, plus a few side streets. There is a good local history museum and library and a yearly avocado festival. It seldom gets too hot and, rarely gets too cold. The dress code is flip flops and shorts and tee shirts. The pace is laid back and friendly. I’m sure, beneath this 1950s veneer, the town has the usual problems and intrigues. What place doesn’t? Who cares. Visit and linger and enjoy one of the last unspoiled little California beach towns.