Photo by Jack GouldConsidering that Newport is one of the most beautiful cities in the U.S., its residents can be incredible complainers. They complain about the legions of tourists who flock to Newport's beaches and harbor during the summer. They complain about the lack of parking spots and the copious parking meters. They complain about traffic caused by new development. They complain about the noise from departing commercial airliners out of nearby John Wayne Airport. They complain about the loud and late-night parties at Dennis Rodman's Seashore house. They complained in early 1999 about the brief opening of Bad Ass Coffee on Balboa Island.
Sure, it's easy to hate some of the more grotesque aspects of Newport: the yuppie hordes at Fashion Island, the $20 cover charges that plague the clubs on Mariner's Mile, a City Council wholly owned by the city's developers, what may be the highest silicone-to-flesh ratio in the nation. But Newport has some remarkably democratic traits. The city has an abundance of public benches and beautiful places to just sit and relax: Balboa Island, Via Lido, the entire oceanfront. And Newport may be home to the Irvine Co.'s corporate headquarters and its reclusive owner, Don Bren, but it's also the only city in Orange County that allows its citizens to vote on all new development projects . . . and don't forget the chicks!
Valinda's Art for the Sea. The Balboa Island commercial district is a cozy jumble of shops selling bikinis, souvenirs and beachwear. Valinda's is great for your sea-themed gifts. Where else can you find a garden fountain decorated with a ceramic frog in a bow tie giving flowers to his frog mate while their tadpole brood swims happily at their feet? 210 Marine Ave., Ste. 8, Balboa Island, (949) 675-1791.Balboa Candy Co. This small shop has barrels and barrels filled with all flavors of taffy: pineapple, raspberry, vanilla, mocha, root-beer float, tangerine, salt water. All kinds of taffy. Oh, and video rentals, too. Taffy and video rentals—is there any better combination? God, I need a life. 301 Marine Ave., Balboa Island, (949) 723-6099.
Back Bay. The mud flats and salt marshes actually offer a relaxing nature walk, but the screaming planes departing from John Wayne Airport tend to spoil the peace and quiet. More than 160 bird species make their home at Back Bay—while it's still there. Without a doubt, the place could do without the condos recently built on the other side of Jamboree Boulevard. But that development is nothing: since 1972, silt buildup from urban runoff originating in Irvine has shrunk the bay 30 percent. Enjoy! Jamboree Road and University.West Jetty View Park. This tiny park at the Wedge has plenty of swaying palm trees and benches on which you can take in the romantic view of the rocks and rich people's mansions of Little Corona. If it all looks familiar, that's because the Wedge appears in the Gilligan's Island opening credits as the Hawaiian port the SS Minnow left on its last three-hour tour . . . a three-hour tour. Ocean Avenue and the Wedge.
Blue Beet Caf. Housed in a brick building dating back to 1912, the Beet boasts a rooftop patio, delicious steaks, ribs and pasta; great bartenders; live music seven nights per week; and, according to some of the staff, a ghost who prowls around after hours. 107 21st St., (949) 675-2338.Pizza Pete's. Pete's sells thin-crust New York-style pizza—not a lot of sauce or bread, but the slices are huge. This is true summertime beach fare. For four bucks, you get two slices and a small drink. 701 E. Edgewater, Balboa Island, (949) 675-4771.Alta Coffee Co. This funky little coffeehouse is adorned with paintings by various local artists. The ham-and-cheese croissants—when available—are delicious, as are the vegetarian tacos. 506 31st St., (949) 675-0233.Dad's Donut shop & Bakery. This is where Balboa Island locals hang in the wee morning hours before work, munching on their apple fritters while talking about market swings and the goddamned liberals. The doughnuts are good, but the peppermint ice cream and Balboa Bars are outstanding. Stay away from the frozen bananas, unless you enjoy gnawing on a rock-hard piece of fruit. 318 Marine Ave., Balboa Island, (949) 673-8686.Charlie's Chili. Charlie's offers late-night chow at its finest—most notably, Wednesday night's all-you-can-eat chili special. But you're pushing it if you dive into more than two bowls of the meaty, spicy concoction. 102 McFadden Place, (949) 675-7991.The Crab Cooker. King crab on a paper plate: this is what passes for working-class fare in Newport. But ignore that in favor of a quart of Manhattan-style clam chowder ($3.95) and a fisherman's loaf of bread ($1.40). 2200 Newport Blvd., (949) 673-0100.Island Grill. When it was known as the Quickie years ago, this burger grill attached to a walk-up window was staffed by what seemed a dozen beautiful girls during the summer. Those days are gone, but the big messy burgers and fries are just as delicious. 500 South Bay Front, Balboa Island, (949) 673-1186.
Class of '47. The story is that when he lived among the Newport Beach folk, John Wayne frequented this place. Maybe it's true; maybe not. It's still a favorite among locals, some of whom seem to subsist on the vapors of an illusion. 209 Palm St., (949) 675-5774.Cassidy's. Always crowded with an unhealthy mix of out-of-towners and locals, Cassidy's has a roughhousing reputation, perhaps aided by the ubiquitous party girls. 2603 Newport Blvd., (949) 675-8949.Tale of the Whale. Located in the historic Balboa Pavilion, the Tale Saloon is where Balboa's fishermen go to drink after a long day's fishing and drinking on one of the bay's numerous fishing boats. The Saloon offers unparalleled views of Newport Bay and is perfect for lounging on a weekend afternoon. 400 Main St., (949) 673-4633.Blackie's By the Sea. Where the locals hang. Just a pool table, a jukebox, a few booths and some great company. And they'd like to keep it that way, having an unlisted phone number and all to keep people like you away. But it's easy enough to find: just go to McFadden Square at the Newport Pier and start walking west. If you get to Burger King, you've gone too far. Address and phone number unlisted.
Balboa Fun Zone. You gotta love Newport, keeping its fun in specially marked zones. This one has the requisite merry-go-round, Ferris wheel and bumper cars, as well as a video arcade and a gyro stand. And it's got Skeeball. Skeeeeeeball! 600 E. Bay Ave., (949) 673-0408.Balboa Island Ferry. At 50 cents per passenger, this has to be the cheapest boat ride around. Cars extra. And please note that fantasy-steering the ferry with your car's steering wheel is unbelievably lame. 13th Street Basketball Courts. The courts are on the beach right next to Newport Beach Elementary School. Play here only if you don't mind getting distracted by the beautiful, bikini-clad women who enjoy sunning themselves nearby. Also be warned that spectacular sunsets blazing over the water are known to occur in the early evening hours. Thirteenth Street and Balboa Boulevard.
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Newport Beach Public Library, Balboa Branch. This tiny branch library sits next to the fire station on the Balboa Peninsula and boasts one of the largest nautical reference holdings in the state of California, including books, magazines, videos and audiocassettes. 100 E. Balboa Blvd., (949) 717-3800.
Illustration by Bob Aul
The Sandalman. Actually two guys who have been making and selling some of the best beach sandals since the late 1970s. I've been buying them for years, and they are very comfortable. Plus I always feel slightly better slipping these on instead of a pair of cheap Kmart or expensive Nike sandals since I know they weren't made by Chinese prison laborers . . . unless these guys are hiding something in those crates they keep in the back of their shop. 511 Superior Ave., (949) 642-8455. (Art Gardner, Huntington Beach)