"To be honest," says musician Michael Miller, "it makes me a little nervous to talk about it." He's talking about Seal Beach, or, rather, talking about talkingabout Seal Beach, the little beach town he's lived in for the past 12 years but, like a lot of people, had completely overlooked before that. There's more than a little of Miller that would like to keep it that way.
"You know, it's kinda hard to get to off the 405," he says. "Not a lot of people who go by Main Street even know there's a beach right there, and that keeps it, maybe not a complete paradise, but it's nice and quiet and hasn't changed a lot." Miller came to Seal driven by circumstances of "tragic misery" (musician) and has never thought about leaving what he calls his "little Mayberry." Others feel the same way, whether it's the visitors who meander the Cape Cod-ish Main Street area packed with quick eats, fine dining and funky shops—seashells, kites, bikini inspector T-shirts—or residents who actually talk to their neighbors.
But the town is changing, a little. When we did this city-by-city format for our "Best Of" issue a few years ago, Seal Beach residents were proud to share how they'd picketed to keep a Starbucks out, how they'd remained free of the national franchise scourge that manages to wash out most cities into looking alike.
Today, there is still no Starbucks, but on the Pacific Coast Highway gateway to Main Street, there is a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and next to it, Quizno's. Conversely, some of the best things about Seal Beach are gone, such as the Corner Drug, a mom-and-pop operation where a person could get an "It's Not a Beer Belly, It's a Fuel Tank for a Sex Machine" T-shirt, the value of which to a community cannot be overstated.
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"It's still pretty close to the town I grew up in," says Robbie Prescott, manager of venerable board shop Harbour Surfboards, who spent his first 28 years in Seal. "It's still quaint, but it has matured. Some of these big outfits moving in are going to happen no matter what. But I can tell you that people here are still trying to keep the old town, the old town."
Best Bodyboard Shop Alternative Surf. One of only two OC surf shops that I know of completely dedicated to bodyboarding—the other is an Alternative Surf shop in Dana Point. The kind of place that not only features boards for experts, say, the $250 Mike Stewart MS 1, but also $50 beginner boards. And, of course, there are plenty of leashes, wet suits, DVDs, wax (mmmmmm), fins and all the other stuff that makes bodyboarding America's favorite pastime. 330-D Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-1010.
Best Indie Theater Bay Theater. One of the area's best and only independent theaters, playing some of the best new and classic films—and by classics, I mean everything from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Sid and Nancy to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (though how anybody at the Bay ever thought that Woody Allen's meandering Shadows and Fog qualified as a "classic" . . .). And unlike some independent art houses, the staff at the Bay doesn't seem to hate you. 340 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 431-9988; www.baytheatre.com.
Best Beach Locals prefer to stay well north of the pier, where what passes for crowds gather because that's where the parking is. Still, it's rare you'll find the day that Seal looks like Huntington Beach. Its relative isolation, limited parking and traditionally small surf keep the beach population down. "Part of my daily routine is to walk along the beach at the water, especially at sunset," Miller says. "Boring as it sounds, it's my biggest fun and you can do it because there are really no crowds, not even during the summertime." Seal Beach's small surf—"If it's big everywhere else, it'll be nice here," Prescott says—has made it a haven for longboarders and beginners. It wasn't that long ago that one could witness altercations between longboarders and windsurfers who shot out of the San Gabriel River that borders Seal on the north. The competing groups had such a hard time sharing the same waves that a special town meeting was called to mediate the conflict. Eventually, things worked out. Not because of cool heads but, Prescott says, because "most of the windsurfers got into kitesurfing, and kitesurfers go out farther."
Best Nursery Brita's Old Town Garden. The 10,000-square-foot outdoor space at the east end of Main is a haven for locals to walk and a destination for gardeners looking for unusual perennials, herbs or garden ornaments. A great place to not only find plants but ornaments, gear and, last time I checked, the Turkish Fir Christmas tree—silver on the inside, green and full-bodied, and easy on those allergic to trees. Order early; they usually sell out. 225 Main St., Ste. A, Seal Beach, (562) 430-5019.
Best Surfboard Shop Harbour Surfboards. Story goes that young Rich Harbour, son of Seal Beach's chief of police, no less, had his surfboard stolen off his porch one day. Distraught, he decided to make his own, crafting one from redwood with a hand plane and sandpaper. The result impressed so many people that soon Rich was inundated with requests. By 1962, Harbour opened up the shop that has been at its present location for 43 years, making it the longest continuously operating surf and shaping shop in the county. As opposed to a lot of surf shops where boards serve as a backdrop for what is actually a clothing shop, Harbour's emphasis has remained on the boards—it has produced more than 23,000. Boards are fitted to bodies, skill level and, sometimes, artistic tastes, as Harbour's vintage designs have become popular wall art. 329 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 430-5614.
Best Art Gallery J. Moore Frames & Art Gallery. A hip oasis of lowbrow art and exotica that offers a welcome respite from the usual surfside flotsam—Wyland-inspired kindly whales, dolphins and related pap. Witness photographer Doug Nason's recent detailed explorations of primitive culture and a show by Shag. 317 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 430-8861.
Best Preserve Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge. The 1,000 acres of wetlands inside the Naval Weapons Station is where you'll find heron, egrets and five endangered or threatened bird species, including the peregrine falcon. It's especially vibrant during the fall and winter months, when thousands of migrating birds make it their home—more than 10,000 Canada geese and 250 red-tailed hawks were counted last year. The birds are welcome to stay as long as they want, but you get just one day per month: a free public walking tour is offered on the last Saturday of every month. That includes an introductory 20-minute slide show and an easy mile hike around the site. Interested? Show up outside the base's main gate at 8:30 a.m. 800 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, (562) 598-1024.
Best Pizza Place A Slice of New York Pizza. The name may be a bit on the nose, but whatever you might want on your pie—zesty pesto, searing buffalo wings, pineapple, pepperoni—it comes out like they like it in the Bronx: super thin, crunchy, topped with minimal sauce and served on butcher paper. 142 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 493-4430.
Best Place for Serious Beer Drinkers The Abbey. Everybody knows about the Abbey, don't they? Tons of beer. Tons of good beer. Served by people who honestly know and care about good beer and will introduce it to you without—and this is key—being a wad about it. 306 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 799-4246.
Best Pub "Irish" Pubs. While there is nothing particularly Irish about Seal Beach, there are, for some reason, more than a few places billing themselves as "Irish" pubs on Main Street: the Irisher, Clancy's, O'Malley's and Hennessey's, all within the same block, though what is particularly Irish about them is dubious. O'Malley's features Irish sausage rolls and bangers and mash, but it also serves nachos and chicken wings. For a previous "Best Of" I asked one of the bartenders—it was either Clancy's or the Irisher—what made them "Irish," and, in a fit of honesty, he replied: "Calling ourselves Irish and hanging Irish-looking stuff on the walls." Those Irish, they never lie, and I love that. By the way, a little trivia of the Green: rumor is that Clancy's is the namesake for uber-designer Paul Frank's character Clancy, the world's smallest giraffe. Clancy's, 111 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 594-8143; Hennessey's, 143 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 598-6456; Irisher, 121 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 596-1427; O'Malley's, 140 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 430-0631.
Best Locals Nick's. The locals' place. The Nick's breakfast burrito—chorizo, sour cream, potatoes and stuff—is not only enjoyed but cherished as an integral part of local culture. 223 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 598-5072.
Best Dogs Champs. Great Chicago hot dogs—slightly crispy Vienna beef sausage, speckled poppy-seed bun and relish so bright it makes you blink. 12161 Seal Beach Blvd., Seal Beach, (562) 596-2555.
Favorite Seal Beach Story This involves my friends Duck and Rue—no, they are not ironic, postmodern cartoon characters; those really are their names—sitting in their upstairs apartment that looked out over the beach. As they watched TV, they heard a screech of tires, a crash, then a low rumbling of an approaching something. There was then an eerie silence followed by a very loud smash that caused a palpable rumble that felt like they were sitting above an earthquake's epicenter. Instinctively, Duck and Rue dropped to the ground, unaware that a motorist had suffered some sort of seizure, causing him to lose control, hit a parked car and then roll his car on top of Duck's prized red Karmann-Ghia. The pair waited on the ground, then Rue, on his knees, slowly made his way to the window, looked out and, turning to Duck, said, in a tone that is as close as Rue can come to conciliatory, "Your car just got royally fucked up!" Granted, there is nothing particularly Seal Beachy about the story; still, Rue.
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