As you might expect from a town that's home to not only a Leisure World but also a Christian Science Reading Room and a rare-plants nursery just a couple of blocks from its pier, the pace of Seal Beach is decidedly more measured than most beach towns. Which is how the locals like it. Last year, they picketed a proposed Starbucks on the city's compact Main Street business district, successfully killing the project.
Wedged between the San Gabriel River, Pacific Ocean and the Naval Weapons Station, the town remains one of Orange County's most unusual, with a funky Cape Cod-like shopping district where ice cream parlors, seashell emporiums and kite shops share space with topnotch restaurants and lots of Irish pubs, which, according to the guy who answered the phone at one of them, are distinguished from regular bars by "calling ourselves Irish and hanging Irish-looking stuff on the walls."
Charming, well-kept, accessible—once you know where it is—Seal Beach is easily walked or biked and never seems to get too crowded or to change much.
FUNK MY SEAL UP
Corner Drug Store. A tacky place in the very best sense of the word, where you can get beach toys, narcotics, inspirational plaques and a "It's Not a Beer Belly, It's a Fuel Tank for a Sex Machine" T-shirts in one stop. 302 Main St., (562) 594-0961.Up, Up & Away Kites. Every kind of kite—dragons to birds of prey to the cheap ones you usually buy your kids. The staff is happy to take you down a block to the beach for a free flying lesson. Quick tip: you should never have to run to get your kite in the air. A kite should just fly as you let out the string. For that, you need to be somewhere with a good breeze—like, say, a beach. 139 1⁄2 Main St., (562) 596-7661.California Seashell Company. Seashell potpourri, seashell tableaux, seashell sculptures, seashell Christmas ornaments, seashells by the bag in which you scoop smaller seashells with larger seashells. Basically, this place is about seashells. Well, that and the drunken mechanical sailor that greets you as you walk through the front door. 125 Main St., (562) 493-6653.
Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge. The 1,000 acres of wetlands inside the Naval Weapons Station is where you'll find heron and egrets, as well as 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 three-quarters of a mile hike around the site. Interested? Show up outside the base's main gate at 9 a.m. 800 Seal Beach Blvd., (562) 598-1024.Seal Beach. Locals know to stay well north of the pier, where crowds gather because that's where the parking lot is located. Walk a bit north, and you'll be rewarded with plenty of sand and may even get to see an altercation or two in the long-running battle between longboarders and wind surfers that has caused heated words not only in the water but also during City Council meetings.
Bayou Saint John. Great Cajun. 320 Main St., (562) 431-2298.Caf Lafayette. Great continental. 330 Main St., (562) 598-9566.Finbars. Great Italian. 550 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., (562) 430-4303.Koi Restaurant. Great sushi, though it can be pricy. 600 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., (562) 431-1186.Nick's. The locals' place. The Nick's breakfast burrito—chorizo, sour cream, potatoes and other stuff—is not so much enjoyed as cherished as an integral part of local culture. 223 Main St., (562) 598-5072.River's End. Great breakfast place and patio dining. 15 First St., (562) 431-5558.Shore House Caf. Encyclopedic menu on which just about everything is good and served in Flintstone-like portions. Since the demise of Garden Grove's sainted Belisles, this is the best place for big food in the county. 941 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., (562) 430-0116.Walt's Wharf. Great fish, always a wait, sometimes more than an hour. Plan ahead: ask for a beeper and stroll Main Street; the wait really goes rather quickly. Then have a martini, and the delay will be forgotten. 201 Main St., (562) 598-4433.
Seal Beach Inn and Gardens. Each of the 23 rooms is uniquely furnished in period antiques. The gardens are charming. The breakfast is delicious. And Main Street and the beach are an easy block or two away. The biggest problem you'll have is figuring out which room to stay in and how someone, several years ago, managed to steal the seal statue that sat more than 30 feet atop the Inn's sign. 212 Fifth St., (562) 493-2416.
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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. Brita Lemmon has run the place for the past three years with a loving hand and a demanding cat; she (Brita, not her cat) is readily available for advice. One of Brita's most popular items is the Turkish Fir Christmas tree—silver on the inside, green and full-bodied and easy on those allergic to trees. She sold out last year and plans to stock more next year. 225 Main St., Ste. A, (562) 430-5019.Seal Beach Pier. Seal Beach residents love their pier. It got trashed by storms in '82, and they rebuilt it. A portion of it burned a few years ago, and they rebuilt it again. One thing about this pier, though: it's longer than it looks. And it's made with wooden ties that aren't exactly easy on high heels . . . or so I've been told. It's great for a sunset walk, though, especially if your destination is the Ruby's restaurant located at the end for some fries and a shake.
Bay Theater. That rare breed—the independent art-film house—the Bay has long brought some of the best cinema to North Orange County. It's been so good, such an oasis, that we can forgive them for their months-long engagement of Chocolat not so long ago. Topnotch theater for people who actually care about movies. And every now and then, there's an organ concert. 340 Main St., (562) 431-9988.Seal Beach Playhouse. Founder Cynthia Sperry has taken it upon herself to ensure there's always some culture in town. The playhouse, which used to be a teahouse, features intimate seating—about 40 chairs. And it's not the usual community-theater fare but rather classics and experimental pieces such as Stages—three plays running concurrently—which ran last spring. 814 Electric Ave., (562) 430-1935.