Ahoy, Matey!

At the Jolly Roger Restaurant in the small Southern California town of Oceanside, you can order an Avocado Blast as a starter (tempura-battered avo stuffed with shrimp and tuna), Orange Coconut Salmon as an entree (panko-crusted with a sweet ginger glaze), and fruit-topped New York Cheesecake as a dessert, all while watching live entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. The “JR” may be a little fancy for your tastes but let me tell you; it’s a LOT fancy for mine. That’s because the only version of the Jolly Roger I ever knew was my favorite boyhood burger joint.  As pirates like to say, “Aarrr…

Why blog about a long-ago restaurant?  Because I’ve just returned from several days of vacation in Del Mar (just a few miles south of Oceanside), where my family and I spent my childhood summers.  Del Mar is renowned for its county fair and thoroughbred racetrack (“Where the Turf Meets the Surf”), but for me it was – and still is – a nirvana of sun, sand, and surf; chock-full of happy, carefree memories.  Including the Jolly Roger.

Del Mar beach

The beauty of Del Mar back in the day, besides its seaside location, was the sheer simplicity of the place.  The town was the perfect setup for a kid.  You could walk or bike from the residential areas to the shops in minutes.  You could spend pocket money on Slurpees and pinball at the 7-11.  You could meet/greet frequent passenger trains at Del Mar’s tiny station (while those same trains flattened pennies on the rails).  You could also sneak into the racetrack, collecting discarded betting tickets in hopes of finding an overlooked winner.  And if you were lucky, you had dinner at the Jolly Roger.

Del Mar train crossing

The Jolly Roger got its start as an ice cream parlor in 1945, adjacent to the lake in Big Bear, CA.  But the lake promptly went dry, which led to a lack of landlubbers walking through the doors.  The parlor then relocated to Newport Beach (where the ocean never goes dry).  Patrons soon asked for more than ice cream, so the JR evolved into a coffee shop; then into a chain of restaurants.  At its peak, the JR had forty locations, each adorned with the trademark black flag with skull and crossbones.  But as one article cruelly described its demise in 1985, “…the Jolly Roger pirate has ‘walked the plank’, and the restaurant chain has been consigned to Davey Jones’ locker.”  As far as I know, Oceanside is now the only remaining restaurant.

There’s more to my JR memories than those couple of seaside locations.  The JR also had a restaurant in the heart of Los Angeles, in a shopping center my dad developed back in the 1960’s.  The center is still there but alas, not the JR (now a Mexican restaurant).  No matter; the memories remain.  I never complained when my dad wanted to stop by his center on weekends.  That usually meant a family dinner at the JR, and a lot of yo-ho-ho-ing around the table.

Jolly Roger menu – original cover page

Sadly, the Jolly Roger location where my family and I shared many a dinner – next door to Del Mar in Solana Beach – is also gone (converted into a Starbucks – shiver me timbers!)  And the Oceanside restaurant has evolved into something a whole lot fancier.  No matter again.  My JR will always exist.  I picture the restaurant where the waiters dressed like pirates, the kid’s menus looked like a pirate, and the best options for dinner were burgers & fries, grilled cheese, and milkshakes.  The JR also had quite the dessert menu, including full-boat chocolate sundaes and coconut-cream pie.

Dead men tell no tales, but I sure do.  Thanks for the memories, JR!

Old-World Charming

One of my favorite musicals is “Brigadoon”.  The original production dates a long way back; to 1947.  Brigadoon tells the tale of two Americans traveling in the Scottish Highlands.  A town quietly appears to them through the fog: charming, simple and untouched by time.  It is idyllic.  To protect itself from the changing outside world, “Brigadoon” only appears to outsiders one day every hundred years.  So when one of these travelers falls in love with a Scottish lass from the town, he only has a few hours to decide if that love means remaining in Brigadoon and disappearing into the fog forever.  The ending is fitting (and not so predictable).  I won’t give it away here.

31 - idyllic

My own Brigadoon appears to me, once a year for only a week or two.  Just north of San Diego lies the little coastal town of Del Mar.  It is a quiet village by the sea, with pretty little shops and restaurants, a prominent hotel, and a train that whistles its way along the nearby cliffs several times a day.  You can stroll leisurely from the beach to the center of town in a matter of minutes.  You can sit in the park on the bluffs and lose yourself in the horizon.  The flip-flop pace is slow and the carefree inhabitants always seem relaxed and happy.  Like Brigadoon, Del Mar is simple, romantic, and idyllic.

I keep returning to Del Mar, just as I did when I was a boy.  Growing up in the bustle of Los Angeles, Del Mar was only a two-hour drive south by car or an effortless journey by train; yet always seemed a world away.  My family spent the summers at our house on the beach, including countless hours in the sand and surf.  In those days – a half-century ago or more (gulp) – Del Mar was as modest a burg as you can imagine.  The beachhouses were drab single-story wood-sided bungalows.  A walk on the shore encountered a lot of seaweed and rocks and only an occasional shell.  The town was unremarkable; more practical than boutique.  My child’s eye recalls the 7-Eleven as a highlight; the only place a kid cared about thanks to its Slurpees and pinball machines.  Del Mar’s drugstore was almost forgettable, except you could buy chocolate malt tablets (meant for indigestion but candy to us kids).  The park contained a snack shack where you couldn’t get much more than a grilled cheese and a Coke.  And my friends and I used to sneak under the highway through a culvert, giving us a back door entrance to the nearby horse-racing grounds.  I can still picture the jockeys, exercising their thoroughbreds in the ocean waves.

Del Mar is a wholly different animal today.  The draw of the coast, the consistently good weather, and the summer horse-racing season has transformed a modest locale into quite the tony address.  The beach is groomed daily and the sand is marked into areas for swimming and other areas for games and still other areas for dogs.  The hotel commands a nightly rate of $350.  The park on the bluffs is all spruced up – no more snack bar – and used for concerts and festivals.  A sunset wedding/reception sets you back $4k just for the use of the park.  The local Starbucks sells enough coffee and tea to rank among the most successful locations in the country.  The racetrack patrons hit the town in their Sunday best the first day of the season (think Kentucky Derby).  And most notably, a house on the beach – with a very narrow slot of property abutting the ocean – cannot be had for less than $10 million.  Yes, Del Mar is all dressed up these days and hardly simple.

But it’s still my Brigadoon.

My family and I make our annual pilgrimage to Del Mar every July.  We leave behind landlocked Colorado for yet another taste of the sun and surf and salty air.  And as soon as I arrive, the little town I remember reveals itself to me from the fog that has enveloped it over the years.  The fancy shops, restaurants, and patrons step aside in favor of the simpler and more idyllic memories of the Del Mar I first fell in love with.  If it were possible, I might just choose to take a leap – forever – into the Brigadoon of my yesteryear.