A Pro Surfer’s Guide to California’s Best Surf Towns
Huntington Beach native Brett Simpson shares his favorite surf spots — and all the best nearby eats
Brett Simpson had barely graduated from Huntington Beach High School when he jumped into surfing full-time, ultimately winning the U.S. Open of Surfing in 2009 and 2010. He continued competing on the Championship Tour for a few years and then pivoted to coaching. In 2020, he was named the inaugural head coach of the U.S. Olympics surfing team.
Surfing has taken Simpson all over the world, but he’s particularly fond of his home state. These are his pick’s for California’s best surf towns, the areas to catch the best waves and top recommendations for where to go after you’ve worked up an appetite.
“Huntington Beach Pier is the epicenter of surfing,” Simpson says. “It’s where it all started for me.” Simpson says the waves are consistent all year long, making it an ideal spot for surfers of any ability. Huntington Beach is also home to the U.S. Open of Surfing.
A definite advantage of surfing in Huntington is the proximity of great restaurants, coffee shops and bars. For breakfast and lunch, Simpson recommends Sugar Shack, a family-owned spot known for its tasty food and large portions. For coffee, he heads to Java Point, located inside Huntington Surf & Sport. “I grab a latte and then check out the boards at HSS.” For pizza and beer, he goes a bit inland to RIIP Beer & Pizzeria.
Ask any surfer in Southern California for their favorite spot, and there’s an excellent chance it’s Lower Trestles, a beach at the southern tip of San Clemente. “This is where you go for performance-friendly waves, which is why the Rip Curl World Surfing League Finals are held here,” Simpson says. He also suggests Upper Trestles and The Church, legendary spots for experienced surfers.
When it’s time to grab something to eat, Simpson heads to downtown San Clemente, where his favorite lunch spot is Pronto Deli. For something more upscale, Simpson recommends South of Nick’s, a popular Mexican restaurant with excellent Margaritas.
Simpson points out that San Clemente is also a hotbed for surfboard manufacturers and shapers. Lost Surfboards is known for their high-performance boards, while Bill Stewart, founder of Stewart Surfboards, is the father of modern longboards.
“Newport offers a great variety of surf spots, so I have my favorites for each season,” Simpson says. “In summer, it’s the 56th Street jetty for the left-hander waves, and in winter, I like Blackies Beach for the mix of experiences.”
After a morning of surfing in Newport, everyone heads to Al Cappuccino Coffee House for coffee and bagels. For a great family dinner, Simpson suggests two classics on the Balboa Peninsula: Crab Cooker and The Old Spaghetti Factory.
Simpson describes Oceanside as similar to Huntington Beach with consistent waves year round, making it an obvious pick for one of California’s best surf towns. He particularly enjoys the north and south jetty in Oceanside Harbor, though he cautions that these are best suited to intermediate and advanced surfers.
According to Simpson, Parlor Doughnuts is the perfect spot for post-surfing doughnuts and an almond latte. If he’s in town for lunch, then Craft Coast Beer & Tacos is a cheap and casual joint for hanging out with friends. For ocean views and something a little more formal, he opts for Oceanside Broiler.
“I recently took my family for a trip to the Central Coast town of Morro Bay, and we had a blast,” Simpson says. “I’ve always enjoyed surfing here, but now I realize there’s so much to do in the area.” When he’s in Morro Bay to surf, Simpson prefers the north end of Morro Rock, which he qualifies as “a swell magnet.” Note that the water here can be cold. For food (and another almond latte), he suggests Sun-N-Buns Bakery and Espresso Bar along Embarcadero, the town’s main street. For dinner, his family enjoys The Great American Fish Company.
If there’s a city that rivals Huntington Beach for the title of Surf City USA, it’s Santa Cruz — many champion surfers come from this small Northern California town famous for its laid-back vibe. “When I’m in Santa Cruz, I head to Steamer Lane, among the most iconic surf spots in California,” Simpson says. The waves are frequent and the shoreline is rife with cliffs and boulders, so it’s best for intermediate and advanced surfers. If you’ve forgotten your surfboard wax or just need a hot cup of coffee on a cold day, you’ll find it all at Steamer Lane Supply.
When it’s time to eat, Simpson recommends the chicken teriyaki at Pono Hawaiian Grill. For a big night out, he suggests Jack O’Neill Restaurant & Lounge, named for the founder of O’Neill wetsuits. Located next to the pier, it’s an ideal destination for a sunset dinner.
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