There’s never been a scientific study proving that burgers just taste better at the beach. But whether you’re a surfer or a tide pooler, a boogie boarder or a sun worshiper, you know nothing beats that first bite of a burger during a glorious day by the ocean.
With 840 miles of coastline, California knows a thing or two about beach burgers. They are as diverse as the California coast itself, and often come from places that are little more than shacks or stands—certainly not spots you’d describe as brasseries or gastropubs. Some offer simple delights, with shredded iceberg and American cheese, while others offer notable veggie, turkey, or even ahi burgers. Regardless of style, all classic California beach burgers are best served with the same sides: a fresh breeze off the Pacific and the sound of crashing waves. Here are seven favorites, listed from south to north.
A classic beach neighborhood deserves a classic beach burger. And less than 100 steps from the sand (someone actually counted), in San Diego’s Ocean Beach community, Hodad’s has been powering rides along the local breaks since 1969. In fact, when Hodad’s was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, host Guy Fieri declared that it was, “in my opinion, what a local burger joint oughta be.”
The surf vibe is unmistakable, from the Hodad’s name itself (a reference to wannabes who hang out at the beach and pretend to be surfers) to the crammed interior, where one surfboard doubles as the central table and others hang from the ceiling. As for Hodad’s star attractions, one key factor is that the careful arrangement of toppings and condiments forms a bed underneath the patty itself, allowing the juices to saturate these ingredients. The whole thing is wrapped in paper; diners are advised to remove it at their own risk, lest their meal fall apart. That’s especially true of Hodad’s bacon burger, which is topped with a crispy patty made of chopped bacon, not just a couple of skinny strips.
For surfing fans in Orange County, TK Burgers—located across the Pacific Coast Highway from Huntington Beach Pier and the broad sands of Huntington State Beach—is the consummate SoCal burger shack. After all, for surfers along the pier, it’s so close to the lineup that they’ll barely miss a set. And for visitors to the town billed as “Surf City, USA,” TKs lets you hang with the dudes who ride the waves and literally get a taste of the surfing lifestyle.
A TK burger certainly won’t break the bank—and it won’t break your jaw, either. It’s not piled high with so many elaborate toppings that you can’t get your mouth around it. The patties have just the right amount of char on the outside and pink on the inside, and they’re complemented by nothing fancier than sliced tomato, some lettuce, and the TK variation of the proverbial secret sauce. But one thing that sets a TK burger apart is the bun, specially baked for TKs: They are as plush as a settee in the McMansion of a Real Housewife of Orange County.
There’s only one burger on the menu at Malibu Seafood, but it’s memorable: It’s made from ground ahi tuna mixed with onions and seasonings, grilled and then served on a sesame-seed bun with lettuce, thick-sliced tomato, and tartar sauce. The steak fries are as good as the burger; and if you’re looking for another sandwich option, try the grilled squid steak on sourdough: not officially a beach burger, but it’s mighty, mighty tasty.
You should also take advantage of the restaurant’s location: It’s right across Pacific Coast Highway from Dan Blocker Beach, and sits next to the trailhead for one of Southern California’s most appealing coastal hikes. Park in the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy lot (about $5) and head out from the Sara Wan Trailhead on a 2.5-mile loop into and above Corral Canyon. The trail climbs about 500 feet to commanding views of the coast before dropping back into the canyon.
Santa Barbara County
Kitesurfers come to isolated Jalama Beach to take advantage of the prime breezes, while surfers make the trek hoping to get barrelled at Tarantulas, Jalama’s celebrated left-hand point break. But plenty of people head to Jalama for nothing more adventurous than lunch. Jalama burgers are perhaps the most legendary of all California’s beach burgers, almost invariably described as “world-famous.”
For nearly 40 years, Don Eittreim has been serving them at this humble beach store and snack bar that he long operated with his late wife, Kathy. The Jalama burger rises from a bed of finely shredded lettuce that provides the foundation on a grilled sesame bun. From there, the layers steadily build: a cross-section of red onion, sliced tomato, pickles, and then the lean beef patty itself—best when smothered with cheese. And of course, there’s a secret sauce. The whole burger is transcendent in its simplicity.
Decorated with natural-history displays and old newspaper clips, commemorating such events as the Honda Point disaster (when seven U.S. Navy ships ran aground near Jalama in 1923), the store’s cramped indoor seating area is modest. Grab a window-side table, if you can, to look out on the beach.
Pismo Beach shares its name with a large clam found along the shore here, so the town has become synonymous with clam chowder. Wooly’s Beach Bar & Grill certainly doesn’t skimp on the chowder, but plenty of diners come here for the burgers.
Cradled in a brioche bun, Wooly’s burgers are made with black Angus beef, in quarter-pound or half-pound sizes. Variations include a chili cheeseburger and the Western barbecue burger, a popular option topped by cheddar, Applewood bacon, and crispy jalapeños. Beef’s not your thing? Then try the blackened albacore burger, which comes with caramelized onions, tomatoes, and cucumber-wasabi dressing.
Then there’s Wooly’s setting: Any closer to the sand and you’d probably have to be a clam yourself. At the very end of Pomeroy Avenue, Wooly’s deck looks straight out on the beach, the boardwalk, and the nearly quarter-mile-long Pismo Beach Pier. You’ve got a front-row seat to all the beach action: fishermen on the pier, surfers, and an endless parade of people strolling Pismo’s flat, packed sands.
Although it’s not right on the sand, U.S. Meal is within flip–flop walking distance of both Black’s Beach and secluded Sunny Cove Beach in Santa Cruz. The short trek is certainly worth it for a diverse, creative burger lineup that has won acclaim from Santa Cruz beachgoers ever since U.S. Meal’s 2013 opening. “My hamburger was just as I had ordered, medium-rare and layered, no onion,” wrote Ann Parker in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “ A generous amount of guacamole and pickled jalapeño slices added color and flavor to the hand-formed grilled-beef patty.”
Pickled jalapeños: This suggests that U.S. Meal is unafraid to break with beach-burger orthodoxy. Indeed, in addition to traditional beef burgers, as well as one teriyaki variation with ham and pineapple, the restaurant serves a salmon burger topped with avocado and crab. Savor your burger on a breezy, landscaped patio that has picnic tables and a bocce court. A nice local bonus: Wash down your selection with craft beers on draft, from such acclaimed Northern California breweries as Lagunitas Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada.
Sitting along the base of the lifeguard stand at Stinson Beach, an hour north of San Francisco, the Siren has a stylishly weathered look, as if it’s still being slowly seasoned by the salt air. Through the paned windows, look out on breakers rolling onto the shore, then all the way out to the Farallon Islands (at least on clear days). A string of incandescent lights hangs from the ceiling, and the fresh-cut flowers at each table add a touch of class not common at most burger shacks.
That’s because these are no common burgers. Owner Mary Margaret Stewart uses grass-fed beef, free of antibiotics and hormones, and sources her vegetables from a farm stand in nearby Bolinas. She also does her own brining, and you’ll find a row of mason jars filled with her onions, carrots, cucumbers, and jalapeños, as well as fiery salsas. With that commitment to the details, you just know that a Siren Canteen burger will be terrific—whether you opt for the ABC Burger (with avocado, bacon, and cheddar) or the Blue Cheese Burger. The sweet potato fries are a nice touch, too.