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Del Mar's Social Climate Heats Up : Uncool in Midst of New Hot Spots

September 06, 1990|KEVIN BRASS | Kevin Brass writes about media issues for The Times and is a former associate editor of the Del Mar Citizen.

Nothing can make a person feel less cool and less hip these days than a conversation with someone from Del Mar.

"Have you been to Johnny Rockets yet?" a friend asked me recently, obviously attempting to gauge my hipness.

Not wanting to appear unsophisticated, I replied, "Uh, no."

"Really?" he said, barely disguising his contempt. "Look, ya gotta go. As I understand it, they opened one in Beverly Hills and it was a smash, and now they've opened one here."

Already having shown myself to be one step above the sea slug in hipness, I saw no reason not to press on.

"What exactly is Johnny Rockets?" I asked, forever dooming myself to a purgatory of the uncool in the eyes of my friend.

Speaking in the tone of a teacher instructing a 4-year-old, he revealed that Johnny Rockets is THE place to be these days. The way he described it, it sounded like a very chic hamburger stand.

But it is in Del Mar. And it is HOT, in the same way Hula Hoops were once hot.

Having found out long ago that I was not high on the hipness scale--I think it first occurred to me the day I wore my basketball shoes and shorts to the opening of an art gallery--I was not too bothered by my unawareness of the latest hot spot. It hurt, though, to learn it was in Del Mar, and I knew nothing about it.

I grew up in Del Mar, or at least I spent what Dr. Ruth likes to refer to as my "formative years" in Del Mar. I consider it my home, even though I traitorously moved to Ocean Beach recently.

I still visit often enough, though, to think I know what's happening in my hometown. Apparently I don't.

A few nights after my conversation about Johnny Rockets, I was once again confronted with my clear lack of awareness of the hip Del Mar scene.

"I can't believe the crowd at the J. J. Maguire's," a friend said.

Once again I had to admit that I knew nothing about the place.

"You know, it's where the G.R.B. used to be," she explained.

Ah, now we're talking local talk. The G.R.B. used to be a restaurant on 15th Street. It was there that, in 1976, I drank too much wine and made up large portions of the Declaration of Independence while posing as Thomas Jefferson in a presentation to the Del Mar Bicentennial Committee. Although it has been many restaurants since then, many locals still refer to it as the G.R.B. (which I believe stood for Golden Rolling Belly).

But I had never heard of J.J. Maguire's.

"It's the totally young and hip college crowd," my friend said. "They have one of those singing machines. All the well-dressed college dudes and babes go there. It's always packed."

This was something of a shock to me. The cool dudes and babes never hung out in Del Mar before. Del Mar is where they bought beer and later went to a cool club somewhere else (usually in Palm Springs).

In fact, this whole concept of Del Mar being the hot spot of North County is a little unsettling for me. I know Del Mar has changed. I've walked the streets enough to see the difference. Since the new "European-style" Del Mar Plaza and the Del Mar Inn across the street opened, it seems the sidewalks are always crowded with tourists and shoppers.

This shouldn't be a big surprise. No one believed the developers of the Plaza and the Inn when they stressed over and over again that their facilities would be geared only toward the residents of Del Mar. (Well, most people didn't believe them.)

But nobody told us Del Mar was going to be HOT. As much as I can understand and accept the new Del Mar, it's hard to fathom it as a happening spot, a bastion of the gold and Gucci crowd.

But it's undeniable. There is a buzz in this little village, a chic aura that didn't exist before. Everyone is always talking about this restaurant or that cool new shop. At night, I've discovered, the restaurants and bars are full of the society people described in Tom Wolfe's "Bonfires of the Vanities," the skinny women in skin-tight outfits he labeled "X-rays" and the well-dressed men who represent the style-conscious side of society, the folks who might open a conversation with, "Excuse me, what kind of mousse do you use?"

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's definitely new and different for Del Mar, which always had a far funkier aura, at least in my mind. The community met over coffee at Del Mar Danish at 9 a.m., not over Champagne cocktails at Il Fornaio.

On the other hand, it's only fair to note that, in many ways, the essence of the village--the laid-back nature of the people who live there--hasn't changed much.

"Almost everything important (about Del Mar) has remained the same," Herb Benham, an annual visitor to Del Mar, wrote in a recent column for The Times.

He's right, and it's an important point. The heart and soul of the community, its status as a special part of the world, has remained unharmed, primarily because of the beaches and the people--the folks at the library, the young girls working at Carlos and Annie's, the bartenders at Bully's.

But the trappings of the community have gone through a drastic transformation.

Del Mar has always been a hangout for the rich and carefree, but until recently it was never compared to Rodeo Drive. The Hollywood crowd has been part of the fabric of the community, but they came to Del Mar to escape, not to be seen.

Being seen in Del Mar is extremely cool these days--as long as you're wearing the right sunglasses.

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