It’s the week of Fourth of July. And while we appreciate you being here, we really hope it’s from some stretch of sand or some body of water relaxing enough that your problems can be put on the same kind of ice as the booze in the cooler next to you. If not, throw on your shades anyway, and join us for our weeklong package, “Life’s a Beach,” a celebration of all things sand, sun and summer. Of course, if you’re already on vacation, you’re welcome, too — just be sure to reapply another layer of sunscreen, as these pieces burn bright. Read all of them here.
The city of Pacifica sits along the western shore of California’s Bay Area, with the coastline bordered by homes that creep down the hillside and all the way to the water’s edge.
There’s only about 37,000 people who live here, but the break of the surf draws all manner of ocean lovers, who drive here to soak in Pacifica’s old-world aesthetic. But while the beach is a major attraction, so is the venue worth watching all that action from: The back patio of the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world, from which you can gaze upon an unbroken view of sea and sun, stretching endlessly to the horizon.
Even on a day marked by gray skies and a chill in the breeze, it’s a nearly hallucinatory experience to sit here, eating Doritos Locos tacos and watching a squadron of newbie surfer kids get thrashed in one-foot-tall waves. I take a long sip of frozen Mountain Dew Baja Blast, doctored with two glugs of vodka and served in a yard-length plastic vessel that looks vaguely like a weapon. A stiff wind scatters sand near my feet; the gulls hover in the sky, looking for leftovers to poach.
I’m keenly experienced with the oceanfront hangout experience — that’s what happens if you’re lucky enough to grow up in Hawaii. But this is as legitimate as any in recent memory, and it elicits a chuckle as I open another packet of Fire sauce. It doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t be real. Someone could’ve sold this Taco Bell to be demolished in favor of some gaudy, gentrified-looking temple to wealth. But they didn’t.
Instead, the building has stayed largely the same since it was built sometime in the 1960s, initially serving as an A&W franchise before transitioning into a Taco Bell two decades later. Its odd location, modernist design and classic, salt-stained wood siding made it an unofficial Northern California landmark for locals and anyone passing along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Despite the obvious advantages, the location wasn’t exactly busy in terms of actual sales, at least compared to other franchises in the region. That became a point of focus when the location was taken over in 2014 by its current operator, DRG, who decided to sink more than a million dollars into a renovation that debuted in the summer of 2019.
“It was due for a remodel based on Taco Bell franchise requirements. We had just opened a couple successful Cantinas elsewhere, in particular the one on the Las Vegas Strip — the highest-volume Taco Bell in the world,” says Raul Lepe, senior vice president of operations services with DRG. “Based on what we had learned, our ownership group realized, hey, the Pacifica location is basically unmatchable real estate, so we really need to go big on the remodel with a ‘do it right or not at all’ mentality.”
That meant out with the aged, retro-Southwest interior design and in with a more contemporary look that wouldn’t feel out of place in a nearby home. There’s a mural from San Francisco artist Nora Bruhn on the ceiling, as well as lots of dark hardwood and teal-green touches. A double-sided glass fireplace offers warmth and ambient light. And the restaurant’s rear deck was finally fully permitted for use, allowing people to take their tacos, beer and neon-hued Twisted Freezes outside and dine while watching the tide roll in.
The effort transformed an already famous Taco Bell into the platonic ideal of a beachside fast-food experience — all of which helped spark a viral phenomenon online, driving a swath of new fans. “We’ve had wedding receptions, and I have a full wedding booked for September. We’ve also hosted private parties for a broad range of organizations who want a venue that’s more elaborate than a town hall or something,” says James Aman, who oversees multiple Taco Bell Catinas as area coach for DRG. “That included graphic designers who worked on The Matrix [Resurrections], bachelorette parties, a Stanford University graduation party, an event for a lucky San Jose Sharks fan through our partnership with the team and even a live radio broadcast this past month.”
Lepe says that the Pacifica location is now raking in triple the sales it did before the remodel, and I can understand why. Even on a mid-week afternoon, the crowd was buzzing, bringing families, couples and tourists together with the promise of cold drinks and affordable food. A gaggle of kids crowded around a table on the patio, pointing and giggling at surfers in the water while chewing on their cheese quesadillas. A trio of women took selfies while posing with their slushy drinks. Another couple just sat quietly, sipping on beers and peering out on the water, perhaps finding a peaceful moment amid a hectic day.
“I love it. Actually, we live in the city, for our little escape if we’re driving down to Santa Cruz or Half Moon Bay or something, we always make this a stop. It’s such a unique spot,” says Tom, a 44-year-old resident of San Francisco. “This is my third time here, and I think it has to do with the view, obviously, but just how quirky it is that we have a Taco Bell on the beach.”
Maybe that’s why it feels like the Taco Bell Cantina in Pacifica has a gravity unto its own, pulling people in from a distance. I remember the first time I ever saw this location, while driving back from a hike in the hills along the coast; I made a promise to return. And having now come back for a full meal and several reasonably priced adult beverages, it’s hard to imagine how this Taco Bell wouldn’t be a regular stop in my roster. Even the food tasted better. “It’s like they have their A-team working in the kitchen at this location,” my girlfriend remarked.
That could just be an illusion, brought on by the romanticism of eating on the beach, complete with an uninterrupted, 180-degree view of California splendor. I know in my brain that, at the end of the day, there’s something almost cynical about a corporate fast-food joint taking up space amid such natural beauty.
But my heart can’t help but be charmed by how unlikely of a story this Taco Bell is, given that shitty fast-food restaurants are supposed to be jammed into dusty, chaotic strip malls. In a parallel universe not too far from this one, the property was sold a long time ago. By the grace of God and ground beef, it has instead remained a place for the public to gather — a temple of humility in taste and expense, open to all regardless of class or creed. It’s all remarkable given the oceanfront in modern America is a never-ending battleground, whether it’s fights over public beach access, questions of environmental destruction or the gross materialism of the hyper-rich, who build tacky monuments to excess under the guise of human habitation.
Standing in the face of all that is a little restaurant in a sleepy beach city in California, complete with a surfboard rack and the infectious energy of people who, just like me, can’t believe how much fun they’re having at the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world.