OCEANSIDE — In 1988, Gary and Zell Dwelley opened the Beach Break Café at 1902 Coast Highway. Their plan was to limit their hours to 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. so they could devote quality time to their boys, Mitchell and Harrison.
“When I grew up my dad was always home for dinner so he could be active in Little League,” Gary said. “Mom was also home if we were sick.”
Today the boys are all grown up. Mitchell has a B.A. from Penn State and works for Trader Joe’s. Harrison is working on a restaurant and hospitality degree from Golden West College.
Meanwhile, Mom and Dad are working harder than ever, serving up to 600 breakfasts on Sunday mornings with a wait time of 45 minutes.
“We enjoyed going to breakfast at the time we started the restaurant,” Gary said. “We were young and didn’t know about how hard it would be.”
Gary arrives at the cafe at 4 a.m., baking his homemade coffee cake and biscuits. When the cook comes at dawn, he’s off surfing at Terramar for an hour or so.
Photos by famed surf photographer LeRoy Grannis cover the walls along with vintage resin art from the 1970s. Surfboards crafted by Dale Velzy, Phil Edwards and Gerry Lopez hang from the ceiling.
“My husband is first and foremost a surfer,” Zell explains. “In the beginning I said this is not going to be your surfing mecca. Everything was country decor back then. I had a picture on the wall of a lamb with a bow. I walked in one day and he replaced it with a surf poster.”
The café is known for serving up generous portions of Gary’s signature cuisine like machaca, chicken chili, fresh salsa and homemade marinades for fish tacos.
“The banana French toast is iconic,” Zell says. “It’s thick Texas egg bread rolled in Honey Bunches of Oats and covered with bananas and whipped cream.”
The menu also reflects Gary’s inventiveness.
A few years ago he suffered severe burns due to a fireplace mishap over the holidays. When he returned to work, he memorialized the incident with a breakfast entrée.
“On Fire!” is a piquant blend of hot Louisiana sausage links, jalapenos, salsa, corn tortilla strips and cheeses scrambled with eggs.
His popular Scramblatta was also happenstance.
“One day I noticed the chicken enchiladas hadn’t sold out so I folded them with eggs,” he said. “People started coming in and ordering the Scramblatta.”
The couple met in Maui in 1977. Both were Southern California transplants looking for adventure after high school.
“I moved to Hawaii because I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Zell said. “In 1978 when I returned to study at Palomar College to become a hat milliner Gary came with me.” They married in 1981.
Gary worked for the Chart House and Zell at the La Costa Resort before starting the business.
Today their staff has proven to be as enduring as their marriage.
“We’ve had one employee for 21 years,” Gary said. “Kelley started as a server and currently is the manager.”
A waiter started as a busboy at the age of 15.
“James put himself through Cal State San Marcos and now he’s putting himself through law school,” Gary said. “This is the only job he’s ever had.”
It’s not unusual to see third-generation customers.
“We know people who have been coming here since they dated,” Gary said. “Now they have kids and their kids are bringing in their kids.”
Among police officers, surfer dudes and grandparents who crowd the café are the occasional celebrities.
A few years ago Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, third in line for the presidency, arrived for breakfast with a contingent of Secret Service.
“We have people land at the airport and this is the first place they come,” Zell said.
If there’s a recession, it hasn’t affected the Dwelleys. In fact, they are frustrated that the banks won’t loan them the amount of money they need to build a new restaurant on property they purchased a block north.
“We are a proven commodity,” Gary said. “A new restaurant would revitalize the community. We’ll put construction people to work.”