From Drive-Thru to Drive-To: How San Marcos Became the ‘It’ City – Times of San Diego

Lakehouse Lake
Lake San Marcos. Courtesy of Lakehouse Hotel and Golf Resort

If you’ve ever made your way to San Marcos, it’s likely because you dined at Almafi at the lake or you endured the hike up Double Peak. Either way, you enjoyed worthwhile views of this small city just 30 miles north of San Diego. There’s a solid guarantee you’ll return too. San Marcos is transforming into a booming borough attracting new visitors, entrepreneurs, students and young families with the promise of fulfilling big aspirations. 

In just the past 20 years, the city surrounded by hillsides and open space has grown from a population of 55,000 to 95,000. Home to the flourishing Cal State San Marcos and Palomar College, dream-seekers include students and business owners, but also families who have moved to the area from across the country. 

My husband and I are a part of that society. As North Park expats, we ventured to San Marcos in 2016 for the good schools and affordable real estate. Over the years, we met others with similar stories, such as neighbor Kate Levan who recently left Pacific Beach. 

“When we saw how much further our money could go in San Marcos, we started looking here,” said Levan, who said they became homeowners after making the move. “We also loved that it has good schools, a family-friendly atmosphere and lots of parks and trails nearby.”

Gigi Jack, a mother of two, said her family moved to San Marcos from Del Rey, a seaside Los Angeles community, after they “fell in love with the vibe” of the quaint town during a vacation. 

“We loved the proximity to the beach that San Marcos offered while still having great yards, hiking trails and parks. And relatively affordable housing, when compared to LA,” Jack said. 

Carol Farrar, who has sold homes in North County for 15 years, said many of her buyers moved to San Marcos from outside the area — as far as Ohio. The buyers echo the same intentions as my family and others about their move. 

“(San Marcos is) in between inland and the coast, which makes it attractive for commuting and proximity to convenience,” Farrar said. “Buyers also love the feel of the community with miles of hiking trails, weekly farmers markets and the new North City district.”

North City. Courtesy photo

A Sleepy Past

If you ask Ivan Derezin, the owner of Churchill’s Pub and Grille, how San Marcos has changed since he opened his beloved eatery 20 years ago, he would say, “It’s like night and day.” When San Diego native Derezin opened Churchill’s, it was the only bar in town that served craft beers. He also invested heavily into creating a gratifying menu that, to this day, still attracts regular patrons (For you San Diegans, think Taproom Beer with an English twist). 

“It was a sleepy little town — a commuter town — without any good bars or good cuisines,” said Derezin, who also opened the swanky Bellows restaurant in 2014. “Today, San Marcos is dynamic. A lot of young families are moving in, the colleges are growing, the restaurant scene is getting better, and it’s now home to one of the best school districts in the county.” 

Other homegrown San Marcos residents and business owners share Derezin’s thoughts. Dayleen Coleman, owner of  D’Liteful Chocolat Patisserie & Chocolatier, grew up in the area before moving to Europe for culinary school. 

“The area has changed dramatically from the fields and ditches I played in as a child,” she said. “New homes and businesses are now abundant, along with the ever-growing CSUSM.”

In 2019, she opened D’Liteful in Lake San Marcos to bring sophisticated sweets to the area. On par with the likes of San Diego’s Extraordinary Desserts, D’Liteful serves exquisite desserts and gourmet truffles that will keep you coming back for more. 

“I had the most amazing opportunities working as a pastry chef and chocolatier in the U.K. and wanted to share my new skills and passion with my community. When doing my research, there was nothing in the area that offered proper fresh-made European chocolates and desserts,” Coleman said. 

North City. Courtesy photo

A Lively Future

Other business owners are following in the footsteps of Coleman and Derezin. The trendy Italian chain Buona Forchetta opened shop in the summer of 2021 in the growing North City — a neighborhood across from Cal State San Marcos that leaders plan to develop into a downtown San Marcos, with walkable housing and businesses. 

Matteo Cattaneo, owner of Buona Forchetta, said he expanded to North City because the area “felt like home.” 

“San Marcos has managed to maintain that small-town feel, even though there has been tremendous growth within a short number of years,” Cattaneo said. “This community has inspired us to further continue our expansion into North County.” 

Darren Levitt, vice president of Sea Breeze Properties, one of the developers of North City, said Buona Forchetta is just the tip of the iceberg for the neighborhood that’s expected to be completed in 2030. The area, which will include 3,000 residential units and 1.7 million square feet of commercial and retail space, will continue to host more events, including the new weekly San Marcos Farmer’s Market, install more public art, and will see the opening of Draft Republic complete with a bowling alley and arcade. 

“San Marcos, in general, and the area around Cal State University San Marcos, is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after communities to live in the region,” Levitt said. “We’re excited to watch North City continue to evolve and develop as a vibrant downtown for North County.”

Outside of North City, there are more gains for San Marcos. Tess Sangster, the city’s community and economic development director, said the opening of the new Kaiser Permanente hospital will allow San Marcos to turn into a “healthcare hub.” 

Meanwhile, The Lab Holdings  — the mastermind behind the Anaheim Packing District — purchased 10 acres of land behind a new Costco Business Center to develop an artsy, food-driven village (step aside Liberty Station!). With Golden Door opening a dazzling “country store” stocked with fresh foods, local farms are also growing. 

“We’ve transformed as a city, and we’ll continue to see growth in the next five years,” Sangster said. “We are becoming a ‘drive-to’ destination rather than a ‘drive-thru.’” 

“Drive-to” is right in our circle as more and more of our San Diego friends tell us they’re interested in making a similar move north — for the American dream that feels like it’s fading elsewhere, but alive and hearty in San Marcos.