The eastern section of Second Street in Long Beach's Belmont Shore neighborhood Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. Photo by Cheantay Jensen.

There was the now-bygone 24-hour Shore House Cafe and the faux-snow-covered North Woods Inn.

There was the 1970s disco dancing craze, and then the ghost town spurred by the one-two punch of soaring commercial rent and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belmont Shore is no stranger to change.

Now, in 2023, the seaside Second Street corridor is finally waking from its pandemic and inflation-induced slumber as it sees foot traffic grow and the lights turn on in many long-darkened buildings.

Enter “Restaurant Row,” as Heather Kern has dubbed the street’s latest evolution.

“For 15 blocks, we have (more) restaurants than any one-street corridor in the city,” Kern, executive director of the Belmont Shore Business Association, told the Business Journal.

Kern says that Second Street has long lacked a variety of higher-end dining options.

“As a lifelong Long Beach resident, traditionally a lot of the ‘special moment, night out’ restaurants have been in Downtown, with some in Naples,” she said.

By the end of the year, that will change, as the corridor acclimates to and ushers in a mixture of 15 new and relatively new establishments, 10 of which are places where you can eat and drink.

Kern says the street is shaping up to reflect what folks want: “an elevated bar scene or elevated night out … they want to be in a nice-looking, chic establishment.” A slew of places fit for Instagram, she said.

The newly opened Viaje, Yasu and Sushi Nikkei are the evidence of that. Later this year, more eateries are expected to open: Louie’s on 2nd, Breakfast Republic, L’antica Pizzeria da Michele, South of Nick’s, Agita’s and Dave’s Hot Chicken.

The team behind Viaje, a new upscale Mexican restaurant, hopes its new venture will bring a metropolitan Mexican dining experience to Second Street. Photo by Kat Schuster

Stereoscope Coffee, a burgeoning Southern California cafe chain, also opened on the street, as well as some new shops: Shara Bits & Pieces, Nu Du Salon, Hummingbird Heart, Nuyu Wellness. Plus, there is talk of a new Turkish restaurant, a macaroon shop and perhaps a small sushi place that could go into the old Z Pizza corner, Kern said.

Aside from a roster of new storefronts, Kern said those traipsing the corridor will soon see a new gateway sign, new plants in the median, possibly some new murals and hanging flower baskets.

Mike Rhodes, owner of Long Beach’s oldest restaurant, Domenico’s, is among some of the street’s longest-standing business owners who have kept a watchful eye on the corridor’s ups and downs.

Rhodes says he’s seen a lot of restaurant closures over the last two decades.

“Only a handful of restaurants have survived,” Rhodes, who has owned Domenico’s for 19 years, told the Business Journal.

Despite everything, Domenico’s, which opened in 1954, had its busiest month on record in December 2022.

Belmont Shore “has made a nice comeback,” Rhodes said. “I think a lot of people in Long Beach are re-exploring the Shore, and they’re excited to see some of the new businesses and restaurants that are going in.”

The biggest transformation, Kern says, is that the neighborhood lost a lot of its big corporate businesses, which have been replaced by local independent businesses or chain restaurants. That is, with the exception of Pet Food Express, which took up four previously empty storefronts.

Lifelong Long Beach resident Heather Wood, 49, walks her daughter’s dog Navi, 3, into the new Pet Food Express at 5265 E. Second Street in Belmont Shore Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“During COVID, we certainly found ourselves with a lot of vacancies,” Kern said. “And now we’re almost full.”

Page Henley has also kept his finger on the pulse of Second Street’s revolving door of businesses, having owned McCarty’s Jewelry for the last 41 years.

When Henley bought the jewelry store with a previous business partner in 1982, he remembers a corridor of privately owned mom-and-pop businesses and a center median lush with towering trees.

Belmont Shore has also always been a popular bar-hopping area for students of Cal State Long Beach. As a student there in the 1970s, Henley recalls the Shore’s disco dancing boom and a time in which he could rent an apartment for $85 a month.

He’s also watched as the street’s retail sector dwindled against “exorbitant” rents and the advent of e-commerce. Even the Shore’s corporate retail spaces like Gap, Banana Republic, Buffalo Exchange and Lucky Brand have folded over the last several years.

“I’d love to see more individual owners come in and open stores up, but it’s too difficult,” he said. “The big pet store just opened up and took over an entire block…it’s not quite the same as going into a nice men’s or women’s clothing store.”

While Henley said he loves the street’s up-and-coming dining experience, he admits his favorite for the past 40 years has consistently been Cafe Gazelle, Belmont Shore’s Italian hole-in-the-wall.

McCarty’s, which opened in 1932, has—like Domenico’s—stood the test of time, even as the other business sectors endured a see-saw of changes. For Henley and Rhodes, the key is in the community.

Henley says he’s made sure that McCarty’s, which has a strong grandfathered-in customer base, participates in 30 to 40 charities and fundraising events per year.

“For me personally, it’s about caring for other people and being involved with society,” Henley said. “The kind of personal things I feel about the world and how people should give back.”

As for the city’s oldest restaurant, Rhodes says he was fortunate enough to remain open for take-out throughout the pandemic and keep every single one of his employees. Coming off the busiest month he’s ever had, he’s optimistic that a bustling new era could be in store for the neighborhood.

“I’m hoping that all the activity draws more people and it becomes a hotspot for people in town,” he said. “Four or five years ago, things weren’t looking nearly as good as they are now.”