(Published in February 2015 by South Bay Accent Magazine.)
Santa Cruz. This classic California beach town, famously progressive and proudly quirky — “Keep Santa Cruz weird” is its unofficial motto — has recently added a bustling food scene to attractions like the Boardwalk, surfing and redwoods-filled state parks.
Given the city’s longtime standing as a center of organic agriculture, the spate of exciting new eateries appearing in the last few years might be overdue. “We recognized that Santa Cruz was ripe for businesses like ours,” said the founder of one popular new restaurant, with this realization attracting other food entrepreneurs to Surf City of late. For locals and visitors, the eating choices have never been better.
While ‘Cruz has long harbored a few dining options focused on fresh, local ingredients like Gabriella Cafe, Ristorante Avanti and Theo’s (it’s now Main Street Garden & Cafe) in nearby Soquel, the town in earlier years was better known for the saltwater taffy sold at the Boardwalk or goofy tourist attractions like the Mystery Spot and Felton’s Bigfoot Discovery Museum. Big-deal dining was thought to be places like Shadowbrook in Capitola, beloved for its cable car and gardens more than its cutting-edge cuisine.
Yet, there were glimmers of a bigger future, food wise, over the years. The Cellar Door Cafe, opened in 2009 by iconoclastic local vintner Randall Grahm, excited regional foodies, employed star chefs, even got a nod in the New York Times but financial challenges closed it in 2012. Happily, some other noteworthy, more-casual spots also launched in the previous decade like wine bar Soif and its sister operation, Italian darling La Posta, are still going strong.
While they won’t be in line for Michelin stars, some less-sophisticated but finger-licking eateries often build enthusiastic fan bases in an eclectic, laid-back town like Santa Cruz. Good examples are family-run Lillian’s Italian Kitchen, opened in 2007, longtime Capitola landmark Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria and Americanized-Mexican comfort-food purveyor Cafe El Palomar at the harbor — all enduringly popular.
Some dining spots have become local institutions, such as O’Mei, which has been dishing up Sichuan specialties since 1979, and Oswald, launched in ’95 and known for its noisy hipster vibe and ubiquitous modern menu.
For foodies seeking the next big thing, however, the local culinary winds started changing for good around 2010 when former UC Santa Cruz grad Kendra Baker — a budding star with several notable establishments on her resume — left Michelin two-star Manresa in Los Gatos to open her own place in Santa Cruz with business partner Zachary Davis. The former pastry chef launched The Penny Ice Creamery — an artisinal establishment where everything, even the add-ins, is made from scratch. It was mobbed from the day it opened.
The California native had often vacationed in Santa Cruz as a child and chose the beach town partly for its beauty and family-friendly environment but also for savvy business reasons. “There was a little bit of a void,” she says, ” at least, not enough of this kind of food. So we recognized that there was definitely potential here.”
“The Penny,” as she calls it, quickly grew to three locations while she and Davis also opened The Picnic Basket near the beach, a hugely popular purveyor of simple, delicious food and snacks. Last year, they added a more ambitious restaurant, Assembly, in downtown Santa Cruz with the same commitment to local, seasonal ingredients and great craftsmanship as their other businesses. Their most recent endeavor is a pop-up space next door to Assembly that features up-and-coming local food artisans.
With about 120 employees at present, Baker’s mushrooming empire hasn’t only succeeded because of her well-documented cooking skills. Pleasing the local audience is everything. “We think about how we’re presenting our food so it’s accessible to people — a wide range of people,” she explains. “We have foodies in this community but we also have people who just want to eat. We want to create a place where people feel comfortable and where it’s not like a ‘Portlandia’ skit.”
With a tasty beachhead established, other new eating spots have opened recently in Santa Cruz and are going strong. Once a Chez Panisse Cafe pizza chef, Benjamin Sims spent several years cooking with local ingredients at Ristorante Avanti in town before launching Bantam, his modern Italian eatery that features wood-fired pizza and a wide range of simple, Chez Panisse-style dishes.
Another newcomer is glitzy Solaire, the restaurant inside what was once the Holiday Inn but is now a sophisticated boutique hotel in downtown Santa Cruz with food to match. The menu features local ingredients and modern treatments, served in a sleek, sybaritic environment.
With Santa Cruz evolving into a foodie magnet, other newer dining spots have been popping up, from always-popular Italian joints to ethnic eateries featuring cuisine from places like Mongolia and Afghanistan. The good news for Bay Area diners is that there are now many more reasons to extend a day at the beach into an evening at the table. Here’s our guide to where to dine now in this free-spirited beach town.
Forever Popular – These longtime spots continue to draw crowds.
This tiny downtown cottage isn’t just a romantic spot; Gabriella was one of the first Santa Cruz restaurants to buy ingredients from local farmers. This farm-to-table mindset has, over the years, inspired young chefs like Kendra Baker, who started her restaurant career there. Opened in 1992, the cafe turns out fresh Cal-Ital-style food including scrumptious highlights like crispy Brussels sprouts with hazelnuts and house-made pappardelle with a rustic Bolognese sauce. Plentiful appealing salads, house-made pasta and satisfying entrees like marinated chicken and slow-roasted pork shoulder keep customers coming back. Charming owner and art lover Paul Cocking is on hand to attend to guests and adds some local culture by having regular art exhibits in his eatery. Overall, Gabriella is an appealing choice for intense flavors, good local wines and thoughtful service.
910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, (831) 457-1677; http://www.gabriellacafe.com
Another longtime success story with a strong focus on local ingredients, this friendly Italian bistro on the Westside recently moved down the street and expanded. The menu isn’t cutting-edge but there are enough interesting additions like a seaweed and local abalone starter to balance well-executed classics such as chicken cacciatore and gnocchi, with everything fresh and tasty. A particular focus is excellent house-made pasta like wild nettle ravioli filled with ricotta and mascarpone in a roasted tomato sauce or fusilli with roasted chicken and pancetta. Like Gabriella Cafe, Avanti has been a training ground for young chefs, some of whom have later opened successful restaurants of their own. The original location is now an affiliated pizzeria that still also serves the breakfasts and brunches that have long been popular with locals.
1917 Mission St., Santa Cruz, (831) 427-0135; http://www.ristoranteavanti.com
Satisfying but not leading edge, the food at this 20-year-old establishment — which relocated earlier in its history — focuses on big, exciting flavors in popular dishes like abalone with bacon and rack of lamb with blue cheese-brioche bread pudding. The lush chocolate souffle is semi famous. A popular cocktail menu offers hits such as a cucumber martini and “Cosmojito.” Some patrons opt to dine at the convivial bar, which serves an edited version of the regular menu. Named for a Roald Dahl character — an author of inventive children’s books — Oswald is hip and modern but not haughty, usually attracting a slightly older crowd. The biggest complaint is the noise level but the restaurant’s many fans don’t seem to be put off by this. Insiders looking for a good deal head in on Wednesdays for the $29 fixed-price dinner.
121 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, (831) 423-7427; www.oswaldrestaurant.com
The spicy, house-made red oil dumplings and multi-dimensional gan pung chicken are among many reasons why this upscale Sichuan restaurant hidden inside a dumpy strip mall has been a local favorite for more than 35 years. Inside, it’s large and sparely elegant. There’s more than the same-old Chinese dishes here and ingredients are fresh and authentic. For example, the pancakes for the mushu dishes are made in house and equal care is taken in all the menu choices. Among many unique items are addictive sesame candied cashews, fiery cured and smoked chicken with corn kernels and black date and sweet potato tofu. Most unusual is Western desserts like house-made sorbets and indulgences like chocolate-peanut butter pie. The longtime owner, Roger Grigsby, once studied Chinese at UC Santa Cruz and is serious about authenticity.
2316 Mission St., Santa Cruz, (831) 425-8458; http://www.omeichow.com
The New Old Guard – These relative newcomers upped the ante for good food.
This wine bar/bistro/wine shop downtown opened in ’02 and does a superb job matching terrific wines — including some local stars — with upscale, delicious cuisine. Appropriately named for the French word for thirst, Soif has a spacious, modern interior, open kitchen and convivial vibe. Patrons can munch on small plates with their vino or dive into some intriguing dinner choices like lightly cured trout crudo with beets and preserved lemon or cider-cooked pork belly with pumpkin agrodolce. Every dish has a suggested wine pairing. The latest chef, Mark Denham, has cooked with luminaries like Alice Waters, Cindy Pawlcyn and David Kinch and it shows in his gorgeous, creative food. Consider a painterly combo of colorful beets, Damson plums and pistachios on a snowy plate. Always chasing the seasons, the menu never fails to deliver fresh, inventive choices.
105 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz, (831) 423-2020; http://www.soifwine.com
Four years after establishing Soif as a hit, owner Patrice Boyle launched this outstanding, creative spot for modern Italian cuisine, named for the old post office it inhabits. While the decor is nothing special, the food — ah! Inspired by local ingredients, this is big-city cooking in a kick-back town. Menus change constantly but have featured memorable choices like short-rib cannelloni with chard and horseradish or expertly poached petrale sole with potato and leeks. Chef Katherine Stern even elevates simple-sounding antipasti to new heights. Neapolitan pizza is on the menu and it’s fantastic, with toppings like wild nettles, mozzerella di bufala, melted leeks and fennel pollen. Even the bread is made in house. The chicken coop and herb garden near the back parking lot testify to serious cooking going on here. As fine as the food is, La Posta is still a neighborhood joint with events like a $15 meal (pasta or pizza) with wine and live music on Tuesdays.
538 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz, (831) 457-2782; http://www.lapostarestaurant.com
Lillian’s Italian Kitchen
Compared to La Posta, the food here goes in a homespun direction but that’s just fine with the hoards of locals packing this little trattoria run by the Moreno family. Based on Sicilian family recipes, the food is copious, fresh and well priced. Patrons rave about the Sunday gravy (tomato-based sauce slow-cooked with a variety of meats), rib-sticking lasagna and tiramisu. The menu covers all the usual Italian bases — meatballs, prawns diavolo, polenta, plenty of pasta and classic desserts — under the guidance of the owners’ son, “Chef Chris.” Overly small for its popularity, the restaurant is reminiscent of home-cooked dinners in the noisy little dining room of an Italian auntie urging you to take just one more bite of her rich comfort food. The only complaint is the same-day reservation policy, which causes some patrons to wander the neighborhood for awhile before getting seated.
1116 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, (831) 425-2288; http://www.lilliansitaliankitchen.com
Main Street Garden & Cafe
After housing beloved Theo’s for several decades, this residence-turned-restaurant in Soquel eventually saw another casual, local-ingredient-focused eatery occupy the charming dining area with pretty patio and gardens. This cafe, opened in 2010, boasts a homey ambience and Mediterranean/Italian food like superb roast rabbit with smoked aioli and wood-fired thin-crust pizza. Or sample some curly cavatappi pasta trapping luscious house-made pesto. A hearty winter entree is lamb meatballs with toothy farro made exotic with candy cap mushroom sauce, which smells like maple syrup. It’s a lovely place for lunch on a nice day to accommodate a garden tour — featuring lemon trees, lettuce beds, rows of herbs and a chicken coop. Interestingly, sleepy Soquel has been home to some killer restaurants in the past but Main Street Cafe — renamed and under new ownership — is all that remains.
3101 N. Main St., Soquel, (831) 477-9265; www. mainstreetgardencafe.com
Hot Newbies – The latest entrants have kicked up the cooking level at the beach.
The hot table in town, opened last year, is this modern, friendly eatery from Kendra Baker and Zachary Davis. Cheffing is done by Carlo Espinas, who has some gigs at well-regarded spots in San Francisco and Oakland on his resume. Deceptively simple California cuisine like thin corn cakes, sea bass with spaetzle, mushroom pan roast with farm egg and exquisite desserts (Baker was formerly Manresa’s pastry chef) are just part of the draw. Dishes celebrate bounteous local produce but are never precious. You can get a grass-fed ribeye but also a fantastic burger and the best ice cream sundae you’ve ever had in your life. The vibe is a lot like the town: casual, modern, welcoming but with a subtle air of chic. With its communal tables and low-key but best-in-town service, Assembly is the sort of place demanding repeat visits.
1108 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, (831) 824-6100; http://www.assembleforfood.com
The owner/chef once presided over Chez Panisse Cafe’s pizza oven and got the itch. He does the Berkeley restaurant proud with thin-crust pies carrying divine toppings but don’t stop there. His starters, sides and few main dishes are first rate, showcasing pristine ingredients, like crispy sunchokes with burrata, mustard greens and pistachio pesto. The California cuisine mentality shows in attractions like avocado toast with preserved lemon and sesame or an arugula salad with shaved zucchini, colombine and almonds. And, yes, the pizzas are great, with toppings like nettles, oyster mushrooms, chile and farmstead cheddar. The modern, expansive space sets just the right tone for this up-to-the-minute cuisine. Once a gym, it’s now warmly industrial, softened by the addition of distressed wood. Spots at the bar or at the high counter by the window are highly prized. Like other new eateries in town that have cracked the success code in a difficult business, Bantam delivers moderate prices in a casual environment.
1010 Fair Ave., Santa Cruz, (831) 420-0101; http://www.bantam1010.com
This stylish new restaurant and bar in a top-to-bottom-refurbed former Holiday Inn — now called Hotel Paradox — follows the local bent toward organic produce, dressing it up in American comfort food dishes like cheddar grits with bacon emulsion. Big contrasting flavors are found in a watercress salad with avocado, cucumber and radish in ginger vinaigrette or greaseless crab spring rolls. Don’t miss local sand dabs with capers and wild arugula or the dreamy 48-hour shortrib, which is tender, juicy and pink inside. It’s tempting to fill up on the local bread, which comes with luscious white cheddar-horseradish spread. Guests can sup by the pool or fireplace, depending on the weather, relaxing in sexy, modern surroundings boasting a nature theme while enjoying the lively see-and-be-seen vibe. Savvy locals have been saying that the town is overdue for an upscale, wow-factor hotel and this is clearly it.
611 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, (831) 600-4545; http://www.solairerestaurant.com
The Picnic Basket
Simple lunch fare in the hands of superstar Kendra Baker becomes something else entirely. Boasting the same made-from-scratch, fab-local-ingredients ethos as her other operations, this cozy cafe and take-out joint next to the beach is great, except for the lines. House-made pickles and just-baked bread enhance classics like a killer BLT or reuben, while the chicken salad sandwich with avocado, greens and pickled onions is amazing. Or munch on smoked Diestel turkey with walnuts, white cheddar and pickled apples on a local baguette. Salads? You can’t miss with various enticing green salads or a daily grain salad like a combo of wheat berries, cauliflower, pomegranate seeds and baby spinach with a toasted seed and yogurt dressing. Corned beef and hot dogs come from renowned local butcher and salumi maker, El Salchichero. Naturally, ice cream is from Baker’s legendary local scoop shop, The Penny Ice Creamery. A long deck in front delivers views of the beach and nearby pier.
125 Beach St., Santa Cruz, (831) 427-9946; http://www.thepicnicbasketsc.com