Santa Cruz: Eat. Do. Shop. Play. Stay!

santa cruz boardwalk

We continue to adore our lovely 1906 bungalow just three doors from the beach in Seabright, Santa Cruz’s best beach neighborhood (IMHO). Here are a few of our favorite things:

What’s new? The Friday Night Bands on the Beach will be back, starting June 15, this year going all the way through Labor Day! Be on the lookout, too, for Free Wednesday night moviesThe Boardwalk also has other entertainment acts coming in. The website is well worth checking out.

Eat.

Santa Cruz is not known as a foodie destination. It’s an old seaside resort town and home to a major university, U.C. Santa Cruz. I wonder how many hamburgers (or pizzas) are consumed here annually? That said, we’ve had some great meals. And you never have to dress up in Santa Cruz. Seabright is within walking distance of about a dozen restaurants and bars, and a short drive to lots more.

A word about reservations: for foodie-food or those in the “really good food” category, make them! We find that we can’t be seated at the better restaurants in less than 45 minutes on a weekend unless we’ve made a reservation.

Best foodie food

Modern decor and rustic fare at Assembly

Modern decor and rustic fare at Assembly

  • Oswald, downtown, is known as the best restaurant in town. Zagat’s rates its food a 4.4 out of 5. The service is good, the decor is so-so. Food’s the main event. Great craft cocktails. The last time we were there, we pretty much ate the menu. I especially remember a dungeness crab/avocado timbale. The steamed mussels were delicious as was sauteed abalone, a rarity to find on any menu. For entrees, our table enjoyed the rack of lamb and roasted chicken breast, among others. They offer a chocolate soufflé, which is always top of my sugar hit parade. Chef Damani Thomas formerly worked at the famed Oliveto restaurant in Oakland and focuses on local and organic produce.
  • Laili (pronounced Lye-lee), also downtown, is our top choice. Described as Mediterranean/Afghan/Pakistani/Indian, it frankly didn’t sound all that approachable to me. I call it delicious. It has the prettiest outdoor dining area in town (not counting Shadowbrook in Capitola, which has lousy food) and preparations that often include a touch of dill, yogurt and lemon or lime. Think aromatic and balanced, not spicy. Just had the strawberry/fennel salad and pan-seared trout, served with spicy cilantro/almond/jalapeno sauce on the side. SOOOO good! Oh, and not to be missed, try the cardamon/pistachio ice cream or the meringue!
  • Assembly, downtown, is a fine dining restaurant operated by the brains behind The Penny Ice Creamery (which features artisanal ice creams), and is described as offering “rustic California cuisine.” The first time we dined there, my husband had a delicious slow cooked chicken leg (served with home made chorizo, white beans and kale) — crispy skin, fall-off-the-bone tender and moist. The chickpea bowl, which comes with preserved Meyer lemon and yogurt, was perfect and a huge, flavorful surprise. (The restaurant describes itself as vegetarian friendly.)

Really good food

We come to Santa Cruz for the sun and the “chill” factor (read that as relaxed), so most of the time we don’t go out for foodie food. We go out for really good food. So I give you…

  • Lillian’s, on Soquel, has the best Italian food I’ve ever had. I liked the intimacy of their old, small location better, but the food is just as good in their big, noisy space. The pasta comes out so hot you can get a mini facial from it. They now take reservations and we recommend them, so plan ahead. Park in the back.
  • La Posta is a short walk from our little beach bungalow, more or less at the corner of Murray and Seabright Boulevard. Zagat’s actually rates La Posta’s food almost the same as Oswald (4.3). I do love La Posta. I’m still thinking about the pasta with beef ragout I had there recently, with a shaved brussel sprouts salad with lemony vinaigrette. Sometime back, a friend enjoyed a squid and seafood stew, and we shared a delicious roasted delicata squash/sweet onion/prosciutto appetizer. Really nice with a glass of Nebbiolo. More loves: the asparagus gratinata and roasted broccoli with chili pepper flakes and preserved Meyer lemon. (I’m liking this Meyer lemon food trend!) A spring favorite: Bellwether sheep’s milk ricotta raviolini with English peas, favas, asparagus and mint. It’s a pretty dish with flavors that pop – while being relaxing comfort food. Yum.
  • Tramonti is a family Italian place in Seabright, next door to La Posta, where everything is homemade. This is our salad-pizza place (although they’ve added some monthly/seasonal entrees like the chicken parm), but it’s a big step up from most of the pizza places in town. We’re especially partial to the Santa Croce salad and the Stagioni pizza. Sometimes the pizzas are a little shy on sauce and toppings but the flavor is great. The owner, who is from the Amalfi coastline, has been sprucing up the decor. He now has a giant slab table that can seat 24 or so, and an outdoor area with heaters.
  • West End Tap and Kitchen is farther afield, over by UC Santa Cruz, but I rarely miss it. It’s noisy (aren’t all popular restaurants these days?) but it’s fun and the food is great. Love the wine list, too… tons by the glass (try the Tempranillo that’s on tap). If you’re a group of 6 or 8, they have three really fun semi-circular booths that face the bar (reservation required for those tables). The flatbreads are awesome, as are the salads and entrees. And I always spring for the seasonal peppers (shishito) as an appetizer; they’re usually not very spicy but they are delicious! We’ve really enjoyed the roasted heritage chicken served with English pea, mint and ricotta puree, and you can’t beat the burger and fries.
  • East End Gastropub, West End’s cousin, is about 10-15 minutes south of our location, in a shopping center in Capitola (though not down by the charming water area). Go for the crispy Gigante beans (trust me), or crispy brussel sprouts. Pizzas are the best thing going here, although I really liked their pan roasted duck. Reservations recommended. Weirdly, they don’t make the hamburgers the same way they do at West End, and we don’t like them as well. Reservations recommended.
  • Seabright Brewery: That last two entries reminded me that Seabright Brewery has reliably good burgers and fries. When you want a cold beer and the basics, it’s nice to just walk down the street for it. Also at the corner of Murray and Seabright Boulevard.
  • Soif: Although I think Soif has a bigger rep than it deserves, it offers interesting bistro food (small plates and entrees) and wine pairings, alongside its wine boutique. So if you don’t like the wine choices on the menu, you can slip next door, purchase a bottle, and bring it into the restaurant.
  • 515 Kitchen & Cocktails: The food is good — especially the sauteed kale and tiger prawns (beware the lamb kabobs, which are ground and have dates mixed in) — but the cocktails are the starring attraction. The house bartenders have concocted some stellar combinations from savory to sweet, and resurrected old recipes from “The Vault,” including a 1937 creation called “The Lion’s Tale” featuring Evan Williams single barrel bourbon, allspice dram, lime juice and angostura bitters. Black and white silent movies play downstairs; the deck, upstairs, is popular in good weather (make a reservation if you want to be outside).
  • Bantamon the east side, is the place to go for unusual, artisinal pizza. Farm to table philosophy and interesting additions like sea nettles. Good wine list, too. Menu is always changing.
  • Gabriella CafeWe’ve heard about this place for fun and plan to try it. Reviews talk about farm-to-fork Italian influenced food and a romantic vibe.
  • Jaguar, on Soquel Blvd in Lillian’s old location, is new to my list. We’ve lamented the lack of Mexican cuisine, although heaven knows there is a plethora of taquerias in town, and I like the taco bar at El Palomar downtown (great tortilla soup, too). Chef Dina has adapted recipes from throughout Mexico, and layers flavors in ways I haven’t experienced elsewhere. Heat, but not too much heat. Spice, but not overwhelming. Fresh flavors come through, especially the Tinga, with Dina’s “magic chipotle sauce and carmelized onion” over shredded chicken. The Chicken Mole is also excellent. Loved the Sweet Pea Salad and I can hardly wait to try the tortilla bean soup.

Breakfast and Lunch

Resort towns seem to spawn great breakfast places, and Santa Cruz has so many that breakfast gets its own category in this blog post.

  • Aldo’s, a five minute walk from the cottage, is much loved, for a reason. While the sea wall is being prepared, they’re in a temporary (but dandy) location next to the harbor. Breakfast is served all day (“all day” meaning until 4 p.m. when they close), and the lunch menu is great, too. I often get the dungeness crab Louie salad, which is always piled with fresh crab meat. I grew up in Seattle/Tacoma and I am very picky about my Louie’s! But back to breakfast: pumpkin pancakes, omelets, traditional egg dishes, benedicts, pancakes, fugasa French toast (kind of an italian raisin bread)… well, I never tire of it. Plus, generous mimosas.
  • Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe is another Seabright neighborhood institution, near the corner of Murray and Seabright Boulevard. Besides the usual suspects — hotcakes, waffles, French toast, egg dishes — they serve a great Greek Scramble. And for the vegetarians, Tofu Curry or Tofu Fun. Personally, I don’t find tofu fun, but if you’re vegetarian, you might like it! Cash only! PS absolutely have the cinnamon roll!
  • Harbor Cafe is on the other side of the harbor from our beach bungalow (7th Avenue, just up from Murray), but we like the short walk. To start your day with a bang, have a Harbor Mule. (Mimosa Friday is a deal – $2 for a glass and $4 for a pint.) The Captain’s Fritatta is big enough for two (easily)… and the menu is big, with interesting dishes that range beyond “the usuals.” And it’s a little thing, but they really get nice ripe seasonal fruit for their fruit cups!
  • The Buttery, on Soquel, a short drive from our place, is THE place for decadent pastries. Besides breakfast platters (e.g. Buttery Benny with two poached eggs on ciabatta, canadian bacon and hollandaise), they have really interesting breakfast sandwiches, quiche, homemade granola, etc. There’s outdoor seating through the door past the pastry counter. Oh, Lordie, the peanut butter cookies…
  • Kelly’s French Bakery, located near West End Tap and Kitchen, is great for breakfast or lunch. I’d call it a cross between The Buttery and Gayle’s in Capitola — similar quality pastries, soup, salads and sandwiches to The Buttery, with the addition of to-go items that can make for easy dinner at home, like those carried at Gayle’s (check out the lasagna, roasted chickens, and family-sized apple crisps). Outdoor and indoor seating.
Pastry case at The Buttery

Pastry case at The Buttery

Coffee places in Seabright

  • Verve, a locally owned coffee roaster, has three locations in Santa Cruz including one tucked away in an unlikely looking industrial building near the corner of Murray and Seabright. It’s on Bronson Street (#104) down from Pacific Edge Climbing Gym. My favorite: Bowl of Soul, chamomile tea steeped in hot soy milk with a touch of honey. Tastes like it sounds. I’m not a fan of most breakfast pastries but theirs are the best ever.
  • Java Junction is another locally owned coffee roaster that’s also a short walk from the bungalow — right next to Seabright Brewery (parking behind). This spot offers a range of bagels and a few pastries in addition to some basic sandwiches and a Garden burger.

Do.

Wow. There is so much to do here for kids and adults, it’s hard to know where to begin.

  • Enjoy the beach. Well, duh, huh? Seabright Beach is one only three beaches where bonfires are allowed – but you have to snag one of the fire rings that are spaced along the beach. (Go early – send a sentry well before noon.) Bonfires aren’t allowed in other locations. When the San Lorenzo River isn’t running big, we can walk from the Walton Lighthouse on the point past the Boardwalk, to the wharf pier and on up West Cliff to see the surfing action. (When the river is running too high, we just go up the street and take the pedestrian overcrossing to the Boardwalk.)
  • The Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Our cottage is less than a three minute walk to the entrance to Seabright Beach and about equidistant to the southern Boardwalk entrance. Unlike Disneyland, there is no entrance fee. You buy a day pass (wristband) or tickets. The Giant Dipper (just six tickets) is totally worth it! What Disney tries to imitate, we have next door  – an amusement park on a beach. If you’re a history buff, the Giant Dipper, built in 1924, is the fifth oldest continuously operating roller coaster in the U.S. and the 1911 Carousel is a charmer.
  • The world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Check out the website for information about summer programs and occasionally extended hours. Members can take advantage of early openings many days during the summer. The most zen experience I know is sitting in front of the Kelp Forest. I could do it for hours. The whole experience is wonderful. I highly recommend making a day of it and treating yourself to lunch at Cindy’s Restaurant, inside the aquarium (make a reservation!). (And after, stop in for a cocktail overlooking the Cannery Row Wharf at Schooner’s inside the Monterey Plaza Hotel, or The Clement Intercontinental, a couple of blocks away.
  • Sea kayak. We had a great experience on a small group outing with Dave of Venture Quest Santa Cruz – first to the Elk Horn Slough near Moss Landing, and later, on a whale watching expedition off of Davenport Landing. You can rent kayaks and stand up paddle boards right here in the harbor from Kayak Connection (haven’t tried ’em), but you’ll see some really interesting stuff on these guided expeditions. Venture Quest Santa Cruz rents kayaks from the wharf.
  • More boating fun! The yacht harbor nearby is home to the UCSC Community Boating Center, which offers sailing and rowing classes that are open to the public. Pre-register for summer classes.
  • Learn about sea life. For an educational and fun outing, check out Natural Bridges State Beach. The #5 attraction on Trip Advisor, it’s described as follows: “A refuge for wintering Monarch Butterflies, this park boasts a sandy cove, tidepools, a nature trail through the Butterfly Preserve, and several hiking trails. There is also a bicycle path around the perimeter of the park.”
  • Rent bikes. Santa Cruz just calls for a beach cruiser. There are lots of places to rent them and a brand new option, fluorescent red, electric-assist Jump Bikes. There’s a bank of them in front of Day’s Market at Seabright near Murray, and they look fun. You have to download an app, and of course there’s a fee (in the neighborhood of $4 per hour). Another option is The Bicycle Trip on Soquel (next to Whole Foods). They offer pickup and delivery (we’re well within 12 miles, their service radius). Expensive, but a fun way to see the town.
  • More educational opportunities for kids (and young at heart): Just around the corner from our cottage is the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, which seeks to “inspire stewardship of the natural world.” And a little further afield is the Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, with artifacts from the indigenous people who lived here before being pushed out. The mission was founded by the Franciscans in 1791 and one of the original adobe buildings (the one that housed natives) has been preserved.
  • The Arboretum at UC Santa Cruz is a plant lover’s paradise, featuring specialty gardens and interpretive trails. It promises “a world class collection of flora from around the globe.
  • Hike! We took advantage of the national “First Hikes” program in Henry Cowell State Park, a couple of miles up the mountain from UC Santa Cruz. The Cathedral Redwoods are gorgeous (some first growth but mostly second growth trees that are about 150 years old). The park has 30 miles of trails along the upper reaches of the San Lorenzo River. Recently, we loved the 4 mile out-and-back hike along the bluff at Wilder Ranch, and went from there to the Davenport Roadhouse for nosh)… I haven’t had the chance to do this yet, but the trails in the semi-wilderness of The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park look pretty terrific. The 4 mile, family friendly Loma Prieta trailhead is off Highway 1 in nearby Aptos: take the State Park Drive exit to Soquel Drive. Turn right (east) and proceed 0.5 mile into Aptos. Turn left on Aptos Creek Road and drive four miles to a locked gate at The Forest of Nisene Marks’ Porter Picnic Area. Click here for a link to the trail guide on EveryTrail.
  • See an indie movie at “The Nick.” The Nickelodeon, downtown at 210 Lincoln Street, is an old school, independently owned theater with small screens.
  • Visit The Mystery Spot. This is one of those wacky attractions that has prompted many a fan to plaster a bumper sticker on their car. Its claim to fame is that it is a supernatural gravity-defying anomaly! Maybe that will let me shed a few pounds. It’s up Branciforte Drive on the mountain side of Highway 1. Kids and teenagers love it.
  • Wine Taste. The cool conditions of the coast make for some great wines coming out of the Santa Cruz mountains. In Corralitos, just 20 minutes south of Santa Cruz, check out Windy Oaks Estate Winery and Alfaro Family Vineyard and Winery. At Alfaro, taste 8 wines for $10. Delicious pinot noir and chardonnay. They wave the tasting fee if you buy or join the wine club. Or right in town, visit Storr’s Winery tasting room. Highly recommended!
Cathedral Redwoods Henry Cowell State Park Santa Cruz

The Cathedral Redwoods at Henry Cowell Park

 

Shop.

Santa Cruz’s downtown area, on Pacific Avenue, has some great boutiques. But just as importantly, Pacific Avenue is the town’s Piazza Navona (Rome’s entertainment epicenter, where there are always colorful characters and street performers). It’s a great place to people watch. I’m not a big shopper but I do recommend the following favorite haunts:

  • Pacific Trading, at 1224 Pacific, has a wonderful range of clothing – from upscale to casual and affordable, and an ever-bulging, wonderful sale rack.
  • Bunny’s Shoes, at 1350 Pacific, continues the fun and funky theme. Great price range. Fun styles.
  • The Artisan’s Gallery at 1368 Pacific features art and artistic objects (including some jewelry) – some from local creators.
  • Palace Art, 1407 Pacifichas lots more than art supplies – fun cards and gift items. Get your Zen-tangle on!
  • Paper Vision, 1345 Pacific, is a place where I can lose hours. I am a sucker for great card stores.
  • Annie Glass, located a few doors off Pacific at 110 Cooper, has gorgeous one-of-a-kind handmade glass pieces big and small.

Play.

  • Rock climb indoors – or take a yoga class. Pacific Edge, near the corner of Murray and Seabright Boulevard, welcomes visitors with its one-day pass (currently $16 for adults and $8 for kids 6-11). The gym is a 15,000 square foot facility with walls up to 50 feet high. They also allow drop-ins on their yoga classes for $12. The calendar is online here.
  • Bowl! Across from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk the Boardwalk Bowl features 26 lanes and an arcade.
  • Rollerskate! Check out The Palladium on Seabright, where local folks have come for fun for over 60 years.

 

 

 

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