When Contigo, a Noe Valley favorite for nearly 10 years, closed in 2017, the neighborhood mourned the loss of jamón iberico and sardine toasts. At the time, Brett and Elan Emerson, the husband-and-wife team behind the restaurant, said they’d decided to move to Santa Cruz for the warmer weather and a better lifestyle for their now-8-year-old daughter. But the Emersons never stopped loving Spanish cooking. Now, the couple has opened Barceloneta, a new restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz, bringing Barcelona-inspired cuisine to the chill beach town. Open since last Wednesday, October 16 on Pacific Street, the main drag in town, the new restaurant is named after Barcelona’s most famous beach neighborhood, where families flock on Sundays for rice and seafood dishes. Colorful, casual, and fun, Barceloneta is a spot where locals have been pressing noses against the windows for months — it’s a hot opening for Santa Cruz, as the college town’s one and only Spanish restaurant.
The menu is inspired by Barcelona’s chiringuitos, the open-air restaurants and bars that line the beach. Neither Brett or Elan is Spanish, but they’ve done annual pilgrimages for the past 20 years. For fans of Contigo, they’ll be bringing back the favorites, including platters of jamón serrano and ibérico, sardine and avocado toasts with pickled onions and smoked salt, and the “hot dates” wrapped in bacon and stuffed with Valdeón blue cheese and Marcona almonds. But thanks to a bigger kitchen, they’ll also be adding new menu items, most notably three types of paella (vegetable, seafood, or chicken) offered at two different sizes, small for two people or large for four people. Those are cooked to order, but promise to be worth the half-hour wait.
“We also knew we had to include la bomba, the signature tapa from Barceloneta, a fried mashed potato ball stuffed with sausage and smothered with aioli and salsa brava,” Brett explains. He went to Spain to get the same churro maker José Andrés has in his restaurants, which extrudes dough into big round deep fryer calibrated at 410 degrees for extra crisp doughnuts. And since the coastal location makes it natural to crave ice cream, he’s also adding soft serve with toppings such as olive oil and sea salt or sherry and almonds. And while Contigo always had a thoughtful wine list, Barceloneta is rocking a full liquor license, offering not just Spanish wine and a few Santa Cruz brews, but also vermouth and verdejo on tap, and Spanish island–inspired cocktails.
Double the size of the Emersons’ previous space, the Santa Cruz restaurant is 3,000 square feet, comfortably fitting 95 seats, including 10 at the bar, and four at a cozy chef’s counter, facing the open kitchen. The kitchen went from six burners to 16 burners, making daily paellas possible. They also swapped a wood-fired oven for a wood-fired grill, where they’re throwing down Spanish octopus and sticky-sweet harissa ribs. The dining room is airy and white, featuring colorful seat backs, made out of a French Catalan fabric intended for beach chairs and umbrellas, and big baskets over the lights. The Emersons hired the same architect as Contigo, but tackled the interiors themselves, taking inspiration from the chiringuitos. “We had so much fun designing the space,” Brett says. “Just imagine all of those open beach restaurants and bars, where you’re eating paella and drinking cocktails, sometimes with your toes still in the sand.”
Barceloneta is open for dinner six days a week from 5 to 9:30 p.m., and closed on Tuesdays.