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These Are the 18 Must-Try Places to Eat and Drink in Santa Cruz

Catch a new wave of restaurants, craft breweries, and cocktail bars

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At a casual dinner in Noe Valley in late April, an older man let everyone know “Santa Cruz is god’s gift to surfers.” It was more or less out of the blue, but it was one hundred percent accurate. It is the first place mainlanders began to surf, after all. The city is a testament to the sport of surfing — the intensity, the competition, and the impeccable waves at places like Steamer Lane and Maverick’s — as much as it is a haven to the philosophy of surfing, from the community and the vibes, to the playful waves at places like Cowell’s and Pleasure Point. The food and drink in such a marvelous city and area are, unsurprisingly, gifts to its denizens, too.

Whether it be upscale dining in the hills or college bars downtown, there seems to be merriment for any and all. These 18 restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are fit for any would-be surfer, old pro, young gun, and for all the beach lovers who have never shredded gnar (and have no desire to anytime soon).

Health experts consider dining out to be a high-risk activity for the unvaccinated; it may pose a risk for the vaccinated, especially in areas with substantial COVID transmission.

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

Venus Spirits

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Since opening his westside distillery in 2016, Venus Spirits owner Sean Venus has racked up awards for his organic, small-batch spirits including single-malt whiskeys; California’s only blue agave spirits (they’d call them tequila if the term weren’t protected); and signature, floral gins that dial down the juniper for softer botanicals such as cardamom and citrus. The stylish tasting room welcomes guests to sample a flight of spirits, enjoy a freshly made cocktail, and take home a bottle or two for the home bar.

Courtesy of Venus Spirits

Cat & Cloud Coffee

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This list is packed, so when coffee shops in Santa Cruz have to share some room, the ultra charming botany vibes at 11th Hour Coffee need a shout out — a particular favorite for pre-surfing energy — as does the first shop of the now booming coffee company Verve. The official pick goes to Cat and Cloud as it is now synonymous with what Santa Cruz coffee can offer to the region and to the country: a business that touts inclusive practices and well-sourced coffee.

Humble Sea Brewing Co.

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Like the region’s famed surf breaks, craft breweries have become an integral part of the local landscape. Humble Sea stands out with exceptional New England-style IPAs; eye-catching graphics; and a pleasant, olive tree-shaded beer garden situated five blocks from the shore on the westside.

Courtesy of Humble Sea

In an airy, transformed warehouse space on the hip westside, owners Ben (Chez Panisse) and Sarah Sims have been cranking out wood-fired Neapolitan pies since 2012. Yet, pizzas are only half the story, with a sizable, daily selection of bites and entrees such as the fried chicken with chili butter. Local beers and wines keep the lively dining room humming, while a succinct cocktail menu nails variations on the classics.

Naveen Hattis

Copal Restaurant

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Copal opened in the summer of 2020, delivering chef Ana Mendoza’s homestyle Oaxacan fare to the California coast, most notably in the form of moles — Mendoza is particularly known for her bold mole negro, gaining acclaim prior to Copal at pop-ups and festivals. Get it served with chicken or pork, or in tamales wrapped in banana leaf; and don’t miss the tlayuda, an Oaxacan favorite.

The Penny Ice Creamery

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Along with business partner Zachary Davis, former Manresa pastry chef Kendra Baker created a beloved local institution with this ice cream shop that features seasonal scoops made from scratch and served in homemade waffle cones. True to Santa Cruz ethos, Davis and Baker source ingredients from more than 40 local farmers and foragers for flavors such as strawberry pink peppercorn and cardamom coconut blackberry. Just be sure to top it with toasted marshmallow fluff. Find locations in downtown and Pleasure Point.

Birichino Winery Tasting Room

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Don’t let the flood of craft beer let you overlook Santa Cruz’s original drink of choice: wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. At Birichino — the Italian word for “naughty” — industry pros John Locke and Alex Krause produce lush, richly flavorful wines that showcase local vineyards and lesser-known varietals such as the warm-weather fave, malvasia bianca. The tasting room offers tastings on the sidewalk patio’s seven tables; book one in advance to be sure.

Courtesy of Birichino

Alderwood Santa Cruz

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This upscale newcomer represents a sign of Santa Cruz’s recent changes, replacing a former lunch deli space with sleek interiors, expert cocktails, and a menu of New American dishes and steaks. Chef-owner Jeffrey Wall made a name for himself at Atlanta’s lauded Kimball House, and woos Santa Cruz with an extensive raw bar, modern takes on steakhouse classics, and composed plates such as an Insta-worthy smoked beef tartare.

Liz Birnbaum

Lupulo Craft Beer House

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At this convivial downtown taproom named for the Spanish word for “hop,” 16 taps feature brews from Santa Cruz and beyond, while a notable food menu eschews the usual pub grub for Mexican and Spanish plates — family recipes of husband-and-wife owners Stuyvie Bearns-Esteva and Noelle Antolin — sourced exclusively from local organic farms. Think boquerones, cochinita pibil tacos, and empanadas. A cold case offers an additional 300 cans and bottles to crack open on premises or take to go.

Courtesy of Lupulo

Zoccoli's Delicatessen

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Zoccoli’s is arguably Santa Cruz’s favorite deli — rightfully so, after 70+ years serving custom-made sandwiches and house hoagies, like everyone’s favorite, the Mediterranean (mortadella, salami, prosciutto, and provolone cheese on a sourdough French roll with Italian dressing, olives and peppers). There’s a surprising number of vegetarian options, and hot and cold sandwiches all go for under $10, another reason to love it.

The Walnut Avenue Cafe

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Parents of teenagers headed to college are already familiar with this cafe, as it seems to always have a few families on their way in or out of the city enjoying diner coffee and an omelet. This downtown restaurant does breakfast and lunch like no one’s business and are still cranking out hits after almost 30 years in business. The vegan scrambles are worth a try.

Hula's Island Grill

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As COVID continues to make a smattering of appearances, having a robust outdoor dining option like this downtown Santa Cruz restaurant is a welcome option. There are more than a dozen seafood options, and the cocktails — such as the fruit punch and rum Hawaii 5-0 — are light and refreshing after a day of romping around the mountains. The jungle tofu bowl with plantains, peanuts, and the housemade “jungle curry sauce” (as eyebrow-raising as that name may be) is one particular dish that’s difficult to eat slowly.

Steamer Lane Supply

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This modern, seaside snack shack dishes up affordable, from-scratch, handheld meals across from Steamer Lane, the city’s most iconic surf break. A butcher paper menu lists Sharpie-scrawled items including salmon poke bowls, fresh fish tacos, and panini-pressed quesadillas such as the Break-A-Dilla with scrambled eggs, hash browns, queso fresco, and salsa verde. Nab one of the Adirondack chairs scattered among the park-like setting outside, or head to the benches overlooking surfers shredding massive swells.

Garrick Ramirez

Oswald Restaurant

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Longtime restaurant Oswald in the heart of downtown is loved by the Santa Cruz community, as much for its seasonal California cuisine as for its rotating artist exhibits and warm ambiance. In the fall, try anything with butternut squash, like the soup with persimmon or the Autumn pasta; comforting dishes like curry braised lamb or beef lasagna; and a customer favorite, the chocolate souffle.

East End Gastropub

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You’ll find this delightfully stylish eatery hidden away in a nondescript strip mall in beachy Capitola. High ceilings and an open kitchen keep the split-level interior buzzing, as do 16 taps of house and guest beers. The menu features farm-to-table takes on gastropub staples — think burgers and Brussels — but don’t overlook the vibrant cheese plate, house salad with pumpkin brittle, and anything out of the wood-fire oven.

Courtesy of East End Gastropub

Pretty Good Advice

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Fleeing city life to tend to his Santa Cruz Mountain farm, chef Matt McNamara, former co-owner of San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters, teamed up with other Sons & Daughters alums to open this casual breakfast and lunch spot in Soquel. The seemingly simple menu features homemade bread and ingredients sourced from McNamara’s farm in items such as ricotta toast with honey nut pumpkin butter and fennel beet soup (there are burgers too).

Courtesy of Pretty Good Advice

Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House

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Find beer garden nirvana at this sprawling, dog-friendly taproom with shaded picnic tables, lawn games, and 30 rotating taps available in pints or 4 oz. tasters (with even more options available in a cold case). You can bring your own snacks — numerous food vendors are within walking distance — or belly up to an on-site take-out window that slings hearty grub such as al pastor tacos and fish and chips on the weekends.

Garrick Ramirez

Housed in a charming, early 20th century Soquel bungalow, this cozy and aptly-named restaurant features owner Brad Briske’s deeply flavorful cooking, which incorporates the bounty of local produce, meats, and seafood. In addition to an in-house butchery program that yields the restaurant’s beloved charcuterie, Briske is renowned for homemade pastas that’ll dazzle even the most noodle-jaded diners with dishes such as squid ink spaghetti with manilla clams, pork belly, and fermented chili miso.

Garrick Ramirez

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Venus Spirits

Courtesy of Venus Spirits

Since opening his westside distillery in 2016, Venus Spirits owner Sean Venus has racked up awards for his organic, small-batch spirits including single-malt whiskeys; California’s only blue agave spirits (they’d call them tequila if the term weren’t protected); and signature, floral gins that dial down the juniper for softer botanicals such as cardamom and citrus. The stylish tasting room welcomes guests to sample a flight of spirits, enjoy a freshly made cocktail, and take home a bottle or two for the home bar.

Courtesy of Venus Spirits

Cat & Cloud Coffee

This list is packed, so when coffee shops in Santa Cruz have to share some room, the ultra charming botany vibes at 11th Hour Coffee need a shout out — a particular favorite for pre-surfing energy — as does the first shop of the now booming coffee company Verve. The official pick goes to Cat and Cloud as it is now synonymous with what Santa Cruz coffee can offer to the region and to the country: a business that touts inclusive practices and well-sourced coffee.

Humble Sea Brewing Co.

Courtesy of Humble Sea

Like the region’s famed surf breaks, craft breweries have become an integral part of the local landscape. Humble Sea stands out with exceptional New England-style IPAs; eye-catching graphics; and a pleasant, olive tree-shaded beer garden situated five blocks from the shore on the westside.

Courtesy of Humble Sea

Bantam

Naveen Hattis

In an airy, transformed warehouse space on the hip westside, owners Ben (Chez Panisse) and Sarah Sims have been cranking out wood-fired Neapolitan pies since 2012. Yet, pizzas are only half the story, with a sizable, daily selection of bites and entrees such as the fried chicken with chili butter. Local beers and wines keep the lively dining room humming, while a succinct cocktail menu nails variations on the classics.

Naveen Hattis

Copal Restaurant

Copal opened in the summer of 2020, delivering chef Ana Mendoza’s homestyle Oaxacan fare to the California coast, most notably in the form of moles — Mendoza is particularly known for her bold mole negro, gaining acclaim prior to Copal at pop-ups and festivals. Get it served with chicken or pork, or in tamales wrapped in banana leaf; and don’t miss the tlayuda, an Oaxacan favorite.

The Penny Ice Creamery

Along with business partner Zachary Davis, former Manresa pastry chef Kendra Baker created a beloved local institution with this ice cream shop that features seasonal scoops made from scratch and served in homemade waffle cones. True to Santa Cruz ethos, Davis and Baker source ingredients from more than 40 local farmers and foragers for flavors such as strawberry pink peppercorn and cardamom coconut blackberry. Just be sure to top it with toasted marshmallow fluff. Find locations in downtown and Pleasure Point.

Birichino Winery Tasting Room

Courtesy of Birichino

Don’t let the flood of craft beer let you overlook Santa Cruz’s original drink of choice: wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. At Birichino — the Italian word for “naughty” — industry pros John Locke and Alex Krause produce lush, richly flavorful wines that showcase local vineyards and lesser-known varietals such as the warm-weather fave, malvasia bianca. The tasting room offers tastings on the sidewalk patio’s seven tables; book one in advance to be sure.

Courtesy of Birichino

Alderwood Santa Cruz

Liz Birnbaum

This upscale newcomer represents a sign of Santa Cruz’s recent changes, replacing a former lunch deli space with sleek interiors, expert cocktails, and a menu of New American dishes and steaks. Chef-owner Jeffrey Wall made a name for himself at Atlanta’s lauded Kimball House, and woos Santa Cruz with an extensive raw bar, modern takes on steakhouse classics, and composed plates such as an Insta-worthy smoked beef tartare.

Liz Birnbaum

Lupulo Craft Beer House

Courtesy of Lupulo

At this convivial downtown taproom named for the Spanish word for “hop,” 16 taps feature brews from Santa Cruz and beyond, while a notable food menu eschews the usual pub grub for Mexican and Spanish plates — family recipes of husband-and-wife owners Stuyvie Bearns-Esteva and Noelle Antolin — sourced exclusively from local organic farms. Think boquerones, cochinita pibil tacos, and empanadas. A cold case offers an additional 300 cans and bottles to crack open on premises or take to go.

Courtesy of Lupulo

Zoccoli's Delicatessen

Zoccoli’s is arguably Santa Cruz’s favorite deli — rightfully so, after 70+ years serving custom-made sandwiches and house hoagies, like everyone’s favorite, the Mediterranean (mortadella, salami, prosciutto, and provolone cheese on a sourdough French roll with Italian dressing, olives and peppers). There’s a surprising number of vegetarian options, and hot and cold sandwiches all go for under $10, another reason to love it.

The Walnut Avenue Cafe

Parents of teenagers headed to college are already familiar with this cafe, as it seems to always have a few families on their way in or out of the city enjoying diner coffee and an omelet. This downtown restaurant does breakfast and lunch like no one’s business and are still cranking out hits after almost 30 years in business. The vegan scrambles are worth a try.

Hula's Island Grill

As COVID continues to make a smattering of appearances, having a robust outdoor dining option like this downtown Santa Cruz restaurant is a welcome option. There are more than a dozen seafood options, and the cocktails — such as the fruit punch and rum Hawaii 5-0 — are light and refreshing after a day of romping around the mountains. The jungle tofu bowl with plantains, peanuts, and the housemade “jungle curry sauce” (as eyebrow-raising as that name may be) is one particular dish that’s difficult to eat slowly.

Steamer Lane Supply

Garrick Ramirez

This modern, seaside snack shack dishes up affordable, from-scratch, handheld meals across from Steamer Lane, the city’s most iconic surf break. A butcher paper menu lists Sharpie-scrawled items including salmon poke bowls, fresh fish tacos, and panini-pressed quesadillas such as the Break-A-Dilla with scrambled eggs, hash browns, queso fresco, and salsa verde. Nab one of the Adirondack chairs scattered among the park-like setting outside, or head to the benches overlooking surfers shredding massive swells.

Garrick Ramirez

Oswald Restaurant

Longtime restaurant Oswald in the heart of downtown is loved by the Santa Cruz community, as much for its seasonal California cuisine as for its rotating artist exhibits and warm ambiance. In the fall, try anything with butternut squash, like the soup with persimmon or the Autumn pasta; comforting dishes like curry braised lamb or beef lasagna; and a customer favorite, the chocolate souffle.

East End Gastropub

Courtesy of East End Gastropub

You’ll find this delightfully stylish eatery hidden away in a nondescript strip mall in beachy Capitola. High ceilings and an open kitchen keep the split-level interior buzzing, as do 16 taps of house and guest beers. The menu features farm-to-table takes on gastropub staples — think burgers and Brussels — but don’t overlook the vibrant cheese plate, house salad with pumpkin brittle, and anything out of the wood-fire oven.

Courtesy of East End Gastropub

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