Napa has amazing fine dining. Los Angeles is king of hole in the wall Thai and Vietnamese food. San Diego’s Mexican food can’t be beat (fish tacos and California burritos ftw). But the best city for food in California is, in my humble opinion, Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is a gem of a city. Located along the northern coast of Monterey Bay and about 45 minutes south of San Jose, it is a fascinating mixture of beach town, hipster village, and college playground. It has a fantastic downtown, incredible coastal and mountain scenery (like Natural Bridges State Beach), and the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. But what makes Santa Cruz truly amazing is the food.
Santa Cruz has completely embraced the artisan food culture. This is not a city of chain restaurants (though some have infiltrated). This is a city of small local businesses producing high-quality food and drinks, utilizing sustainable (and locally-sourced where possible) ingredients to offer locals and visitors the best culinary experiences they can possibly find.
While there are countless gems in Santa Cruz, here are a few of my favorites!
Verve Coffee roasts their beans on-site, securing some of the best coffee in the world. Order their single-origin of the day, or enjoy a latte where you can actually taste the coffee (unlike some of the chains that cover up lesser quality coffee with a ton of sugar). From its humble origins, this gem now has several Santa Cruz locations, plus others throughout California and even one in Japan!
Marianne’s Ice Cream has been hand crafting everyone’s favorite treat since 1947, and boasts a menu of 105 flavors! On a hot summer day, the line will be long full of beach-goers on their way back home, but it is worth it. Make sure to try the horchata ice cream. It sounds weird, but it’s our favorite!
Aquarius, located at the Boardwalk-adjacent Dream Inn, is an upscale casual restaurant serving local and sustainable seafood, as well as steaks and other enticing entrees. Reserve a table by the window and watch the sun set into the Pacific while you dine on perfectly-cooked halibut (seriously, have this), and finish with their amazing cheesecake as you watch the Boardwalk light up on weekend and summer evenings.
Cafe Brasil is the place to go for brunch. On the weekend, waits will be upwards of an hour, but weekdays are more manageable. They have normal American fare, but the highlights of the menu are the Brazilian specialties. Try the orfeu negro, savory black beans and poached eggs atop English muffins and topped with cheese, available both made with pork and vegetarian. And don’t leave without getting an acai bowl, a thick smoothie of acai berries, topped with fruit and granola. It is the best cure for a hangover or melancholy that we have found!
Johnny’s Harborside is my personal favorite fish restaurant in Santa Cruz. Pick your type of local fish (sand dabs, anyone?), then choose your “style.” Each style specifies how the fish will be cooked and what it will be served with, so Japanese can be miso-poached with edamame salad (the styles change so this is my best remembrance), while Cajun is served blackened with cheese grits and cornbread. The view of the harbor is also spectacular!
While not technically in Santa Cruz, a ten minute drive will take you to Scotts Valley, and the best chocolates I have ever eaten. Ashby Confections takes the art of candy-making to the next level. From decadent truffles (the lemon cream is to die for) to caramels made with Monterey Bay sea salt to homemade marshmallows and even sour candy made with fruit from the local farmers markets, this is a must-visit if you have a sweet tooth. Seriously, MUST VISIT!