Set on California’s Central Coast, 75 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz has long been known for its sunshine, scenery, and surf—but not so much for its cuisine. In recent years, though, this sea-meets-mountains city and its surrounds have given rise to a vibrant culinary scene. Like Santa Cruz itself, many of the best local cafes and restaurants aren’t big on formality or fuss. Their food and drink draw strength from freshness and simplicity. As for their dress codes, you can show up in flip-flops and not stand out.
Burgers and Beer
In the redwood-shaded town of Felton, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Cremer House occupies a charmingly rustic 19th-century building. But its menu is very much up to date. Using organic and locally sourced ingredients, the kitchen turns out contemporary versions of American classics ranging from a tuna melt with fresh dill and grilled onions to a half-pound burger, garnished with aioli and cheddar cheese. As a complement to this smart, casual cooking, the bar boasts a selection of ciders and homemade sodas, along with 25 craft beers on tap.
Jared Truby and Chris Baca were buddies and baristas before teaming up to open a place of their own. The result is Cat & Cloud, a local coffee roastery with two chic cafes. Each location boasts indoor-outdoor seating, a cheerful staff, and delicious drip coffee and espresso drinks. Though you can’t really go wrong with any combination of beverages and pastries, it’s hard to do much better than a froth-topped cappuccino and a kouign-amann, a scrumptious cross between a flaky croissant and a sugar-dusted morning bun.
A Taste of Italy
Flavors of the Old World spring to life at La Posta, a cozy trattoria with a clamorous open kitchen, where chef Katherine Stern puts Italian dishes, including pizza, to a gentle Cal-Med turn. On a recent evening, her seasonal menu roamed from ricotta toasts with roasted plums, beets, pistachios, and speck to saffron lasagnette with braised lamb and rainbow chard—not exactly what your nonna used to make. But, admit it, don’t you wish she had?
On the Waterfront
Down by the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where the crash of waves mingles with the cries of carnival barkers and the rattle of a hump-backed roller coaster, there’s more to eat than corn dogs and fried dough. Consider the farm-fresh fare at the Picnic Basket, a counter-service spot where Kendra Baker and her staff produce seasonal salads and satisfying sandwiches like the BLA, a medley of bacon, lettuce, and avocado with house-made mayo on toasted bread. (You can also get a standard BLT.) Baker used to be the pastry chef at three-Michelin starred Manresa, just over the mountains in Los Gatos, and sure enough, desserts at the Picnic Basket are a must. Try the ice cream sandwich, made with house-baked chocolate cookies and vanilla ice cream from the Penny Ice Creamery, a beloved local ice cream shop that Baker also owns.
BBQ and Blues
In operation since 2009, Aptos St. BBQ isn’t exactly new to locals. But it’s largely undiscovered by out-of-towners, who miss out on the pleasure of such slow-cooked specialties as smoked chicken, St. Louis pork ribs, and fork-tender brisket with sides of potato salad and slaw. Come for the tri-tip and stay for the tunes. There’s live blues music every night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.