The bustling downtown district of Santa Cruz, California, has long been teeming with good eats, drinks, and shopping, as well as its fair share of buskers and characters. But the amorphous urban neighborhood lacked a clear center—until recently.
In early September, the redwood-lined surf town unveiled Abbott Square Market, a lively public plaza and gastro-hub in the heart of downtown. Nestled beneath the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), the industrial-chic indoor market is stocked with a flavor for every mood, spread between six artisanal eateries and two hip bars.
Guests are greeted by Milk & Wood handcrafted ice cream popsicles, where flavors such as taro and matcha green tea can be dressed up in crumbled Oreos, mochi, and other toppings. Over at Pizzeria la Bufala, Southern Italy–born chef Sandro Costanza dishes up traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas alongside a delectable mozzarella bar, where your choice of fresh cheeses, salami, or olives comes with arugula, cherry tomatoes, and pizza bread—the perfect, sharable companion to afternoon drinks on the patio.
One stall down, Veg on the Edge’s fried potato balls have quickly became a local favorite. The crispy, savory delights of red potatoes, chickpea flour, onions, and brown mustard seeds pair well with anything from the West African–inspired vegan menu. Rounding out the market’s fare are refreshing poke bowls from Poke It; an oyster bar, All Aboard, with a lineup of fresh oysters and lobster rolls; and Cat Cloud Companion, a mash-up of local gourmet coffee roasters Cat & Cloud and the artisanal bakery Companion Bakeshop.
But the highlights of the culinary bazaar are surely the two bars, collectively called Front & Cooper, that bookend the open-floor plan. One focuses on craft cocktails, while the other serves up beer and wine with some tasty surprises thrown in, like sherry on draught. Both were the brainchild of world-champion bartender and restaurateur Kate Gerwin, who also manages the market. Gerwin is playful with her menus—the inaugural iteration has the theme of The Lost Boys, the cult vampire movie filmed in Santa Cruz 30 years ago—but goes to painstaking lengths for quality, requiring that everything from sours and syrups to tonic and cola is made fresh in house. The mixology whiz plans to reinvent the menu several times a year, utilizing the wealth of local history housed in the museum upstairs to dream up Santa Cruz–inspired drinks. Dive into The Lost Boys motif while it lasts with a Cereal Murder Capital, a sweet and unexpectedly light clarified-milk punch made with Cinnamon Toast Crunch–infused rum.
Guests looking to sip or nosh outside can choose between a lush, tranquil, and hidden nook dubbed The Secret Garden or the square, where the museum’s formerly underused outdoor courtyard has been transformed into an attractive gathering place. Art was built into the plaza’s design, from the bright patchwork mural by Thomas Campbell that envelops the exterior to the gleaming red buoys dangling from above. It’s also ingrained in its culture: The MAH’s participatory spirit spills out into the new addition, where patrons may come across live music, events, and art-making “crafternoons.”
Years in the making, the buzzy marketplace is the latest realization of MAH Executive Director Nina Simon’s long-term vision for converting the museum into downtown’s fashionable nucleus. Evidence suggests the plan is working: In the summer months before its official grand opening, Abbott Square Market was already drawing 1,000 people each Friday night, when the courtyard purred with live music and the crowds were alight with the excitement of a new local treasure being born. And this is only just the beginning.
When To Go
Any day of the week is a great time to pop into the market and rub elbows with locals over happy hour cocktails or people-watch from the courtyard. But take note of these events if you’re looking for an even livelier time to visit.
Evenings on the first Friday of every month are a special occasion in many art galleries and event spaces across town, including the MAH and Abbott Square, which join forces for First Friday art celebrations. Expect live music, art exhibits, and free admission to the MAH.
Día de Los Muertos
The Mexican holiday honoring the dead is celebrated throughout downtown Santa Cruz, complete with dancing, face painting, food and drink, outdoor altars, and a procession from the MAH to nearby Evergreen Cemetery. Details for 2017: November 4, 12:30–6 p.m., free.
Abbott Square Market is located at 725 Front Street in Santa Cruz, and is open seven days a week. Check individual vendors’ websites for hours of operation.