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Best Restaurants in Santa Cruz, CA

by Karen S. Petersen

Santa Cruz is located on the California coast, about one and a half hours south of San Francisco. Downtown is centered around Pacific Avenue, where residential, office, shopping, eating and nightclub experiences co-exist. Take Soquel Avenue across the San Lorenzo River to find the Eastside, where small businesses, homes including grand Victorians and small neighborhood restaurants mingle. Turn right on Seabright Avenue, and then left on Murray to get to the Harbor, where fishing boats, pleasure craft and live-aboards share the docks. The Municipal Wharf and Boardwalk amusement park with its historic Giant Dipper Roller Coaster and 1911 Looff Carousel draw thousands of tourists each year. As Santa Cruz sits at the top of the ear-shaped Monterey Bay, the Main Beach here faces south, so you'll need to drive up the coast a few miles to see the sun set over water. On a clear day, you can see Monterey, which is at the south end, or earlobe of this bay. Signs on the railings around the wharf advise "no crabbing". After all, sand and salt air make for happy dispositions.

Pricing criteria considers the cost of one meal, excluding beverages, tax and tips as follows:
  Inexpensive: less than $10
  Moderate: less than $20
  Pricey: more than $20

Downtown Santa Cruz
Benten Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar
Jack's Hamburgers
Kianti's Pizza and Pasta Bar
Pizza My Heart
Planet Fresh Wraps
Sitar Indian Cuisine
Walnut Avenue Cafe

Santa Cruz Eastside
Engfer Pizza Works
Hindquarter Bar and Grill
Parwana Afghan Cuisine
Real Thai Kitchen
  Santa Cruz Diner
Seabright Brewery

Santa Cruz Harbor
Aldo's Harbor Restaurant
  Cafe el Palomar
  Johnny's Harborside Cafe

Santa Cruz Wharf & Beach Street
  Beach Street Cafe
  Dolphin Restaurant
  Gilda's Family Restaurant
  Riva Fish House

Acapulco - Downtown
1116 Pacific Avenue
(831) 426-7588
Lunch through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced

Most items on Acapulco's lunch menu are inexpensive. Select from Mexican mainstays such as flautas and tamales to customize your combo plate, but salads, burgers, and specialties such as Chile Verde and Mole make the decision difficult. The server walks by with an order of sizzling fajitas, leaving a trail of fragrant smoke. I'd stop eating the chips if the fire-roasted salsa wasn't so spicy good today. For dinner, I've ordered the Carnitas. Seasoned Spanish Rice and creamy refried beans accompany a mound of shredded roast pork. There's enough meat to make three burritos with the soft flour tortillas. The leftovers will make a fine breakfast omelette.

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Benten  - Downtown
1541 Pacific Avenue
(831) 425-7079
Lunch and dinner, closed Tuesdays
Inexpensive to moderately priced

When I long for the Salmon Teriyaki I savored in Tokyo, I come to Benten. Spherical lampshades softly light the dining area. In addition to traditional Japanese food, the menu boasts a whole page of sushi and sashimi. Inexpensive lunch specials include noodles, Donburi rice bowls, seafood plates and a two-item combination box. Pick from sushi, sashimi, tempura, cutlets, and more. In addition to the Grilled Salmon Teriyaki, I take a risk on Nizakana, which is mackerel braised in miso sauce. Soon my tumbler of green tea arrives with a bowl of perfectly heated miso soup. My combo box comes with rice, a small salad, and two kinds of seaweed condiments, one flavored with sesame oil. The syrupy but not too sweet teriyaki clings to the tender salmon. The mackerel has plenty of tasty sauce, and grated fresh ginger adds depth. For dinner, the menu expands with the addition of sukiyaki, curry, a larger dinner box and a giant bento box. Kid-friendly meals are attractively presented.

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Jack's Hamburgers  - Downtown
202 Lincoln Street
(831) 423-4421
Long lunch until 4 p.m. Mon-Sat, dinner Fri-Sat

This perennial "Best Burger" winner is located one block west of Pacific Avenue. Enjoy the afternoon sunshine from one of the numerous outside tables. Inexpensive Burger Baskets are filled with tender hot fries and a wrapped bun stuffed with bright green lettuce, tomato and a flavorful cheeseburger. Add a creamy chocolate shake for a couple bucks more. Choose from other hot sandwiches such as patty melt, roast beef, grilled chicken, filet of fish and hot dogs. My BLT on sourdough is nicely toasted, with thick smoky bacon and fresh vegetables. If you need more mayonnaise, check out the condiment station, which also includes horseradish and a lemony tartar sauce.

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Kianti's Pizza & Pasta Bar  - Downtown
1100 Pacific Avenue
(831) 469-4400
Fax (831) 469-3021
Lunch through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced

Kianti's offers build your own and house combination pizzas, pastas and calzone, plus salads and sandwiches. Many dishes are available family size for sharing. Sit on the patio to enjoy the fireplace, or inside, where the warm colors and neo-industrial decor comfortably contrast. Weekday lunch specials are a real deal. My 7-inch hand-tossed pepperoncini pizza arrives hot with a side of baby greens salad. The Italian Sub Sandwich is broiled open face to melt the cheese and bring out the spicy pepperoni flavor before stuffing with olives and produce. Friday or Saturday night you might be lucky enough to catch the staff's choreographed song and dance routine, accompanied by the kitchen's flaming saute pans and champion pizza throwers.

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Pizza My Heart - Downtown
1116 Pacific Avenue
(831) 426-2511
Lunch through dinner, delivery

25 years ago, this Capitola pizzeria came to downtown Santa Cruz. While it's no longer locally owned, the pizza is essentially unchanged from its pre-earthquake beginnings. It's a small store with some seating in tall wooden booths. Local surf history photos adorn the walls. You can watch as they make and carefully bake your pizza. The extra large is a big 18-incher, with a spiral of juicy marinara sauce on a slowly risen and hand tossed crust. Ours comes with fennel-infused sausage and tons of salami. Whole pies, pizza slices and salads are available for carryout. Delivery during busy times (such as dinner) can often take more than an hour.

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Planet Fresh - Downtown
1003 Cedar Street (one block west of Pacific Avenue)
(831) 423-9799
Lunch through dinner

Stacks of napkins on each table suggest that these wraps may be a handful. Planet Fresh, who insists they don't even own a can opener, specializes in lean meat and vegetarian burritos. Everything from slowly simmered beans, chips, and salsas are prepared fresh daily. Burritos start with rice, black beans and greens, to which you add your favorite meat (or vegetarian) preparation, or pick a house favorite such as Cajun style with prawns or snapper, or Thai Chicken Curry. At the salsa bar, choose your heat level from mild to incindiary. My Tubular Taco holds big chunks of USDA Choice Steak, nonfat sour cream, and some lettuce and tomato. The Smokin' Chipotle salsa is rich and full of heat. Planet Fresh also offers tostadas and enchiladas.

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Sitar Indian Cuisine  - Downtown
1133 Pacific Avenue
(831) 427-3000
Lunch through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced

Sitar has enjoyed brisk business since its recent opening. The popular buffet lunch is heavy on vegetarian selections, and mildly spiced. Smoke flavor permeates the well-cooked Tandoori Chicken. White meat Chicken Tikka Masala has plenty of creamy orange sauce with hints of hot and sweet. Cabbage and Peas are spiced with fennel and peppers. The creamed spinach Saag has small Indian garbanzo beans (chana), which add texture and flavor. At any time, food can be ordered at the counter, and will be boxed for take-out or delivered to your table. A daily special includes a carnivorous or vegetarian entree, rice, tandoori oven Naan bread and Raita yogurt sauce. While the Vindaloo is not a traditional fiery hot masala, the chicken and lamb versions are prepared independently with different spices, to bring out the best in each meat.

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Walnut Avenue Cafe - Downtown
106 Walnut Avenue (just off Pacific Avenue)
(831) 457-2307
Breakfast through lunch

Walnut Avenue Cafe is full of lively chatter, even on a weekday morning, where inventive and colorful breakfast specialties join pancakes, waffles and omelets. The Carnitas Rancheros fills most of a large plate. Tortillas are topped with pulled pork, eggs, black beans, bell peppers and a chunky cooked salsa. Eggs are scrambled with tortilla chips and mild green peppers to make the Chiliaquiles. For lunch, sandwiches such as Grilled Eggplant and Chicken Cheese Steak are served with fries, fruit or salad. Tostadas, salads and Black Angus ground beef burgers round out the menu. Even if there's a wait on the weekend, you can get started with coffee, located to the right of the door.

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Engfer Pizza Works - Eastside
537 Seabright Avenue
(831) 429-1856
Dinner Tues-Sun
Inexpensive to moderately priced

Wood-fired handmade pizza dough and sauce sets Engfer apart. Pepperoncini peppers, capers, and Corralitos sausage are some of the many toppings available, and organic tofu spread replaces mozzarella on the vegan pizza. The mushrooms attain a rich smoky flavor on the thin and crispy crust. I can usually eat half of the large 14" pizza. The fresh organic salad comes with wonderfully light balsamic vinaigrette and feta cheese crumbles. The entire back wall is a refrigerator case, housing a wide selection of beers, sodas and juices, for on-premises or take-out enjoyment. They also have an unexpected selection of bottled wines. Order at the counter, and your meal will be delivered to your table. While waiting, play ping-pong or checkers. After dinner, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with an ice cream novelty from the freezer.

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Hindquarter - Eastside
303 Soquel Avenue
(831) 426-7770
Fax (831) 426-0710
Lunch Mon-Sat, dinner nightly
Inexpensive to pricey

Appetizers, salads and pastas grace the dinner menu, but the main draw of the Hindquarter is meat. Carnivores have a hard time choosing between house-smoked chicken, ribs, and pork chops, and Texas T-Bone steaks or weekend Roasted Prime Rib. For lunch, select a fresh salad or a lunch platter with smoked meat. The half pound Black Angus Ground Chuck Burger with a variety of topping styles is perfectly grilled and provides plenty of nourishment. Other sandwiches, such as chicken, turkey, calamari and ahi tuna, offer alternatives. A small menu is also available at the full bar, where a rotating selection of wines by the glass are poured by knowledgeable bartenders.

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Parwana Afghan Cuisine - Eastside
1209 Soquel Avenue
(831) 458-1988
Lunch Tues-Sat, dinner Tues-Sun
Moderately priced

Mashawa is a filling mung bean soup with spiced sauteed ground beef topped with a dollop of minted garlic sour cream. Aushak leek dumplings are served with the same beef mixture. Choose from 30 exotic teas, many organic, which are also sold in bulk. For entrees, the Norinj Pallow is a large plate of chicken, basmati rice, saffron, pistachios, and a generous amount of stewed Seville orange rind. It reminds me of a classic marmalade. The sword of marinated lamb kabob is perfectly grilled and tender.

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Real Thai Kitchen - Eastside
1632 Seabright Avenue (at Soquel Avenue)
(831) 427-2559
Lunch buffet weekdays, dinner, closed Sundays
Inexpensive to moderately priced

Hidden in a row of hair salons behind Blockbuster Video, a large tank of brightly colored tropical fish greets diners at Real Thai. From simple booths and tables, orders are efficiently taken and served. The lunch buffet includes rice, salad, coconut milk soup and a rotating assortment of hot dishes. The Spicy Noodles include fresh vegetables and Thai basil, the Pineapple Pork is thinly sliced and tender. A prescription for chicken soup always sends me here for dinner. The Tom Yum Gai hot and sour chicken soup showcases the essential and irreplaceable trinity of Thai flavors, provided by Kaffir Lime leaves, Galangal (a tuber), and Thai chili peppers. The Chicken Sate appetizer is tender and smoky, with a pleasant peanut sauce. I specify "hot" when I order the creamy Green Curry and I am not disappointed. Sweet coconut milk highlights the chicken and still-crisp vegetables. Take-out is also available during meal hours, including weekday lunch specials.

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Santa Cruz Diner  - Eastside
909 Ocean Street
(831) 426-7151
24 hours
Inexpensive to moderately priced

This isn't a poodle skirt kind of diner, but you'll still find hand-scooped milkshakes and flame-broiled burgers. The Santa Cruz Diner serves a huge variety of well-prepared breakfast and lunch items 24-hours a day, as well as a dinnertime menu. I like to build my omelette with bright green spinach, mushrooms, and meaty bacon. With moderately crisped hash browns and pancakes instead of toast, I always take half of it home. The sandwiches and burgers come with your choice of fries or sweet applesauce. The Reuben on rye with Swiss cheese features thick chunks of corned beef and just enough sauerkraut. For a late night indulgence, select some pie or cheesecake from the revolving display.

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Seabright Brewery  - Eastside
519 Seabright Avenue
(831) 426-2739
Lunch through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced

The morning fog has lifted by the time the lunch crush ends. The building is perfectly situated to shield the sunny patio from afternoon breezes. I can smell pungent garlic fries from two tables away. Award winning beers are brewed here, from pale ales to a hearty oatmeal stout, and sometimes barleywine. Food selections vary from fried appetizers, salads, hearty sandwiches and burgers to home-made soups. Alton Brown once said that salmon doesn't make good fish and chips, but Brewery patrons disagree. A crunchy Japanese breadcrumb coating encases moist pink fish. Dip it into tartar sauce spiked with wasabi or a spicy soy sauce. Hand cut potato wedges are fried until crisp on the outside. Some nights you can listen to live music. The kids menu includes ravioli and a cheese quesadilla.

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Aldo's Harbor Restaurant - Harbor
616 Atlantic Avenue (off Seabright Avenue)
(831) 426-3736
Breakfast and lunch daily, dinner Mon-Sat
Inexpensive to moderately priced

Aldo's brings family food from the Italian coast to that of California. Located on the harbor's West dock, the immaculate outside deck offers views of the new lighthouse at the harbor mouth and the boat launch across the narrow channel. The dark green tables radiate the sun's heat making the cool breeze refreshing. The newly remodeled interior with dusty blue accents adds inside seating. For breakfast, the omelette with vivid green pesto and creamy Swiss cheese is my favorite. For lunch and dinner, there are salads, sandwiches, burgers, pasta including homemade gnocchi, and seasonal seafood. Options abound for indulging in Aldo's famous fugasa bread (thick and airy foccacia) including Raisin Fugasa French Toast, buttery Garlic Bread with crispy cheese, and a variety of sandwiches. The blackened Mahi Mahi sandwich features lightly spiced tender fish with leafy lettuce and fresh tomatoes. The house pesto lightly flavors a grilled chicken sandwich with smoky bacon on a large slice of dimpled fugasa. Infrared heaters warm a foggy happy hour or dinner. Follow the signs to metered parking in the harbor parking lot.

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Cafe el Palomar  - Harbor
2222 East Cliff Drive
(831) 477-0371
Breakfast through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced

Cafe el Palomar is the beachfront sister of the Palomar Restaurant downtown, and offers both booth seating from its windowed corner location, as well as take-out. Between my table on the sunny patio and the kayaker passing just beyond the breaking waves, are sand volleyball courts and a row of bi-hulled catamaran sailboats waiting to be launched. The take-out menu includes tacos, burritos, tostadas, quesadillas and nachos. The Chili Verde Burrito weighs almost a pound and a half, with meat, rice, and beans. Mexican and American specialties are offered in the morning from omelettes to breakfast burritos. Eggs scrambled with tortilla chips and tomatoes welcome the side of fresh salsa.

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Johnny's Harborside - Harbor
493 Lake Avenue
(831) 479-3430
Fax (831) 476-1438
Lunch through dinner
Inexpensive to pricey

A subdued interior with an unfinished open beam ceiling acknowledges the real show outside of the large windows. A gaggle of boats gently rock over their dappled paint-by-number reflections, masts bristling with fluttering flags. Columns of cages await the start of crab season. Along with the view, Johnny's offers a selection of inexpensive appetizers and sandwiches, moderately priced seafood, and more pricey specials. As the happy hour crowd fills the bar, baskets of French bread are buttered while waiting for steamed clams. The fresh catches of the day can be blackened, sauteed, broiled or grilled. Choose flavorings and accompaniments such as Mediterranean or Pacific Rim. The Southwestern version comes with a creamy green chili polenta. Today I get a salad with tender sliced steak, butter and romaine lettuces, tomatoes, mild blue cheese and gentle sherry vinaigrette. It's topped with four perfect onion rings, lightly battered, large and crispy. Check the website for specials such as mid-week prix fixe gourmet dinners and happy hour deals.

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Beach Street Cafe  – Wharf and Beach
399 Beach Street
(831) 426-7621
Fax (831) 476-0654
Breakfast and lunch
Inexpensive to moderate

Warm sun rises from behind the Boardwalk's Casino as I gaze through the palm trees across the Main Beach to the wharf. There's often a weekend wait at this small cafe, where you can enjoy a Pastrami Sandwich for breakfast or Bacon and Eggs at lunch. The walls hold color prints from turn-of-the-century artist Maxfield Parrish, including magazine covers and advertising art. My Eggs Sardou features poached eggs atop spinach-filled artichoke heart cups with a light hollandaise-type sauce. A fresh cranberry-studded orange muffin, herbed red-skinned potatoes, fruit and a glass of champagne complete my brunch selection.

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Casablanca  - Wharf and Beach
101 Main Street (at Beach Street)
(831) 426-9063
Dinner nightly

Casablanca is often our choice for a relaxing anniversary dinner. From its second story perch, diners are treated to a view of the Main Beach, wharf and Monterey Bay. The service is professional here, and the chef occasionally greets diners. Continental cuisine is supplemented with California fresh ingredients, such as jalapeno jelly and stuffed Anaheim chilis as appetizers. Start with fresh oysters or a baby greens salad, then choose from seasonal chicken, filet mignon, salmon and pasta entrees.

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Dolphin Restaurant  - Wharf and Beach
71A Municipal Wharf
(831) 426-5830
Breakfast through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced

You know you're at the beach when the breakfast menu includes clam chowder, shrimp cocktails, and an oyster scramble. I skip the fish and order the Special Scramble with spinach, sausage and mushrooms, paired with hunks of crispy fried potatoes. For lunch & dinner choose from burgers, salads, and grilled or fried fish.

There is also a take-out window featuring fried seafood with fries, hot dogs and burgers along with generous cups of clam-filled chowder and plump shrimp cocktails. Through the wharf's fenced cutouts, you may see California Sea Lions barking up a storm or napping on its supports. The Sea Lions have small ear flaps while the less numerous and smaller Harbor Seals do not.

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Gilda's Family Restaurant - Wharf and Beach
494 Municipal Wharf
(831) 423-2010
Early bird breakfast through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced

The Cottardo Stagnaro family has been fishing the waters of Santa Cruz since 1879. Their restaurant at the center of the wharf has made four generations of my family feel welcome. The uncluttered architecture allows ocean views along two walls. On one side, the Boardwalk's ferris wheel spins in the distance. On the other, the surfing museum lighthouse stands watch over a popular surf break where 60 surfers wait patiently for a swell. Gilda's continues its tradition of opening early to feed fishermen, or families with early-rising toddlers. From simple French Toast to a multi-meat Construction Worker's Special, traditional breakfasts here are filling. The large lunch and dinner menu offers fried, grilled, charbroiled or sauteed fish plates, chowder, pasta, salad, sandwiches and burgers. As a teenager, my favorite was the deep fried seafood combination platter with extra tartar sauce. Today, my fresh sole sandwich encloses a thin piece of sauteed, flaky fish in a French roll with plenty of lemon. Cole slaw sweetened with raisins and carrots and a heap of hot fries fill the rest of the plate.

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Riva Fish House  - Wharf and Beach
500 Municipal Wharf
(831) 429-1223
Lunch through dinner
Inexpensive to moderately priced

I wait for a late lunch in the hopes of scoring a window seat. Successful, I gaze south across the bay to Monterey, while a flotilla of migrating seabirds takes a breather. A cormorant with feathery horns dives for his dinner. Although Riva is a wonderful place to bring friends, with Tabasco-spiked Bloody Marys and a nice wine-by-the-glass selection, it's one of my favorite places to reflect and gain inspiration. Appetizers include broiled oysters and spicy shrimp spring rolls. There's always a daily pasta with sauteed vegetables and seafood which includes a generous side salad. A man at the next table highly recommends the fried Calamari to his guest. I choose the Snapper Ravigote, a smoky charbroiled fish covered with perfectly sautéed mushrooms in a thickened caper butter sauce. There's a take-out window with salads, chowder, burgers, sandwiches and fried seafood. If the window isn't open, go ahead and order from the bartender. If you need a sweet fix, order creamy gelato or sherbet. The container of Chocolate Decadence reminds me of a thickly frosted cupcake, and is just as rich. Bring cash, because credit cards are not accepted.

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Karen S. Petersen is a Santa Cruz-based freelance writer focusing on food, fun and fitness.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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