Santa Cruz is a quirky, funky combination of culture and counterculture. Of forest and sea. Surfers and professors. (Or surfers who are professors).
But it also has superb restaurants (see below), repertory movie houses that rival San Francisco’s (The Nick, 210 Lincoln St.), thriving independent bookstores (see below) and one of the best jazz clubs on the West Coast (Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St.).
It’s small — only 62,000 residents — but offers a thousand things to do. It’s been my hometown for 26 years, and this is my Insider’s Guide to the jewel of California’s central coast:
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Five minutes from downtown, this neighborhood has taken off and much of the activity centers on Swift and Ingalls streets.
Visit the micro-boutique wineries at Surf City Vintners, a whole cluster of them, offering tastings and surrounded by cool shops selling designer clothes, high-end lights, high-end yarn, fancy meats. Or enjoy a seasonal ale at the all-organic (and often crowded) Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing (402 Ingalls St.).
The Westside has become a hot spot for dining, too. Check out these restaurants: O’mei (the Cui Pi orange beef! the eggplant! the flavors!), Bantam (gourmet pizzas, thin-crusted and wood-fired), West End Tap & Kitchen (great burgers) and Your Place (exceptional sand dabs, delicately breaded and lightly sauteed).
But the best parts of the Westside are outdoors:
Begin at nearby Seymour Marine Discovery Center: Touch a swellshark, view the 87-foot skeleton of a blue whale, walk the cliffs (100 Shaffer Road, seymourcenter.ucsc.edu).
Next activity: Stroll the length of West Cliff Drive — a dramatic (and mercifully flat) ocean-side jaunt — from Natural Bridges State Park to Mitchell’s Cove Beach, which is dog-friendly and filled with curvaceous rock formations, easy to climb, at the base of Sunset Avenue.
Continue to Lighthouse Point to watch the surfers in Steamer Lane, to listen to the barking sea lions on Seal Rock and to explore the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum inside the lighthouse (santacruzsurfingmuseum.org).
Follow West Cliff Drive all the way to the end, and you’ll be at the Santa Cruz Wharf (where Riva Fish House, at No. 31, has the best calamari in town) and by the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park. Giant Dipper time! (Check boardwalk hours and events at beachboardwalk.com.)
The business corridor along Pacific Avenue has taken a rap for its aggressive panhandlers. Far from the quaint place it was years ago, it remains a fascinating place with life to it. And in the mornings, it still can be quiet and calming in a small-town way.
Try the “Mike’s Mess” with home fries and cornbread at funky Zachary’s Restaurant, the most classic of the city’s breakfast spots (819 Pacific Ave).
But you’ll never “get” Santa Cruz without spending time in its downtown cafes, of which there must be more per capita than anywhere in California. These are some definitive ones: Caffe Pergolesi, aka “the Perg,” a bide-your-time hippie place in an old Victorian house (418 Cedar St.). Head to Lulu’s at the Octagon (118 Cooper St.), where friendly baristas serve up specialty drinks in an eight-sided landmark building (next door to the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St.); and trendy Verve Coffee Roasting, which owns the current scene; brewing a cup of coffee is theater at Verve (1540 Pacific).
I’ve left the best for last: those locally owned bookstores, which have outlived the Borders invasion and bankruptcy. If you love books, then while away the hours at Bookshop Santa Cruz, among the nation’s leading independents (1520 Pacific Ave.); at tiny Literary Guillotine (204 Locust St.), impossibly crammed with volumes; or at Logos Books & Records (1117 Pacific Ave.), a mecca with inventory stretching over two floors.
East of downtown lies Midtown (some refer to it as the Eastside), a neighborhood that’s reaching critical mass along Soquel Avenue: shops, restaurants, cafes, grocers.
At night, indie bands pack the Crepe Place (1134 Soquel Ave.). The Rio Theatre (1205 Soquel Ave.) books an intriguing mix of musicians and events. The Buttery (702 Soquel Ave.) has the best baked goods in Santa Cruz; kill me with the carrot cake, please. And you cannot beat the breakfast scrambles at Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe (542 Seabright Ave.), only a few blocks from one of the sweetest (and least touristy) beaches in the city, Seabright State Beach at the foot of Third Avenue.
It’s also in Midtown that I’ve discovered another breakfast and lunch place, Midtown Cafe (1121 Soquel Ave.), which opened in January. It’s sleek and airy, with community tables in the front room and a sunny back patio where I recently sat down with owner Zac Creager. At age 30, he already has had a couple of careers: as a trekking guide in Chile and as a manager of local farmers markets. He describes the food in his cafe as “soulful and simple.”
I’ll go with “soulful,” but simple? I had the pork confit, generously mounded in the center of my plate, topped with a perfectly fried egg, served with a potato pancake and bordered by slivers of roasted golden beets, locally sourced, of course. It was delicious, it cost $8, and the cafe had a buzz; the patio was quickly filling up with couples and young families. Coltrane was playing on the sound system. I thought to myself. “This is my new place.”