In the two years I spent in Santa Cruz, food was always on my mind. Studying for finals, going to parties, getting my heart broken – a girl’s always gotta eat, and so do you.
While working toward my Bachelor’s degree, I also learned a lot about feeding myself and others. Cooking for my roommates, friends and co-workers in uncomfortably cramped college kitchens got difficult, so I also explored the local restaurants in search of a great meal at a great price. Divided into neighborhoods, I present the fruit of my labors; a guide of local, independent and uniquely Santa Cruz eateries that I hope will help you find just what it is you are looking for – to eat, anyway.
202 Lincoln St
My favorite thing about Jack’s is the window decorations. They are adorable and seasonal to a fault, but the windows may be all you see of Jack’s – the hours are sub-optimal. But when Jack’s is open, you can expect to get the best burger in the Pacific Avenue neighborhood, plus fries and a drink, for under 10 dollars.
1534 Pacific Ave
Like the charming Italian deli that I’ve always imagined exists in the burroughs of New York City, Zoccoli’s has the same man at the register every day. Despite his lack of an Italian (or any) accent, this is my favorite sandwich place in Santa Cruz. Available seating right on Pacific and a tasty, warm tri-tip sandwich make Zoccoli’s the perfect lunch choice.
Planet Fresh Gourmet Burritos
1003 Cedar St
Planet Fresh puts carrots in their burritos, and I find that indicative of the philosophy behind their food. Everything is fresh (like the name implies), homemade, and inexpensive. The chicken crispy taco is amazing, enormous and runs for about $4.
The Red Restaurant & Bar
1003 Cedar St
At some point in my time at UCSC, I had a boyfriend with an expendable income. He took me to the Red Room, a very cushy restaurant that makes up the back area of the popular bar. The Red Room has swanky food and serves it until almost midnight, but don’t scoff at the bill – I warned you.
1010 Cedar St
Little Shanghai has been around for just over twenty years in the heart of downtown serving locals and tourists various stir-frys along with noodle bowls. The weekday lunchtime special runs just under $7 and is great for a quick lunch. During the night, dinner is a little more formal with a “sit-down and order from the menu style” but still has that casual feeling.
145 Laurel St
Another famed local establishment, Saturn Café is open until 3 a.m. and serves vegan/vegetarian food. I’m a girl that loves her meat, so it took a while for me to figure out what to eat at Saturn Café. For my fellow carnivores, I offer this advice – don’t get anything “meat”-like. It doesn’t taste like meat, and does not satisfy my meat cravings. Instead, stick to their fries (which are crispy and delicious, the ultimate late-night snack) and a chocolate shake (vegan or not, both varieties hit the spot after a night at the bars).
I Love Sushi
516 Front St
I love “I Love Sushi” for the name. Every time I walked or drove by the restaurant, I had to smile, because they’re right – I really do love sushi. The only thing I love more than sushi, though, is a great lunch special, and I love I Love Sushi’s lunch special. Complimentary appetizers, variety and large portions for about $10. Care for Karaoke? They offer it in a back room.
819 Pacific Ave
Zachary’s is only open until 2 p.m. and stays consistently busy. I’m a huge fan of breakfast, but not always ready to face the outside world by 2 p.m. so I rarely paid visit to Zachary’s. But on the days I did, it was never a decision I regretted. Order the Mike’s Mess – nothing could turn me into a morning person, but that dish got pretty damn close.
Vasili’s Greek Restaurant
1501 Mission St # A
Walking into Vasili’s made me want to drive the two blocks down Mission Street to Blockbuster and rent “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” With walls covered in yellowed photographs depicting large Greek parties, this place screams “Opa!” I have yet to walk in and witness an actual Greek dance party going on, but I keep coming back with that hope. Until then, I’ll be satisfied with their lunch special (gyros, fries and a soda for $10).
Sabieng Thai Cuisine
1218 Mission St
Around week three (or two) of any given quarter, I’d need a day off. While playing hooky, I would find myself returning to Sabieng for its great lunch special (quality Thai food for under $10!). Sabieng is a great place for dinner with friends or a casual non-date, and is, in my opinion, by far the best Thai food in Santa Cruz.
Taqueria Santa Cruz
2215 Mission St
Almost every guy I met in Santa Cruz loves the carne asada burrito at Taqueria Santa Cruz. Not enough meat for you? Not a problem, they offer an all-meat burrito for the extreme carnivore. All in all, Taqueria Santa Cruz is one among many in the Santa Cruz area for cheap, quality Mexican food.
1410 Mission St
This small and colorful restaurant is one of the most popular breakfast joints in town, and for good reason. Once your wait is over and you finally get a table, take your pick from an extensive menu of delicious Brazilian fare- from breakfast scrambles to tasty sandwiches. Perhaps most notable is their smoothie menu, which boasts the best Acai Bowl around.
Santa Cruz Diner
909 Ocean St
I came to Santa Cruz Diner many times, and can count only on one hand the times I was sober or not hungover. With that said, I came to love their chicken fried steak. For extra artery-clogging goodness, I suggest a side of curly fries. The Diner also has a good burger. Open 24 hours a day, with breakfast served all day and night, it’s likely you’ll find yourself at the diner for a 2 a.m. stack of pancakes at some point. Another suggestion – leave the Asian foods alone; that’s what Asian restaurants are for.
Hindquarter Bar & Grille
303 Soquel Ave
All you can eat ribs on Monday nights, so it’s best to let the vegan friends sit this one out. It’s a family place, a slight walk from Pacific Avenue, and the meal will run about $25 (with a soda, tax and tip). Let me just repeat something: all you can eat ribs on Monday nights.
Charlie Hong Kong
1141 Soquel Ave
I’m a lunch special gal, and Charlie Hong Kong (or just “Charlie’s”) was my go-to dinner place. It’s open until 11 p.m. seven days a week, almost everything is under $10, the portions are huge, they offer tons of vegan/vegetarian options and this is one of the only places that has Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) in the Santa Cruz area.
The Crepe Place
1134 Soquel Ave
Adam, owner and manager of the Crepe Place, bought it from its original owners a few years ago. Before that, he worked as the restaurant’s general manager so this is a place that’s not likely to change in the coming years. The Crepe Place is a local favorite and for good reason. They have live shows, great crepes and the restaurant has an adorable back terrace. Prices are a little steep, but the food is scrumptious and portions are sizeable.
702 Soquel Ave
When I first moved to Santa Cruz, all I heard from friends and co-workers was how great the Buttery was. It’s a local powerhouse – serving breakfast, brunch and lunch, staying open until 7 p.m. and having a full-service bakery on-site. The crowd is mainly middle-aged yuppies, but it’s worth the trip for their cupcakes – the bottom half is devil’s food cake and the top is cheesecake.
519 Seabright Ave # 107
After hours spent poring through the two-page menu at “the Brewery,” all I ever found was decent sandwiches/burgers, killer garlic fries and appetizers. And beer.
505 Seabright Ave
Located across the street from Seabright Brewery, Betty Burgers is probably my favorite burger place of all time. I fell in love with both the crispy fries and sweet potato fries, and the burger. Just thinking about them makes me want one. The prices are about the same as it would cost for a burger at a sit-down restaurant, but it’s definitely worth it for the size and tastiness of pretty much everything on the menu.
535 7th Ave
Harbor Café is difficult to access without a car, but it’s a reasonably-priced, friendly breakfast place with a beautiful outdoor dining area. And on Fridays, they have all-you-can-drink mimosas.