Santa Cruz’s reputation leans more toward flip flops and 4:20 parties than elevated dining experiences, but whatever brings you to this beach surf town, you’ll have no trouble finding something delicious. It could be as simple as the best tahini salad dressing of your life at the historic vegetarian restaurant Dharma’s (it was McDharma’s until Mickey D’s sued them in 1986) or a small corn quesadilla from Tacos Moreno downtown. But these five gastronomic experiences will surprise you.
1 Eat with your fingers: Chef and restaurateur David Kinch’s name is synonymous with Manresa, Los Gatos’ three-Michelin-starred restaurant. But the Santa Cruz location made its neighbors very happy when it opened Mentone in Aptos in 2020. Pizza from the stunning Mugnaini oven—yes, that’s a Rolling Stones tribute mosaic on its exterior—is the big draw here. The Soppressata Pizza ($24), for example, is topped with salami, pickled Calabrian chilies, and “fairy dust.” And the Caesar salad, which arrives in a huge, colorful bowl filled with radicchio, torn bread croutons, and shredded Parmesan bits, is perfect.
Details: 174 Aptos Village Road, Aptos; www.mentonerestaurant.com
2 Know Your Farmer: Santa Cruz hosts at least one farmer’s market most days, and three on Saturdays, including one with an ocean view (when the fog cooperates). This region is an organic food paradise and a pulse point for small farms. Ninety produce and food stalls dot the Saturday Aptos Farmers Market at Cabrillo College, for example, which offers artisan cheeses, organic juices and artisan breads, as well as vegetables, flowers and herbs. The downtown Santa Cruz market serves up a wide variety of notable snacks, from momos to pupusas, naan and biscotti, alongside the produce.
Details: https://santacruzfarmersmarket.org and https://montereybayfarmers.org
3 Goat up: Companion Bakeshop opened on the west side of Santa Cruz in 2010, but Erin and Jeremy Lampel’s bakery and cafe soon began drawing lines. Today, they have physical locations in Santa Cruz and Aptos and stalls at seven farmers’ markets. You’ll find their delicious food (sourdough breads, galettes, croissants, kouign-amann) at local cafes, and they’re the pie companion to Pie Ranch near Pescadero. There are no wrong choices, just delicious, but if you see a Goat Horn, buy it immediately. This little horn-shaped bread is mixed with crunchy puddles of goat cheese.
Details: 2341 Mission St. in Santa Cruz and 7486 Soquel Drive in Aptos; https://companionbakeshop.com.
4 Getting Dirty: I wish the walls of Zachary’s restaurant could talk. This local favorite has been around since 1985, survived earthquakes and pandemics, and still serves up dishes that taste exactly the way you remember them. Turmeric-stained home fries, sourdough pancakes, and oatmeal molasses bread are great, but the most beloved brunch dish is Mike’s Mess ($15.50). It’s a pile of potatoes, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, and bacon topped with melted cheese, sour cream, tomatoes, and a shower of green onions. Better wear stretch pants, even for the junior version ($13). (Psst, there’s a vegan version, too.)
Details: Pacific Avenue 819, Santa Cruz; www.zacharyssantacruz.com
5 Find fantastic mushrooms: Mushroom hunting is so important in the Santa Cruz Mountains that the region holds an annual mushroom fair. So it makes perfect sense that you’d find so many mushroom-centric dishes on menus. FLASHbird, the Abbott Square fried-chicken joint run by Alderwood chef Jeffrey Wall, offers an amazing crispy woodland hen mushroom sandwich ($13) along with bird sammies. The menu at Far West Fungi’s Santa Cruz store includes a mushroom muffaletta ($15). And inside the craft beer mecca of the Sante Adairius Portal, Bookie’s Pizza serves chef-driven, farm-to-table, “not authentic Detroit-style” pizza…and amazing maitake mushroom wings ($16). , buttered and Frank’s Red Hot. Bathe them in the house blue cheese ranch, of course.
Details: www.flashbirdchicken.com, https://farwestfungi.com and www.bookiespizza.com