Santa Cruz Dreamin’

Got bored Sunday morning and packed a fast bag and threw it in the car. I know how sketch it can get on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day but decided to wing it North. This year’s Sunday-Monday-Tuesday situation meant NOTHING was going to happen work-wise so might as well be up the coast exploring. Contemplated Big Sur, considered Half Moon Bay, that whole Pescadero section and had a serious conversation about Inverness and Pt. Reyes and decided to keep it close to home with Santa Cruz. Hadn’t been there in 4 or 5 years and my girlfriend had NEVER been there. Oh my. Normally when I go on road-trips I don’t blog about it other than Instagram, but since Santa Cruz is SOLIDLY Central Coast and I know a bunch of my readers visit regularly, I’m scribbling a few notes from the weekend. Trust me, I have my places I like to go in Santa Cruz, but with the holiday closures, I was forced to step out and try ALL NEW things. OMG the horror. So I’m dragging you along.

First of all: WHERE TO STAY. I’ve had this conversation with many people regarding Santa Cruz and have tried various things with so-so results on various trips. The argument always boils down to: Stay *down there* or stay *up there*. If you know Santa Cruz, “down there” is below the river, boardwalk territory, REALLY cheap stuff (I’ve seen 50-60 dollars a night), and noisy and a long walk to downtown and most of it absolute trash full of trash people you don’t want to be around. Parking can also suck. Then there’s uptown. Expensive or completely without character (think: embassy Suites), some of it is an easy walk downtown but a lot of it is still East toward Seabright and a long haul. Hey, if the boardwalk is your jam, knock yourself out, but as you might have guessed, where I want to eat and hang out is downtown. So where to stay is constantly perplexing.

This weekend I happened upon a beautiful old 3-story manor built in 1879 and recently completely re-furbished into modern accommodations. RIO VISTA LUXURY SUITES sits right ON the river overlooking downtown. It’s cheap: $120 a night and has lots of free private parking and is neat and clean and quiet and BEAUTIFUL. It’s a 3-block walk up along the river to downtown and if you just absolutely HAVE to go the other way, it’s a short 5 block stroll to the boardwalk. Pretty sure this just became my go-to place to stay in Santa Cruz. Perfectly located and full of character: beautiful inside and out. I hate boring hotels. And not 300 a night! We stayed in a tiny little top-floor nook called “Attic economy” and it was PERFECT, with a fireplace and better bathroom than hotels rooms three times the price.

I would like to point out before we go much further my favorite restaurant, Soif Restaurant & Winebar was closed our entire stay, hence the following choices.

Sunday evening, the night young, we wandered down through the dogs and strollers to the end of the pier–only briefly having to encounter the screaming children and fat tourists at the boardwalk–for a couple stiff cocktails at the new rotating bar at SPLASH. OK, that was fun: I now have my fill of the boardwalk part of Santa Cruz for another decade. Now get me out of here. Let’s go downtown where REAL food and drink is.

Everyone’s been talking about the speakeasy lounge upstairs at 515 KITCHEN & COCKTAILS. Downstairs is a very proper dining room which I almost opted for because of the orderly 2- & 4-tops, but at the last minute decided to venture upstairs for a cocktail and “see what it was like” and never came back down. I don’t often eat at the bar, but here it worked perfectly. Upstairs and downstairs are completely NIGHT AND DAY at 515. Craft cocktails are the thing here and they don’t cut any corners. I think I’m a week late on Negroni Week, but that didn’t stop me. The winelist is short–and adequate–and I found a nice 2010 Guigal CdP which took the combined staff 20 minutes to find and unlock and then it was opened across the room and plonked down in front of me in horrible glasses. Oh my. Could Santa Cruz wine-service possibly be even WORSE than San Luis Obispo??? Nevermind… Not going to let it bother me. Let’s get some food.

Roasted Green beans were somewhat weird. Crunchy and coated-slippery and HOT. So spicy I ate not more than one. Interesting dish I’m trying to figure out a use for. App? Beer-nosh? Maybe. Curried lamb bao went much better. What can be better than meat fried and steamed in sweet pastry?

The menu contains both ramen and udon–with the latter being an almost double surcharge. But it’s duck udon–so of course it’s worth it. Couldn’t resist and it was OUT OF THIS WORLD. No soup or confit here–oh no–this was rare duck breast served up in fat slices on a bed of thick noodles glazed with oil and pepper. Yes these noodles were a bit spicy too, but NOTHING like the green beans. Totally manageable heat. An incredible dish with the funky, bretty, faded fruit of the mineralific Grenache. I think we may have had fried chicken and another cocktail for dessert.

Christmas Eve morning ducked into a tiny spot on Pacific for coffee and found half the town eating lunch there. Tiny cold-kitchen cranking out a TON of food and it all looked good. Avocado toast for 4 bucks??? Don’t tell any other restaurant. Coffee didn’t suck either. cafedelmarette.com

Time for lunch? Yes it is. Wandered up the street to CHOCOLATE THE RESTAURANT. What an interesting place. Everything is chocolate. The menu is, like, five pages of chocolate. And only a couple of them are drinks and desserts. Ordered a roasted chicken in Oaxacan mole and a very strange dish of pickles, chicken and peanuts–with peanut sauce. It WORKED though. Eclectic wine list of interesting locals plus an Italian section.

Spotted a beautiful local Birchino Pinot on the list. It was opened AS the waiter was walking across the room and promptly doused into horrible glasses. Hmmm. I’m seeing a pattern here. HOW could you not eat at a place called Chocolate and NOT order dessert? Did I tell you it came with it’s own pomegranate wine? Chocolate and more chocolate. Chocolate overload. Is that possible? There’s an ENTIRE PAGE of hot chocolate drinks and lots of people stop in just for that option. What a warm, friendly, funky place to spend a drizzly afternoon in Santa Cruz.

This is where it gets interesting. Where to eat on Christmas Eve. EVERYTHING WAS CLOSED. And I mean EVERYTHING. We wandered the streets for a while before seeing lights on down a side street. Quickly tracked them down to find 99 BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL. Yes, that is actually the name of the restaurant. It is now edging up on 8PM and voting NO on this one definitely had a bittersweet edge. Continuing on, another set of lights were spotted down another side-street. This time it was MOZAIC MIDDLE EASTERN with interior packed and CLOSED sign on door. Owner came over, we smiled very VERY nicely and violà, we were IN at a foyer table.

A winelist of bargains–including at least one Lebanese wine–greeted me and I begged for the Lebanese, only to have them return empty-handed. Sold out. OK, fine. An incredible Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet it is! What glorious Christmas wine. Beyond perfect. Jordan only makes TWO wines: a Chardonnay and a Cabernet and they do both ridiculously well.

Menu ran the usual suspects of Greek-heavy choices interspersed with safe American California and Italian options, but–unlike San Luis Obispo–FAR heavier on the former. The house specialty was paella, so that was a no-brainer. Lamb kofta, octupus, and piles of tzatziki to dip EVERYTHING IN with soft pita filled out the table. All accompanied by the best service of the trip in Santa Cruz and several chats with the owner–“Hell, I’d stay open all night as long as people spend money but I feel sorry for the workers.”

Christmas morning woke up to an absolute GHOST-TOWN downtown with one bright spot alive and hoppin: VERVE COFFEE ROASTERS. Now generally, when I walk into a big, bright, clean, beautiful coffee-joint, I roll my eyes hard, expecting the horrid ‘bucks corporate treatment where everything is about the sugar and milk–and nobody knows anything about coffee. Oh wow was I wrong here. Perfect espresso–I had a choice of roasts and of course opted for the lightest of course (yes, I know American coffee-drinker is really shaking their head about that one, but someday you’ll understand) with their beautiful, perfect croissants. The espresso was served with a side of soda water as is common in Europe but I’ve only seen it one or two other places in the US. Turns out there are several of these scattered about the area, so look them up.

Hey! GO TO SANTA CRUZ! It’s a 3 hour drive. Big deal. More Central Coast awesomeness.

Oh wait. Did I tell you about the Sinaloan restaurant I ate at on the way up there? No? OK, another time.

Follow me on Instagram for all the food-porn @eatdrinkCA

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