This weekend I have been in Santa Cruz for a family wedding, before leaving I emailed some friends who have vacation homes in the area for suggestions and I did a minimal amount of research online but I wasn’t able to do as much as I might usually have done before visiting a new town as I also had to prepare for the TechCrunch/August Capital party Friday evening and figure out how to get from that party to my family in Santa Cruz.
Being a foodie I sought out great meals & shops while I have been in the Santa Cruz area, this post is my report on the best of my finds. I’m sure there are plenty of other great hidden gems I should try on a return visit – please leave suggestions in the comments and I am definitely going to be trying to come back again in the future, i’ve really enjoyed this my first visit to Santa Cruz and am just sorry I had so little time (and still haven’t managed to get into the water since I moved to California now 3 1/2 years ago!)
Best Dinner especially for large groups in Santa Cruz:
Saturday evening I was in downtown Santa Cruz my parents, aunt and assorted cousins were all going to meet me somewhere for dinner a few hours later, all in all we were 9 adults looking for a great meal with just a few hours notice on a Satuday night.
I had scouted downtown Santa Cruz and hadn’t found any place I liked, so I searched a bit further and found The Cellar Door Cafe at Bonny Doon Vineyard. I called and though they were sold out of the Prix Fix menu for the evening they were able to accomodate us at 8:00pm. I made the reservation, passed along the address to my relatives and made my way there via the Santa Cruz bus line from downtown. I also noted that both the vineyard/cafe & Randall Grahm the winemaker are on Twitter.
As it turned out the meal at The Cellar Door was exceptional in all respects. The perfect space & table for party of 9 people, amazing food, fantastic & varied wines and truly exceptional service. Oh and a real bargain as well.
I should have taken photos, every dish we ordered was a work of art – presented beautifully – and each dish was eaten down to bare plates quickly.
As I perhaps too often do, I did all of the ordering for the group, ordering most of the menu, starting with multiple orders of the small “snacks” – house cured olives, boccarones (white anchovies), fingerling potatoes in an exceptional aoili. The boccarones were so exception I quickly ordered us a third plate.
For the rest of the meal I ordered at least one of almost every dish on the main menu, leaving out what I’m sure were a great salad and a dish which included a fried farm egg (as sharing those would have been hard). We enjoyed every single dish – each was unique, expertly prepared and truly memorable. My favorite dish was the hallibut which I had almost not ordered, the tri-tip was another winner, but so too were the baked goat cheese crustinis, the smoked mackeral, the light but excellent pizza, the german style housemade pork sausage over spatzle and everything else.
For dessert we had two orders of the cornbread with a sauce of red wine soaked blueberries – sweet but not too sweat with bursts of flavor and sweetness both from the blueberries as well as the few whole kernals of yellow corn in the coarsely ground cornmeal of the cornbread.
And then we shared a double order of the cheese plate featuring three excellent cheeses – an Italian goat cheese, a local cheddar and Rogue Ale Blue Cheese accompanied by fantastic bread, apricots and golden raisins.
Over the course of the meal we shared three bottles of Bonny Doon’s wines – starting with a white then two reds, each were a suggestion of our waitress and matched up to each stage of our meal perfectly.
The table we were seated at was in an extended oval shape with partitions styled as a wine barrel surrounding us on three sides, most of were seated along a curved bench which wrapped around most of the oval table. The result was a table that allowed for easy sharing of dishes amongst all nine of us, while also making it easy for everyone to see and talk to everyone else at the table – with the high surrounding walls also providing privacy and quiet.
in the end with a generous tip & tax our bill for nine people was $340.
So as I said initially – both an amazing meal, great space & drinks and a bargain. Highly, highly recommended.
Bonny Doon Vineyard Tasting Room & The Cellar Door Cafe is located at 328 Ingalls St, Santa Cruz CA. They are open Wed-Sun, serve dinner only Wed-Thur (though the tasting room is open in the afternoon) but serve food all afternoon Fri-Sun starting at noon. For dinner I’d suggest a reservation especially for a larger group – call the cafe at 831.425.6771.
Best Coffee (and tea) in Santa Cruz
If you are a regular reader of this blog you know I am a serious coffee person. After exploring downtown Santa Cruz fairly extensively I found a few cafes and stores of note, though there are a few others I need to try on a future visit.
Lulu Carpenters (2 locations just blocks apart)
In the course of a long day spent in downtown Santa Cruz I stopped into Lulu Carpenter’s twice. First I had a fantastic cappucino at Lulu’s at the Octogon in the early afternoon, then I researched dinner options over another fantastic cappucino at their Pacific Ave location. At both locations I really enjoyed the seriousness and skill with which they made their coffee and the care which showed in how they roasted their beans. The Octogon Room location specializes in single orgin coffee and has some truly amazing coffees (as well as some of the best equipment of any cafe anywhere in the US). This is serious coffee and I really enjoyed myself at both locations. If I had had my laptop I would have gladly worked all afternoon from either location – as many other people at both were doing each time I passed by. I take my coffee seriously – Lule Carpenter’s is good enough that if I were to spend more time in Santa Cruz, I know I ould be a regular.
Santa Cruz Roasing Company
Before I found Lulu’s I stopped by Santa Cruz Roasting Company to pick up whole beans for my parents to enjoy good coffee as they have a lifelong habit of making a pot of coffee every morning. I was impressed by the wide selection of well blended beans including a large selection of organic, fair trade beans – both single origin and nicely balanced blends. All for reasonable prices with friendly service. I had a single cup of one blend and picked up a small amont of fresh beans for our rental. The service was friendly, the space spacious and were Lulu’s not right up the street I’m sure I’d be a regular – and I probably would still frequent Santa Cruz Roasting on a regular basis. At a farmer’s market we went to on Sunday I had a single cup of freshly made coffee which was a blend from Santa Cruz Roasting and it was a great cup of coffee, especially while shopping the farmer’s market.
Chaikhana Tea Culture – 317 Cedar St Santa Cruz (831) 423-4200 (no website but the owner mentioned that they are launching one very soon).
While I am a serious coffee drinker (though unlike my parents I rarely drink coffee in the morning or make it at home) I am also a very serious tea drinker and fan. I have an extensive collection of teas on home – literally dozens including what are now I’m sure extremely aged Pur’h teas – bricks I bought nearly 15 years ago and haven’t yet prepared). I have blends of teas I treasure and which have intense personal meaning.
For one, a blend which was the blend I shared with my most serious girlfriend of the past on our very first date, which was at a tea shop in Chicago – we shared a high tea, a pot of tea, then moved to a table outside and had a second pot of melon tea which the owner recommended to us. A date which moves onto a second pot of tea is, I think, a very good one – certainly worked out well for me.
But I am not a collector or a serious fan of Pur’h teas but my friend who lives in Santa Cruz had insisted that I stop by Chaikhana. So as I walked towards the boardwalk, I stopped in and ended up spending nearly an hour browsing the small but packed store, smelling teas, and sampling teas which were being poured by David the owner – mostly for the benefit of the other, even more serious tea fans who were also in the store at the same time, but I was happy to try the teas myself as well. I ended up buying a 2009 green tea from China, a premium grade Yellow Tea (also from China and a type of tea I’ve never previously seen – even in my many visits to world class tea shops across the country) and also bought a few other smaller items to try.
Chaikhana is a store which if you are a tea drinker could rapidly become a mecca, I picked up their old catalog, but am looking forward to the website launch. Even if you are not a tea drinker, if you are in Santa Cruz, give yourself some time to stop in and explore, smell a few teas, taste othes and most likely you will walk out with some teas and a great experience. You can spend as much or as little as you want to spend at Chaikhana – I spent $14 on an oz each of two different teas as well as few balls of black tea to try but he also has some aged teas which are $100’s of dollars an oz which he has collected from frequent trips to China and purchases of private collections.
Best BBQ – better even than my last trip to Austin TX!
After the wedding and reception we returned to our rental cottage and my mom, aunt and I took an extended walk up the beach here in Aptos for a bit. On returning to our cottage I was a bit hungry but my parenta and aunt weren’t up for going out to a restaurant. Instaed I suggested that we find a nearby restaurant and just pick up something. I looked at the collection of menus provided to us by the owners of the cottage (if you can call a 2 level, 3 bedroom house a cottage) and one in particular stood out.
It was the phrase “real smoked BBQ”
I was hooked.
We called, they were open, we called back and placed an order to pick up.
Where? Aptos St BBQ at 8059 Aptos St in Aptos Village.
This is serious, slow smoked, prepared with skill, care and attention to detail BBQ. I suggested it because I was hungry – my parents & aunt were not – they ended up eating nearly 2/3’s of the order – which was only a single full slab of ribs. The ribs were better than any I have had in years – perhaps the best I’ve ever had – so good I’m quite seriously seeing when I can come back to get the ribs – and to try the rest of their menu.
They slow smoke their ribs – no grills, no broilers (certainly no boiling) just slow steady smoke over many hours. The result is amazing flavor – meat candy for a BBQ lover like myself.
Years ago I made an observation – which Aptos St BBQ lived up to – you can tell a great BBQ place by their coleslaw. I’m sure there is an exception somewhere – perhaps a BBQ place that doesn’t serve any coleslaw – but it is a simple dish that many places get wrong (if they don’t make it themselves but instead order it in bulk – they clearly cut corners and you have to wonder what corners they cut with your meat).
But if they make a great coleslaw, which Aptos St BBQ does, then it means that they care enough about the smallest details of the food they sell to do so. Coleslaw isn’t why I choose a BBQ place – but when it is great I’ve rarely had bad BBQ.
Unfortunately Aptos St BBQ is closed on Mondays – otherwise I would insist that we stop there on the way out of town and pick up a slab (or two) for my dinners in the week to come. I suspect my next visit to Aptos I will place a large order on Sunday night just to have leftevers to enjoy back in San Francisco.
So those are a few of the great finds I found in my time in Santa Cruz. I’m certain I iwll be back – though when I don’t know. Please leve comments if you know of places I should try on a future visit.
I will try to update this post with photos & more URL’s.