Food & Drink

The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Santa Cruz's Food and Drink Scene

Published On 01/08/2016 Published On 01/08/2016
Paul Schraub/Jack O'Neil Lounge

You likely know of Santa Cruz thanks to its catchy (read: OMG GET THIS JINGLE OUT OF MY HEAD) commercials about its famous beach boardwalk. And sure -- the state’s oldest theme park right on the beach is worth a visit, but thanks to tech booming just over the hill and a bunch of craft breweries popping up, this sleepy surf-paradise-meets-college-town has way more to offer than a vintage roller coaster and arcade. In fact when we visited, we didn’t even smell the cotton candy. 

Santa Cruz is also the birthplace of mainland surfing and boasts 20 miles of hiking trails among 10,800 acres of new- and old-growth redwoods. While there, you should totally surf and hike and walk through the country’s tallest wooden covered bridge and check out the seasonal monarch butterfly migration, but because we’re us -- and weekends are still only two days long -- we chose to focus on, well, the beer mostly. Here’s where you should eat and drink after you’re done zip-lining through redwoods.

Courtesy of Brew Cruz

Take a ride with the Brew Cruz

With more than 20 breweries and taprooms, there’s a lot to choose from in this Central Coast town. Take the guesswork out of it by boarding the Betty Jane, a tricked-out 1989 school-bus-turned-microbrew-tourmobile that takes you around town to a rotating crop of the best breweries and pubs, while former San Franciscan Annie Pautsch chauffeurs and dispenses her encyclopedic beer knowledge. The bus comes equipped with plush seating, hardwood floors, a sound system, and plenty of coolers for beers you bring -- or pick up along the way. Book a private Brew Cruz for eight to 15 of your friends or hop on one of the public tours and make some new ones.

Play around at Beer Thirty

It’s always beer thirty at this beer playground that serves up games and -- you guessed it -- 30 craft beers on tap from all over California. Bring your own food, play bags and ping-pong, drink beer, maybe never leave. But if you must, definitely buy a bottle or six from the massive fridge to enjoy at home.

Amy Copperman/Thrillist

Sample some brews at New Bohemia Brewing Company

The newest brewery to land on the scene is just a short walk from the best surfing (Pleasure Point area) in the whole town -- and maybe the state. Founded by UC Santa Cruz alums, New Bohemia (NuBo as locals call it) specializes in German and Czech lagers with porters, ales, stouts, and India pale ales. Head upstairs to get a bird’s-eye view of the brewing operation and enjoy beers on the balcony. 

Amy Copperman/Thrillist

​Ignore your lactose intolerance at The Penny Ice Creamery

This charming ice cream parlor serves up the best ice cream we’ve ever tasted (yep, it could be better than Bi-Rite) thanks to its small batches made from scratch with ingredients from local farms. The original location is Downtown, but you should head to its sister spot, just a few blocks from Pleasure Point where you can enjoy a cone while watching surfers from atop a rugged cliff. 

Courtesy of Assembly

​Get fed by Assembly + Pop Up

From the folks that brought you The Penny Ice Creamery, comes this very San Francisco “conceptual eatery,” featuring a restaurant serving rustic California cuisine and a pop-up space that plays host to rising Bay Area chefs (who will rotate in and out), bringing with them whole new menus every eight weeks.

Courtesy of Verve Coffee

Get a much-needed pick-me-up from Verve Coffee

This Santa Cruz roastery ranked in the top three in our definitive, expert-tested list of the Bay’s best roasters and one of the judges called the Downtown location one of the most beautiful coffee bars in the entire Bay Area. Thanks to the tall ceilings, hanging Edison bulbs, and huge windows that encircle the whole place, we couldn’t agree more... so we’ll ignore the fact that Santa Cruz is just barely part of the Bay. 

Amy Copperman/Thrillist

Balance out your caffeine jitters at Discretion Brewing

The first you thing you need to know about this industrial brewery -- located essentially in a business park -- is that flights of beers come in cupcake tins. So, yeah, get that. The second thing you need to know is that the beer is fantastic, especially the incredibly thyme-y saison and super-malty Uncle Dave’s rye IPA. And the third thing you need to know is that the food is damn good too (get the pork belly slider snack), which you should enjoy in the gazebo-covered garden. 
 

​Keep it going with a stop at Lupulo

If you’re sticking with just the walkable Downtown area, Lupulo’s taproom is a must, featuring 16 rotating beers on tap from local breweries. In addition it's got more than a hundred bottles of beer you can enjoy on site or take home to your beer-loving friends and family. The tapas-style menu is also perfect for groups/people who are only kind of hungry and are more into drinking. 

Amy Copperman/Thrillist

​It's 5:15 somewhere. Like at 515 Kitchen & Cocktails.

Literally. The clock is stuck at 5:15 at this funky cocktail lounge/restaurant that serves up a killer Bloody Mary. It’s a fun nightlife or date spot, but we headed here for brunch. Post up at the cozy, curved bar or out on the balcony to catch some rays. 
 

​Switch to whiskey and hit The Red Room

If you’re beered out, head to the gothic Red Room, which is essentially Santa Cruz’s living room. As the name suggests, a red light casts a warm glow on the extensive liquor options, including an array of 100 different whiskeys. Enjoy them on the Victorian couches in front of a roaring fire. Oddly cool -- Red Room's carpeted, den-like lounge turns into a massive dance party late at night, because... college. 

The Crepe Place

​Even out your blood-sugar levels at The Crepe Place

While you can certainly get a crepe at this beloved eclectic spot that’s been in business in one form or another since 1973, you’re really coming here for the live music, cocktails, and late-night eats -- all of which can be enjoyed in the funky garden.
 

​Do the tourist thing at the Jack O’Neill Lounge

If you’re looking to get touristy but still remain boozy, head to this lounge/surfing museum, located in the Dream Hotel and overlooking Cowell Beach and the Santa Cruz Wharf. The bar is dedicated to wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill and features surfboards on the ceiling and personal memorabilia from the famous surfer’s life.  
 

​End your night at the Dream Inn or Hotel Paradox

Though Santa Cruz is close enough for a day trip from San Francisco, with all the Brew Cruzing you’re doing, you definitely don’t want to get back on winding HWY 17. The Dream Inn offers views and luxury, but for those traveling on a slightly tighter budget or with an entire bus of beered-up friends, the mid-range Hotel Paradox is your best bet. It’s the kind of place you book with your lacrosse team or wedding party to enjoy a hotel party while you dine on a stoner-friendly menu in the hotel bar or pool lounge. This boutique hotel has just enough amenities to feel taken care of (there’s an outdoor pool and hot tub and the rooms are huge with killer showers), while not being so fancy that you feel too embarrassed when you’re caught going for a late-night swim... not that we would suggest that or anything. 

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Amy Copperman is a regular Thrillist contributor who still has that damn jingle in her head. Catch her travels on Instagram and Twitter.

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1. Beer Thirty Bottle Shop and Pour House 2504 S Main St, Soquel, CA 95073

Bring your own food, play ping-pong and cornhole, and choose from one of thirty rotating beers on tap or one of the 350+ bottles at this Santa Cruz beer playground.

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2. New Bohemia Brewing Co. 1030 41st Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062

This European-style brewery is in a gorgeous standalone two-story building in Pleasure Point. “NuBo” is totally committed to sustainability, so much so that their building is totally solar powered. They specialize in craft lagers -- the copper colored Vienna-style Velvet Revolution has a sweet foamy head and crisp citrusy finish, and pair well with their impressive charcuterie platters.

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3. The Penny Ice Creamery 913 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Penny dubs itself as “the only ice cream shop in Santa Cruz making small batches of ice cream completely from scratch in house.” That extra love comes through in classic flavors like Tahitian Vanilla and even more so in special flavors like Earl Grey, Vegan Chocolate Sorbet, and Whiskey Custard. Important: you MUST get the Toasted Marshmallow Fluff topping. It’s as amazing as it sounds.

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4. Assembly 1108 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

From the team behind The Penny Ice Creamery, comes Assembly. Serving up rustic, California eats, Assembly brings in different up and coming Bay Area chefs, creating different seasonal menus every eight weeks.

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5. Verve Coffee Roasters 1540 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95060

While you can find Verve Coffee throughout California, the popular roastery was born and bred in Santa Cruz. Stopping off at Verve is a must for any shopping trip up Pacific Ave. There’s just something different about a Verve cappuccino straight from the OG source, and the gluten free pastries are killer. Verve is committed to Fair Trade coffee and they’re thoroughly woven into the fabric of Santa Cruz culture.

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6. Discretion Brewing 2703 41st Ave Ste A, Soquel, CA 95073

Grab a sampler of Discretion's beer -- it comes in a cupcake tin! -- and enjoy great food in the gazebo covered garden at Discretion Brewery. We suggest trying the malty Uncle Dave's Rye IPA with a pork belly slide snack. You can thank us later.

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7. LĂşpulo Craft Beer House 233 Cathcart St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

With 16 constantly rotating taps and over 100 bottles, LĂşpulo is your Santa Cruz destination for craft beer. Plus, so you won't go hungry, they offer up some great Spanish and Mexican-esque bar snacks.

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8. 515 Kitchen & Cocktails 515 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

515 doesn’t discriminate. Whether it’s happy hour, an intimate dinner, Bloody Mary brunch, or late night drinks with a chilled out DJ, 515 can morph to fit your desires. The cocktails are fancy but approachable, and the draft beer selection is on point. Before you order pastas or chops, start with the truffled rosemary fries with an indulgent pool of garlicky aioli for dipping.

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9. The Red Room 1003 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Lit with a red glow from the bar, The Red Room serves up specialty cocktails in its gothic living room setting. Those same couches are moved out later in the night to make way for your stellar dance moves.

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10. The Crepe Place 1134 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 95062

Don't be fooled by the name: this isn't your grandma's creperie. Complete with a full bar and occasional live entertainment. Enjoy your crepes late into the night with a handcrafted cocktail or beer on the side.

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11. Jack O'Neill Lounge 175 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Overlooking Santa Cruz Beach (and its boardwalk), you’ll be hard pressed to find a more beautiful backdrop than what you see through Jack O’Neill’s windowed walls facing the sea. Attached to the JDV-operated Dream Inn, it’s a killer spot for a picturesque weekend brunch or a sunset happy hour. There’s also a beachy all-day menu with everything from Chowder to fish n’ chips.

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12. Santa Cruz Dream Inn 175 W Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

This retro-chic beach side hotel is a quick walk to the Santa Cruz Warf and Boardwalk, and offers amenities like a crystal clear pool and fun hotel lounge.

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13. Hotel Paradox 611 Ocean Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

If you're traveling on a tighter budget or with a large group, Hotel Paradox is for you. Complete with an outdoor pool and hot tub, the hotel offers huge rooms and a great menu to satisfy any and all cravings at the hotel bar and pool lounge.

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