Ah, Santa Cruz. If you’re not from here, you’re likely vaguely familiar with major tourist attractions — see: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. If you’re a local, odds are you are extremely passionate about your roots (and probably have bumper stickers proclaiming that fact).
We find ourselves going on and on about everything that makes Santa Cruz unlike any other place on earth, and the food is absolutely no exception. From authentic Mexican food to fresh and healthy smoothie bowls that can only be described as “bomb,” Santa Cruz is a mecca of California cuisine.
Join us as we give you an exclusive tour through the 50 best things to eat while visiting the OG surf city USA. We promise you will not be disappointed, but you might get really hungry.
1. Tacos from Los Gallos Taqueria
Crispy, juicy, and bursting with savory flavor, carnitas is their most sought-after meat, but try any of their tacos, burritos, or combo meals for an authentic and delicious Mexican food experience. Plus, the people who work there are super friendly. Win-win.
2. Waffles from Silver Spur
Have you ever been physically attracted to a waffle? It’s okay if the answer is yes. Waffles from the Silver Spur Cafe are not only gorgeous and Insta-worthy, but they are crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and piled high with fresh fruit, whipped cream, and almonds. So pretty you’ll wanna bring it home to momma.
3. Acai Bowl from Cafe Brasil
Speaking of attractive breakfasts, have you met the acai bowl? Cafe Brasil does this (increasingly basic) creation extremely well. Literally overflowing with strawberries, bananas, and sweet, crunchy granola, it can be difficult to even figure out where to dig your spoon in — and honestly, it’s so pretty we almost don’t want to.
4. Slice and T-Shirt from Pizza My Heart
It may be a sort-of chain restaurant, but the SC locations of Pizza My Heart embody the spirit of the surf city — with surfboards hanging from the ceiling, friendly, laid-back staff behind the counter, and $7 commemorative T-shirt and slice combos, what’s not to love?
5. Basic Betty with Sweet Potato Fries from Betty’s Burgers
Another sort-of local chain, Betty’s Burgers are well-loved for a reason. The burgers are to die for, and you can order them with a mountain of crispy or sweet potato fries (or a mix of both), and their signature secret “lube.” Risqué? Maybe. But oh, so yummy.
6. BBQ Beef from Jia Tella’s Cambodian Cuisine
Is there anything better than delicious, smoky, sweet barbecue? Specializing in Cambodian cuisine with a twist, Jia Tella’s in Scotts Valley gives you just that. Their BBQ beef is tops but you can’t go wrong with anything on their menu. See: Any of their shish kabobs.
7. Roll of the Day from Akira
West Coast best coast for so many reasons, obviously. One of these reasons is our fresh fish and our consequently amazing sushi. Not only does Akira deliver on taste (just trust the chef’s recommendation; you will not regret doing so), but their aesthetic is so on point.
8. Hot Chocolate from Chocolate
We tried to decide which hot chocolate to recommend on this list, be it the Frida, a dark Mexican hot cocoa with a spicy kick, the Belga, a rich hazelnut cocoa that tastes like liquid Nutella, or even the Sofia kettle, which is basically a huge 22-oz. pot of melted chocolate to “share” with your “friends” (ha yeah oookay), but we got distracted. And thirsty. Just try them all.
9. Cake from The Buttery
If you’re ready and willing to slip into the most satisfying sugar coma of your life, order a cake from Santa Cruz’s premier hotspot for birthday cakes. We recommend their Favorite Chocolate Cake, which consists of layers of dense and fudgy chocolate cake covered in a blanket of rich ganache. Sorry, are we drooling?
10. Bowl of Soul from Verve Coffee Roasters
Head to Verve Coffee Roasters to see a very particular culture in Santa Cruz − the coffee shop hipsters. It can be a little intimidating going into a coffee shop that’s not Starbucks, we know, but here’s a little tip: Order the Bowl of Soul. It comes in a cup, more like a bowl as big as your face, dusted with cinnamon and nutmeg, and it tastes like a warm hug. Paired with a monster-sized cookie… Nothin’ better.
11. Tacos from the Taco Bar at El Palomar
Between the hours of 5 and 9 pm Monday through Thursday, enjoy $3 tacos, $4 burritos and $3 select beers at El Palomar’s taco bar. The ladies behind the counter are magicians; they somehow crank out some of the most delicious and authentic tacos at lightening speeds for hungry crowds of people and still manage to be pleasant. How? They’re surrounded by tacos all the time, that’s our only possible explanation.
12. Cali Bene from Harbor Cafe
If eggs Benedict and a California club had a baby, this masterpiece would be the result. Instead of the classic English muffin and Canadian bacon, this version sits atop an open-faced croissant and features regular bacon and avocado. And at a restaurant with killer Bloody Marys and dog-friendly outdoor dining, how Californian can you get?
13. Little Dan’s Delight from Charlie Hong Kong
Charlie Hong Kong is such a local favorite, we were almost scared to not put this spot on the list for fear of revolt. And rightly so; with Asian-inspired rice and noodle bowls in a quirky setting and the majority of their options being vegan (gluten-free by request) and still bursting with flavor, it’s a wonder you can ever find a seat. The Little Dan’s Delight is our go-to bowl with wheat noodles, veggies, organic peanut sauce, and organic peanuts all for $5 and change.
14. Cheeseburger Basket from Jack’s Hamburgers
No fancy sauces, no weird ramen buns, no truffle oil fries with shaved parmesan. Just a classic, no BS burger and side of fries. Perfection.
15. Souvlaki Plate from Vasili’s
Vasili’s offers a wide variety of authentic and delicious Greek cuisine and they give you monster portions. You won’t leave hungry — you will leave with leftovers.
16. Cinnamon Roll from Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe
#SpoonTip: If you’re in town, and you want to go to Linda’s for breakfast, which you do, get there early because there is always a line out the door for this well-loved cafe. One of the reasons for this extreme popularity is the cinnamon roll that comes with many of their basic breakfasts. Sticky and sweet, and just ever so slightly warm, it’s the perfect start to your morning.
17. Saltwater Taffy from Marini’s
Real talk, you can’t come to Santa Cruz and not get Marini’s Saltwater Taffy. It might as well be an official rule. They come in pre-packaged bags if you’re in too much of a hurry to choose your own combination from their plethora of flavors. And the Boardwalk location has a window into which you can peep to view the taffy-pulling process. Just don’t lose track of time and get caught in that hypnotic taffy vortex.
18. Ice Cream with Toasted Marshmallow Fluff from The Penny Ice Creamery
The Penny Ice Creamery is known for its unique, gourmet ice cream flavors and perfect atmosphere for snapping a quick pic of your cone before you devour it. You can taste ice cream until your heart’s content and finally decide on a flavor, but once you do, be sure to ask them to top it with their marshmallow fluff, which they then torch to toasty perfection — all reminiscent of childhood, summer, and camping.
19. Clam Chowder Bread Bowl from Stagnaro Bros
You can’t visit a California wharf and not get a bread bowl of clam chowder. Stagnaro Bros is a long-time local favorite, and its New England chowder is as iconic as the wharf itself.
20. Cioppino from Phil’s Fish Market
Phil’s of Moss Landing always has a line out the door. Fight your way through the crowd, grab a bowl of their tasty cioppino, and eat it with of view of the sea lions.
21. Jungle Tofu Bowl from Hula’s Island Grill and Tiki Room
Stop at Hula’s for a fun island atmosphere and a stellar selection of allergen-friendly foods. Their Jungle Tofu Bowl is not only colorful, it’s also gluten and dairy free and vegan.
22. Loco Moco from Aloha Island Grille
We have no idea what a normal “moco” is, or what exactly makes it “loco,” but if it comes topped with fried eggs and smothered in gravy, we don’t wanna be “normal” anyway.
23. Funnel Cake from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Overpriced? Of course. Low calorie? We don’t even wanna go there. But ohh, so very worth it.
24. Fruit Tart from the Farm Bakery & Cafe
Buttery tart shells cradle sweet custard filling and layers of fresh, perfectly placed fruit. The fruit tarts from The Farm are just as much of a work of art as the items in their gift shop.
25. Pizza from Kianti’s Pizza and Pasta Bar
The dough-tossers behind the counter at Kianti’s are true athletes. Watch them flip pizzas with acrobatic ease as you people-watch downtown and enjoy any of their scrumptious, customizable pies.
26. Pretzel Board from The Cremer House
The Cremer House is a trendy new restaurant and alehouse with an old soul. The building itself has been around since 1874, the oldest building in downtown Felton, but was established as an eatery only a few years ago. Super hipster setting, very good beer, excellent pretzel board.
27. Pulled Pork Fries from The Cowboy Bar and Grill
Sweet, juicy pulled pork, a spicy kick from a jalapeño glaze, and gooey melty cheese atop a mountain of fries. What more could you want?
28. Poke Bowl from Pono Hawaiian Grill
This tropical bar and grill features live music, island decor, and a variety of poke bowls, all made to order.
29. Macarons from Kelly’s French Bakery
Everything from Kelly’s is excellent, but their macarons are something entirely next level. Light, slightly chewy meringue is filled with various flavors of sweet, fluffy whipped cream filling, and some even have fresh fruit. Grab one of every color and be prepared to taste the rainbow.
30. Classic Hot Pastrami from Surf City Sandwich
With a name like Surf Cit” and a slogan like “stoked on sandwiches,” this place screams Santa Cruz. Grab their Classic Hot Pastrami with brisket and melted Swiss piled high on thick-cut marble rye and drive 5 minutes down the street to watch the surf roll in.
31. Boba Tea from Pacific Thai
Pacific Thai is a hole-in-the-wall gem in the heart of downtown SC that you could easily pass if you’re not looking for it. You will not want to miss this place, however, for the boba. Bonus local points if you have a punch card.
32. Pink Flamingo from The Bagelry
Ever want a bagel with cream cheese and lox, but the lox keeps sliding off the cream cheese and it’s too difficult to get it all in one cohesive bite? The Pink Flamingo spread fixes this issue by blending lox and dill right into the cream cheese. Genius.
33. Gorgonzola and Spinach Shells and Garlic Bread from Gayle’s Bakery and Rosticceria
Confession time: It took us way too long to pick something from Gayle’s to put on this list. You can’t go wrong with any of their cute, delectable pastries, their fresh baked bread, or their hot lunch items, but the gorgonzola shells and the garlic bread are all time favorites, so you can start there.
34. Berry Pie from Gizdich Ranch
While not technically in Santa Cruz, we had to include Gizdich Ranch in this lineup for its fresh berry pie. Berries are picked and pies are baked all on site — talk about farm to table.
35. Duck Fat Popcorn from West End Tap & Kitchen
Like regular popcorn, but ~fancy~. Pair it with a nice cold pint of brew for a perfect start to your meal.
36. Beer from Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House
Speaking of brew… Head to Beer Thirty for a unique, dog-friendly, backyard-esque atmosphere and 30 different quality beers and ciders on tap.
37. Meat Combo from Aptos St. BBQ
Pick yo meat, pick yo side, pick yo teeth when you’re done because you’ll probably need to.
38. Insalata Caprese from Lillian’s Italian Kitchen
Authentic Italian food in an intimate setting makes for a perfect date spot. Impress said date by ordering this classy appetizer with creamy burrata, tomatoes, and basil (bonus — it won’t fill you up before your meal even gets to the table).
39. Belgian Waffle Dipped in French Toast Batter and Grilled from Mollie’s Country Cafe
If you think you’ve seen every waffle hack in the book, be prepared to think again. This little beauty is a Belgian waffle (already off to a great start), dipped in French toast batter and grilled on a flat top like a pancake. It’s like the three best breakfast foods had a beautiful, butter-filled baby.
40. Salsa and Guacamole from Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant
If you want a nice sit-down Mexican restaurant, look no further than Manuel’s in Aptos. And if you want to take their signature house salsa home to guzzle without judgement, you can buy as many jars as you desire, and we will look the other way.
41. Pineapple Fried Rice from Star of Siam
Fried rice? Good. Pineapple fried rice? Better. Pineapple fried rice served in a pineapple? Best.
42. French Toast with Grilled Bananas and Walnuts from Walnut Avenue Cafe
If you can manage to snag a table at this popular joint, be sure that someone in your party orders the French toast with bananas and walnuts. It’s fluffy, crunchy, sweet, and almost a little bit savory: It’s picture perfect.
43. Rotisserie Chicken from Cafe Cruz
Step inside Cafe Cruz and you can’t miss the massive rotisserie with about 20 whole chickens at a time slow-roasting to perfection. They have vegetarian and vegan menus available, but let’s be honest: That juicy bird looks damn irresistible.
44. Belushi Bacon Cheeseburger from Parish Publick House
Prepare yourself: This burger is insane. The beef patty is stuffed with cheese and bacon and then deep fried. The servers at Parish will direct you toward an AED next door, should your heart stop. Anyone will tell you it’s worth the risk. Honorable mention: Their mac and cheese bites.
45. Enchiladas from Tortilla Flats
We like enchiladas, and we love enchiladas when they’re swimming in sauce. Mosey on into Tortilla Flats for some comforting Mexican food and una selección grande de margaritas.
46. Pomegranate Eggplant from Laili
Another perfect date spot (but it’s also totally fine if you’re coming here with your mom), Laili’s Afghan Middle Eastern menu is a parade of dishes that will satisfy your sophisticated palate as well as your need for quality aesthetics. Try the Pomegranate Eggplant for a hearty and gorgeous vegetarian option.
47. Chicken Pesto Sandwich from Zoccoli’s Delicatessen
Everyone in Santa Cruz knows that Zocc’s is a local staple, and it’s your best bet for quick Italian fare. Their spaghetti plates are not to be missed, but if you want a stellar sandwich experience, grab a massive Chicken Pesto. #SpoonTip: Ask for breaded chicken — you will not be disappointed.
48. Spaghetti Carbonara from Lago Di Como
If you’re in the mood for Italian and want more of a sit-down place, wander into Lago Di Como and order the Spaghetti Carbonara. It’s simple, elegant, and delicious, which is all you can ask for in traditional Italian food.
49. Tom Kha Soup from At Thai Recipe
Beware if you come here during lunch hour — there is always a line out the door for this authentic Thai restaurant, and the soup might be the culprit. Tom Kha Soup combines quintessential Thai ingredients like coconut milk, galangal, and lemongrass to give you a soup wholesome enough to be a meal.
50. Crab Sandwich from Riva Fish House
Last, but certainly not least, we have a classic dish from a classic Santa Cruz restaurant. Circled in red on their menu as a local favorite for a reason, it’s served open-faced on a sourdough roll with sweet crab and melty, gooey, bubbly cheese. Be sure as an appetizer you order a basket of fried zucchini to pregame, and try to get a window seat since this restaurant is right on the wharf.
So hop in your car, slap on a bumper sticker, and road trip it to Santa Cruz to eat your way through our beautiful ocean-side town. Clearly, you will not leave hungry.