Santa Cruz may have a beach-hippie vibe, but that’s what makes its downtown so magnetic. Where else can you admire world-class murals about ocean pollution, chill out at a hand-curated book store with biodynamic wines or swing at a “hammock cafe” serving ancient elixirs?
I headed downtown on a recent, sunny weekend to see what was popping. First stop: Abbott Square Market, once the county jail and now a bustling food hall with open-air seating and live music. The vendors change occasionally but right now there’s a Third Wave coffee shop, Neapolitan pizza joint, sushi place, a grill with stacked burgers, two bars for beer and cocktails… and so many other things, I kind of lose track.
I order West African vegetarian tacos from Veg on the Edge – need to obey that crunchy Santa Cruz vibe – and a pear-and-goat-chevre gelato from Central Coast Creamery, which also serves ooey-gooey grilled cheeses.
One taco has mushrooms prepared in the style of suya, a spiced street meat traditionally grilled over charcoal, while the other is loaded with jackfruit, kale, beans and rice. It’s ideal for hungry surfers who spent the morning riding waves at Steamer Lane. The gelato is tangy with a hint of honey and farmhouse funkiness not unlike licking a goat (in a good way). A modern-country band plays slide guitar and cello on the patio, while a roaming herd of customers’ pups adds joyous vocals to the music.
The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, located right upstairs, is showing an exhibit about the “history of forced migrations, industrialization, global capitalism and trauma on humans and the contemporary landscape,” and admission is $8-$10.
But free art can be found in the streets. Last fall, muralists working with the Hawaii-based PangeaSeed Foundation and Santa Cruz’s Made Fresh Crew staged what they call the “most significant urban beautification project” in local history. The 19 sea-inspired murals they splashed across town are gorgeous yet ominous, as they signal deep trouble in the world’s oceans.
You can see half the “Sea Walls” murals just by walking around downtown. They confront issues like climate change, species die-offs, plastics pollution and whale entanglement. One startling piece, called “The Last Salmon”, depicts a businessman dining on a piece of coho while neck-deep in water, a one-two punch on overfishing and rising sea levels. Writes the artist, North Carolina’s JEKS: “This is sadly the way we are headed without real change.”
Fans of contemporary art should head to nearby Curated by the Sea, a newish gallery that highlights the natural beauty and creative culture of Santa Cruz. Right now, there are fascinating artworks made from upcycled materials including skateboard parts, street signs and trashed barbecues. A boat cobbled together from random materials is suspended from the air and so detailed, it has graffiti and little people inside – while furniture made from repurposed screwdrivers, sheers and drills looks to be held together by Magneto.
Downtown’s laid-back feel extends to retail establishments that encourage you to lounge around until the end of time. Roxa Hammock Cafe prepares elixirs “based in the ancient philosophies of alchemy,” with ingredients like chlorophyl, guarana, cordyceps fungi and muira puama, an Amazonian aphrodisiac. You can down one then jump into one of a dozen-plus hanging hammocks and pray you don’t get too stimulated.
A wonderful execution of this hybrid shopping-imbibing model is Bad Animal, a bookstore and wine bar that opened in 2019. Why this particular combo? “For us, the marriage of books and wine is more a self-evidently good time than a concept. That’s the short answer,” says Jess LoPrete, who co-owns the business with Andrew Sivak.
“The longer version is we envisioned a Dionysian rather than an Apollian bookshop experience – a bookshop dedicated to reading as pure pleasure, a source of ecstasy and revelation, and not reading as a means of explanation, increased efficiency and improvement.” (Ergo, you’ll notice there is no self-help section but there is a disco ball.)
The shop’s collection of 11,000-plus volumes was all carefully selected by hand and includes first editions and signed copies. Expect the books to lean toward the “wild, radical, design-minded and avant-garde” with dabblings into California culture and the occult, says LoPrete.
The wine list typically features natural wines from small estates in California and Europe. There are also small plates and handmade pastas from chef Katherine Stern, whose food stall, The Midway, has become a sensation at farmers markets. I sip a coral-hued “Orango Tango” from Paso Robles and wonder how fast I’d have to “book it” if I spilled my drink on the shop’s antiquarian material, which can sell for up to $40,000.
This being a beach town there’s no better place to grab dinner than Barceloneta, whose dishes pay homage to the chiringuitos (beach bars) of Spain’s Costa Brava. It’s the second Spanish restaurant from wife-husband team Elan and Brett Emerson, formerly of San Francisco’s Contigo.
“We are deeply committed farmers-market shoppers and supporters. Our menu showcases the seasonal ingredients of Santa Cruz and the Bay Area with a perfect overlay of Spanish ingredients,” says Elan.
The couple shut down during COVID to focus on takeout and feeding wildfire survivors. Now they’re back in action in a major way – the joint is packed, and the sun has yet to fall. Little touches of Spain are evident in fish-shaped water vessels and artwork of clothing-optional beaches. There’s an all-Spanish wine menu and a selection of sherries and vermouths poured over ice and garnished with oranges and green olives.
First off: Get the clams. I order an extra serving of bread to soak up the sauce, so briny-rich and spiked with sherry and serrano ham. Not being on European time, I couldn’t wait 30-40 minutes for paella – though adding squid ink for an extra few bucks is intriguing – but hit another stunner with the smoked-salmon montaditos (open-faced sandwiches) with labneh and black-truffle honey. Also satisfying, in a classic way, are the boquerones with homemade potato chips and churros with motor-oil thick hot chocolate.
I don’t get to try one of the more popular items, an “Ibiza Hippie Salad.” This is a “cult salad,” explains Elan, that has the “festive touches of a Burmese tea-leaf salad mixed with the granola-health vibe our beachy guests adore.” It’s an unexpected addition to a Spanish restaurant. But then again, Santa Cruz is a long way from Spain.
If You Go
Abbott Square Market: The square is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. (vendors’ hours may vary) at 725 Front St. in Santa Cruz; abbottsquaremarket.com.
Curated by the Sea: Open from noon to 4 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; Sunday-Wednesday by appointment. 703 Front St., Santa Cruz; curatedbythesea.com
Map of “Sea Walls” murals: Find a map of Santa Cruz’s murals at https://seawalls.org.
Bad Animal: Open from noon to 9 p.m. (bar and restaurant open at 5 p.m.) Wednesday-Sunday at 1011 Cedar St., Santa Cruz; badanimalbooks.com.
Barceloneta: Open from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at 1541 B Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; eatbarceloneta.com.
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