Santa Cruz may have a beachy hippie vibe, but that’s what makes downtown so appealing. Where else can you admire world-class murals depicting marine pollution, relax in a hand-picked bookshop with biodynamic wines, or swing in a “hammock cafe” serving ancient elixirs?
I drove downtown on a sunny weekend to see what was going on. First stop: Abbott Square Market, once the county jail and now a busy food hall with outdoor seating and live music. Vendors change occasionally, but right now there’s a Third Wave cafe, a Neapolitan pizzeria, a sushi place, a grill with stacked burgers, two bars for beer and cocktails… and so many other things I kind of lose track of.
I order West African veggie tacos from Veg on the Edge — gotta obey that crunchy Santa Cruz vibe — and a pear and goat chevre from Central Coast Creamery, which also serves gooey grilled cheese.
One taco has suya-style mushrooms, a seasoned street meat traditionally grilled over charcoal, while the other is loaded with jackfruit, kale, beans and rice. It’s ideal for hungry surfers who have spent the morning catching waves at Steamer Lane. The gelato is tangy with hints of honey and farmhouse funky, not unlike licking a goat (in a good way). On the patio, a modern country band plays slide guitar and cello while a roaming herd of customer puppies add upbeat singing to the music.
The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, located just upstairs, features an exhibit on the “history of forced migration, industrialization, global capitalism, and the traumas to people and the contemporary landscape.” Admission is $8 to $10.
But free art can be found in the streets. Last fall, muralists working with 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 have scattered across the city are beautiful yet menacing as they hint at deep troubles in the world’s oceans.
You can see half of the Sea Walls murals just by walking downtown. They deal with issues such as climate change, species extinction, plastic pollution and involvement by whales. A startling play called “The Last Salmon” features a businessman dining on a piece of coho while neck-deep in water, a double whammy against overfishing and rising sea levels. North Carolina artist JEKS writes, “Unfortunately, that’s the path we’re headed toward with no real change.”
Contemporary art fans should check out nearby Curated by the Sea, a new gallery that highlights Santa Cruz’s natural beauty and creative culture. At the moment there are fascinating works of art made from upcycled materials, including skateboard parts, street signs and broken grills. A boat cobbled together from random materials hangs in the air and is detailed enough to have graffiti and tiny people inside – while furniture made from repurposed screwdrivers, scissors and drill bits looks like it’s being held together by Magneto.
Downtown’s laid-back vibe extends to retail outlets that invite you to linger until the end of time. The Roxa Hammock Cafe prepares elixirs “based on the ancient philosophies of alchemy” with ingredients like chlorophyll, guarana, cordyceps mushrooms and muira puama, an Amazonian aphrodisiac. You can shut one down, then jump into one of more than a dozen hanging hammocks and pray you don’t get it to stimulated.
At the Hidden Peak Teahouse, customers can purchase tea sets, then drink fermented pu-erh and play chess on the terrace. And Flower Bar is just that: a bar that exists inside a full-service flower studio.
A wonderful realization of this hybrid shopping-imbibing model is Bad Animal, a bookstore and wine bar that opened in 2019. Why this special combination? “For us, the marriage of books and wine is more of a naturally good time than a concept. That’s the short answer,” says Jess LoPrete, who co-owns the company with Andrew Sivak.
“The longer version is that we envisioned a Dionysian bookstore experience rather than an Apollonian one – a bookstore devoted to reading as a pure pleasure, a source of ecstasy and revelation, rather than reading as a means of explanation, a means of enhancing efficiency and for improvement.” (Ergo, you’ll notice that there isn’t a self-help section, but there is a disco ball.)
The shop’s collection of over 11,000 volumes has been carefully hand-selected and includes first editions and autographs. Expect the books to lean toward “wild, radical, design-forward, and avant-garde” and delve into California culture and the occult, says LoPrete.
The wine list typically features natural wines from small wineries in California and Europe. There are also small plates and handmade pastas from chef Katherine Stern, whose food stand The Midway has become a sensation at farmers’ markets. I sip a coral-colored Paso Robles “Orango Tango” and wonder how soon I’ll have to “book” it if I spill my drink on the store’s antiques, which can cost up to $40,000.
Being a beach town, what better place for dinner than Barceloneta, whose dishes pay tribute Chiringuitos (beach bars) on the Spanish Costa Brava. It is the second Spanish restaurant of wife-husband team Elan and Brett Emerson, formerly Contigo in San Francisco.
“We are deeply committed buyers and supporters of farmers markets. Our menu showcases the seasonal ingredients of Santa Cruz and the Bay Area with a perfect overlay of Spanish ingredients,” says Elan.
The couple closed during COVID to focus on takeout and feeding wildfire survivors. Now they are back in action – the shop is full and the sun has yet to fall. Little touches of Spain are discernible in fish-shaped watercraft and clothing-optional beach artwork. There is an all Spanish wine list and a selection of sherries and vermouths poured over ice and garnished with oranges and green olives.
First things first: get the clams. I order an extra helping of bread to soak up the sauce, which is so salty and peppered with sherry and serrano ham. Not having European time, I couldn’t wait 30-40 minutes for the paella — although it’s fascinating to add squid ink for a few bucks more — but I hit another stunner with the smoked salmon montaditos (open sandwiches) with labneh and black truffle honey. Also filling in a classic way are the boquerones with homemade potato chips and churros with hot motor oil thick chocolate.
I can’t try one of the most popular items, an “Ibiza hippie salad”. This is an “iconic salad,” explains Elan, that “has the festive flavor of a Burmese tea leaf salad mixed with the granola health vibe our beachgoers love.” It’s an unexpected addition to a Spanish restaurant. But on the other hand, Santa Cruz is far away from Spain.
when you go
Abbott Square Market: The place is open from 8 am to 11 pm (vendor hours may vary) at 725 Front St. in Santa Cruz; abbottsquaremarket.com.
Curated by the Sea: Open from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; Sunday-Wednesday by appointment. 703 Front Street, Santa Cruz; curatedbythesea.com
Map of the “Sea Walls” murals: For a map of Santa Cruz murals, see https://seawalls.org.
bad animal: Open noon to 9 p.m. (bar and restaurant open at 5 p.m.) Wednesday through Sunday at 1011 Cedar St., Santa Cruz; www.badanimalbooks.com.
Barcelona: Open 5:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 1541 B Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; eatbarceloneta.com.