Santa Cruz may have a beach hippie atmosphere, but that’s what makes its center so magnetic. Where else can you admire world-class murals on ocean pollution, relax in a hand-picked bookstore with biodynamic wines, or swing in a “hamock cafe” serving ancient elixirs?
I headed downtown on a recent, sunny weekend to see what was going on. First stop: Abbott Square Market, once a county jail, now a bustling food hall with outdoor seating and live music. Suppliers change from time to time, but at the moment there is the Third Wave cafe, Neapolitan pizza, sushi, barbecue with stacked burgers, two beer and cocktail bars … and much more, I’m kind of losing track.
I order West African vegetarian tacos from Veg on the Edge – one must respect that crunchy Santa Cruz vibe – and pear and goat gelato from Central Coast Creamery, which also serves ooey-gooey grilled cheeses.
One taco has mushrooms prepared in the style of suya, a spicy street meat traditionally baked on charcoal, while the other is full of jackfruit, kale, beans and rice. It is ideal for hungry surfers who have spent the morning riding the waves in Steamer Lane. Gelato is sharp with a hint of honey and village spirit, which is not unlike licking a goat (in a good way). A modern country band plays a sliding guitar and a cello on the terrace, while a wandering herd of customer puppies adds joyful vocals to the music.
The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, located right upstairs, displays an exhibition on “the history of forced migration, industrialization, global capitalism and trauma for people and the contemporary landscape,” and tickets are $ 8-10.
But free art can be found on the streets. Last fall, muralists who collaborated with the Hawaii-based PangeaSeed Foundation and Made Fresh Crew of Santa Cruz performed what they call “the most significant urban beautification project” in local history. The 19 sea-inspired murals that splashed the city are beautiful but sinister as they signal deep problems in the world’s oceans.
Half of the mural “Sea Walls” can be seen just walking downtown. They face problems such as climate change, species extinction, plastic pollution and whale entanglement. One stunning work, called “The Last Salmon,” depicts a businessman eating on a piece of koho while his neck is deep in the water, one or two punches with overfishing and rising sea levels. The artist, JEKS of North Carolina writes, “Unfortunately, this is the path we are taking without real change.”
Lovers of contemporary art should head to the nearby Curated by the Sea gallery, which highlights the natural beauty and creative culture of Santa Cruz. There are currently fascinating works of art made from recycled materials, including skateboard parts, street signs and ruined barbecues. A boat paved with random materials hangs from the air and is so detailed that it has graffiti and small people inside – while furniture made from repurposed screwdrivers, scissors and drills looks like Magneto is holding them together.
The relaxed feeling of the city center extends to retail facilities that encourage you to lie down until the end of time. Roxa Hammock Cafe prepares elixirs “based on ancient philosophies of alchemy”, with ingredients like chlorophyll, guarana, cordyceps and muira puama, an Amazon aphrodisiac. You can lower one and then jump into one of a dozen hanging loungers and pray you don’t get it also stimulated.
Hidden Peak Teahouse allows customers to buy tea sets, then sip fermented pu-erh and play chess on the terrace. And Flower Bar is just that: a bar that exists in a full-service flower studio.
A wonderful performance of this hybrid model for absorbing shopping is Bad Animal, a bookstore and wine bar that opened in 2019. Why this combination? “For us, the marriage of books and wine is more of a good time than a concept. That’s the short answer, “said Jess LoPrete, co-owner of the business with Andrew Sivak.
“The longer version is that we envisioned the Dionysian, not Apollonian, experience of a bookstore – a bookstore dedicated to reading as pure pleasure, a source of ecstasy and discovery, rather than reading as a means of explanation, increased efficiency and improvement.” (Ergo, you’ll notice there’s no self-help section, but there’s a disco ball.)
The store’s collection of over 11,000 volumes is carefully hand-picked and includes first editions and signed copies. Expect the books to be geared toward the “wild, radical, design, and avant-garde” with meddling in California culture and occultism, LoPrete says.
The wine list usually contains natural wines from small estates in California and Europe. There are also small plates and handmade pasta by chef Katherine Stern, whose food stall, The Midway, has become a sensation in agricultural markets. I sip a coral “Orango Tango” from Paso Robles and wonder how quickly I would have to “book” if I had spilled my drink on an antique store material, which can sell for up to $ 40,000.
Since this is a city on the beach, there is no better place for dinner than Barceloneta, whose dishes pay homage chiringuitos (beach bars) Spanish Costa Brava. It is the second Spanish restaurant of the team of husband-husband Elan and Brett Emerson, former Contigo of San Francisco.
“We are deeply committed farmers – buyers and market supporters. Our menu shows the seasonal ingredients of Santa Cruz and the Gulf area with the perfect layer of Spanish ingredients, ”says Elan.
The couple shut down during COVID to focus on food to take away and feed the survivors of the fire. Now they are back in action in the main way – the joint is crowded and the sun has yet to set. Small touches of Spain are visible in fish-shaped vessels and works of art of clothing – election beaches. There is a menu for Spanish wines and a selection of sherries and vermouth topped with ice and garnished with oranges and green olives.
First: take the shells. I order an extra serving of bread to soak up the sauce, so rich in salt and spiced with sherry and serrano ham. Since I wasn’t in European time, I couldn’t wait 30-40 minutes for a paella – although adding squid ink for an extra few bucks is intriguing – but with smoked salmon I hit another stunning montaditos (open-face sandwiches) with labneh and black truffle honey. Satisfactory, in a classic way, are also boquerones with homemade chips and churros with thick hot chocolate on motor oil.
I can’t try one of the more popular things, “Ibiza Hippie Salad”. This is a “cult salad,” explains Elan, which has “a festive note of Burmese tea leaf salad mixed with the granola health vibe adored by our beach guests”. It is an unexpected addition to a Spanish restaurant. But again, Santa Cruz is far from Spain.
If you go
Abbott Square Market: The square is open from 8 am to 11 pm (seller’s opening hours may vary) at 725 Front St. in Santa Cruz; abbottsquaremarket.com.
Curator by the sea: Open from noon to 4pm Thursday-Saturday; Sunday-Wednesday by appointment. 703 Front St., Santa Cruz; curatedbythesea.com
Map of the mural “Sea Walls”: Find a map of the Santa Cruz Mural at https://seawalls.org.
Bad animal: Open from noon to 9 pm (bar and restaurant open at 5 pm) 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.