For a town of its size, Santa Cruz has a surprising variety of great places to eat. From breakfast to fine dining, there’s several local restaurants that offer everything from basic dining staples to ethnic food, vegetarian dishes, and fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of the best and most popular restaurants in Santa Cruz. As you can see from the list below, there is a diverse selection of dining options to choose from, many of them in or around the downtown area.
1218 Mission St. Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 425-1020
Sabieng is a local favorite for Thai food, offering a relaxing, enjoyable atmosphere and tasty authentic dishes—and you can dictate the level of spice you want in your food. Some of their more well liked items are the spring rolls, any dish that includes their delicious peanut sauce, and of course, coconut ice cream. Sabieng does have a couple vegetarian meals, but not as many as some other restaurants. The Real Thai Kitchen on Seabright Avenue may be a better option if you’re looking for vegetarian Thai cuisine.
1148 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95062 | (831) 425-2288
Considered by many to be the best restaurant in Santa Cruz, Lillian’s Italian Kitchen is the place to go if you love great Italian food. Since it is a popular restaurant, it’s a good idea to make reservations if you plan to eat there during dinner time. Lillian’s has a wide range of rich, tasty entrees, many of which can be made gluten-free upon request. While it can be a little more expensive than others on this list, most agree that the price is well worth it.
1534 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 423-1711
Zoccoli’s is not only one of the beloved local eateries in town, it’s also one of the oldest. Everything they serve is fresh and made on site and they have a wide selection of vegetarian sandwiches. Aside from the amazing food, Zoccoli’s is also a great place to eat outside under a shaded umbrella on Pacific Avenue. If you’re more in the mood for a good to-go sandwich, Garden Liquors and Deli on Soquel Dr. is the place to go.
1410 Mission St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 429-1855
Santa Cruz has a lot of breakfast options and most of them are both very good and locally popular: Zachary’s, Walnut Avenue Cafe, and Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe, just to name a few. Cafe Brasil stands out from the others because of the unique offerings they have. You can get your standard breakfast fare or opt for one of the several Brazilian inspired dishes and drinks they serve. The dining space is small and it’s crowded at peak times, but the cozy atmosphere and quality food are well worth the wait. Cafe Brasil is one of the better spots in town if you’re looking for vegetarian options for breakfast.
105 River St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 425-1700
Located downtown, Mobo is one of the most popular sushi restaurants in Santa Cruz (the same could be said for Akira on Soquel). With several different rolls, including many vegetarian options, Mobo offers both quality and variety. It’s a casual dining venue with friendly wait staff and a good bar that becomes very festive when they set up a line of sake bomb “Dominoes.”
1750 Wharf Rd., Santa Cruz Capitola, CA 95010 | (831) 475-1511
If you’re looking for fine dining in Santa Cruz County, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option than Shadowbrook. The food, atmosphere, and service are all terrific, though the price does reflect that. There is a dress code so something business casual or formal is required. The restaurant sits in what was once a riverside log cabin so there’s also great views, perhaps none better than the one you get as you take the cable car down to the dining area.
101 Cooper St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 423-4545
Laili is an Afghan and Mediterranean fusion restaurant in the heart of downtown Santa Cruz. They have both vegetarian and vegan menus and a lovely patio for outdoor dining. They serve beer and wine and, for a fine dining experience, Laili is very affordable. Reservations are recommended during dinner time.
103 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 427-9583
Cafe Gratitude specializes in vegetarian and vegan friendly food and has excellent tapas and smoothies. You won’t find many better options if you’re looking for organic local vegetarian fare in Santa Cruz, and it has a relaxed cafe atmosphere that matches its name.
221 Cathcart St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 426-4852
Hula’s is a fun, Hawaiian themed restaurant with a nice atmosphere. Their sandwiches are very good, as are their variety of bowls and they have vegetarian and gluten-free menus. Hula’s also has a bar that serves up creative drinks such as the Scorpion Bowl, which is a tropical group cocktail. Hula’s is in the middle of downtown, so it’s a nice option for a date night before taking in some evening entertainment.
31 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 429-1223
Riva’s Fish House, located on the Santa Cruz Wharf, is one of the premier places in town for seafood. You can enjoy gorgeous views of the Monterey Bay while dining on fish tacos or some of the best calamari you’ll find in town. Don’t forget to grab a cup of gelato for dessert—one of the many reasons locals love Riva’s. If you’re seeking a different vibe, but still want seafood on the wharf, nearby Olita’s and Stagnaro Bros Seafood are both good alternatives.
1336 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 | (831) 425-7575
Choosing the best Mexican restaurant in Santa Cruz is like trying to pick a favorite animal at the zoo: there’s just too many to choose from. Just about every part of town has a taqueria or restaurant that has a claim to being the best, or at least has a dish that does. El Palomar Restaurant makes the cut based on good food, great atmosphere, and a bar that has an authentic cantina feel to it. In addition to their dine-in entrees, El Palomar also has a taco bar for those looking to grab a quick bite or something on the go. If you can do without a margarita and just want some tasty Mexican food, nearby Taqueria Los Pericos is another very popular option.