Santa Cruz – Beyond the Normal

As a resident of Santa Cruz, California, It’s sad for me to see people coming here from all over to visit, only to wind up eating at Denny’s or MacDonald’s. If you’re wandering around the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for the 50 millionth time, you might start to get dÃ?©jÃ?  vu. “Didn’t we do this last year?” pipes up that little voice in your head. That’s right, you did. And the year before that, and the year before that.

I’m not knocking the Boardwalk. It’s a fun way to spend a summer day, riding roller coasters overlooking the glittering Pacific, playing arcade games, eating junk food, and even bowling or singing karaoke. And let’s not forget the summertime weekend music events, including Papa Doo Run Run, Eddie Money, and The Drifters.

But if you’re looking for a foray into the wild, wacky, and often hippie world of Santa Cruz, a town so infused with culture it sometimes outshines San Francisco, you’re going to have to dig a little deeper, like the bargain hunters at Santa Cruz’s Bargain Barn.

One easy way to do this is to go downtown. Pacific Avenue, the main drag, has often been compared to Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. There’s no weekend street fair, but if you see a man in a pink dress strolling very, very slowly down the sidewalk, carrying an umbrella (which sometimes lights up), or an accordion player dressed from head to toe in a patterned bodysuit that even covers his face, or any number of strange performances, take heart. You’re having a true Santa Cruz experience. (The umbrella man’s name is Robert. Tell him I said hi.)

There are theories about why there are so many weird people in Santa Cruz. One of the most popular (and typically left-wing Santa Cruzan) is that during Regan’s reign, when the President turned out of institutions some very fine, yet deranged and disturbed people who were content to talk to themselves and chew on their clothing in the privacy of their own padded cells, the institutions shipped these evicted tenants straight to Santa Cruz and deposited them here. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I’ve heard this story so many times, I’m beginning to think it’s part of some sort of Santa Cruz mythology, along with the oft-told “curse of Santa Cruz” lore. (I’ve never quite been able to get two people to tell that tale the same way.)

Anyway, back to tourism. Don’t go to a chain restaurant when you come to Santa Cruz. That’s boring. I know, it’s safe, it’s comforting, you like the Grand Slam special. But, by God, you came to Santa Cruz to see Santa Cruz, so eat at a cool restaurant, for cryin’ out loud! There are so many to choose from. I live down the block from the Saturn CafÃ?©, a loud, alternative-trendy place with colorful dÃ?©cor and an interstellar theme. Don’t go there if you want meat. Do go if you’re into a variety of yummy vegetarian burgers and other dishes, and especially if it’s late at night, but before 2 a.m.

If you’re strapped for cash, and you want something healthy, head for Charlie Hong Kong. They use organic produce, and their peanut sauce will melt your heart. Pick up a Metro or Good Times while you’re there to figure out what’s happening this week. You can eat outside under the heat lamps and not get cold.

If it’s the weekend and you’ve got the money and the time, venture out to Ben Lomond on Highway 9 for Ciao Bella’s Italian fare and luscious, exquisite entertainment. Don’t let their decorations scare you – these people know how to have a good time. Be sure to have a reservation, and give yourself at least half an hour to get there from Santa Cruz.

Still stuck on Denny’s? Opt for the Santa Cruz Diner, which is just a few blocks away. Their menu is way more diverse, and you can sit next to their (ultra-cheap) jukebox and play oldies or pop songs to your heart’s content.

Safeway is for wimps. For a taste of Santa Cruz, shop at New Leaf Market, Staff of Life, or The Food Bin. The prices may be higher, but for organic meats and vegetables, it’s worth it, especially if you’ve never tried it before. Local organic food and the Farmers’ Market are what Santa Cruz is all about. Besides, you may never get another chance to see a grocery checkout clerk with waist-long dreadlocks.

If you’re in the mood for just a little food, or you’re jonesing for java, head toward the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. They will take care of you. Or if you want a coffee shop where you can gawk at the locals and see some bizarre art, look for CafÃ?© Pergolesi, home of Santa Cruz’s finest hot chocolate. There are several other great places, like Union Street, Java Junction, and Lulu Carpenter’s, to name a few.

Breakfast is an art in Santa Cruz – so much so that you may have to wait awhile to get a seat at Zachary’s or Walnut Street CafÃ?©. In a rush? Find the Santa Cruz Bagelry. On the east side of town, Linda’s Seabreeze CafÃ?© is also marvelous. Santa Cruz’s fabled scrambles won’t disappoint you.

Now, you ask, what shall I do, once I have consumed all of this delicious food? Well, you could walk it all off in UC Santa Cruz’s gorgeous Pogonip, which overlooks Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay. Santa Cruz County is home to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, a nationally-renowned hot spot celebrated for its giant redwood trees. For beauty off the beaten path, trek up Highway 9 to Fall Creek or Quail Hollow Ranch. Equally titillating are West Cliff and Santa Cruz Lighthouse, as well as the hotties rollerblading and bicycling up and down East Cliff Drive on a sunny day. Some guy flexed his arm muscle and winked at me as he skateboarded past my car last time I was there. It was kinda cute.

Entertainment abounds in Santa Cruz. The Kuumbwa Jazz Center has been a home-away-from-home to many jazz greats, such as Herbie Hancock and Dizzy Gillespie. The Rio Theatre, reconstructed in recent years, has become a new venue for live music and other performances. The Catalyst shows some hot bands for a young, hip audience. The Civic Auditorium hosts a fantastic variety of performers, and sometimes books famous people you may know from music or television, like Bob Dylan, Ani Difranco, and Bill Maher. If you’re here in the summer, check out Shakespeare Santa Cruz. You can watch Shakespeare plays outside in the Glen at UC Santa Cruz and eat your picnic right in front of the actors – they won’t mind.

Last but not least, the bar scene is great. Make your way to The Red Room, and go upstairs for a real treat. A buddy of mine swears Callahan’s is the place to go if you want to see the rustier side of Santa Cruz and possibly some drunken brawling. There are many other terrific pubs, like Rosie McCann’s, and bars, like the Avenue or The Poet and the Patriot, but I’m sure you’ll find one yourself if you just look around after 10 p.m. Dancing can be found at The Blue Lagoon and the gay/lesbian Club Dakota.

A word about parking: if there’s a chance you might get ticketed, don’t do it! The meter maids around here are called “parking nazis” for good reason, and the meters get ticketed till 8 p.m. every night. That’s right, even on Sundays. Well-meaning folks have been known to park only for a minute or two, and gotten busted. Stick to the designated places, and the number of hours for the lot you parked in, or go to the paid parking garage on the corner of Front Street and Soquel Avenue.

Finally, if for some reason you’re even weirder than us Santa Cruzans, and you’re not excited by what you see here, San Francisco and Monterey are only an hour or two away. Enjoy, and have a safe, spunky, funky trip!

Addresses and Websites:
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk –
Papa Doo Run Run –
The Bargain Barn – 350 Encinal St.
The Saturn CafÃ?© – 145 Laurel St.
Charlie Hong Kong – 1141 Soquel Ave.
Metro Santa Cruz –
Good Times –
Santa Cruz Diner – 909 Ocean St.
New Leaf Community Market – 1134 Pacific Ave. & other locations
Staff of Life – 1305 Water St.
The Food Bin and The Herb Room – 1130 Mission St.
The Farmers’ Market – corner of Lincoln Street and Cedar Street, Wednesday afternoons
Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company – 1300 Pacific Ave.
CafÃ?© Pergolesi – 418 Cedar St.
120 Union Street – address same as the name! (formerly Jahva House)
Java Junction – 519 Seabright Ave. or 580 River St.
Lulu Carpenter’s – 1545 Pacific Ave.
Zachary’s Restaurant – 819 Pacific Ave.
Walnut Avenue CafÃ?© – 106 Walnut Ave.
Santa Cruz Bagelry – 320 Cedar St.
Seabreeze CafÃ?© – 542 Seabright Ave.
Pogonip – 333 Golf Club Dr.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park – 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek
Fall Creek State Park – 1400 Felton Empire Rd., Felton
Quail Hollow Ranch – 800 Quail Hollow Rd., Felton
Lighthouse Field State Beach – 701 West Cliff Dr.
Kuumbwa Jazz Center – 320 #2 Cedar St.
The Rio Theatre – 1205 Soquel Ave.
The Catalyst – 1011 Pacific Ave.
The Civic Auditorium – 307 Church St.
Shakespeare Santa Cruz – (831) 459-2159
The Red Room – 1003 Cedar St.
Callahan’s – 507 Water St.
Rosie McCann’s – 1220 Pacific Ave.
The Avenue – 711 Pacific Ave.
The Poet and the Patriot – 320 Cedar St.
The Blue Lagoon – 923 Pacific Ave.
Club Dakota – 1209 Pacific Ave.

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