Set on California’s Central Coast, 75 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz has long been known for its sunshine, scenery, and surf—but not so much for its cuisine. In recent years, though, this sea-meets-mountains city and its surrounds have given rise to a vibrant culinary scene. Like Santa Cruz itself, many of the best local cafes and restaurants aren’t big on formality or fuss. Their food and drink draw strength from freshness and simplicity. As for their dress codes, you can show up in flip-flops and not stand out.
On the Waterfront
Down by the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where the crash of waves mingles with the cries of carnival barkers and the rattle of a hump-backed roller coaster, there’s more to eat than corn dogs and fried dough. Consider the farm-fresh fare at the Picnic Basket, a counter-service spot where Kendra Baker and her staff produce seasonal salads and satisfying sandwiches like the BLA, a medley of bacon, lettuce, and avocado with house-made mayo on toasted bread. (You can also get a standard BLT.) Baker used to be the pastry chef at three-Michelin starred Manresa, just over the mountains in Los Gatos, and sure enough, desserts at the Picnic Basket are a must. Try the ice cream sandwich, made with house-baked chocolate cookies and vanilla ice cream from the Penny Ice Creamery, a beloved local ice cream shop that Baker also owns.