An aerial view of Santa Cruz. (Courtesy of @invision_drones)

Modern Guide to Santa Cruz: Beach Eats, Surf Style, and Breweries on Tap

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For local, design-savvy getaways, San Franciscans usually look north to Napa and Sonoma.

But 90 minutes south of the city, Santa Cruz has been quietly redefining a style once dictated by a scruffy mix of surfers, students, and free-spirits. Today, the laid-back beach town exudes a creative new energy as exemplified by the following hip spots.


Best Restaurants in Santa Cruz

PROPER MEALS

Jack O'Neill Restaurant and Lounge

Named after the legendary surfer and stacked with memorabilia, vintage photos, and surf art, the oceanfront Jack O'Neill Restaurant participates in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program and embraces its sustainability standards. The seasonal menu is focused on coastal cuisine and combines organic local produce and meat with freshly caught seafood. Chef Ken Drew, who has also cooked for former president Bill Clinton, serves family-style dishes like tsunami prawns with spicy tomato-garlic and cheese-ale polenta, and poke bowls with Canadian salmon and ahi tuna. // 175 W Cliff Dr, jackoneillrestaurant.com

Bantam

Since 2012, a Chez Panisse alum has been firing up delicious Neapolitan pizza with a bubbled crust and a nice char. Salads and starters—like the little gems Caesar and better-than-it-sounds pig's head fritters—shouldn't be missed. The handsome, open space flaunts colorful recycled wood, vintage lamps, and old-school reggae grooving overhead. // 1010 Fair Ave Suite J, bantam1010.com

The Kitchen at Discretion

It's not just the award-winning, organic ales that should lure you to Discretion Brewing. Chef Santos Majano works magic from a 200 square foot kitchen, churning out beautiful, composed plates of farm-driven dishes that are spoiling local beer drinkers. Majano has worked in kitchens like Healdsburg's former two-Michelin-starred Cyrus and it shows. For his Chicken & Waffles, he confits chicken wings and lays them over buttermilk waffles, studded with bacon and pecans, and drizzled with spiced honey. // 2703 41st Ave. Ste. A, Soquel, kitchenatdiscretion.com

Food Lounge

Clued-in diners gather in a garden patio strung with lights at this convivial venue where a weekly lineup of portable restaurants pairs food with Santa Cruz wines and draft beers including Tanuki, a killer bottle-conditioned cider made with apples from Fogline Farms. You'll also find events including live ukulele, singer-writer showcases, art walks, and more. // Food Lounge, 1001 Center St., scfoodlounge.com.

Oswald

A mainstay in downtown, Oswald is a city-savvy restaurant with a great bar and localized version of California cuisine. Enjoy comforting fare such as mushroom bread pudding at dinner and fried chicken and waffles at lunch, and be sure to notice the rotating collection of local art. // 121 Soquel Ave., oswaldrestaurant.com


SNACKS + COFFEE

Companion Bakeshop

While you were in line at Tartine, you didn't know could ever be missing out on the efforts of other, also-exceptional bakeries. Companion Bakeshop, known for hearty loaves—mostly made with sourdough starter—gained a local following from CSAs and farmers markets before opening its permanent location on the happening Westside. Come early for the morning line-up of pastries including buttery ham and gruyère croissants, rich tea cakes, and a proper pour of Blue Bottle Coffee. // 2341 Mission St., companionbakeshop.com

Penny Ice Creamery

This popular-from-day-one institution produces one of California's only ice creams made completely from scratch. True-tasting flavors like Honey Ginger Apricot and Meyer Lemon Sorbet change with the season and feature the region's food producers. There are two locations, but we love the stylish bolt-hole in Pleasure Point, a neighborhood with a SoCal surf town vibe. // Downtown Santa Cruz: 913 Cedar St; Pleasure Point: 820 41st Ave., thepennyicecreamery.com

Verve

The town's popular third wave roaster guarantees strong brew, competent baristas, and a counter full of confections from local bakeries. If you take it sweet, try their Bowl-of-Soul: tea steeped in soy milk and honey and topped with soy froth. // Multiple locations, vervecoffee.com

Mutari

Sample ethically sourced, single-origin chocolates and sip bean to cup, European-style drinking chocolates at Mutari's cafe/factory/shop. On warm days, try the frozen hot chocolate, blended with ice to yield a luscious, milkshake-like treat. // Mutari, 504 A Front St., mutarichocolate.com.

Santa Cruz Breweries & Wine Tasting Rooms

Humble Sea Brewing Co

The nautical design and lively outdoor beer garden with fire pits make this taproom a perfect spot for summer days. Humble Sea has an interesting selection of mainly New England–style IPAs, including Socks & Sandals with an aromatic and juicy taste. If you are hungry, grab a fusion snack from the Bruxo food truck parked outside. // 820 Swift St. humblesea.com

Venus Spirits

Former Gordon Biersch brewer Sean Venus is producing small batches of organic spirits and racking up awards in his shipshape Westside distillery. Try two blends of gins; a single-malt whiskey aged in charred American oak casks; bourbon; rye; and a trio of smooth blue agave spirits. Tastings and cocktails are offered daily. // 427 A Swift St., venusspirits.com

Beer Thirty Bottle Shop + Pour House

Santa Cruz is probably the most-underrated beer destination in California. The area is booming with breweries and tap houses serving high-caliber brew minus the scrum of popular SF beer locales. For a proper introduction, head to Beer Thirty with a namesake number of rotating taps that allow for the most extensive sampler in town. Enjoy 'em in the smart-looking interior or out on the dog and kid-friendly beer garden strung with lights. 2504 S Main St., Soquel, beerthirtysantacruz.com

Sante Adairius Rustic Ales

Some of Santa Cruz's best beer can be found at this Capitola brewery and, more recently, at the new tasting room in Santa Cruz. Their richly-fragrant 831 IPA should end all discussion and the barrel-aged Saisons sip with all the structure and complexity of your favorite vino. Don't pass up the Verve-infused porter with the deep aroma of freshly-ground coffee. // 103 Kennedy Dr. (Capitola), 1315 Water St. (Santa Cruz), rusticales.com

New Bohemia Brewing Company

Bitter about the hegemony of IPAs? Swing by this fetching Pleasure Point brewery for delicious old world lagers and hefeweizens. Brewmaster Dan Satterthwaite honed his craft at a century-old, family-owned brewery in Bavaria before working at Bay Area shops like Trumer Pils. The redwood-sheathed taproom has a small bites menu that offers a great sampling of local food purveyors like Companion Bakeshop and Friend in Cheeses Jam Company. // New Bohemia Brewing Company, 1030 41st Ave., nubobrew.com.

Brew Cruz

We can't think of a better way to sample Santa Cruz's thriving craft beer scene than with Brew Cruz. Former San Franciscan Annie Pautsch shuttles hop heads to breweries and taprooms along the coast in a tricked out 1989 school bus (that she picked up in SF's Tenderloin). The Brew Cruz site will soon host The Santa Cruz Beer Trail, an interactive map and passport program to help customize your ultimate brewery crawl. // Brew Cruz, scbrewcruz.com.

Surf City Vintners

A collective of wineries in walkable proximity means you can ditch the car—and single lane Santa Cruz mountain roads—and stroll 10 tasting rooms pouring the region's famed pinot noir. Swing by Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard for unique Spanish varietals and a noteworthy brandy. // Swift St. & Ingalls St., surfcityvintners.com

Soif Wine Bar & Merchants

Soif has been Santa Cruz's urbane wine destination for some time, but a major expansion and remodel begs a second look. A reconfigured wine shop stocks local finds like Birichino's Malvasia Bianca while an expanded kitchen is able to crank out a wider array of refined small plates. Nab a seat at the new bar where an informed staff will pour tastes of less familiar wines like a where-have-you-been-all-my-life Hungarian Tokaji. // Soif, 105 Walnut Ave., soifwine.com.

Where to Shop in Santa Cruz

Stripe + Stripe Men

Tucked away on a downtown side street, this eclectic shop stocks a meticulous selection of fashionable clothing, gifts, stationery, and accessories. Just a few doors down, a tack-sharp men's shop sports a rugged general store meets haberdashery vibe. There's also a great collection of vintage goods thanks to the owners' tight relationships with local dealers. // 107 and 117 Wal­nut Ave., stripedesigngroup.com

Sawyer Land + Sea

You'll head to Sawyer to outfit your modern surf safari down the California coast. The smart shop celebrates surf culture and Santa Cruz's inspiring sea-meets-forest landscape with hip graphic tees, contemporary outdoor apparel and camping gear, and luscious hand-shaped paipos (wooden Hawaiian belly boards) that could function as objets d'art. // 402 Ingalls St., sawyersupply.com

Berdel's

Style yourself like a local at this modish surf shop stocked with contemporary men's and women's apparel. No big name brands here. Instead, find local independent labels like Thieves, Uroko and Ventana that will take you from beach to brewery. // Berdel's, 1233 Pacific Ave., berdels.com.

Cameron Marks

Australian designer Vanessa Ambrose settled in Santa Cruz before opening three impeccably curated boutiques with a sophisticated, boho feel. Her keen sense of style translates to exquisite home goods, jewelry, and women's apparel—much of it handmade and by independent designers. With a touch of Denmark, Japan, and Brooklyn, it manages to be perfectly at home in this breezy seaside town. // 402 Ingalls St., cameronmarks.com

Home/Work

Seek out this colorful, modern boutique where owner Sonia McMoran draws upon her background as a tech and design journalist to assemble a covetable collection of home and office décor. Shop a playful mix of vintage finds and contemporary, handcrafted goods from designers like Honey & Bloom, Good Company, and Marlie & Alfie. // 1100 Soquel Ave., shophomework.com

Dig Gardens

This expansive, modern nursery is a refuge of succulents, air plants, and pottery. Artful arrangements call to mind the vivid seascape of nearby Monterey Bay. Drop by for a class or ask one of the staff to help you shape your own terrarium at the dedicated workstation. You'll likely rub shoulders with proprietors of the other spots listed here, all of whom frequent the shop. // 420 Water St., diggardens.com

Sojourn Box

Sojourn Box is like a dream care package from your stylish best friend abroad, inspired by California's dream towns. Joanna Misunas, a Santa Cruz native, encapsulates the best artisanal products of Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Monterey, and Silicon Valley in smartly designed boxes that arrives at your doorstep. Inside, discover tasty edibles like Mutari's Venezuelan Hot Chocolate, body care products from Urb Apothecary, local music downloads and a hip pocket guide to the area. // Shop online 24/7; brick and mortar open by appointment and for special events at 3912 Portola Dr., suite 7, sojournbox.com

Best Hotels in Santa Cruz

Dream Inn

This retro-chic stay kitted out in 70s-style furnishings has been completely renovated and remains the only beachfront hotel in Santa Cruz. The lounge is dressed in bright colors and graphic surf boards, and you can order Verve coffee from a bike cart. The hotel has launched a program in partnership with Bedside Reading, a book marketing program that places all kind of books in luxury hotels around the country, so each room has something to read and to take it home. // 175 W Cliff Dr. dreaminnsantacruz.com

Hotel Paradox

The Paradox is a surprisingly chic boutique hotel with a playful, forest-themed interior. SF's Orlando Diaz-Azcuy Design drew inspiration from redwood trees dotted about the property for features like a front desk made from a giant felled tree, a ceiling photo mural of a tree-branch cluttered sky and resin squirrels scampering about. Don't miss the sunny pool deck with private cabanas and food + cocktail service. // 611 Ocean St., hotelparadox.com

Outsite

Its laptops and leisure at this coworking and lodging property one block from the waves of the Monterey Bay. Whether you stay a night or a month, you'll find like-minded digital nomads and entrepreneurs enjoying a fully equipped office, living space and activities like yoga, surfing and coding classes. Don't miss their weekend networking events that trade conference rooms for campsites along the Big Sur coast. // Locations at Pleasure Point and Westcliff, outsite.co.

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