12 Best Restaurants in Downtown Santa Cruz

If a city is only as good as its center, Santa Cruz is as good as it gets. For its small size, it packs a culinary punch with diverse, bold restaurants and an emphasis on local organic ingredients. After all, California has no shortage of them. 

If you’re staying in one of our downtown vacation homes, you’re within walking distance of the best food in the city. You couldn’t be more perfectly positioned to have a foodie-focused stay in Southern California. Wine bars, craft beer, Asian cuisine, authentic Italian eateries, and everything from French to Japanese await you if you just venture off the water and away from the touristy wharf.

With so many exceptional restaurant options, it’s easy to overlook some of the places that have been serving Santa Cruz locals for generations. This list serves as your downtown gastronomic guide to the perfect meal for any occasion. It’s sure to satisfy all your cravings. 

1. Hula Islands Grill

Photo Credit: Dan B
  • Address: 221 Cathcart St, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: Hawaiian Seafood 
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Jungle Tofu
  • Price Point: $$

Hula’s Island Grill will have you swearing you just washed up on the north shore. Of Hawaii, not California. After a full day at the beach, nothing sounds better than tiki rum cocktails, poke bowls, and a vibrant Hawaiian atmosphere. Scorpion punch bowls to share and a large, diverse menu make it perfect for groups, parties, and a happy hour dream! 

2. Laili Restaurant

  • Address: 101 Cooper St, Santa Cruz, CA
  • Cuisine: Mediterranean/Afghan
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Trout
  • Price Point: $$

Do your tastebuds a favor and give Laili a visit—mediterranean food with an Afghan twist. There isn’t a bad item on the menu. But the saffron rice, kebabs, and spices are sure to intoxicate. The food here is known for being rich and flavorful but not too spicy, so it’s great for the whole family. The trout dish and bolani both come highly recommended. 

3. Penny Ice Creamery

Photo Credit: TheBafsta
  • Address: 913 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: Desserts 
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Toasted Marshmallow Fluff
  • Price Point: $

You’re not always looking for a full-fledged meal. Sometimes, you just want a sweet treat. This is ice cream done the Californian way. Penny’s combines fresh organic ingredients into naturally delicious flavor specialties to satisfy everyone’s sweet tooth. Penny Ice Creamery is a local favorite. Be sure to top your cone or bowl with roasted marshmallow.

4. Bagelry

  • Address: 320 Cedar St # A, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: Bagels
  • Must-East Menu Item: Lox Bagel, Hummus
  • Price Point: $

A historically good bagel and coffee shop with outdoor dining and takeout options for breakfast or lunch on the go. Balgery is unique as they offer many vegan and vegetarian options, including thier famous hummus and homemade spreads with truly creative flavors. Bagelry just does bagels the right way. 

5. Kianti’s Pizza and Pasta Bar

Photo Credit: Cohrs
  • Address: 1100 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: Italian 
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Spicy Pasta
  • Price Point: $$

Kianti’s is that family-friendly, laidback pizza and pasta place your family vacation has been waiting for. For the adults in the group, they have a killer happy hour with beer flights, cocktails, and a noteworthy wine list. Make your own pasta creations or choose from their predesigned mouthwatering options, including calzones, sandwiches, and pizzas. Venture outside to the patio with heaters for those chilly central California nights and a cozy atmosphere.

6. El Palomar

  • Address: 1336 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: Mexican
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Pozole 
  • Price Point: $$

Imagine that traditional Mexican restaurant you went to as a kid. The colored warm plates, sizzling fajitas, and margaritas all around. Well, not for you, of course. El Palomar is a taqueria worth its salt, and the place has stood the test of time, first opening its doors back in 1983. 

It’s surprisingly hard to find a place that serves traditional Mexican dishes like pozole or sopes, but Palomar owners Jose and Amelia Espinoza have you covered. But don’t worry, you can always go for the classic burrito. Considering the proximity to the ocean, don’t miss out on their famous seafood options.

7. Zoccoli

Photo Credit: Patrick Fuentes
  • Address: 1534 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: Italian Delicatessen
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Muffuleta Sandwich 
  • Price Point: $

Grab a number and get the full Italian deli experience. Choose from a mouthwatering array of meats, cheeses, breads, and toppings. Like all great delis, Zoccoli is the right place to buy wines, pasta, olive oils, and any other authentic Italian ingredients needed for at-home cooking. Zoccoli is another local favorite that doesn’t collect tourists. Not yet, anyway. Whether you are looking for an on-the-go lunch or a sit-down meal outside one of their pastas, soups, or drool-worthy sandwiches is sure to satisfy.   

8. Woodstock Pizza

  • Address: 710 Front St, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: Pizza
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Kickin Carnitas 
  • Price Point: $$

Pizza, pinball, and arcade games. Woodstock brings out the inner child in us all. While it may not be one of Santa Cruz’s breweries, they do have quite the selection of craft beer on tap for the adults in the group. They also boast an outdoor dog-friendly patio, gluten-free options, friendly fun staff, and, most importantly, delicious pies. 

9. Mission St. BBQ

Photo Credit: Lee Eckert
  • Address: 1618 Mission St, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: BBQ
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Tri-Tip Sandwich 
  • Price Point: $$

If the smell of roasting hickory, the sound of live music (usually the blues), and thoughts of succulent brisket freshly sliced off the bone doesn’t make you hungry for BBQ, I don’t know what will. Mission St. BBQ is the place to be in Santa Cruz for that finger-licking good old American barbecue. 

10. Copal Restaurant

  • Address: 1203 Mission St, Santa Cruz, CA
  • Cuisine: Oaxacan 
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Mole Negro Tamales
  • Price Point: $$

Calling Copal simply a ‘Mexican’ restaurant doesn’t do it justice. Chef Ana Fabian Mendoza celebrates tradition with recipes from her home state of Oaxaca. Moles, mezcal, and tlayudas. And if you’re in search of some Mexican staples in a more familiar vein or in need of vegetarian options, you are in luck. Mendoza makes an effort to be fully inclusive in the diversity of her menu.

11. Gabriella’s Cafe

Photo Credit: Brent Hofacker
  • Address: 910 Cedar St, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: Italian
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Butternut Squash Ravioli 
  • Price Point: $$$

This Italian restaurant has been a local favorite since the day it opened. Today, Gabriella’s celebrates Italian food with fresh local ingredients and recipes from inside a 115-year-old post office. The ambience is intimate and romantic, yet it’s perfect for brunch or a dinner date. This charming little house of a restaurant is a hidden gem of downtown Santa Cruz. Be sure to try the housemade pasta and ravioli.

12. Royal Taj Indian Cuisine

  • Address: 270 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz, CA 
  • Cuisine: North Indian
  • Must-Eat Menu Item: Biryani and Chicken Tikka Masala
  • Price Point: $$

If portion size is your number one priority, Royal Taj offers a daily all-you-can-eat Indian buffet at lunchtime for all your refueling needs. On the weekends, they also offer a dinner buffet. Indian food is meant to be enjoyed in excess. Be sure to load up on your favorites.

Come Stay With Us in Downtown Santa Cruz!

When you leave the wharf and Pacific Avenue behind for the day, Downtown is where all the good eats for your next family getaway can be found. With numerous vacation rentals to choose from, both downtown and nearer the beach, you’ll be right in the heart of the action. With the California favorites on this list, you’ll get a real taste of that West Coast cuisine.