8 Best Restaurants on the Santa Cruz Wharf

The pride of Santa Cruz, the municipal Santa Cruz Wharf, has been a part of the city since 1914 and is still the longest pier on the West Coast. While it’s no longer used as a cannery and freight dock, it’s been repurposed to satiate the culinary cravings of tourists and locals alike. 

No trip to Santa Cruz is complete without walking along the wharf just off the main beach. Here, you can leave your lovely Beachnest vacation rental behind, letting your stomach be your guide, observe the local sea lions lazing away, and gaze out into the great blue yonder of the Pacific as gulls and crashing waves soothe your soul. 

From casual dinners to fine dining experiences, there is a Santa Cruz restaurant and bar for everyone on the wharf. The only downside is having too many great options to choose from.

This guide can make deciding where to eat less overwhelming and recommend the local favorites and award-winning Santa Cruz seafood dishes!

1. Dolphin Restaurant

Photo Credit: Eugene
  • Price Point: $
  • Cuisine: Laid-back Seafood
  • Must-Eat Meal: Fish & Chips

Dolphin is the quintessential wharf diner. Enjoy your meal in the sunshine at a picnic table as the salty breeze and aroma of seafood titillate your senses. Dolphins is the perfect little place with fish shack vibes for brunch, lunch, and somewhere to take in the legendary Santa Cruz sunset among the local sea lions.

If you’re on the search for the best fish n chips, clam chowder, or anything fried, then look no further. At $10-20 a meal, your wallet will be as full as your stomach. Aside from the fish and chips, try the clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl or a Crab Benedict. The food, the views, and the atmosphere won’t disappoint at Dolphin.  

2. Firefish Grill

Photo Credit: Gary Barnes
  • Price Point: $$
  • Cuisine: Casual Californian and Seafood
  • Must-Eat Meal: Halibut Tacos and Crab Cakes

Firefish is the place if you are looking for a casual sit-down restaurant for lunch or dinner with great food that’s perfect for family or friends. With specialty cocktails, fresh seafood cooked in California cuisine style, and unbeatable ocean views, it’s hard to go wrong. 

Be sure to check the board for fresh catches and daily specials. Even for those who aren’t seafood connoisseurs, the Mesquite charcoal grill menu has many options such as burgers, pastas, and steaks, flavored and charred to perfection.

Expect to pay about $20-30 per meal at Firefish, but it makes up for the price in its portions, variety of menu items, and stunning ocean views from every seat in the house. Be sure to try their legendary crab cakes and fresh grilled salmon, or if you can’t decide because everything sounds tasty, then the Cioppino has a bit of everything in a hearty tomato broth. 

3. Gildas

Photo Credit: Sam Sukhbaatar
  • Price Point: $$
  • Cuisine: American Seafood Classics
  • Must-Eat Meal: Seafood Omlet or Prime Rib with Sweet Potato Fries

Picture it: your classic American diner that happens to also serve freshly caught seafood alongside breakfast staples. Gilda’s is a must-brunch stop for anyone working off the night before or looking to fuel up for a day of exploring Santa Cruz. 

The plates may seem on the pricey side, but it’ll be a challenge to finish your plate with the epic serving size. The seafood omelet or the biscuits and gravy will satisfy hunger of any size. If you’re craving deep-fried goodness, be sure to order some of the fisherman’s catch in a basket.

Gilda’s isn’t just limited to breakfast and lunch; with an extensive menu as well as a full bar, it’s a great stop any time of day, seven days a week. No other place on the wharf will have you feeling like a local quite like Gilda’s. 

4. Olita’s Cantina and Grill

Photo Credi: Andreas Raffel
  • Price Point: $$
  • Cuisine: Mexican Bar and Grill
  • Must-Eat Meal: Fresh Caught Fish Tacos and Ceviche

Take your taste buds south of the border at Olita’s. You can’t get Mexican food like this anywhere aside from.. well, Mexico. And what is better than tacos, you may ask? How about tacos with freshly caught fish and access to a full bar while you look out to the Pacific Ocean’s horizon in the company of some furry Sea Lion companions? 

If you could even possibly say no to that, you won’t be able to say no to award-winning margaritas or Taco Tuesday deals! Take your happy hour indulgence to the next level with ceviche, tequila, and a satisfying combination of traditional and nouveau-style Mexican cuisine. 

Olita’s leaves out the pretentiousness of small plate cocktail bars and is a warm and inviting casual experience while you gaze out at the lineup at Steamer Lane and those iconic California sunsets.  

5. Riva Fish House

Photo Credit: Guillaume Bastien
  • Price Point: $$
  • Cuisine: American Seafood Restaurant
  • Must-Eat Meal: Calamari or Clam Chowder

Right next door to Firefish, the Riva Fish House is making a name for itself along the wharf. Voted Santa Cruz’s best restaurant in 2023, you must try their award-winning clam chowder and crispy calamari, and their mussels are sublime. With an extensive cocktail list, an array of fresh seafood, outdoor dining, and homey cafe vibes, it’s open for lunch or an early dinner. 

6. Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery

Photo Credit: Marie Sonmez Photography
  • Price Point: $$
  • Cuisine: Pan-Asian
  • Must Eat Meal: Lobster Roll

Hoist the sails toward Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery, bringing you the best Hawaiian island cuisine you’ve never had. Tropical flavors, Asian influences, and a dizzying variety of rum while overlooking the ocean will make you feel like you’ve set sail to a tropical paradise. 

The most interesting attraction about this restaurant is its rotating glass floor. Tuesday nights mean lobster roll specials, and Mai Tais are also a crowd favorite. This tiki-themed bar is perfect for drinks with your ‘mates’ or a romantic and fun date night. 

7. Woodies Cafe

Photo Credit: Yeng Xiong
  • Price Point: $$
  • Cuisine: Casual Seafood
  • Must-Eat Meal: Burger and a Milkshake

Woodies Cafe, a fun and family-friendly cafe, is a homage to the old-school surf culture that Santa Cruz is best known for. Local owner of Firefish, Mark Gilbert, who has been in the industry since 1980, opened up Woodies with families in mind for a cheap yet delicious menu. 

It also has an adjoining gift shop, making it a perfect one-stop shop for souvenirs and a meal. Famous for ice cream milkshakes, towering burgers, and of course, clam chowder in a bread bowl. If you find yourself hungry for lunch or takeout after a day enjoying the beach, this casual spot is a great option. 

8. Vino by the Sea

Photo Credit: Martinesku
  • Price Point: $$$
  • Cuisine: Wine Bar & Tapas
  • Must-Eat Meal: Charcuterie plates

Put on your best dress, leave the kids at home, and bring an appetite for Italian appetizers. Vino by the Sea is the best place to sip wine while gazing out to breathtaking ocean views, all while indulging your refined pallet and making your date night truly something special. 

Setting the mood with live music on weekends, an extensive wine list, and local beers paired perfectly with tapas, it’s the perfect place for group gatherings, celebrations, or fancy date nights. 

Stay With Us During Your Next Visit to Santa Cruz

From the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk to Monterey Bay, there is a lot to see, eat, and experience in Santa Cruz. The Bay Area has many vacation rentals to fit all your travel needs, whether you’re planning a family trip or a romantic getaway. 

The City of Santa Cruz is ready to welcome you, and so are our Beachnest vacation homes!