Best Bites at Santa Cruz County Restaurants

It’s impossible to talk about all the excellent bites around town, but here is a roundup of a few restaurants with some of the best bites we’ve tasted in the county. They are located in Capitola, Downtown Santa Cruz, the Seabright district, Aptos, and Westside Santa Cruz. What makes a great “bite,” anyways? Interesting question…we’d say it’s most often an appetizer or shareable small plate, but occasionally a salad or other dish rises to the occasion. Hope you can visit some of these restaurants soon; on to the food and Bon Appetit!

Shadowbrook

Capitola’s Shadowbrook Restaurant has been serving happy customers since 1947. Upon arrival, take a nice winding-path walk down to the restaurant, stopping to view waterfalls, or ride the unique tram. It’s the ideal environment to celebrate special occasions with the family or with romantic partners and has a large, excellent wine and liqueur list. Coming from nearby? Reserve free shuttle service via the restaurant’s old-fashioned taxicab and arrive in style. There are seven dining rooms on different levels, including one that feels like a greenhouse. The Rock Room bar/lounge features walk-in service (no reservations accepted) and its own menu with dishes like wood-fired pizza. There are three outdoor decks/patios. Shadowbrook has so many tempting first courses, it’s hard to choose. A must is the Bacon-wrapped Prawns; the combination of tender, grilled seafood with smokey meat and dipping sauces is hard to beat. The Baked Brie, encased in flaky pastry and accompanied by jalapeno jelly, is another satisfying dish. The lovely Creamy Artichoke soup includes chicken stock and leeks. Don’t fill up too much, because Shadowbrook’s entrees and desserts are also delectable.

Gabriella Café

Since 1992, Gabriella Café has been providing downtown Santa Cruz diners with tasty dishes that showcase seasonal produce from places like Davenport’s Rodoni Farms and Watsonville’s Live Earth Farm. The intimate setting is a great date spot. Portions are generous, and there are many shareable items. Crispy Cauliflower, a garlicky dish close to my heart, is almost always on the menu. Seasoned with ingredients like chili oil and pine nuts, it’s a magnificent blend of texture and flavor. Pan Amore is a customer favorite that’s always available. The selection features housemade focaccia bread with goat cheese and roasted garlic plus other rotating components like spinach pesto or duck pate or Romesco sauce made from sweet peppers. The Brussels sprouts, a house specialty, are also a first-rate bite. They are made with a sweet apple gastrique and toasted nuts—on different occasions, they used macadamia and hazelnuts and both worked well. Sometimes Gabriella has a roasted beet salad with arugula and cheese on the menu; don’t miss this if you see it. Entrees include fabulous meat, seafood, and pasta. There are rotating extraordinary housemade desserts; past selections have included Strawberry Hazelnut Bread Pudding and Chocolate Tres Leches Cake with chocolate pomegranate bark.

Soif Wine Bar & Merchants

Soif, located in bustling downtown Santa Cruz, operates a fantastic, well-stocked retail wine shop, and also serves top-notch bites. You can partake in a glass of wine and a snack or meal at one of the shop’s indoor tables or choose to sit on the patio. Two of the most popular menu items are the signature Cheese Board and Charcuterie Plate. The Cheese Board usually features a variety of cheese (sometimes domestic, sometimes international) plus bread, nuts, seasonal fruit, and quince paste. The Charcuterie Plate has rotating meats, pickles, and more. Other selections include fancy, house-marinated olives; and a quiche served with salad. Quiche varieties may rotate depending on the season; one customer favorite includes leek, broccoli, onion, and fontina. Once you’re satisfied after savoring the wonderful food and drink, remember to buy a retail bottle of wine to take home. Soif also has occasional wine tasting events where attendees can enjoy wine flights and meet special winemaker guests.

La Posta

La Posta Restaurant has been serving fresh housemade pasta, pizza and Italian/Mediterranean-influenced dishes utilizing farmers market ingredients since 2006. It’s a down-to-earth Seabright neighborhood spot with food worth raving about. The Blue Heron Farms salad, a menu mainstay, features nutty Parmigiano Reggiano shaved directly on top of each salad before it’s served. Fresh local lettuce from Corralitos-based Blue Heron Farms is the star. Blue Heron has a special micro-climate which creates fantastic lettuces and other produce. Staff make the salad’s sherry-shallot vinaigrette by hand with a whisk every day. Ingredients include robust Spanish sherry vinegar, Belle Farms olive oil, and shallots from the local farmers’ market. Don’t miss La Posta’s levain bread, which comes in white (sourdough) and brown (walnut/rosemary) varieties. Each bite is wonderful, dense, and savory. It’s so popular among customers that you can purchase take-home loaves.

Cantine

Cantine in Aptos, which opened in 2014, is a comfortable spot to enjoy a glass of wine in the afternoon, or to share a bottle of wine and some snacks or dinner. There is lots of comfortable indoor seating plus an outdoor patio with relaxing views of natural surroundings. Cantine has several wines on tap plus several draft beers; these rotate. They offer wine from kegs as an option because they believe the flavor, freshness, and environmental benefits are worthwhile. Cantine also serves over 50 wines by the bottle (with some of these available by the glass), 20 bottled beers, and cider, port, and dessert wine. A fabulous snack that is always on their menu is Burrata with honeycomb. One recent edition included thin-sliced pear, lemon oil and hazelnuts; the sweetness and crunch of the honeycomb provided a great contrast to the creamy cheese. Some of the elements of the dish change such as fruit varying with the seasons (past selections have included stone fruit or persimmon). Other popular snacks include Kelly’s Bakery focaccia bread served with olive oil. The menu always has soup and pasta selections that rotate. Some of Cantine’s desserts fluctuate, but a perennial favorite is deep chocolate brownie with salted caramel.

Avanti Restaurant

Avanti Restaurant offers farm to table California cuisine in a laid back yet sophisticated environment. There is an abundant high-quality wine selection plus local craft beer and cocktails. A delightful enclosed garden room is at the front of the Westside Santa Cruz restaurant; there is also a spacious outdoor patio. First courses shine, like Roasted Cauliflower, an interesting combination with dates, pickled onions and greens. Ingredients provide an enjoyable sweet and sour contrast. Pistachio Steak is another scrumptious small plate with grilled hanger steak (organic and grass-fed, like all the beef utilized at Avanti), lots of pistachios, black garlic vinaigrette, and fresh local greens; the tangy and filling salad is perfect to share. Also recommended is Melted Cheese with roasted peppers and leeks, accompanied by mini grilled homemade sourdough toasts. Warning: the bubbling, decadent concoction made from sheep cheese is addictive. Make sure you share this rich dish so you can still order entrees like fresh, made-in-house pasta or local seafood and housemade desserts featuring organic ingredients.

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