The perfect day at the beach doesn’t just include dazzling, waterfront scenery. Just as important as the surf and sand is a nearby spot with cheap, delicious eats. We’re talking laid-back eateries where flips flops are the dress code, and surf stickers are the decor. From casual beach shacks to waterfront patios, Santa Cruz is home to primo beachside eats. Below, we’ve paired local beaches with some of our favorite nearby places to chow down.
Rick Mendez and family have been dishing up delicious Mexican grub to beachgoers near since the 70s. Colorful platters full of crispy tacos and gooey quesadillas fill tables at the indoor-outdoor taco stand. Spice up your meal with the house hot sauce—a vivid chile de arbol salsa passed down from Mendez’s grandfather—and wash it all down with a cold Mexican beer, or craft soda from Alameda Point Soda.
When you’ve had your fill of saltwater taffy, head to the Picnic Basket for wholesome, locally-sourced beachside eats. With interiors that resemble the inside of a picnic basket, the cozy, all-day cafe dishes up a breakfast and lunch items including fresh pastries, salads, and sandwiches. There’s even a cold case stocked with homemade ice cream from The Penny Ice Creamery. Nab a seat on the sunny front patio, and watch volleyball players leap and dive on the sands of Main Beach.
Here’s your go-to spot for pizza and burgers after a day at Main Beach. Hulking burgers come stacked with Angus beef and your choice of toppings on a toasted bun, and served alongside a tangle of spiced curly fries. In addition to the usual pizza suspects—pepperoni, Hawaiian—you can enjoy creative combos such as Chicken Bacon Ranch and Buffalo Chicken with blue cheese and jalapenos. Plus, you can linger longer with a pint or tropical drinks such as Strawberry Daiquiris and Pina Colodas.
Steamer Lane Supply
Perched on coastal bluffs above renowned surf break Steamer Lane, this modern snack shack provides waterfront nourishment to surfers, cyclists, and tourists. Choose from a menu of creative quesadillas—try the Kalesadilla with sauteed kale or Breakadilla with scrambled eggs—crisped up in a panini press. We also love the vibrant poke bowl with brown rice, greens, thick slices of avocado, and tender cubes of salmon, while pups go crazy for a doggie frittata made from bacon, ham, brown rice, and eggs. On weekends, their food truck rolls up to grill smash burgers and fish tacos.
Left Coast Sausage Worx
Local food by local dudes. Buddies Josh and Scott turned a forgotten Capitola Village beachfront stand into a beacon of deliciousness. Lunchtime lines form for juicy Corralitos Market sausages wrapped in the perfect bun from Aldo’s Bakery. Customize your link with an assortment of goodies that includes local Farmhouse kraut, bacon bits, spicy jalapenos, and even crumbled Doritos. Take your creation to the Esplanade benches, and enjoy the bustling beach scene.
Plunked directly on the sands of Capitola Beach, Zelda’s is the quintessential beach restaurant and bar. Find a seat on the huge outdoor deck and enjoy front-row views of the waves, Capitola Wharf, and Soquel Creek. Dig into crowd-pleasing dishes like calamari and clam chowder or leisurely nurse a Bloody Mary and enjoy the lively people-watching.
Sharing a parking lot with Rio del Mar beach in Aptos, Cafe Rio is just steps from the sand. Every afternoon starting at 3 p.m., beachgoers make a beeline for the tropical front patio ringed by a jungle of palm trees and succulents. They come for happy hour drinks, seafood staples like grilled sand dabs, and a refreshing ocean breeze. With a setting this idyllic, even locals feel like they’re on vacation.
Perched above the waters of the Santa Cruz Harbor, this casual offshoot of the popular Crow’s Nest restaurant is a must for visitors to Harbor and Twin Lakes beaches. The all-day market features affordable bites such as breakfast burritos, wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches, and soft-serve ice cream. Enjoy it on the adjoining wooden deck with picinic tables and killer views of the harbor, or get it packed up for an impromptu picnic on the sand. Yet, before you step outside, you’ll also be tempted by an alluring collection of fun beach supplies and coastal-inspired home goods.
Point Market & Cafe
Locals know the perfect Santa Cruz morning starts with a belly-busting breakfast burrito from Point Market & Cafe while watching the surfers at Pleasure Point. Situated next to a mini park that overlooks a popular surf break, this celebrity corner store hides a kitchen that cranks out bundles of breakfast love. Get the Basic with eggs, cheese and potatoes or choose from a variety of popular combos: The Greek adds feta, The Thai comes with rice, and the Mexi packs in black beans. Order the large and you won’t feel hungry for a week.