Photograph by Jenn Ireland
Ding!: You said it: Jack's burgers are a knockout.
Food & Drink
There's something remarkably cozy about date night at Soif, an effect achieved mostly with light, color and an attentive-but-not-overbearing staff. A little bit rustic, a little bit modern romance, the room is decorated with the kind of sophisticated restraint that warms and relaxes while letting the diner know that the food is the main event. (JL)
105 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.423.2020.
Best AppetizerPrawns and Orzo at Oswald
The trio of sautéed prawns arrive on a pretty bed of orzo embedded with microcubes of apple and potato. This tantalizing come-on lounges in a neon broth of tangerine and carrots. A zest of pungent Meyer lemon adds the top note. You swoon with eyes wide open. (CW)
121 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.423.7427.
Best Artisanal BreadOlive Francese Rolls at Gayle's
Just 55 cents each, these fragrant francese-style dinner rolls are studded with green olives and offer a tender--but not airy--interior, as well as toothsome golden crust. They are the go-to dinner roll when you don't want one of those huge, sandwich-size carbo-binges that will fill you with remorse. Perfumey delicious. (CW)
504 Bay Ave., Capitola 831.462.1200.
Best BaristaJared Truby, Verve Coffee Roasters
Our small town was made proud when Jared Truby took fifth place in the Western Regionals of the 2009 U.S. Barista Championships earlier this month in Portland. This conqueror of cappuccinos displayed his Verve-bred skills when his careful foam manipulations blew every other java-slinger out of the water. Truby's steadfast dedication to an undervalued craft is strengthening the bonds between talented baristas and their indebted customers. (JN)
816 41st Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.475.7776.
For everything from francese to whole wheat--but especially for the peerless Jewish rye bread that makes sensational toast with honey, the best ham on rye with mustard and crunchy, gooey grilled cheese panini. The caraway seeds add bitter undertones, not too much, just right. Outstanding texture, fine-grained, chewy, aromatic. Top quality ingredients and time-tested recipes. Yes, by bread alone! (CW)
504 Bay Ave., Capitola. 831.462.1200.
Best Breakfast BurritoTaqueria Tepeque
Gail Simmons, a judge from Top Chef, said in a recent episode, "Give me a good chorizo and I'm happy." Tepeque's chorizo con huevo breakfast burrito delivers just that--fresh and flavorful chopped pork sausage melted with eggs and cheese. This cult favorite also boasts authentic Mexican favorites including enchiladas, chimichangas and entrees made with mouth-watering meats and seafood. (MC)
3555 Clares St. #L, Capitola. 831.462.2758.
Best Budget Wine ListLillian's Italian Kitchen
The first sign that you're going to get a bargain at this cozy hole in the wall is the choice of wine glasses (the stemless no-frills Italian variety). The wine list itself confirms those suspicions by offering intriguing Italian varietals and California vintages at a fair price. In a world where $13 glasses of wine are commonplace, a bottle of Torre Gaia Falanghina for $25 or Vernaccia di San Gemignano for $33 is enough to make a oenophile giddy. (TH)
1116 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.425.2288.
Best BuffetAmbrosia India Bistro
The arrival of lauded Bay Area Indian chef Bhupinder Singh in Aptos has been a boon for buffet lovers: complex, aromatic vegetarian dishes, succulent tandoori and stewed meats, soft naan and choice of dessert are on tap daily for the low weekday lunch price of $9.99. (TH)
207 Sea Ridge Road, Aptos. 831.685.0610.
Best CioppinoPhil's Fish Market
Imagine a Sicilian grandmother's recipe for crab, clams, mussels, snapper, Dungeness crab, shrimps, scallops and calamari simmered in a garlic-intensive, from-scratch red sauce. Made with a lifetime's expertise by Phil DiGirolamo from his nonna's recipe, this is the holy grail of cioppinos. A half order of this life-giving concoction feeds two incredibly hungry people for $34.95. A bargain at twice the price. (CW)
Sandholdt Road, Moss Landing. 831.633.2152.
Best CroissantThe Buttery
Perfect and always freshly baked croissants, just like you would find on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. So good you can eat them just as they are or dipped in hot cocoa. Also recommended are the almond croissants. (JVZ)
702 Soquel Drive, 831.458.3020.
Best Free CondimentThe chili sauce at Falafel House
It's the perfect accompaniment to the great falafels, chicken schwerma and other Middle Eastern specialties of this downtown gem. And if you have fries, forget the ketchup and use this stuff. It has just the right amount of heat and sweet, and lots of other spicy flavors. (JVZ)
113 Walnut Ave., 831.459.9770.
Best Fruit TartThe Farm Bakery & Cafe
The fruit tart, with its infinite psychedelic variations of fruit floating on a bed of pastry cream, is a classic Santa Cruz dessert, and the Farm's is without question the best in town. The crust is buttery and flaky, never soggy, and the cream always stays light and pert beneath perfect slices of brilliant fruit. Heaven. (TH)
6790 Soquel Drive, Aptos. 831.684.0266.
Best Neighborhood Food & LifestyleKelly's French Bakery
The smell of coffee sucks us in each morning--the post-workout runners, the moms with babies, the craftsmen on the way to the studio. But the lively flavors of lunch keep us coming back all day. Dogs, kids, poached eggs on polenta, major cappuccinos, pretty pastries, loads of alfresco leg room--Kelly's is where the Westside comes home to roost. (CW)
402 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz. 831.423.9059.
Best New CoffeehouseThe Abbey
Friendly baristas, espresso drinks that pack a punch and plenty of plush sofas and chairs to crash on have made this shabby chic cafe an instant hit with a cadre of Westsiders who come here to study or just gab it up. And though it's in a church, it's a hippie church, and the evangevibe is blessedly under wraps. (TH)
350 Mission St., Santa Cruz.
Best New EthnicJia Tella
Spice-laden Cambodian cuisine is the specialty of this lively new neighborhood fave, where low-cost, high-flavor foods are the big draw. Beautiful fresh spring rolls, tamarind chicken noodles and stir-fry lemon grass will expand your Asian repertoire. Don't miss the tomato pineapple sour soup and any of the sensuous curries. (CW)
18 Victor Square, Scotts Valley. 831.458.5005.
Best New Restaurant DecorLe Cigare Volant Cafe (in Bonny Doon Vineyard tasting room)
Biodynamically correct, from flow-form fountains to repurposed wooden barrels turned tasting nooks, this gorgeous, expansive cafe and showcase for the oeno-mind of Randall Grahm gives the Westside a megasplash of glitz. Suitable for intimate tastings as well as tour bus turbo tastings. (CW)
328 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz. 831.425.4518.
Best Street VendorThe Heart of Coffee
Nearly hidden at the corner of DuBois and Encinal, this one-woman coffee cart uses exclusively organic, Fair Trade and shade-grown beans. Though she does have compostable to-go cups, owner Jess Guerrero gives out free, returnable (read: refillable) ceramic mugs. The cart receives extra gold stars for selling French pressed coffee by the mug--and for only $1.40. (MZ)
400 Encinal St., Santa Cruz. 831.566.6742.
Best Sri LankanSri
Poor table service is an epidemic in Santa Cruz, but not at Sri, the only inexpensive restaurant where you won't have to wait six minutes for your water to be refilled. With excellent lunch specials and the fungi-lovers' dream triple mushroom curry available at dinner, it's the tastiest Sri Lankan food in Santa Cruz--and it's served with a smile. (MZ)
736 Water St., Santa Cruz. 831.457.2350.
Best Caffeine to Meditate byWhale City Bakery
Once upon a time it was a kick-ass mountain bar with better-than-decent food. Now it's become a morning Zen-stop for surfers, bicycling buffs and devotees of the best long view of the ocean available. Grab a glass mug of Steve's Italian Roast and watch the fog lift and the Carmel highlands snap into focus. Seagulls. Waves. Bliss. (CW)
Hwy. 1, Davenport. 831.423.9803.
Best CupcakeThe Buttery
The Buttery's voluptuous carrot cupcake will have you paraphrasing St. Augustine: "Lord make me thin--but not yet!" The ungodly mouthfeel, the erotic union of cream cheese frosting and abundant carrot cake, the complex, sinful spicing--absolutely top cupcake for a mere $2.50. If this oral orgy is wrong, who wants to be right? (CW)
702 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.458.3020.
Best French CuisineAu Midi
Michel and Muriel Loubiere are Frencher than France's president, and Muriel's classic cookery--cassoulet, magret de canard, steak Bordelaise, tortes and bombes--will pamper your inner Gaul. Lots of Provençal attitude, attention to detail and flavor pairings costing much less than a trip to Aix. (CW)
7960 Soquel Drive #E, Aptos, 831.685.2600.
Best Hidden GemAugust Moon Sushi Cafe
This little sushi joint may not garner a second glance from most passers-by, but venture in to this mom-and-pop shop and you'll be glad you did. Serving up simple sushi rolls, teriyaki dishes and udon, the ingredients are always fresh. They even toast their own sesame seeds. (MC)
3555 Clares St #M, Capitola. 831.464.9898.
Best Hot DogJack's
The king of unnatural foods, the perfect hot dog should be served no frills, no plate and consumable within three to five bites. With the ideal ratio of bun to dog, robust and meaty, and at the right price, Jack's takes it on home. (JL)
202 Lincoln St., Santa Cruz. 831.423.4421.
Best Pasta DishSquid ink fezzalotti at Gabriella Café
The squid ink fezzalotti, made by Brad Briske, the wunderkind chef who turns tricks with the fresh, the local and the organic, takes top slot. Tender prawns, scallops and Dungeness crab taste newly minted in his sauce of mint, chiles, garlic and tomato. The supple black pasta is toothsome enough to remind you what the phrase "al dente" actually means. To die for, pure and simple. (CW)
910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz 831.457.1677.
Best ServiceCafé Mare
Where the waiters look like waiters, know the menu, smile and offer insights about each dish. Fresh porcinis aren't only on the menu, they are brought to the table for you to admire. Your needs are anticipated rather than ignored. The staff make you feel as though you and you alone exist to be served. This is a good thing. (CW)
740 Front St., Santa Cruz 831.458.1212.
Best Soft TacosLa Cabaña Taqueria
Always full of workers, students and surfers and always fast and addictively delicious, La Cabaña rules the microworld of soft tacos. For little more than $2 feast on snapper tacos topped with shredded lettuce and salsa fresca. Ditto the earthy nopalitos, and for a few pennies more treat yourself to the salmon taco, effortless protein-loading with a happy kick. (CW)
2332 Mission St., Santa Cruz. 831.427.0195
Best Specialty FoodsRiver Cafe & Cheese Shop
Daily specials almost too beautiful to eat, fresh and organic, stokes in-house lunches, while the selection of baked exotica--especially the dried cherry and cornmeal scones--slays many a sweet tooth. Outstanding seasonal preserves, intriguing condiments and a sensitive selection of top artisanal cheeses make this a shrine for serious foodies. (CW)
415 River St., Santa Cruz. 831.420.1280.
Best Wines by the GlassSoif
Where else can you swill pinot from the Südtirol, guzzle unfiltered Vitovska from Friuli or explore the darker side of Lebanese cabernet blends? Furthermore, at Soif you can do all of the above while ensconced in a sleek Mark Primack interior accompanied by le tout Santa Cruz. Chic to spare! (CW)
105 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz. 831.423.2020.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.