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Photograph by Pete Shea
three's a charm: Fresh seafood, wine and a view at Riva Fish House

Riva La Difference

A focus on seafood and not a bad table in the house make Riva a worthy Santa Cruz institution

By Christina Waters

Lyle and I traded our big appetites and a serious need to get out of the office for lunch at Riva last week. A time-honored favorite with locals as well as summer visitors, Riva found its successful culinary formula a long time ago. That means sensible prices, a wide range of menu possibilities, a great view and a full bar to boot.

My aunt recently confessed to me that she goes to Riva as much for the gelato as for anything else. I made a mental note to save room for some of the dense, creamy dessert as we took a tiny table at the far corner and found ourselves immediately soothed by the view of waves, gulls and dozens of longboarders, all catching those smooth, seamless rides toward the beach.

The sleek L-shaped interior lined in wraparound green wainscotting lets diners spread out and enjoy the endless summer of Steamer Lane. Canvas ceiling baffles work to curb the noise level, which can ramp up during busy happy hours thanks to crisp white tile floors.

A list of weekly specials augments the familiar menu of tried and true favorites, including my personal favorite, the mighty crab and shrimp sandwich ($9.95). Lyle took his time, combing the menu. In addition to the seafood salads, burgers, chowders and pastas, the weekly specials included cracked crab, skewers of chicken and prawns, grilled tilapia and--wait! something jumped out at us--Orange Rosemary Salmon ($12.95). Yes! That was just what Lyle needed. We sipped our cokes and considered just why the wharf always casts a spell. An enormous band of prehistoric pelicans landed in the water just outside our window. At the far horizon sat the lighthouse, punctuating the line of familiar architectural landmarks along West Cliff Drive. The cliffs, the beach, and behind us, the long vista of Boardwalk, Casino and Big Dipper--this has got to be one of the most Santa Cruz spots in Santa Cruz.

"The presentation matches the place," Lyle observed when our lunches arrived. He had a point. Direct and uncomplicated, Riva is essentially all about the view with some tasty seafood on the side. A mound of rice pilaf and a long slice of salmon fillet shared Lyle's plate. The salmon was liberally bathed in an aromatic sauce of honey, rosemary, orange, mustard and enough spices to almost smother the flavor of the seafood. Atop the pilaf sat one of Riva's signature breaded zucchini sticks, which Lyle aptly described as "breaded beyond belief." The garnish hit the spot, and the salmon, even with its high-key seasoning, was delicious.

My sandwich involved two huge slabs of toasted sourdough baguette, one mounded high with a deviled crab concoction, the other with a gooey mixture of rock shrimp and Louie dressing. The accompanying french fries were on the dry side, and I was grateful for the ketchup provided by our server.

All in all, I enjoyed the simple flavors of my combo sandwich, an indestructible creation served with the value-added feature of a stunning location. "If you need a stress-free lunch place, and if you don't want to spend a fortune," Lyle rhapsodized--"and if you don't want to get dressed up," I joked--Riva certainly fits the bill. We agreed that we would definitely send our out-of-town guests here, especially at midday during midweek. The setting alone would knock their socks off.

At the infamous gelato cart at the front of the restaurant, I made a quick commitment to a single scoop of fabulous strawberry gelato. Lyle opted for a combo bowl of espresso and vanilla chocolate chip. Both of our "small" portions were $2.50 and provided as much legal fun as we could handle. We finished our gelati to the sounds of feisty harbor seals and crying shearwaters. The salt air worked its magic, too--until we got to the parking booth. Oh, well. At least for an hour and 11 minutes, our lives were stress-free.

Riva Fish House

Address: 500 Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf

Phone: 831.429.1223

Hours: Open 11am-9pm daily No credit cards accepted (ATM machine on-site)

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