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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Bacon by the Sea: Ideal Bar and Grill serves up breakfast specials starting at 7am.

Special Thing

Ideal Bar and Grill has been luring locals into tourist territory for years with its siren song of popular specials

By Jessica Neuman Beck

As a Santa Cruz local, I resisted the lure of Ideal Bar and Grill at first, for one simple reason: its location. Placed as close to the wharf as a restaurant can be without actually being on the wharf, Ideal Bar and Grill is in the perfect spot for groups of tourists fresh from the Boardwalk--not exactly something that springs to mind when planning a romantic dinner for two.

"I was guilty of the same thing," says John Ealy Jr., who opened Ideal in 1994. "I grew up in Santa Cruz, and you kind of avoid that area in the summer. You just kind of figure it's going to be so crazy and so crowded."

With that in mind, Ealy devised a foolproof method of enticing locals to his restaurant: weekly specials, which include live Maine lobster every Wednesday, and Friday night prime rib, each for only $9.95. Ideal has had the lobster special since they opened, and they've never taken it off the menu or changed the price.

"The price draws the people here," says Ealy, "and once people come to the restaurant, it kind of exposes them to the live music and the menu."

Ideal Bar and Grill has a distinctly Santa Cruz feel. Decorated with an island flair and featuring a waitstaff who look like they just came off the beach, the restaurant has ocean views and two full bars.

"About a year and a half ago, we redid the back bar," Ealy says. "We call it the Tiki Bar. People can sit outside in the sun and still sit at the bar and have drinks. It kind of gave it its own feel, so there are two separate bars now, and one's more casual, and it's kind of nice."

While diners sip their Mojito or Blue Hawaiian, they can also listen to some live jazz. During the winter, there's live music three nights a week, and in spring and summer, there's a band every night. "We usually have it on lobster night, and then we do it Friday and Saturday nights," says Ealy. "And of course at all the big events we have music."

Although Ideal was his first restaurant, Ealy owns three others now--two in San Diego and one in Maui. "By expanding, we were sort of able to find things that worked in other places and then try them at Ideal," he says. "When we opened the San Diego restaurant, it was a more Hawaiian-influenced menu, so some of the things that sold really well down there we were able to bring to Ideal. Some of the stuff we got from the Hawaii restaurant definitely works in Santa Cruz."

That explains why, in addition to steak and lobster, the Ideal menu features Malaysian prawns, which are done up in a light coconut and basil breading and served with a tangy plum sauce. "They have sort of an island flavor," says Ealy. Their pasta dishes, too, have some unique touches, like the skirt steak and gorgonzola pasta.

The restaurant has been such a success that they've started doing breakfast year-round instead of just during the summer.

"The thing with Ideal that's so cool is that we have the espresso bar in the morning," says Ealy, "so we're open from 7 in the morning until, like, 2 in the morning, when the bar closes, so there's just so much to offer. You can have a fully different experience every time you're here."

Ealy opened Ideal when he was only 24, and this year he's celebrating its 10-year anniversary. "It'll be 10 years on St. Patrick's Day," Ealy says. "It's kind of a milestone for us. We're superhappy. Every year for us it's been pretty much a better year than the one before, so it's perfect."

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From the February 4-11, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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