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They Thirst: Soif, which took the Goldie honors for Best Wine List, draws wine lovers looking for something different.

The Taste of Victory

Goldies medalists cop to their winning recipes

By Jessica Neuman Beck

The hungry masses have spoken: give us small, give us local and give us good food. The restaurants have responded with: hey, this is how we've always done it.

Don't misunderstand--they're happy to have the accolades. Running a successful eatery in Santa Cruz County is hard work, as any restaurateur will tell you. The restaurants winning Goldies are, of course, a talented lot, but what makes them a cut above? We asked several of this year's eclectic winners--from a vegetarian fast-food joint to a wine bar to a good old- fashioned hamburger stand--to weigh in on what it takes to stay ahead of an ever-changing market.

Soif is a newcomer to the Goldies list. French for "thirst," it boasts a wine list that can quench even the most parched of palates. They sell bottles individually, as well as pairing the wines with their gourmet foods. Co-owner Hugh Weiler says he's trying to do something different: pair wines you can't find anywhere else with an ever-evolving menu of first-class cuisine. "Some people have the opinion that it's expensive," he says, "and it really isn't for what you get." Opening an upscale wine bar in laid-back Santa Cruz has been somewhat challenging, he admits. "I think people are still trying to figure us out," Weiler says. Obviously they're doing something right, because Metro Santa Cruz readers gave Soif top honors in the Best Wine List catagory. "Someone's noticing," says Weiler. "I feel great about that."

Elayne Higbee of Cole's BBQ attributes her success to "a lot of luck, basically." A hands-on manager, Higbee is in the restaurant five days a week, and has been for the past 20 years. "It doesn't get easier," she laughs. Winner of the Best BBQ Goldie, the secret of Cole's success is surprisingly simple: "We actually do barbecue," says Higbee. "A lot of places don't use wood, but every morning we start a fire. Not just turn on propane or anything, we have mesquite and oak wood." This old-fashioned approach to barbecue has drawn customers from all over the county. "We have people drive from Scotts Valley to come visit us," says Higbee. "The smell coming out of the chimney is our best advertising."

When asked about the secrets to his success, Neil Jorgensen of Saturn Café pauses. "This is deep stuff," he says. It's the sort of reaction you'd expect from someone affiliated with one of Santa Cruz's most eclectic landmarks. Jorgensen attributes much of the Saturn's appeal to understanding what the people want. "For us, it's a lot of younger people, a lot of college students," he says. "Santa Cruz has shifted in the last 10 years. If you look at all the new businesses downtown, they're not what they used to be. They're a lot more commercial. Urban Outfitters sort of says a lot. In terms of restaurants, everything is sort of cleaner and a lot more moneyed, so we look at what that means." He laughs. "We don't do that, of course. We're kind of weird. But I think it's important to know what's going on in terms of what people want, what people don't want." Jorgensen points to the fun factor as an integral part of the Saturn's enduring success. "I don't feel like there's a lot of people that are a lot of fun, you know?" This spirit of irreverence certainly contributed to the Saturn Café winning the Goldie for Most Innovative Menu, as well as the coveted Best Late-Night Eatery. "We don't try to spin it," says Jorgensen. "We just see what comes naturally. We don't actively try to be weird, but we definitely don't discourage it."

The highly competitive Best Bagel award was taken by the Bagelry. "It's very gratifying," says owner John Hamstra. "I guess it underscores the value of sticking to what's good." Hamstra credits his success to "patience, persistence and a willingness to get up at ridiculous hours," and despite the looming specter of the low-carb revolution, he still uses the same classic recipe they've relied on for the past two decades. "It's been voiced many times by our continuing customers that that's important to them," says Hamstra, who recently developed a low-carb, low-calorie bagel to augment his already impressive menu. "There are a lot of people that we see five or six days a week." Bagels weren't always as pervasive a food item as they are today, though. "When we started this business the entire bagel map in Northern California was two shops in Berkeley, two in San Francisco and one in Palo Alto, and that was it," says Hamstra. "Now they're everywhere." Hamstra doesn't feel that Noah's is taking away any of the Bagelry's customers, although he does ask, "How close was the vote?" He seems to have made his peace with the competition. "There was certainly an impact when they arrived, but that all settled down a number of years ago," he says. "It's the great divide in choice of style of bagel. They make one style, and we make a distinctly different one, and that attracts different people."

If you're looking for a good steak, go no farther than the Hindquarter, this year's winner for Best Steak. "When your customers are happy, that's the best satisfaction," says Bob Cornell, owner of the Hindquarter. "We feel like we're successful in what we're doing because we have a really good customer base." The Hindquarter has been in business for 16 years, and what they do, they do well. "I don't want to give away my secrets," laughs Cornell, adding that he credits the combination of consistency, quality and service for the Hindquarter's success. "We use the best ingredients we can get," he says. "Our chef's been with us for 14 years. That's very important." Cornell gives his customers the opportunity to provide lots of feedback, and winning the Goldie is the kind of feedback that makes his day. "Word of mouth is the best advertising there is," he says. "You can't buy it."

Dharma's owner Bernie Shapiro doesn't hedge when it comes to the secret to his success. "Hard, hard, hard, hard, hard work," he says. "That's it." When the restaurant started 20 years ago, there wasn't a lot of competition to speak of. Now, with vegetarian cuisine creeping into even the most carnivorous of eateries, the market is a little tougher. "Since we don't serve meat, fish, chicken or eggs, we sort of isolated ourselves in one sense," Shapiro says. "We just have to be good." Despite the competition, Dharma's business is as bustling as ever. "We still crank," says Shapiro. "The new people that come think we're underpriced, but the old-timers think we're overpriced, because they still remember when we were giving the food away. That's what's happening to Santa Cruz," he says, echoing the sentiment of Saturn's Jorgensen. "They moneyed people are here." Winning the Goldie for Best Vegetarian Menu and Best Salad, Dharma's is proud to be one of the reasons people love this town. "The people that come here, come here not because of advertising--they come here because they want to come here. It's great doing business that way. It has somewhat of an old Santa Cruz vibe, still. We're one of the few remaining character stores around."

The Best Italian Goldie winner, Ristorante Italiano, is all about consistency. "Our food has always been good," says owner Janet Bolender. "It doesn't go up and down." In the 22 years they've been in business, Ristorante Italiano has used the same recipes. "We've added things, but we've used the original recipes the whole way," says Bolender. There are a lot of Italian places in the county, but Bolender claims that Ristorante Italiano is lucky enough not to be affected by the competition. "There's nothing that's really just like our restaurant," she says. "We're real family oriented. A big, fun Italian restaurant. We don't have the competition with the upscale Italian restaurants. They're a whole different group." She's proud of the fact that the restaurant has accrued several Goldies over the years. "We'd actually be upset if we didn't win," she laughs. "It's really great. The whole community really supports us, even if they just come a couple of times a year for special events."

You can't think of hamburgers in Santa Cruz without thinking of Jack's. Not surprisingly, they were this year's winner of the Best Hamburger and Best French Fries Goldies. "Jack's has been here 29 years, so we must be doing something right," says owner Connie Hutchinson. "The menu hasn't changed that much. We added a couple of sandwiches and then chicken and we have a garden burger too, but I'd say 75 percent of our business is hamburgers. Maybe more." The low-carb craze has definitely affected this restaurant as well. "We get a lot of what they call lettuce wraps, or they just say no bun," says Hutchinson. And the secret behind the fries? "We don't salt our fries," she says. "If you do, they get mushy."

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From the March 31-April 7, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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