Most Santa Cruzans are sun worshippers, and with at least 300 days of sunshine a year, there are plenty of opportunities for devotion. We can’t all get to the beach every day, but we all need to eat, and the experience is more pleasurable if a mountain breeze, briny ocean air or bustle of foot traffic adds ambience to your table. Plus, new scientific studies show what Californians already know—exposure to all that free Vitamin D makes you happier. So we rounded up some of our best outdoor eateries to share with your two- and four-legged friends, and family.
21231 E. Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz
This delightful breakfast and lunch spot is housed inside a building shaped like a—you guessed it—windmill. Built in 1927, this charming building was originally a flower bulb shop, then a candy store. Now guests can enjoy delicious, creative meals made from scratch, often with the vegetables and herbs grown out back. Our fave: the Sautéed Veggie Croissant Sandwich, filled with seasonal vegetables, scrambled eggs, sheep’s milk feta and a Dijon-dill sauce. The kitchen is on the smaller side, so grab a gluten-free treat or a smoothie and chillax on their sun-filled patio while you wait.
101 Cooper St, Santa Cruz
It’s a little difficult to find Laili unless you know where to look, but don’t let that deter you. Tucked off a side street downtown, this elegant restaurant boasts one of the most gorgeous patios this side of Venice and is replete with romantic atmosphere. High stone walls laced with flowering vines completely seclude diners from the bustle of downtown. Within this peaceful enclave, Laili’s Mediterranean menu with an Afghan twist is loaded with exciting “Silk Road flavors,” and is vegetarian and vegan friendly. Come see why this hotspot is regularly voted "Best Patio Dining" in Good Times Best Of.
125 Beach St, Santa Cruz
The owners of the Picnic Basket are the masterminds behind the Penny Ice Creamery, Assembly and POP UP, and it’s easy to imagine that the offerings here are what they might make for lunch in their own homes. The breakfasts, salads and sandwiches are made with sustainable, local ingredients and packed with adventurous flavors. We love the Picnic Basket Reuben with El Salchichero pastrami, tangy carrot slaw, Swiss cheese, spinach and smoked paprika mayo, and the Daily Grain Salad with kale, beets and strawberries. Eat on the patio overlooking the Boardwalk esplanade and the Wharf, or pack it to go and picnic across the street on the beach. Don’t forget to get a scoop of ice cream for dessert.
1522 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz
Chocolate’s outdoor patio is lined with leafy potted plants that keep Pacific Avenue traffic out and the breezy Mediterranean atmosphere in. This downtown restaurant serves delicious, Italian-inspired lunches and dinners, but its nomenclature wasn’t chosen by accident: the name of the game here is chocolate. Their extensive hot chocolate and homemade truffle menu is filled with decadent cacao concoctions, all highly recommended.
2218 E. Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz
Ah, the Crow’s Nest. This beloved restaurant has hunkered down at the mouth of the Santa Cruz Harbor for over forty years, and has become an institution as timeless as the views of glittering sunlight on the Monterey Bay. This is where you go to have a front row seat to the comings and goings of sailboats and catamarans, perhaps glimpsing the telltale spray of a migrating whale, while enjoying a marbled rib-eye and fresh-caught wild salmon. After watching the sunset, head upstairs for late night live music and comedy.
7941 Soquel Dr, Aptos
A $6 burger with a million dollar view? Yes please! The sweeping view from the large patio of this local burger joint overlooks the forests of Niscene Marks State Park. Among the hot dogs, sliders, sandwiches and salads on their menu are their famous gut-busting creations, like a burger served between two grilled cheese sandwiches and another that uses glazed donuts as a bun. Wash it all down with something cold and bubbly from their competitive list of craft beers. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to go on a hike to burn off a few calories.
Pleasure Pizza East Side Eatery
800 41st Ave, Santa Cruz
This Pleasure Point restaurant is the full-service counterpart to the beloved Pleasure Pizza slice shack, located across the street. Owner Derek Rupp is a former Google Executive Chef, and filled his creative menu with enticing twists on local favorites, made with organic ingredients whenever possible. If you can tear yourself away from a slice of Santa Barbara or K-Pig, try Frankie’s Famous Chicken Pozole or the Prawn and Bacon Mac. (Psst—come in on Thursday for ½ Price Pitchers and free bacon on any dish!)
6256 Hwy 9, Felton
Emily Thomas of Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and Bob Locatelli of New Leaf Market joined forces to create the Cremer House, a new American restaurant and alehouse in Felton. The historic building in which the restaurant is housed was built in 1874 and is rich with character. The covered wrap-around porch is a charming spot to enjoy a hearty dinner paired with a glass or two from the tap list of 25 excellent craft beers, wines, ciders and homemade sodas.
535 7th Ave, Santa Cruz
There are few local restaurants as utterly “Santa Cruz” as Harbor Café. What started out a hangout for sailors and fisherman back in 1960 morphed into the ultimate breakfast and lunch spot for all ages. On sunny weekends, brunchers spill onto the sidewalk with Bloody Marys, mimosas and coffee from the outdoor bar, while they patiently wait for one of the coveted redwood picnic tables. Friendly, dressed-down servers deliver plate after plate of benedicts, frittatas, huevos rancheros and burgers, made with fresh, local ingredients. Four-legged friends are welcome, and can even order from their own menu.
1 Chaminade Lane, Santa Cruz
The restaurants and bar at the Chaminade Hotel & Spa offer spectacular 180-degree views of the County and the Monterey Bay from their mountaintop home. Visit the Sunset Restaurant for a romantic meal above the city’s twinkling lights, or Linwood Bar & Grill for a glass of local Pinot and a bite as the sun goes down. But the real charmer at this elegant eatery is their Pooch Patio Menu, featuring “Yappitizers”, “Faux Paw Entrees”, Doggie Drinks and “Puppy Love Desserts”.
Ideal Bar & Grill
106 Beach St, Santa Cruz
Located just steps away from the Wharf and Main Beach, you can’t get much closer to the water without getting wet. Visitors to Ideal frequently wander in with sand between their toes for a quick bite before they hit the Boardwalk rides. Guardians have even been seen keeping an eye on the kiddos making sandcastles while they snack on nachos and enjoy an icy cocktail from the patio. Ideal’s menu is family oriented with a range of seafood and traditional American dishes, with rotating weekly special offers.
The Crepe Place
1134 Soquel Ave, Santa Cruz
Wander through the rooms of this 100-year-old Victorian building and you’ll eventually step out onto a patio oasis. The tables are well placed among the leafy ferns, trees, and bubbling fountains so guests feel secluded from each other and can focus on the peaceful atmosphere and eclectic fare. That’s just until the sun goes down, though—the Crepe Place is also one of Santa Cruz’s most fun and energetic music venues, and acts on the outdoor stage often keep people dancing late on warm summer nights.
There are five beachfront patios in a candy-colored row on Capitola's Esplanade, each with their own vibe. Find the one that suits you—or has a rare open seat—and enjoy the spot where Soquel Creek gently reaches the Monterey Bay. Choose from Zelda's on the Beach, Paradise Beach Grille, Margaritaville, Stockton Bridge Grill, and Stockton Bridge Grill.