People Watching in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a small town. And often times small towns—even those as lively and quirky as ours—can feel a little sleepy. Luckily, there are plenty of places around here to sit and snack while monitoring curious people trying to mind their own business. Here are some of our top picks for people watching.


Charlie Hong Kong

Charlie Hong Kong has lengthy windows—the hallmark of any truly great people-watching eatery—behind which snacking voyeurs may sit and watch people stroll and drive past. The great thing about windows like these is that people outside will seldom look through them and notice you gawking at them. (Seriously, do you have any idea how often people pick their noses at stoplights?)

Just last week, as a matter of fact, I was sitting in my car at the intersection of Seabright and Soquel avenues, talking to myself for a couple of minutes like a crazy person—just like I always do—when, as I turned my head to the left, I felt a text buzz on my cell phone. And behind the windows of Charlie Hong Kong I spotted my friend waving at me, closing his phone and smiling. “Damn you, Tice!”

1141 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz.


Betty’s Noodle House

Oh … behold the melting pot that makes up the county’s bus ridership meandering from METRO’s Pacific Station and rounding the corner past Betty’s. And yes, behold the classily dressed Santa Cruz Warrior execs who work across the street. And of course, behold the drunk people arguing with the cops at three in the afternoon. So, I guess this is how downtown Santa Cruz got its motto: “It’s all right here!”

Anyway, while you’re here, order the kimchi fried rice.

920 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.

Caffe Pergolesi

Pergs is a hub for what I’d call “interactive people watching.” You know, why simply watch the crusties, the literature nerds, the organic coffee lovers, the high schoolers, the dropouts and the incredibly hungover from afar … when you can instead join the eclectic mix on the patio? Make friends, be part of the fun.

418 Cedar St., Santa Cruz.

Jalapeños Taqueria

Like Charlie’s, Jalapeños is home to long shadow-y windows that provide optimal viewing of the lower Pacific Avenue intersection, bustling with cars and foot traffic. The other day, actually, I saw my friend make a left-hand turn there while I sat snarfing down my veggie-filled downtown burrito. “Nice use of the turn lane, Emily, but don’t forget your hand signals next time!”

206 Laurel St., Santa Cruz.

New Leaf’s Outdoor Seating

There’s a long list of good places to eat on Pacific Avenue, where a steady stream of buskers, tourists and students amble past. But New Leaf’s free patio area is clearly the most affordable. Grab a tasty Gloria’s Pantry snack for under $5 in the store’s deli section and take it outside. Or simply bring your own lunch!

1134 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.


Picnic Basket

There are a dozen joints lining Beach Street, the avenue that faces the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, making them prime tourist-spying territory. Who, out of your friends, can count the most fanny packs? Challenge them to a game of Find the European!

Many of the restaurants along this corridor are forgettable, but two that stand out here are Sawasdee, a Thai place with stunning second-story views of the Monterey Bay, and The Picnic Basket, a more affordable super fresh spot, where folks-in-the-know can watch sandy, sun-burned out-of-towners stumble by. On weekends, The Picnic Basket is also within earshot of karaoke at Ideal Bar and Grill across the street—just close enough to hear seasoned crooners serenading cocktail-guzzling beach bums, and distant enough to shut out the more painful warblers as they yodel “Margaritavlle” and Michael Jackson. Just the sounds of another sunny Santa Cruz Saturday.

25 Beach St., Santa Cruz.