Best Beaches Northern California: Flavors of Capitola and Santa Cruz
All travel has a culinary flavor, given that one has to eat. True culinary travel, however — I’d say what defines it is the focus. It’s about eating the specialties of a place. Learning about the food traditions of the people. It doesn’t imply eating lavishly, isn’t necessarily about haute cuisine, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. Visiting a farmers market and creating a picnic from the produce stall can, I believe, make for a true “culinary travel” experience.
Or — take sheep’s milk yoghurt drizzled with honey and sprinkled with pistachio nuts. This stands out in my memory from 20 years ago as a sublime breakfast — something my daughter and I ate several mornings in a row on the Greek island of Skopelos. She was 13. The pair of us were on a three-month backpacking trip around Europe; sleeping on beaches at that point. Eating cheap and local. Drinking ouzo and retsina at night (me).
I got to thinking about Greece and the yoghurt — and pondering what signifies culinary travel — while on a quickie beach getaway to Capitola Village and nearby Santa Cruz this past weekend. Probably because both of these very different, yet similar, Highway 1 “resorts” strike me as U.S.–style versions of the Greek island vacation-village beach scene.
I wasn’t surprised to read that Sunset Magazine, in a piece titled “The tiki gods smile on the capital of perfect surf,” named Capitola one of the 20 best small Western towns in the U.S. its March 2009 issue. When I googled Capitola, Wikipedia told me it’s the oldest beach resort on the West Coast.
Wikipedia also gave me this strange-but-true snippet: “In the summer of 1961 hundreds of birds attacked the town. Most of the birds were sooty shearwaters — a normally non-aggressive species that rarely comes to shore. Alfred Hitchcock was a regular visitor to nearby Santa Cruz and read about this episode.” It apparently inspired him to make the movie The Birds, (filmed in Bodega Bay on the Sonoma coast — remember Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy? — those nightmare attacks?). The reason for Capitola’s reality version of The Birds remained unknown for more than 25 years, according to Wikipedia; at which point it was discovered that they’d been affected by a toxin produced by red algae.
It so happened that once upon a time, I ate one of the worst meals of my life there.
To be accurate, it wasn’t exactly my meal. And I didn’t in fact eat it. But I may as well have, given how it lingers. It was something my friend, Linda, who lives there, had ordered. Linda is from South Africa like me. She chose to buy in Capitola pretty much for the same reasons the place feels so good to me. I grew up on the beaches in Durban (if you go there, try and Portuguese restaurants and be sure to eat Indian cuisine). She grew up on the beaches in Cape Town (a foodie city if ever there was one and of course, kick-off point for South Africa’s wine country). Something about Capitola feels like home.
On that bad meal day, we’d been eating our way through the Capitola Village restaurants, exploring them in honor of her upcoming 50th birthday.
Friends and family were flying in from South Africa. She was planning an evening booze cruise, Sunday morning kayaking, and a dinner party at a restaurant, among other things. We thought an eatery way out on the wharf would be a great location for the dinner — but whatever she ordered smelled like dirty old socks. I remember it well because she said “smell this” and I gagged.
She sent it back. They charged her for it. And — can you believe this? The reason I remember the meal so well eight years later is — we paid. We’ve talked about it often and each time, feel really stupid. (Linda ended up booking us into Il Pirata on the Esplanade for her birthday. Still there. I think we ate Italian.)
Fortunately for my taste buds, there’s something deliciously tasty I’ve also come to associate with Capitola. What I treat myself to on every visit, sometimes more than once, is a slice of pesto pizza from Pizza My Heart on the Esplanade. The crust is crispy and thin but substantial enough to pick up and bite into. The meal is simple. It’s cheap. From the flavors and close scrutiny, I know the toppings are fresh. And like the sheep’s milk yoghurt on the Greek island, quite sublime.
Most of the places on the main drag (the Esplanade) in Capitola Village look more suited to Margaritas, cocktails, beer and partying than fine dining, which is just fine by me. Beach resort “culinary” culture, if you will. And appropriate, given that I was there last weekend doing my groupie thing and hanging out with the band (the Fabulous CruiseTones) that played a gig on Sunday at Zelda’s.
We ate at Zelda’s afterwards as the shoreline turned golden and the sailboats bobbed gently where they were anchored near the wharf; the fried calamari, which was on the menu as a special; and the Monterey seafood bowl, which lists clams, prawns, fish and calamari simmered in a wine clam broth with roasted garlic, fresh tomatoes, green onion, vegetables “and finished with a touch of sweet butter.”
I don’t know if the calamari was local or if the seafood really was from Monterey Bay. And it didn’t seem the sort of place to ask about the origins of the iceberg lettuce in the house salad; whether it was picked that morning, and at which farmers market. So I didn’t.
Destination: Santa Cruz Boardwalk
Manager Sean Carr gave me the potted version and a book to browse when I asked about the place. Built in 1877 as a private home, it later became the local hospital. After that, Catholic nuns moved in and cared for what Carr delicately described as “the mentally and physically frail.”
It then became a private residence once more before being turned into the annex of the Dream Inn, a hotel across the street. Sometime in the 80s this arrangement ended and the place became a squat.
Now the three-story Italianate Victorian with its spacious wraparound porch is all grand and pristine once again, looking stately, like a crown on the crest of the hill it sits on. If you get a room with a view, you will look down toward Santa Cruz’s main beach, the most popular beach for family vacations in the San Francisco Bay area. Also, the Boardwalk, California’s oldest amusement beach theme park (100 years old in 2007) and a State Historic Landmark — with one of the top video game arcades in the country.
[I reckon the saying “dead as a doornail” should be changed to “dead as a closed Boardwalk on a balmy night.” No screams of delight last Sunday. No hectic activity. No candy floss or ice cream cones. Turns out summer in Santa Cruz starts in the middle of June — not directly after Memorial Day. Had I gone there one week later, the Boardwalk would have been open until 11 p.m.]
But last Sunday, the only noise was a punk band in a bar off the bowling alley.
Walking the wharf both on Sunday night and early Monday morning, I remembered having a mediocre eating experience there a few years back. Is it that wharf dining is for tourists and that establishments are not concerned about repeat visitors — or was it just bad luck?
As it turned out, I was not looking to dine and, walking the wharf, the haunting foghorn barks and growly roars and entertaining antics of the resident sea lion families were sustenance enough.
Every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining. The current economy means spots like the West Cliff Inn have specials when otherwise they wouldn’t. “This time last year, we were selling out every night (as was the Dream Inn across the way),” says Carr.
Not so right now.
And “I believe in heads on beds,” he adds.
So don’t be reluctant. If you get a wild hare for a beach escape, call around — especially for Sunday nights and weekdays — and ask about discount rates.
Know that at the West Cliff Inn, you need to book ahead to get a room with a sea view. (We were too late and got and a room with a side view and a spa bath. I mention the view because a quick survey of Facebook and Twitter friends revealed that a view is a must-have for beach stay-overs.)
The breakfasts and the evening hors d’oeuvres (with wine) served at the West Cliff Inn have seen some cut-backs in response to the economy, says Carr.
But they still shoot for fresh and local fare and support the farmers markets and resident innkeeper Laura Jean Liles did some delicious things with mushrooms and eggs served as a quiche on Monday morning.