Oh, Santa Cruz, it's your betwixtness that defines you. Culture and counterculture. Forest and sea. Surfers and professors. (Or surfers who are professors.) You are quirky, funky and laid-back, yes. But you also have superb restaurants (see below), repertory movie houses that rival San Francisco's (The Nick, 210 Lincoln St.; the Del Mar, 1124 Pacific Ave.), thriving independent bookstores (see below) and the best jazz club on the West Coast (Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St.). With only 62,000 residents, you are unique; your small population belies your large reputation. You are a state of mind, for sure, but you also offer a thousand things to do, including new ones every day. That's why I never get tired of you.
Five minutes from downtown, this neighborhood has taken off, and much of the activity centers on Swift and Ingalls streets (just off Mission Street, the main drag). Visit the micro-boutique wineries (www.surfcityvintners.com), a whole cluster of them, offering tastings and surrounded by cool shops selling designer clothes, high-end lights, high-end yarn, fancy meats. Enjoy one of the seasonal ales at the all-organic (and often crowded) Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing (402 Ingalls St.). Linger over a creamy bowl of polenta at Kelly's French Bakery (402 Ingalls St.), which shares a spacious patio with the surrounding shops, a favorite gathering spot for locals. Turn the corner and shop for French linens at Vero France (330 Ingalls St.).
I know, I know. Too much laid-back stimulation (it's that betwixtness, again), too much comfort -- and just another day on the Westside, which has become a hot spot for dining. Check out these restaurants: O'mei (the Cui Pi orange beef! the eggplant! the flavors!), Bantam (gourmet pizzas, thin-crusted and wood-fired), West End Tap & Kitchen (great burgers), Ristorante Avanti (chicken cacciatore like grandma made), and Your Place (which just opened and has exceptional sand dabs, delicately breaded and lightly sauteed).
But the best parts of the Westside are outdoors:
Begin at nearby Seymour Marine Discovery Center: Touch a swellshark, view the 87-foot skeleton of a blue whale, walk the cliffs (100 Shaffer Road, http://seymourcenter.ucsc.edu). Next activity: Stroll the length of West Cliff Drive -- a dramatic (and mercifully flat) ocean-side jaunt -- from Natural Bridges State Park to Mitchell's Cove Beach, which is dog-friendly and filled with curvaceous rock formations, easy to climb, at the base of Sunset Avenue.
Continue to Lighthouse Point to watch the surfers in Steamer Lane, to listen to the barking sea lions on Seal Rock and to explore the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum inside the Lighthouse (www.santacruzsurfingmuseum.org).
Follow West Cliff Drive all the way to the end, and you'll be at the Santa Cruz Wharf (where Riva Fish House, at No. 31, has the best calamari in town) and on the fringes of downtown (where the Santa Cruz Warriors, an NBA development team, play through April 5 at Kaiser Permanente Arena, 140 Front St.) You'll also be next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park. Giant Dipper time! (Check boardwalk hours and events here: http://beachboardwalk.com.)
The business corridor along Pacific Avenue has taken a rap for its aggressive panhandlers. Far from the quaint place it was years ago, it remains a fascinating place; it's got life to it. And in the mornings, it still can be quiet and calming in a small-town way. Try the "Mike's Mess" with home fries and cornbread at funky Zachary's Restaurant, the most classic of the city's breakfast spots (819 Pacific Ave). I'm also partial to the Bagelry (try the hummus or egg salad toppings, or the "Moxie"; 320 Cedar St.) and the tucked-away Hidden Peak Teahouse, where you can sip unusual blends and purchase cool vintage teapots; no cell phones allowed (1541-C Pacific Ave.).
And don't forget: you'll never "get" Santa Cruz without spending time in its downtown cafes, of which there must be more per capita than anywhere in California. These are some definitive ones: Caffe Pergolesi, aka "the Perg," a bide-your-time hippie place in an old Victorian (418 Cedar St.); Lulu's at the Octagon (118 Cooper St.), where friendly baristas serve up specialty drinks in an eight-sided landmark building (next door to the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St.); and trendy Verve Coffee Roasting, which owns the current scene; brewing a cup of coffee is theater at Verve (1540 Pacific).
There's fine dining, too: With its deep wine list and delectable small plates, Soif Restaurant Wine Bar and Merchants (105 Walnut St.) is my favorite dining spot in Santa Cruz, though romantic little Gabriella Café (910 Cedar St.; and oh, the risotto with chanterelles!) isn't far behind. For a handcrafted dessert, cross the street to Penny Ice Creamery (913 Cedar St.), where lines often are out the door. And, oh yes, there are blocks and blocks of shops: Artisans Gallery (1368 Pacific Ave.), O'Neill Surf Shop (110 Cooper St., at Pacific Avenue) Sockshop & Shoe Co. (amazing deals on outdoor sale days, 1515 Pacific Ave.) and Chefworks (1527 Pacific Ave.) are some of the most interesting.
I've left the best for last: those locally owned bookstores, which have outlived the Borders invasion and bankruptcy. If you love books, then while away the hours at Bookshop Santa Cruz, among the nation's leading independents (1520 Pacific Ave.); at tiny Literary Guillotine (204 Locust St.), impossibly crammed with volumes; or at Logos Books & Records (1117 Pacific Ave.), a mecca with inventory stretching over two floors.
Dave Iermini, one of Logos' veteran buyers, tells the story of a friend who was at a party in London, where he met Bruce Thomas, who played bass with Elvis Costello and the Attractions. "Where are you from?" Thomas asked, being polite. "Santa Cruz, California," the friend answered. "Oh!" shouted Thomas, in his broad British accent. "Logos Books and Records!"
East of downtown lies Midtown (some refer to it as the Eastside), a neighborhood that's reaching critical mass along Soquel Avenue: shops, restaurants, cafes, grocers. At night, indie bands pack the Crepe Place (1134 Soquel Ave.). The Rio Theatre (1205 Soquel Ave.) books an intriguing mix of events: Leo Kottke, Bela Fleck and Ursula K. Le Guin are among the coming attractions. The Buttery (702 Soquel Ave.) has the best baked goods in Santa Cruz; kill me with the carrot cake, please. It's worth braving the lines at Tacos Moreno (1053 Water St.) for the al pastor burrito and chile verde tacos. And you cannot beat the breakfast scrambles at Linda's Seabreeze Cafe (542 Seabright Ave.), only a few blocks from one of the sweetest (and least touristy) beaches in the city, Seabright State Beach at the foot of Third Avenue.
It's also in Midtown that I've discovered a new breakfast and lunch place, Midtown Cafe (1121 Soquel Ave.), which opened in January. It's sleek and airy, with community tables in the front room and a sunny back patio where I recently sat down with owner Zac Creager. At age 30, he already has had a couple of careers: as a trekking guide in Chile and as a manager of local farmers markets. He describes the food in his cafe as "soulful and simple."
I'll go with "soulful," but simple? I had the pork confit, generously mounded in the center of my plate, topped with a perfectly fried egg, served with a potato pancake and bordered by slivers of roasted golden beets, locally sourced, of course. It was delicious, it cost $8, and the cafe had a buzz; the patio was quickly filling up with couples and young families. Coltrane was playing on the sound system. "Soulful," I thought to myself. "This is my new place."