On April 13, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article by Carolyn Jung on the state of the Santa Cruz culinary scene, and her lackluster assertions rubbed me the wrong way. The article, headlined “Santa Cruz Dining Scene Shakes Off Its College Town Image,” leaned heavily on the input of local cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, but didn’t accurately reflect the dining scene or its history, and neglected many of the major players.
Jung began by claiming that in Santa Cruz, “the dining landscape was dominated by the frozen, the fried and far too flabby clam chowders”—a frustratingly narrow vantage point from which to frame the rest of the article. Santa Cruz County boasts a $1.5 billion agriculture industry, and at least one farmers market is available every day of the week during the summer months. Those ingredients aren’t just going into home kitchens; I frequently run into chefs while grabbing my own groceries.
Nguyen credits Kendra Baker and the opening of the Penny Ice Creamery in 2010 for “invigorating the area.” Not to dismiss Baker’s positive influence, but featuring her alone glosses over a long history of restaurants and chefs. India Joze, La Posta, Soif, Oswald, the now-closed Theo’s, Gabriella Cafe, Ristorante Avanti and Lillian’s are just a few of the restaurants that celebrate our local bounty with flair. More recently, the wave of pop-up restaurants represents the type of adventurous risk-taking that is a sign of a thriving culinary scene.
For Nguyen and Jung, “the breadth of dining” in Santa Cruz is showcased through Earth Belly, Mutari, Shun Feng, East End Gastropub, Jaguar and Home. These are indeed some of the area’s best, but it’s an oddly incomplete list at best, and it’s perplexing that after crediting Baker with advancing the scene they fail to include her and business partner Zach Davis’ fine-dining establishment, Assembly.
There’s no mention of Santa Cruz County’s dozens of fine wineries, high-caliber craft breweries or hundreds of excellent local food and beverage artisans. Santa Cruz-based traveling dinner series Outstanding in the Field, for example, was a leader in the farm-to-table movement more than a decade ago, and still is today.
It’s not easy to capture what makes a dining scene special in a single article—I struggle to be able to cover everything here even with this column—and in the end, Jung sold our culinary community short. Misrepresenting what’s available in Santa Cruz to millions of readers throughout the Bay Area benefits no one, and especially not local restaurants that rely on having a slice of our $700 million tourism pie.