For local restaurants, this year has been challenging at best. Dine-in was not an option for several months, which meant going to takeout only—or even closing completely (raise a glass to 99 Bottles, Gilda’s, Cremer House, et al.).
Outdoor dining was the first step back, and more recently reduced-capacity indoor dining has provided another lifeline. But restaurants operate on razor-thin margins under normal circumstances, and many are still struggling with no end to the pandemic in sight.
Enter Santa Cruz Restaurant Week (SCRW). While it’s true that “more important than ever” is now reaching a “we’re all in this together” level of overuse, the truth is that this showcase for our community’s dining scene is actually more important than ever. There is no more waiting until the time is right to support our Santa Cruz dining ecosystem—if we don’t get out and show our love for our favorite restaurants, we very well may lose them.
Many locals are ready to do that; others don’t yet feel entirely comfortable being out to dinner, even outdoors. With that in mind, SCRW has adapted for the age of social distancing with options for both dine-in and takeout.
To introduce you to this year’s SCRW participants and what they’re offering for this week of fine dining, we let them tell their stories, both about how they are navigating these uncertain times, and what they are most excited about on this year’s menu. So without further ado, here are the chefs, owners and staff of your SCRW restaurants, in their own words.
What are you most excited about on the Restaurant Week Menu?
“New to the menu are items that we will be featuring regularly, such as the artichoke soufflé and blackened ahi appetizers. And for dessert, we’re doing a housemade berry cobbler with cornmeal crust and vanilla ice cream.”
–Ben Kralj, executive chef/general manager at Back Nine Grill and Bar
“All of the menu is exciting to me, especially the local halibut that is pan-roasted and has heirloom tomatoes, pickled red onions, and fresh arugula. The dish comes with a choice of side, either Parmesan creamy polenta, whipped potato, or mushroom risotto. It is finished with a basil, garlic, and lemon olive oil and a little Parmesan for added flavor.”
-Jesus Espinoza, executive sous chef at Chaminade
“It’s kind of like asking ‘Who’s your favorite child?’, but I would say the truffle mushroom ravioli which is made by Bigoli, a local pasta company. The sauce is housemade; it’s a garlic cream sauce with bacon, tomato, sweet peppers, summer squash, and Parmesan cheese.”
-Paul Cocking, owner at Gabriella Café
“Our homemade meatballs are always a hit as an appetizer. And our gourmet pasta is a favorite of many as well. For dessert, our housemade and traditional cannolis are delicious.”
-Tracy Parks-Barber, co-owner of Kianti’s
“It is a really nice opportunity to come back to a little bit of normalcy and try something new. For sure the lobster and crab ravioli, with a prawn bisque ragout sauce. We’re also bringing in black truffles from Italy, and we’ll serve a special black truffle pizza.”
-Matteo Robecchi, manager of Tramonti
“The pumpkin-seed stew. It has a tomato-based sauce with collard greens and is seasoned with salt and pepper. It really brings out the flavor of the pumpkin seeds. Most people don’t realize how tasty they are.”
-Akindele Bankole, owner of Veg on the Edge
“The caramel apple cheesecake. It has a walnut crust and is a caramel cheesecake topped with caramelized apples and candied walnuts, finished with a rosemary whipped cream.”
-Jesikah Stolaroff, owner/executive chef at Vim
“A chance to be able to showcase our food to the public. Our beef short ribs are amazing, they’re boneless Kalbi-style and served with mashed potatoes and house veggies. We will also feature a fresh local catch, served with Asian rice and vegetables.”
-Michael Harrison, owner of Michael’s on Main
“The homegrown kale salad, with marinated onions, avocado, and a lemon soy vinaigrette. The short ribs are braised with chocolate coffee stout and served with a jalapeño spoon bread, which is almost a cross between cornbread and risotto. For dessert we have a flourless chocolate cake with honeycomb candy crumble.”
-Trevor Bridge, general manager at Costanoa
“The veal scallopini: it has a light tomato sauce with olive oil and capers, and comes with polenta and a spring mix salad. It’s a dish you don’t usually find here in Santa Cruz.”
-Giovanbattista Spanu, owner/chef at Lago di Como
“We are most excited to introduce our offerings to Santa Cruz; it is our first time doing Restaurant Week. People really love our Hawaiian barbeque pork sliders. We smoke the pork in house and have a unique housemade barbeque sauce as well. We are also offering our Makai burger, served with a housemade pineapple jalapeño chutney.”
-Peter Drobac, co-owner of Makai
“The seasonal and local food, and all the local organic fruits and vegetables. We’re serving specialties like wild-caught Alaskan salmon, wild-caught coconut shrimp, and a grass-fed beef dish. We also use Ayurvedic healing spices: The moment you eat our food you feel better, nourished and healed.”
-Ayoma Wilen, owner/executive chef at Pearl of the Ocean
“To let the hotel guests and locals alike try Sanderling’s in a different way than they’re used to. We’re serving local-caught black cod coming with sunchokes, braised kale, and a celery apple slaw. I’m also excited for Auntie Julie’s cake, coming with persimmons and dates, and a spiked cream similar to eggnog. It kind of has that holiday warmth.”
-David Baron, executive chef at Sanderling’s
“The scallops: It’s a killer deal, and they should be really delicious. They are served with preserved lemon and wild mushrooms. It will be a rich and creamy dish but have a lovely freshness. Also the endive salad, coming with shaved fennel, fall fruit, and pecans. It will have a nice balance between the bitter greens and the fall fruit.”
-Dede Eckhardt, wine shop manager at Soif
“We make a sautéed calamari over spaghetti, with garlic and white wine, served in a spicy tomato sauce. We also serve a riccioli pasta, which comes with mushrooms, Italian sausage, and marinara sauce.”
-Marco Paoleppi, owner of Sugo Italian Pasta Bar
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing during the pandemic?
“The lack of customers, that’s the biggest thing. At first people weren’t allowed to come out, then the fires hit, and with all the ash in the air people didn’t want to dine outside. But now people are coming back. We have expanded our outdoor seating and have two heated outdoor garden patios.”
-Jean-Pierre Iuliano, chef/owner at Café Mare
“To be honest, it’s the uncertainty, the not knowing what is going to happen next. This has been not just for us, but for everyone I can think of—there is no certainty. And for restaurants, we set up outside but then it was smokey and then it was hot, and we weren’t sure when we could seat inside. The uncertainty in not knowing where we’re going next, what is and is not allowed beyond a month or two, is really, really difficult.”
-Patrice Boyle, owner of La Posta
“Not meeting our normal revenue and not being able to have our regulars inside the restaurant. We’re hoping for a recovery from the pandemic and to get back to normal business volume. We’re very grateful to the local customers; their loyalty has kept us open.”
-Jay Dib, owner of Mozaic
“Initially it was the challenge of creating an outdoor space that reflected the uniqueness of our indoor space. From there, the challenges were staffing appropriately and learning to adapt to the constantly changing protocols, such as indoor dining or lack thereof. It’s what I call the ‘Covid Coaster.’”
-Liza Corona-Wadstein, general manager at Hula’s