Remembering Lost Santa Cruz Restaurants

New book explores dining spots that shaped the local scene

Liz Pollock’s new book ‘The Lost Restaurants of Santa Cruz County’ brings together stories of long-gone iconic eateries such as the Tea Cup, which once occupied space in the Flatiron building.

Old cars have adoring car shows. Defunct sports teams get memorialized with throwback jerseys. Obsolete products get re-marketed for their retro appeal. And old movies and songs never seem to go away.

But what about restaurants?

The restaurant industry has a famously high mortality rate (most independent, non-chain restaurants don’t make it to their first anniversary). Still, often because of their ephemeral nature, restaurants occupy a unique space in popular memory and in the history and personality of the cities they represent. They are totems of nostalgia and evoke strong memories of bygone eras.

To memorialize them properly, long-gone restaurants need writers like Santa Cruz’s Liz Pollock, who brings back many of the half-forgotten names of the local landscape in her new book The Lost Restaurants of Santa Cruz County.

Pollock herself is part of that glorious history. She’s lived in the area for 45 years and worked as the first female bartender at the fabled family restaurant Adolph’s in the 1980s. Since then, she has become an avid collector and archivist of Santa Cruz’s restaurant culture and has maintained an online bookstore called The Cook’s Bookcase (cooksbookcase.com) that specializes in books on cooking and wine.

“I am just the person to write this book,” she says, at a table by the window at Gilda’s on the Wharf, one of Santa Cruz’s best-known old-line family restaurants. At the table with her is a box filled with old menus and matchbooks from her collection that revive names that make for an incantation of the past for any Santa Cruz old-timer: the Ship Ahoy, Spivey’s Five Spot, Malio’s, the Tea Cup.

“I wanted to do a kind of Studs Terkel Working oral-history point of view,” she says, referring to Terkel’s classic 1974 book. “I sat down in people’s living rooms, was on the telephone for hours. I emailed, did some sleuthing, you name it.”

From 78 interviews of restaurant owners, managers, chefs, bartenders, line cooks, wait staff, and loyal customers, Pollock produced a portrait of 194 extinct restaurants in Santa Cruz County, from the landmark Davenport Cash Store to the Pronto Pup Drive-In in Watsonville, and all points in between.

Postwar Scene

As the 20th century progressed, many restaurants became emblematic of certain eras: burger joints and drive-ins in the 1950s, tiki themes in the ’60s, vegetarian places in the ’70s, sushi bars in the ’80s, etc.

Such was the story in Santa Cruz County, which gave Pollock a handy framework to write about defunct restaurants. Her story begins in the 1940s, at the height of World War II, when restaurateurs in Santa Cruz had to face food rationing due to shortages of staples, and government-mandated travel restrictions, which limited tourism. The government’s heavy hand also extended to price controls and even to wartime commandeering.

One of Santa Cruz’s signature sites at the time was the grand Casa del Rey Hotel on Beach Street, known for its ballroom and cocktail lounge Il Trocadero. In 1943, the U.S. Navy commissioned the hotel as a convalescent facility for wounded servicemen, more than 18,000 of whom recuperated there through the end of the war. The spot where Casa del Rey once stood is now the vast parking lot across the street from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The story of the postwar years in Santa Cruz specifically, and the country as a whole, was a vast throwing off of the limits and restrictions of the war. Car culture boomed, teenagers ruled the night, and new ideas in restaurants flourished. What followed was the age of the “carhop,” the name applied to waiters or waitresses that served customers sitting in their cars, usually in roller-skates and spiffy uniforms.

As Pollock relates in her book, Santa Cruz had at least two major drive-in places that catered to teens and families: The Cross Roads Drive-In, near where Depot Park is now, and Spivey’s 5 Spot on Ocean and Water streets, now the Chase Bank building.

“Everybody raved about Spivey’s,” Pollock says. “It was the place to be. When Pacific (Avenue) went both ways, people would cruise the drag, looking for girls or whatever. And they would just go back and forth (from Cross Roads to Spivey’s).”

The Cross Roads, with carhop service and a jukebox that played the hits through outside speakers, specialized in barbecue and milkshakes and, in the summer, stayed open until 3am. Spivey’s featured its trademark “broasted” chicken, cooked in a high-temperature pressure fryer to seal in the juices. In Watsonville, the go-to spot was the Pronto Pup on Main Street, famous for its corndogs.

On the cover of Pollock’s book is an image of one of the more beguiling local restaurants, the Saba Club and Caribbean Ballroom in the heart of Capitola Village. The Saba was inspired by San Francisco’s immortal Trader Vic’s, with ornate tiki and Polynesian trappings, and it featured an enormous dance floor. During its heyday—it lasted just a few years before it burned to the ground in 1957—Saba attracted some of the biggest names on jazz circuit, including Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald.

Catalyst for Change

In the 1960s, the University of California came to Santa Cruz and profoundly changed the town’s culture. The restaurants of the era reflected that change, none more dramatically than the Catalyst.

Today, Santa Cruzans know the Catalyst as the town’s most prominent live-music venue at 1011 Pacific Avenue. But when it opened in 1967, it was in a different spot (in the old St. George Hotel, roughly where Bookshop Santa Cruz exists today) and it had an entirely different orientation. As its name implied, the Catalyst was a café that was a kind of meeting place for students and faculty at the new UC campus. The Catalyst specialized in deli sandwiches served in an idiosyncratic, artsy interior. In her book, Pollock quotes one former Harbor High student saying, “We’d sit near the fountain—with the goldfish swimming inside—surrounded by lots of plants, order tea, and just hang out.”

The university’s arrival in Santa Cruz coincided with the natural foods revolution. At the center of that revolution locally was the Whole Earth Restaurant on the UCSC campus, which was opened to give students and faculty an on-campus alternative to cafeteria food. English-born master gardener Alan Chadwick was growing organic vegetables nearby and it began servicing the kitchens of the Whole Earth, creating a farm-to-table process that is common today, but then was pioneering. Pollock spent time with Paul Lee, the legendary UCSC professor who helped start the Whole Earth.

“That was really a national story,” Pollock says. “Stewart Brand, who published The Whole Earth Catalog, came to the inaugural party and gave a little speech, allowing them to use the words Whole Earth. He wanted to encourage people to get away from processed food and get back to the Earth.”

Lee also had a hand in a short-lived but notable chapter in Santa Cruz food history with the opening of the Wild Thyme Café in the old Cooper House on the Pacific Garden Mall. The Wild Thyme, which opened in 1974 and closed the following year, focused on the emerging gourmet aesthetic of the time, with entrees like shrimp crepes with dill and cream sauce, and desserts like chocolate custard mousse. Those affiliated with UCSC were thrilled to find that the restaurant maitre d’ was the university’s founding provost Page Smith.

Other local spots that reflected the growing preference for natural foods included Nature’s Harvest, on the bend in the road near Twin Lakes Beach, and the High Street Local, a near-campus place that put in its help-wanted newspaper ads: “Long hair hippie types desirable.”

“One of the significant things about the 1970s, for me,” Pollock says, “was the introduction of the credit card. Some people really rebelled against them. But they made it easier for tourists and made it so that some restaurants could capitalize on, ‘Hey, let’s live it up and get that fancier bottle of wine.’”

Lost Gems

Lost Restaurants of Santa Cruz County also remembers some restaurants that deserve a look back, though they might not be the first to come to mind for the restaurant-nostalgic. One such place is La Manzana in Watsonville.

La Manzana was the work of the late Manuel Santana, who was as much a classical artist and painter as a restaurateur. Santana had already successfully opened Manuel’s in Aptos and Jardines in San Juan Bautista (both of which are still open). La Manzana was conceived and designed by Santana and celebrated landscape architect Roy Rydell, the man who designed the Pacific Garden Mall. “The building inside and out was truly a work of art,” said Santana’s son Leonard Santana in the book.

All contemporary histories of Santa Cruz County devote a lot of space to the events of Oct. 17, 1989, when the Loma Prieta Earthquake crippled both downtown Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Many restaurants were casualties of the earthquake, none more prominently than the businesses associated with the Cooper House, which was red-tagged and demolished shortly after the quake.

Many businesses downtown were displaced and set up in a series of pavilions.  One of those housed the many downtown eateries, creating a makeshift food court atmosphere that many locals remember fondly despite the trying circumstances. The food pavilion stayed in business until 1992.

Pollock’s chapter on the earthquake throws a spotlight on one of Santa Cruz’s most celebrated restaurants, India Joze, under the direction of the brilliant fusion chef Jozseph Schulz, who called himself a “food evangelist.” India Joze was always more of a meeting place for the artistic class than just another restaurant. As Pollock says in her book, Schulz was one of the few chefs able to stay open in the days following the quake.

The Lost Restaurants of Santa Cruz County provides access to many side streets from the broad avenue of historical narrative. Pollock shows her obvious admiration to such restaurant owners as Ted Burke of the Shadowbrook, Bruce and Marcia McDougal of the Davenport Cash Store, and Cindy Lepore-Hart of the Mediterranean café Seychelles. It serves as a tribute to the tireless Stagnaro family, behind both Gilda’s and Malio’s, as well as her one-time employers at Adolph’s.

It tells the story of the Sticky Wicket, the Aptos-based watering hole that was not only a great jazz club but a hangout for the artistic crowd that included famed composer Lou Harrison and the founders of the Cabrillo Music Festival.

The old Santa Cruz Hotel, now the site of the Red Restaurant and the Red Room, is a landmark dating back to 1928. The Crown Room in the hotel, with its trademark red wallpaper, celebrated the Miss California Pageant, which took place in Santa Cruz for almost 40 years. The restaurant featured portraits of Miss California over the years, plus it had a glass case that housed the official Miss California crown.

Pollock also devotes space to the purveyors, wholesalers and distributors who supplied the restaurant business in Santa Cruz County, among them the Bargettos of the well-known Soquel winery. There’s even a nod to Pete’s Outflow Technicians who service the grease traps at various restaurants around the county.

The book’s index features a long list of names from Santa Cruz culinary history, their address and how long they operated, for those who still remember the infamous bar the Lost Weekend in Bonny Doon, Mother Brown’s Soul Food in the Circles on the West Side, the Delmarette Fountain as well as the Woolworth’s Luncheonette in downtown, the Colonial Inn at the juncture of Ocean Street and Highway 17 and its infamous “seafood-a-rama,” Zorba the Buddha in Seabright which was owned and operated by followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh, the Castle Dining Room right on the sand at Seabright Beach, the Donut Den in Watsonville, and the classic diner Bea’s Koffee Kup. They’re all included here.

But maybe more representative of the long-gone icons of the Santa Cruz restaurant scene was the Chinese restaurant the Tea Cup in the Flatiron building at the entrance to the Pacific Garden Mall at the Town Clock (a Jamba Juice is there now). The Tea Cup was upstairs, overlooking the five-way intersection at the heart of downtown. It was a magnet for many of Santa Cruz’s movers and shakers in the post-war years and was the hangout space of choice of the Boardwalk’s legendary publicist Skip Littlefield.

The Tea Cup’s heyday ended that fall day when the Loma Prieta quake happened. The building was tagged for demolition, but before it was brought down, signmaker and artist Steve Hosmer snuck in past the chain-link fences and “rescued” the iconic Tea Cup sign. After more than 30 years, Hosmer still has that sign, the last remaining token from one of the most famous of Santa Cruz’s lost restaurants.

A book launch party for the ‘Lost Restaurants of Santa Cruz County’ is scheduled for Saturday, April 4, 4-6 pm in the Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Art and History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz (contingent on the MAH’s reopening). cooksbookcase.com.

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