Santa Cruz, California, is known for its big redwood trees, enchanted secret beaches, the famous beach boardwalk, 420 celebrations that compete with Coachella, and hippies. ? But when I was deciding which college to go to, I chose the University of California–Santa Cruz because the town was so vegan-friendly.
Whether you are taking a family trip or just got accepted to UC–Santa Cruz and are making a big move there this fall (congrats!), we’ve got you covered with this vegan guide to the beautiful surf town. ?♀️?
The best bagels on EARTH are made at Bagelry, which serves fresh and warm bagels made in house at the downtown location every day. Most of its bagels are vegan (just be sure to double-check with the cashier), and it has VEGAN CREAM CHEESE. It even has a nondairy soup of the day. Go the classic route with just a bagel and vegan cream cheese, or spruce it up and make an epic open-faced bagel sandwich with all the veggie toppings your heart desires.
The wait at Cafe Brasil is usually hella long but hella worth it (if you don’t say “hella” yet, after spending some time in Santa Cruz, you soon will ?). Grilled plantains, tofu scramble, açai bowls, and fresh juice—this cozy Brazilian café has a lot of delish plant-based food to offer, but not all of it is vegan, so be sure to check with your server.
Samba Rock Açai Café
Nothing compares to Samba Rock. Literally. Ever since I moved out of Santa Cruz a year ago, I’ve been determined to find an açai bowl that’s even on the same level as the ones served at Samba Rock, but I’ve given up. The quality, flavor, freshness, and authenticity of those offered at this place are just unmatched. Choose one of the many açai-bowl combinations (Ayrton Senna with added coconut cream is my personal fave), or cleanse yourself with a delicious smoothie. A few items on the menu aren’t vegan, so just be sure to check with the cashier.
This intergalactic vegetarian diner is out of this world ?. I’m positive that I spent more time at Saturn than I did in my classes and dorm room combined. Everything is vegetarian, and most menu items can be made vegan. Not only is Saturn’s brunch the best thing in the universe—French toast, breakfast burritos, tofu scramble?! I MEAN, COME ON! ?—but the wait time is also always a lot shorter than at other hot brunch spots around Santa Cruz on Sunday mornings. Shhh, let’s keep this a little vegan secret. ?
The Walnut Avenue Cafe
Walnut Avenue is the prettiest little street in Santa Cruz. It’s nestled right between the hustle and bustle of the downtown strip and a string of colorful Victorian homes with a tunnel of trees that looks beautiful at any time of year. And The Walnut Avenue Cafe has some bomb-ass vegan options, like tofu scramble and breakfast potatoes. Be sure to ask your server which dishes are vegan-friendly, as the café also serves nonvegan stuff.
Zachary’s isn’t exclusively vegan, but the chefs make a mean vegan tofu scramble. The mimosas are legendary?? (ages 21 and over only!) and are one of the major reasons why you’ll almost always see a line of people over a block long waiting to be seated for brunch on a Sunday.
Located in the beautiful beachy Seabright neighborhood, Betty Burgers is the perfect spot to grab some grub after a good surf. It’s #tbt every day there, with a fun pinup theme. The restaurant isn’t exclusively vegan, but the Tracks in the Grass veggie burger (which you can make vegan by asking for it with no cheese and no “lube”) is hella tasty—and the crispy fries are on point. (It also has a sit-down restaurant in the heart of downtown called Betty’s Eat Inn.)
Betty’s Noodle House
This place has some of the best and cheapest vegan food that you can get in Santa Cruz, and it’s DELICIOUS. Don’t be fooled by the humble storefront located in the metro station—Betty’s is full of wonderful vegan options.
This is hands down the best food kiosk in all of Santa Cruz. The gorditas with nopales are EVERYTHING. And all vegan menu items are labeled as such.
This cozy café has a changing menu, but it always has something vegan—and it’s always delish AF. Don’t forget to order a soy latte while you’re there ☕.
Charlie Hong Kong
Located near the iconic Rio Theatre, Charlie Hong Kong is not only a perfect spot to grab lunch but also the place to grab some vegan grub during intermission if you’re at a show. All vegan items are labeled and ridiculously yummy. The traditional oolong tea is a can’t-miss.
Falafel House Downtown
This place is the real MVP for not only making yummy vegan falafel but also offering nondairy tahini sauce. Not all menu items are vegan, so just make sure you specify when you order.
Located on beautiful Lincoln Street downtown, Jack’s is a restaurant everyone loves. ? Best part—the veggie burger is vegan if you ask for it without mayo.
New Leaf Community Markets
OK, you have no idea how many times this place saved my life. There were several days when I was hungover (when I was 21—DUH ?) and my only hope was one of the delicious vegan items from New Leaf. It’s a community grocery store with a wide variety of premade vegan meals in the deli: hearty sandwiches, the most beautiful salad bar you’ll ever see, colorful power smoothies, and sometimes even vegan soft serve!
We love Cali–and you know do too–so we were inspired to bring you the best of what this great state has to offer with our Cali-Style Smoothie. Made with #organic avocados, organic kale, organic bananas, organic lemons, organic pineapple juice, ginger and delicious coconut water. This beverage is best enjoyed in the sun. ? #newleafcmarket #juicebarspecial #seasonal
Peet’s Coffee & Tea
Peet’s stores in the Bay Area are where it’s at—especially the one in downtown Santa Cruz. It has a huge selection of vegan baked goods, including scones, cookies, bagels, and more! Check out our Vegan Guide to Peet’s Coffee for more info.
Planet Fresh Gourmet Burritos
This burrito place is unlike any other that you’ve been to, and it just screams California. It’s got unique burrito flavors, such as Teriyaki and Cajun. It’s not exclusively vegan, so you’ll have to double-check with your cashier.
Staff of Life
This locally owned market has so many vegan options! Whether you’re doing your weekly grocery shopping, grabbing a well-deserved smoothie after a beach workout, or just hitting up the salad bar for lunch, Staff of Life‘s got your back.
This deli has been family-owned since 1948! It’s got the best and most authentic Italian sandwiches, including some delicious vegan ones.
Pizza, pasta, burritos, salad, GARLIC FREAKING BREAD—Dharma’s even has vegan dishes you may have thought impossible to veganize. Located in Capitola, this vegetarian restaurant is perfect for a casual afternoon bite or a birthday party dinner. Everything is vegetarian, and most things can be made vegan.
This place has some serious healthy and delicious vibes going on. Just look at this salad—the avocado game is 100. It’s got tasty vegan entrées and pastries as well. Ask your server what’s plant-based, because the restaurant isn’t exclusively vegan.
Kianti’s Pizza & Pasta Bar
Kianti’s is a great place to celebrate the weekend with friends. The best part about this place is that you can get personalized pizzas, pastas, and even calzones. Just ask for them without cheese. The servers are all super-knowledgeable about the vegan-ness of the menu, so be sure to chat with them while you order your customized meal.
I could eat the Yellow Curry from Pacific Thai all day, every day, and never get sick of it. The restaurant may look small, but its food leaves a big impression. Not everything is vegan, but the restaurant labels the dishes that are.
Pearl of the Ocean
Pearl of the Ocean serves fresh Sri Lankan cuisine every day of the week. Not everything is vegan here, but there are so many colorful and delicious options that you’ll wonder why you ever ate anywhere else.
Sitar Indian Cuisine
If you’re a fan of Indian food (who the heck isn’t?), Sitar is the place to go. It has so many vegan options and even has a vegetarian lunch buffet!
This chill eat-in café is like the beating heart of this California beach town. Although not exclusively vegan, this place has some great plant-based options, including my personal fave: Sriracha Brussels sprouts. Also, if you go but don’t order the fries, you’ve made a big mistake.
Pour is over-21s only. It has a huge variety of craft beer and also has vegan roasted peppers stuffed with cashew cheese and smoky tempeh (UM, YES, PLEASE!). It sometimes has vegan tacos and other fun plant-based bar snacks, so be sure to ask the cashier about the vegan menu options.
Santa Cruz Diner
Santa Cruz Diner is open until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends, meaning that it’s the perfect place to veg out when you’re up late studying for finals. Get cozy in a booth, soak in all the vintage beach-town decor around you, and order from the wide variety of plant-based options. Not everything is vegan, but the diner labels the dishes that are.
OK, I know I already put this café on the list, but I can’t discuss late-night eating in Santa Cruz without mentioning Saturn. It’s open until midnight during the week and until 3 a.m. on weekends. Milkshakes, burgers, fries with bucksauce (the cool kids’ name for the spicy chipotle sauce), salads, and A LOT MORE—it will satisfy any craving you may have at 2:30 a.m.
Can you say TATER TOT PIZZA? Not only does Woodstock’s have vegan cheese, it also has tater tots as a topping. I ordered them once as an indulgence and now have to order them every time I’m at the pizza joint. SO GOOD!
A LI’L BOUGIE
I’m grateful for this all-vegan café. ? The downtown Santa Cruz location of this chain restaurant always has beautiful local art on the walls and friendly service. The potatoes with spicy cashew cheese sauce are what I live for.
A little on the bougie side, Laili’s food is sure to impress. Take a new Bumble date here, or just elevate your girls’ night out. Not everything on the menu is vegan, so don’t forget to ask your server about plant-based options.
MORE PLACES LIKE MALABAR, PLEASE! This all-vegan Asian-fusion restaurant is a little more pricey than other places in this guide but for a good reason: Everything on the menu will blow you away. From dumplings and salad rolls to sambar and raw ice cream, this place is the bomb dot com.
Yes, yes, YES. Vegan cupcakes in the cutest little shop in the entire world. Need I say more? You can get vegan regular-sized cupcakes or adorable mini-cupcakes, and you can even order a full vegan cake for a special occasion. The menu is ever-changing, so ask your cashier which vegan flavors are available.
Mission Hill Creamery
This place always has the most innovative flavors—like this strawberry-lemonade sorbet. Perfect for a hot summer afternoon or a late-night treat after studying for midterms, this ice cream joint always has your back with a few nondairy flavors. Just be sure to ask your cashier which options are vegan.
The Penny Ice Creamery
All ice creams are made in house—there’s nothing quite as authentic as The Penny Ice Creamery. It isn’t exclusively vegan, but it always has at least two vegan flavors, so don’t forget to ask your cashier about the current nondairy offerings.
The vegan options on UC–Santa Cruz’s campus are always evolving and expanding. Each dining hall has plant-based options, including salad bars, premade meals, and even desserts.
PRO TIP: College Nine and Ten has the best dining hall for vegan options. I survived my entire first year at UC–Santa Cruz by taking PETA’s Vegan College Cookbook into Colleges Nine and Ten’s dining hall, getting creative, and making all the delicious recipes. Oh, and also by eating fries. Lots of fries. ? That dining hall has fries 24/7—BEWARE.
Tag a @ucsc student w/ a 5-Day Meal Plan! ?Eat free this weekend at the Dining Halls! We are offering 2 special deals for students during finals week. 1️⃣ 5-Day plan holders eat free this weekend at Rachel Carson/Oakes Dining Hall, Cowell/Stevenson Dining Hall, and Colleges 9 & 10 Dining Hall. 2️⃣ Students who do not have a meal plan, or who have run out of meals on their 55-Meals plan, can eat at the dining halls for the discounted rate of $5! VALID STUDENT ID REQUIRED. CHECK OUR WEBSITE FOR ALL DETAILS: https://goo.gl/Fjbd3p #slugfood #ucsc #finalsweek #finals #feedyourmind #studybreak
The campus is in the forest, which means that walking from class to class can easily entail a 30-minute hike and multiple wild deer sightings. Luckily for you, there are several cafés, restaurants, and other snack stops with vegan options nestled among the redwood trees, so you can munch on your way to class:
- Banana Joe’s (a little grocery store located near Crown/Merrill Dining Hall)
- Bay Tree Express Store (a little grocery store attached to the Bay Tree Bookstore)
- Bowls by Cafe Brasil
- Cafe Iveta
- College Eight Café
- Cowell Coffee Shop
- The Global Village Cafe (located inside the McHenry Library)
- Oakes Cafe
- The Owl’s Nest Cafe
- Perk Coffee Bar (three locations: Jack Baskin Engineering, Earth & Marine Sciences, and the Physical Science Building)
- Stevenson Coffee House
- Terra Fresca Restaurant & Coffee Bar (located upstairs from the Colleges Nine and Ten Dining Hall)
- Vivas Organic Mexican Restaurant
MOVIE THEATER SPOTLIGHT
There are not one, not two, but four movie theaters in downtown Santa Cruz. ? Don’t go unprepared.
- Del Mar Theatre: It doesn’t have vegan butter, but it has nutritional yeast and vegan goodies, such as burritos, pastries, candy, and more.
- The Nick: It has the same offerings as the Del Mar Theatre.
- Regal Cinemas Riverfront 2: It has vegan butter.
- Regal Santa Cruz 9: It also has vegan butter.
These two places aren’t technically in Santa Cruz, but it would be a disgrace to all vegans of the Greater Bay Area if I didn’t tell you about them. For a day trip, get on the number 17 bus and head to all-vegan restaurant Happy Hooligans in San Jose (Can you say vegan Bacon Ranch Cheese Fries?), then make a pit stop in Campbell for the vegan options at Psycho Donuts. You won’t regret it!