Maybe it’s that it’s a college town, or maybe it’s that a long morning spent surfing necessitates an afternoon pick-me-up, but Santa Cruz is rife with happy hours. Whether it’s local beer & wine or salty margaritas or tiki drinks, there are options all up and down the ABV spectrum. But you all know that I’m more likely to be found chasing down the perfect nigiri rather than negroni, so I’ve only included spots that offer up food as well. And let’s be real: the most delicious thing for me is a discount, so expect these places to have the best bang for your buck.
Alderwood is definitely the new darling of the Santa Cruz food scene, and it’s not hard to see why. Chef-driven, with a focus on local, seasonal, and ethically-sourced ingredients, it’s the kind of place you’d expect to see in droves in a coastal college town an hour and a half south of San Francisco. But for whatever reason, that kind of experience has been hard to find in Santa Cruz. Until now. Since opening in late December, Alderwood has been packed to the gills with people who had apparently been waiting quite a while for a place like this to show up. Often when walking downtown we’ll notice people waiting outside before the restaurant even opens, maybe to ensure a table for dinner or just to snag one of the coveted seats at the bar during happy hour. With fresh oysters (driven down from SF daily) priced at $1.25, plus a menu of rotating “snacks” like beef tartare and sourdough onion rings, you can whet your appetite for a steak off the dinner menu. Or just stuff yourself with oysters til you die. That works too. Pair them with something off the small but serviceable list of wine, beer, and classic cocktails that each have a few bucks knocked off. And the best part? Happy hour returns later in the evening from 9:30-midnight – filling both a space in the sorely-lacking late night food scene and giving you a second chance at death-by-oyster if the afternoon timeslot proves too crowded.
Happy Hour daily from 4 – 6:30pm and again from 9:30pm – 12am; closed Mondays. Food $1.25 – $10; beer, wine, and cocktails from $6 – $8.
Oh Hula’s, my first happy hour love – and honestly, one that I still see on the reg. An expansive menu of Hawaiian pupus like abalone-style calamari, coconut shrimp rolls, and spicy edamame provide a good safety net for an afternoon of drinking, but are also delicious in their own right. But yes, the real star of the show here is the formidable list of rum-based cocktails. Painkillers, Mai Tais, and Zombies abound. If it contains El Dorado or orange juice, you can probably find it here. Those who have trouble juggling numbers will find themselves right at home here – both drinks and appetizers are all priced at $6. And yes, they do have the novelty tiki head glasses – along with a lot of other fun kitsch lining the walls.
Happy Hour 4 – 6pm on Sundays and Mondays, all night Tuesdays (2 – 10pm) 2 – 6pm Wednesday – Saturday. Food, cocktails, and house wine all $6 each.
Another newcomer to Santa Cruz, Vino Locale is the second outpost of a Palo Alto-based wine bar that replaced Vino Prima. They focus on Californian bottles. They offer a good selection from the Santa Cruz mountains, in addition to some other nearby grape-growing regions. Of course, Napa and Sonoma show up as well, and a few Italian and french varietals round out the list. Play amateur somm with their light menu of cheese plates and tapas – a dry Cab will certainly perfectly cut the creaminess of a ricotta flatbread. But the best part of this happy hour is certainly the location – a second-story building located near the end of the Santa Cruz wharf. While the wharf offers beautiful views of the ocean, the restaurants that call it home tend much more toward the direction of overpriced tourist traps. Vino Locale is a welcome addition.
Happy Hour daily from 3 – 6:30pm; closed Sundays and Mondays. Tapas from $5 – $13; draft and canned beer for $5; and select wines by the glass $7 – $10 with discounts on flights and bottles as well.
Cafe Mare is one of those magical places you try on a whim and then quickly become a regular. Or at least that’s what happened to Spencer and I when we showed up here for the second Tuesday in a row and the bartender greeted us like old friends. That warm and easygoing ambiance is the real gem of this place, and is pervasive through the whole menu of homemade Italian classics. Happy hour offerings include pizzettas and calamari fritti as well as Italian wines and some creative cocktails. And while not on the happy hour menu, don’t sleep on the seafood specials or fresh-made desserts.
Happy Hour available at the bar from 5 – 7pm Sunday – Thursday. Food $3 – $6; draft beer, well drinks, wine, and cocktails from $5 – $7.
El Palomar is a Santa Cruz institution that’s been serving up Mexican food since the 80’s in a beautiful and airy space. While you’re not going to find anything revolutionary here, you will find well-cooked meats, crispy chips, and flavorful salsas that are all perfectly washed down with a house margarita. The lively cantina/taco bar is the perfect place to whittle away a few hours, so might as well make it a pitcher.
Happy Hour Sunday – Thursday from 3 – 6pm in the restaurant and 5 -8pm in the taco bar. Food $2.50 – $8; draft beer $4 – $5; $5 – $7 for single margaritas; $20 – $24 for liters.
The Crow’s Nest is another one of those places that has been around much longer than some of its patrons have been alive. This both is good and bad – they’ve certainly had time to polish their dishes; the salmon and calamari apps we sampled were juicy and delicious. But those dishes come from a menu that looks like it probably existed in the same form since shortly after the restaurant opened, with not a lot of interesting or unexpected twists and turns. Still, the restaurant excels on on executing a list of coastal Californian classics like Dungeness crab cakes and shrimp-stuffed artichokes. They’ve also got a fun list of fruity cocktails, but unfortunately only well drinks make the cut for happy hour prices. Still, if you’re looking for a lively setting with ocean views, this might be your spot.
Happy Hour upstairs from 3 – 6pm daily and all night Wednesdays (3-9pm). Food $6 – $11; well drinks, beer, and house wine at $5.
I hesitate to include this here because it’s not so much a happy hour as a special they run two times a week – but it’s a good deal nonetheless. Shadowbrook is another one of those places that shares a lot of similarities with some of the other places on this list – it’s been around since 1947 and it feels like it. It’s the kind of food that may impress your parents but probably not your hip friends from the city. That being said, the ambiance alone makes this place worth visiting at least once if you’re in the Santa Cruz area. It started as a log cabin built into the side of a steep hill in the 20’s that just continued building upward and downward when it got turned into a restaurant 20 years later. What results is a maze of a restaurant made up of several unique dining spaces that are connected by lush, winding gardens. Oh, and you get to the lower levels by taking a cable car. It’s as wild as it sounds, and my advice would be to avoid looking up any pictures and just experience it in person. The food on special includes a long list of pizza and appetizers like baked brie or portobello fries, with simple mixed drinks, beers, and wine alongside them.
Happy Hour in the Rockroom Lounge is available 2 times per week – all night on Tuesdays (4 – 10pm) and 4 – 6pm on Fridays. Prices are also needlessly confusing – on Fridays appetizers and pizza are half off, and on Tuesdays they are buy one, get one free. Items regularly priced from $6 – $17. Drinks, thankfully, are $7 both evenings.
Pleasure Pizza East Side Eatery
Sometimes you just need a plate of hot wings and a cold beer, and it was this craving that lead me to East Side Eatery, which I had heard had the best wings in the county. Their short-but-sweet happy hour menu is full of foods that you eat while watching football – chili cheese fries, nachos, fried pickles. But for the less sports-inclined among us, it tastes just as good. After all, snacks are the best part of a Super Bowl party. The beer list highlights some breweries from Santa Cruz as well as the larger Bay Area. And the wings? Crispy and decently spicy, they were a pretty good rendition. But they didn’t quite hit the spot. The craving continues.
Happy Hour 3 – 6pm Sunday – Thursday. All food priced between $6 and $7; beer $4 – $9, or pitchers from $15 – $23.
Did I miss your favorite spot? Let me know in the comments!