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Paleo & Gluten-free Dining in Santa Cruz, CA

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paleo & gluten-free dining in santa cruz

If you are anything like me, the first thing you do when you plan a vacation is you start researching the food options. I really love exploring restaurants in new areas. Since we don’t go out to eat that often, I like my meals out to count. I google the heck out of terms like farm-to-table Santa Cruz, CA [insert city of choice]. So far, this research has paid off. We have enjoyed some incredible farm-to-table dining on our last few trips. See where we ate when we went to Austin for our babymoon and Kauai for our family vacation.

One of the reasons I’ve lived in Santa Cruz so long (besides being 5 mins. from the ocean and 10 mins. from the forest – which is so awesome!) is the access to so much fresh food. Santa Cruz has an abundance of farms, farmers markets and health food stores. Many of the restaurants in town also take advantage of this by using farm fresh ingredients.

Although, I often cook at home using local, seasonal produce and pasture raised meats, I love that I can go out in Santa Cruz and have a variety of choices that are still compatible with my lifestyle.

Santa Cruz is really a Paleo haven- relax at the beach, move around in the forest, and enjoy meals at some paleo/gluten-free friendly eateries. Hey, Mark Sisson… maybe this should be your next PrimalCon location?

There are tons and tons of restaurants in this town, this is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are the places that I like and I think they have the best paleo, gluten-free or farm-to-table options!

Plus, we have epic weather all year round. Below is a photo of me and Natalie of Honey, Ghee, and Me taking a walk in January! Come visit us!


Casual Paleo & Gluten-Free Dining in Santa Cruz

Multiple locations
Serves grass-fed burgers from California raised cows and also uses local produce. You can order any burger protein style. Plus, this place is really cute and has a really fun atmosphere. They have two locations. One in Santa Cruz and one in Aptos. The Aptos location is perfect if you have toddlers or young kids because there is a great outdoor seating area. We go here for family dates all the time. My two year old refers to it as a park. So, basically she plays while we have burgers and cider.

Betty Burgers
Multiple locations
Has 3 locations, so you can pretty much find one, no matter which side of town you are on. Their beef is not grass-fed, but it is antibiotic and hormone free. You can order any burger protein style.

*The Picnic Basket
Near the Boardwalk
This place is located right by the boardwalk, so watch out if it is a weekend in the summer, it can get really crazy. But, it’s crazy good! The menu changes here, as they use local, organic produce and pasture raised meats. It is a sandwich, salad, soup, type of menu. Perfect for lunch. I always find something that can be paleo-ified.

Downtown Santa Cruz
Located on the main strip in downtown, Santa Cruz. This may be the most charming restaurant in Santa Cruz. It makes me feel like I am in a quaint, European cafe. There are many Paleo friendly options on the menu. Items are clearly marked as gluten-free and they often offer a delciious gluten-free quiche. Their mole is to die for!

Charlie Hong Kong
Describes itself as Asian street food. The produce is organic and sourced from local farms. They have a few tables indoors and outdoors. Charlie Hong Kong is also a great take-out selection. Any dish can be substituted with rice or rice noodles and there is no detectable gluten found in their soy sauce. The majority of options here are gluten-free. For a Paleo option, I order the Green Curry Chicken from the “toppings” section of the menu and a side of the Side of Organic Vegetables Medley (which is just blanched chard, broccoli, etc.).

Companion Bakeshop
What a bakery on the list? This is not just any old bakery. If you do eat bread or follow more of a Weston A Price type of diet, then this is the place for you. They specialize in true sourdough bread that has been properly fermented. I also hear that they have a killer gluten-free biscotti made from almond and rice flour.

Pleasure Pizza
Eastside Santa Cruz
Pleasure Pizza offers salads and veggies using organic ingredients. Their omelets also use Glaum organic, cage-free eggs. Any of their sandwiches, pastas, or pizza can be substituted for a gluten-free version. These options are available at the restaurant on 41st avenue, not at the pizza by the slice location across the street.

Pizza My Heart
Multiple locations
While we are on the topic of pizza, this is my favorite place for gluten-free pizza. Most of the pizza places in town ofter gluten-free options, but I think Pizza My Heart’s gluten-free, rice crust pizza is the best!

Café LimeLight
Downtown Santa Cruz
I actually haven’t eaten here yet, but the reviews are good. Tucked away off the main strip in downtown Santa Cruz, this cozy little café offers gluten-free versions of most items on their menu, even the paninis.

For quick Mexican food in Santa Cruz, Viva’s offers a menu made of organic produce, and organic rice and beans. However, their meats are not organic. A good gluten-free option here would be the meat plate with corn tortillas or with no tortillas. This restaurant is conveniently located next to Charlie Hong Kong, in case the group can’t decide between Mexican and Asian food.

*West End Tap & Kitchen
Westside Santa Cruz
Is a great gastro-pub located in a really fun area, surrounded by some of the best boutique wine tasting rooms in the area. If you don’t have much on the agenda for the day, this is a great place to grab lunch and then hit a few tasting rooms. Natalie of Honey, Ghee, & Me and I may or may not be guilty of doing this on occasion. … The menu changes occasionally, as they focus on using local, fresh and season ingredients. I never have a problem finding a Paleo friendly option here. I usually go for one of the filling and delicious salads and the burger is really good too!

Hula’s Island Grill
Downtown Santa Cruz
A Hawaiian restaurant with a fun, tiki vibe. This is a great location for a group dinner or just grabbing an appy and a drink at the bar. Hula’s offers a separate gluten-free menu, so make sure to ask for it. In my experience, their servers have been really helpful and informed on answering any questions about gluten-free options.

Tortilla Flats
Soquel, CA
This is our favorite Mexican restaurant. They offer a southwest inspired menu, in a very rustic and quaint setting. At certain times of the year, they have a special mole menu! Their margaritas are ridiculously good – very light and fresh. I usually order the Carne Asada plate and I substitute the rice and beans for a salad. They are really known for their enchiladas. Definitely order a side of guacamole here.

*El Salchichero
Westside Santa Cruz
Not exactly a restaurant, but more of a butcher. If you are headed into town to spend the day at the beach, this may be a great option. Stop in here and grab some fresh made sausages to barbeque, made from local pastured meat, and some delicious spicy grass-fed beef jerky to snack on.

The Truck Stop
Various Farmers Market
You can find these guys at the Wednesday and Sunday farmer’s markets. They are a food truck that focuses on using local, organic ingredients. You can always find some gluten-free tacos on the menu or you can ditch the tortillas and paleo-ify.

Back Porch
Various Farmers Market
You can also find these guys at some of our farmer’s markets. Their menu consists of pasture raised pork and other local, organic ingredients. We usually stop by here for killer breakfast tacos at the farmer’s market. I get mine sans tortilla. Basically it is pork, fried egg and whatever inspired sauces and toppings he has going on. Last week it was topped with chimichurri and some sort of delicious greens.

Farmer’s Markets
We have so many and they are all awesome. I don’t favor one over the other. For me, it is just about which day of the week it is. I think the only days we don’t have a market going on is on Mondays and Thursdays. You can find info on most of our farmer’s markets here and the only one not listed there, can be found here.

I rarely go out to breakfast, but we have some great options. Be warned – breakfast places get really busy here! My favorites are Harbor Cafe and Cafe Brasil. Some other good options are: Linda’s Seabreeze Cafe, Zachary’s and Walnut Ave. Cafe.

*The Penny Ice Creamery
Multiple locations
Okay, not Paleo! But, the best ice cream I’ve ever had. It is not grass-fed, as far as I know, but it is organic. They offer artisan ice cream at it’s finest, using fresh, local ingredients. I’ve tried artisan ice cream most places that I’ve visited and none compare to Penny. The owner and chef was the head pastry chef at the two michelin starred, Manresa in Los Gatos, so no wonder her ice cream is so good! They even have a house made gluten-free waffle cone!

*Tea & Coffee
We have so much good coffee it is ridiculous. It can be a blog post of it’s own. But, I’ll quickly mention that award-winning, Verve is my fave by far. I’ve never had a better latte. They now have 3 locations. For tea, I love Lulu’s at the Octagon. It’s super cute and has a huge variety. If you follow me on Instagram – Lulu’s is that is the brick building I recently posted a picture of.

Naka Sushi
I’m hesitant to even share this best kept Santa Cruz secret. But, I know if anyone would appreciate it, it would be you, my fellow foodies! It really is a secret. It has been there for more than 20 years and even most people that live here haven’t heard of it. The place is packed every night with regulars though. This is the only place I eat sushi and some argue the best sushi in the bay area. If you don’t believe me, read the yelp reviews, they are awesome.

It is legitimate Japanese sushi, you won’t find chicken teriyaki here or California rolls. You come here for sushi and sashimi, that is it. They will humor you with a couple of basic rolls on the menu, which are actually really good. When you walk in, they tell you “sushi only!”, maybe yell it at you, a little bit. … It is usually very busy, and just the husband (the chef) and wife (the front) working. So, don’t come here expecting to be wined and dined. It is kind of a hole in the wall looking place. Go here to eat bomb sushi and that’s it. They DO NOT have gluten-free soy sauce, but if you are a regular they will keep yours there for you. So, make sure to bring tamari or coconut aminos with you. Also, don’t mess with the chef here, he doesn’t do special orders. But, he does make sushi without the wasabi for Indyanna! Luckily, there are lots of Paleo friendly options on the menu. Definitely, definitely try the Aji (Japanese Mackerel). It’s amazing.


Farm-to-Table Restaurants

We have some amazing farm-to-table restaurants. These are more of sit-down, date-night type of places. Some of them are open for lunch or offer great bar seating too!

Downtown Santa Cruz
Our newest, farm-to-table restaurant and it is so so good. It is also by the same people that do Penny Ice Creamery and The Picnic Basket. It is really reasonably priced for the quality of food. The atmosphere is more casual and set up to build community. It is really fun! I recommend making reservations if it is summer or the weekend. The photo above is from our last dinner at Assembly. That dessert pictured on the bottom left is one of the best desserts that I’ve ever had!

*La Posta
Although, Italian inspired, the menu always has Paleo friendly options. This may be our favorite restaurant in town. La Posta delivers a fresh, market-driven menu inspired by the local community of farmers, foragers and fishermen.

Gabriella Cafe
Downtown Santa Cruz
This is a charming little restaurant located in downtown Santa Cruz.  We tend to head here for special occasions like anniversaries. They use organic produce and sustainable meats. They almost always have a grass-fed steak on the menu. Gluten-free items aren’t marked, so make sure to double check with your server. They have always been really helpful. This restaurant is tiny, so make a reservation in advance.

*Oswald Restaurant
Downtown Santa Cruz
Like all the farm to table restaurants the menu changes. There are usually so many paleo friendly options, I have trouble deciding. The menu is always interesting with ridiculously amazing fresh cocktails. We love sitting at the bar here.

Soif Wine Bar & Restaurant
Downtown Santa Cruz
Really good food and incredible wine selection for the wine enthusiasts.

*Main Street Garden & Café
Soquel, CA
This amazing little gem of a restaurant only uses organic produce and pasture-raised meats. They even grow some of their own veggies! Although they specialize in pizza & pasta, there are some great picks for us paleo people from the starter and entrée sections of the menu. Make sure to sit outside in the garden.

Ristorante Avanti
Westside Santa Cruz
Italian-inspired, farm-to-table dining, but plenty of Paleo friendly options! Great cocktails too.

Eastside Santa Cruz
They aim to source local and organic. Has a fun, modern vibe and amazing cocktails. Gluten-free items are marked on the menu.

Aquarius Restaurant at the Dream Inn
Incredible ocean views! Great food and great drinks. They used to have duck fat fries here, but they didn’t have them last time we were there. We usually just go to the bar, also known as the Jack O’Neill Lounge

*My top picks!

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  1. says

    Oh, wish I’d have had this before I visited Santa Cruz last Autumn. Always tough to find places to eat when you’re new to a town! We did enjoy Cafe Chocolate though, felt very quaint. Also enjoyed brunch and diner at our hotel – Hotel Paradox, pricey but gorgeous pool surroundings and paleo friendly food. The ice-cream cones sound mega too….

  2. Nicole L says

    Thank you so much for this! I live in Aptos and while I always research paleo/gf spots when traveling, I am stuck in such a rut at home. This is a great list and will be my go to resource for some up coming date nights.

  3. says

    Good list. Some additions. For breakfast, my current fave is the Midtown Cafe and also for GREAT sushi, LIVE sushi, Otoro sushi in Scotts valley.

    • says

      Thanks for the additions, Donna! I’ve been wanting to try Midtown Cafe. So glad that it got a good review, I will check it out soon. I’ll have to check out Otoro Sushi too. I rarely go anywhere but Naka. Where is Live sushi?

  4. Kymber says

    Thanks for this great list, Arsy, I am headed to Santa Cruz to visit family next week so it is really helpful. Do you know if I can get raw milk at the farmers market or anywhere else?

    • says

      Hi Kymber! Yes, all of the New Leaf stores have raw milk. The bigger ones even carry the local raw milk, which we love. The farmers market on the west side on Saturdays as well as the one at Cabrillo on Saturdays has raw milk. Have a great trip!