New cuisine amid COVID: These bold restaurateurs stayed the course

Copal owners Stuyvie Bearns Esteva and Noëlle Antolin flank Executive Chef Ana Fabian Mendoza.
Copal owners Stuyvie Bearns Esteva and Noëlle Antolin flank Executive Chef Ana Fabian Mendoza. Copal moved exclusively to outdoor dining amid COVID-19.
(Crystal Birns / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The pandemic has taken its toll on dining out, but these resilient restaurateurs have stayed the course in Santa Cruz County in different ways. Here’s how they did it, and how you can sample their cuisine.

Call it a desire to be as COVID-proof as possible — and perhaps a prescient view of a slide back into the purple — but three of the top new restaurateurs who dared open during a pandemic did so with primarily outside seating only.

Indoor dining was able to reopen at 50 percent capacity briefly before Santa Cruz County went back into the most restrictive “purple tier” for pandemic-related restrictions this week.

But restaurants including David Kinch’s Mentone, Oaxacan eatery Copal, and the expanded Venus Spirits and Kitchen, chose outdoor dining as their calling card, dotting Santa Cruz with playfully transmogrified patios repurposed from parking lots.

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Other restaurateurs pivoted to indoor/outdoor dining or — like Barceloneta, a new downtown Spanish restaurant — takeout only.

But with winter looming, “It’s too early to tell a story about how we are recovering,” says Elan Emerson, who along with husband Brett, opened Barceloneta in a 3,000 square foot space downtown, five months before lockdowns. After having to let go of their staff, the couple does everything themselves: “ordering, prepping, bartending, janitorial, dishwashing . . . we do it all.”

Our look at these and other risk-takers who managed to launch new restaurants in the midst of a pandemic — and are fighting for survival as the county returns to outdoor dining and takeout only.

Patio Powered


Copal

Tlayuda & Mole Negro
(Crystal Birns)

Lupulo co-owners Noëlle Antolin and Stuyvie Bearns Esteva partnered with Executive Chef Ana Fabian Mendoza to bring traditional and creative Oaxacan cuisine and Santa Cruz’s first Mezcaleria to their beautifully revamped space on Mission Street, following a series of pre-pandemic, successful mole pop-ups at Lupulo and Mole & Mariachi festival wins. “Si no pueden ir a Oaxaca, se pueden sentir como que fueron,” Mendoza beams on the colorful patio of her long-held dream come to fruition. “If you can’t go to Oaxaca, you can feel like you did.”

With seven years of Lupulo experience, Antolin and Esteva knew what openings entail, but found that COVID-19 actually curbed some of the regular blips when they began takeout service in July.

“We got to take baby steps,” Esteva says. “We could roll things out individually, work out kinks in the kitchen without people at a table waiting.” Online ordering meant patrons knew exactly how long the wait for their Mole Coloradito and enchiladas would be. “It was heartwarming to see people were OK with waits up to two hours.”

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“We could take our time with a few menu items, deciding which ones to have, and see how the kitchen and bar would work,” Antolin adds. While unanticipated soft openings bought time to perfect everything, staffing was difficult because of safety concerns about restaurant work during COVID.”

Now, Mendoza has assembled a team, almost all Oaxacan. She was impressed by the community reception, long lines during early operations. Outdoor dining on two patios — the permanent one with six tables and a sectioned-off tented parking lot area with eight — is in full swing.

Copal
(Crystal Birns)

A surprising challenge: traffic blocks had to be erected to prevent drivers from veering through the lot to make faster rights onto Laurel Street. While some expressed upset to Esteva for taking away the unsanctioned shortcut, drive-thru mole is not part of the plan.

Mendoza suggests trying any and all of the moles, Mole Negro being the classic choice. A bartender competition to create cocktails resulted in several that are now being served. Antolin calls out the Oaxacaloha — a nod to the Mai Tai with Rayu Mexcal — and the Santa Iguana, which contains hierba santa, a sweet-savory leaf with notes of root beer and eucalyptus, such a key ingredient in Oaxacan cuisine that they grow it in their backyards and around the building. In the drink, it’s crushed with cilantro and mezcal.

Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen

Maitake mushroom tostada and house salad
(Crystal Birns)

When it comes to the hot commodity that is majorly classed-up former parking lot space, Sean Venus has it locked. Venus’s spacious, industrial chic patio manages to be so lively you could almost forget times aren’t normal.

“There was a lack of outdoor seating in Santa Cruz,” says Venus, proprietor and master brewer at Venus Spirits, amid a packed — but socially distanced — parking lot turned patio during a Friday happy hour.

Surveying diners enjoying sunset food and cocktails, Venus says, “I’m stoked on the amount of support we got from the Santa Cruz community.”

The restaurant adjacent to the Venus Spirits tasting room was supposed to open in May. March shutdowns meant construction delays and Venus officially opened on Aug. 15 — which coincided with the weekend the CZU Complex fires started. Another period of closure for poor air quality followed. Brief periods in the red and orange tiers allowed for limited indoor use of their new dining room and tasting room.

Now, back in the purple, things are getting back to the new outdoors normal. “Everything is appropriate for being outside or to go,” Venus says of the upscale-picnic cuisine.

“It’s hard to tell what the future will be,” he adds. “Winters can be beautiful or awful. We can get a tent out here, but will people come when it’s rainy and cold?”

Venus
(Crystal Birns)

Here’s Venus’s plan to entice them: the Maitake Mushroom Tostada and cornbread with bourbon bacon jam, and cocktails such as Beach Don’t Kill My Vibe (gin no. 01, strawberry, lemon, basil), Frozen Paloma Libre (el ladrón blanco, giffard pamplemousse liquer, aperol, riesling, lime, grapefruit), and Gun Smoke (wayward single malt whiskey, nux walnut liqueur, averna chocolate bitters, peated whiskey spritz, charred cinnamon).

“Little Beach” at Mentone

Mentone
(Crystal Birns)

While naming a cordoned-off parking lot segment “Little Beach” could be euphemistic, it’s quite the contrary here. At the end of a cul-de-sac away from traffic, it is evident that Mentone’s outdoor digs are way nicer than a COVID-pivoted dining patio ever needs to be. Tables brought out from the restaurant’s interior are spaced around picnic tables to safely accommodate more patrons.

With a prime spot in Aptos, dining al fresco has been key to Mentone’s launch, which had originally been slated for March 26. Executive Chef David Kinch, of Michelin 3-star-rated Manresa fame, is a longtime Santa Cruz resident. His local outpost, according to general manager Chris Sullivan, is the kind of place that attracts weekly regulars, rather than special-occasion-destination Manresa.

“We got a tent thinking it will be worth it if we have to do four weeks of this,” Sullivan says with a smile, reminiscing about when we thought we were making short-term changes.

Mentone
(Crystal Birns)

Little Beach specialties include pizza, cocktails, house-made pasta and gelato, wines, and local beer. Sullivan suggests coming in before 6 p.m. during the week for a less-busy time. There’s happy hour from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, with food specials, an $8 featured cocktail, local beer from the likes of Sante Adarius and Fruition that Sullivan always picks out himself, and a featured rosé. There are no reservations or phone orders; orders only taken at the counter.

Seabright Social

Seabright Social
(Courtesy Seabright Social)

Co-owners Jon Bates (previously of Soif’s wine department) and Jason and Keiki McKay (owners of Cantine Winepub), planned to renovate the former Seabright Brewery space this fall, but pivoted do the work during shelter-in-place, in time for their June 5 opening. With one of the largest patios in Santa Cruz County, now with fire pits and three more heaters, the Social is already well suited for outdoor seating, even during winter.

“I’m most happy about building a neighborhood restaurant,” Bates says. “More and more families are coming back, having a place they can feel comfortable and have good food.”

Bates and the McKays were able to retain the same staff, and prioritize their safety. “Challenges come with our roles in the restaurant,” Bates says. “In the past, a host wouldn’t have to be able to step in and say the radius of a group grew beyond six feet, or remind people to wear masks when they’ve gotten up.”

The new menu will change seasonally, so Bates is hesitant to suggest specific dishes. “We’re trying to be an honest good restaurant,” Bates says, “not reinvent the wheel. Nothing crazy, just good fresh ingredients.” For these uncertain and challenging times, though, he will recommend a cocktail — the Eastside: Hendricks gin, cucumber, lemon, and mint.

Good To Go


Barceloneta

Brett and Elan Emerson
(Crystal Birns)

The former owners of San Francisco’s beloved Contigo opened Barceloneta in October, five months before lockdowns, pivoting to takeout only in April. There is no outdoor or indoor reopening plan as of yet. “We’re being cautious about things,” Elan Emerson says. “Everyone’s different.”

These days, she estimates that 30 to 40 families who place regular to-go orders are sustaining the restaurant. “We opened this restaurant to feed the community,” Brett Emerson adds. “We pour a lot of love into the food and I get to work with my favorite person. It’s not what we expected, but we’re making it work the best we can. I’m grateful to do what we love.”

But the Emersons’ story is not only of survival. It’s also about heroism and devotion to this community they love.

In August, during the fires and evacuations, their large kitchen stopped takeout all together to make thousands of meals a day for evacuees and first responders. Aided by José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, which provides meals during natural disasters, Barceloneta’s sizable kitchen became a primary preparation site for many cooks and restaurants that participated in the effort.

Brett on paella duty
(Crystal Birns)

To give a cozy night at home more of a beachside-in-Barcelona feel, try any of the rotating array of paellas, the Ibiza Hippie Salad, Patatas Bravas, Fried Chicken, and Gazpacho, along with house-made creative cocktails like the Mallorca Mai Tai and fresh fruit red wine sangria, or add a bottle of Spanish wine.

Indoor/Outdoor


Makai

Peter Drobac
(Crystal Birns)

There is no indoor at the moment, but these two places got a taste of what it can be during the red/orange tier moments of September and October.

The family behind Riva Fish House delivers on a theme: “We want people to feel like they’re in a tropical escape,” co-owner Peter Drobac says. “We’re consistent with that from music to food and décor. We can’t get away, but this is the next best thing.”

The pandemic opening has proven challenging: “In addition to ironing out kinks of new operation we had to deal with safety protocol and procedures,” Drobac explains. “That’s been our first priority. It’s added an extra layer of complexity.”

The outdoor patio has space heaters, and a wind-protecting partition will allow continuation into the colder months as “the only wharf restaurant that has on-the-water outdoor dining.”

Primarily, Drobac wants locals to “give the wharf a chance.”

“I grew up in Santa Cruz. We’ve lived here since the early 70s. The wharf is a treasure and people don’t give it a fair shake. I love the wharf. I remember walking down every day when fishing boats came in, watching them unload the boats. I miss that.”

Makai’s menu is Hawaiian-eclectic, “a collection of things we like to eat,” Drobac says. “We smoke all our pork in house. All our sauces are original creations. We started with things we like to eat we can execute really well, from there we built around what we like.”

Makai
(Crystal Birns)

While it’s tough to narrow down from the expansive food menu that caters to every taste and dietary need, Drobac also has recommendations from the cocktail list. First, the Mermaid’s Kiss: “My favorite drink on the menu, it’s a bourbon-based tropical drink and an original creation by bartender/manager George. The Rip Curl is a take on the Blue Hawaiian with an interesting twist. We knock out of the park the 1944 Mai Tai. We use the top original Jamaican Rum.”

Staycation City, here we come.

Vim

Vim
(Crystal Birns)

When it comes to time sheltering-in-place with family during coronavirus lockdowns, Chef Jesikah Stolaroff probably beats us all. Both in and out of quarantine — Vim, named for the 1920s phrase, “vim and vigor,” meaning “lively and thriving”— is truly a family affair.

Jesikah’s sister, Shaunah Stolaroff, designed the space and runs daily operations along with Jesikah as “owner, cook, and selfless sacrificer every day to help me live my dream,” Jesikah says with gratitude. Their mother works there, too, and their father and brother are investors.

“We were gearing up for a busy summer before COVID hit, then totally shut down,” Jesikah says. “It’s been a strange time. Everything was unknown. But we were used to that. It was more ‘here’s another thing to figure out.’”

She attributes Vim’s survival through times of struggle to having that essential family support and loyal customers. “Through COVID and the fires people were there to help support my dream. It’s a risky job every day, I’m so lucky to have [my staff], it’s humbling.”

Vim
(Crystal Birns)

The “vim and vigor” spirit of the space is in effect along with continued covid caution. The Stolaroffs have been emphasizing comfort food. Of late, “people want to have a warm, comforting meal, and go to that versus fine dining,” Jesikah says of the constantly rotating menu. Desserts are a central focus, never an afterthought.

Quick Bites

Belly Goat

Belly Goat
(Courtesy Belly Goat Burger)

The pandemic followed by the fires meant a couple of unanticipated closings and re-openings for Abbott Square’s latest, but now the grill sizzles with six creative options. Burger choices range from classic — lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and special sauce — to unique — the Seoul Surfer (kimchi, toasted sesame, BBQ smoked pork belly, fried egg, Gochujang mayo) and the Forager, a vegan option featuring a blackened sous-vide portobello with avocado mash, chimichurri marinated tomatoes, sunflower sprouts, and sriracha pimento olive aioli.

“I love meat but the Forager is my favorite burger,” says partner Greg Crema.

Pacific Point Market

From the owners of Pleasure Point Market and Black Point Market, locally famous for food that’s far superior to any expectations for beach-market fare, comes a third deli-style, burger-and-burrito-centric casual eatery in the site once occupied by the Segway tours, on the Pacific Avenue roundabout bordering Depot Park.

Newly outfitted with socially distanced picnic tables, the market boasts tasty tacos, Beyond and beef burgers, a full breakfast menu, and an array of sandwich creations. It’s in an ideal spot for grabbing a bite on the way to the beach or picking up a picnic.