Sand dabs, lobster and tastes of the low country. The second Venus brings a bit of Westside panache to Aptos’ Rio Del Mar area as mid-county grows its fine dining scene.
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As I leave behind a sunny summer day in Santa Cruz and drive into a thick, chilly marine layer, suddenly shivering in my sleeveless top, I’m reminded that the Westside is very different from Rio Del Mar.
Not only does oceanic fog cover the sleepy coastal area for most of the summer, but not much has changed in the past 30 years, at least in regard to finer dining. While Rio Del Mar State Beach has drawn tourists for generations, the area hasn’t undergone a sweeping transformation the way other areas of Santa Cruz, particularly the Westside, and more recently nearby Aptos Village, have. For more than 30 years, Café Rio held one of the top dining spots in the area. It had many fans, and while its food was beloved, it wasn’t adventurous.
In contrast, Santa Cruz’s Westside, where Sean Venus opened his distillery, Venus Spirits, in 2013, followed by full-service restaurant Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen in 2020, has become a beehive of culinary experimentation. Within just a few blocks, visitors can find chef Diego Felix wrapping seasonally inspired empanadas, chef Ben Sims of Bantam crafting wood-fired pizzas, an abundance of third-wave coffee, a craft butcher and a number of weekend pop-ups offering everything from arepas to yakitori — and that’s just the food options. Breweries, wineries and tech startups have also found homes inside industrial buildings that once housed Brussels sprouts packing facilities, helping to shape the Westside into the most experimental neighborhood in the county.
So last week, when Venus opened a second restaurant, Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside, in the Rio Del Mar space that previously held Café Rio, it represented a significant addition. For one thing, among its neighbors, Venus Beachside is the only place to eat dinner. The Pixie Deli closes its menu of sandwiches, salads and all-day breakfast at 4 p.m. The SeaBreeze Tavern at the other end of the block was demolished last year after a fire damaged the building. To the left of the restaurant, there’s a closed café front; to the right, a small market.
Into that terrain Beachside chef John Harry brings his fine dining chops, skills learned in Atlanta and honed locally at Alderwood in Santa Cruz and Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. With Harry at the helm, Beachside joins fellow newcomers Mentone and Restaurant Malik Williams and well-established Café Sparrow and Bittersweet Bistro on Aptos’ thriving fine-dining scene.
Café Rio owner Jeanne Harrison handed the keys to Venus and his wife, Grace, at the end of May. In just three weeks, the Venus team completed a few light renovations to the 100-plus-seat restaurant and 40-seat patio. The fresh white paint on the exterior and interior walls cleanly sets off the original polished pine and mahogany accents inside.
Completing minor updates allowed the restaurant to reopen in just three weeks, but Venus told me there’s a larger renovation to come. He plans on moving the bar to the front left corner of the restaurant, and creating an open kitchen in the back of the restaurant where the bar currently is. It makes sense for the award-winning artisanal distillery to put its spirits and craft cocktails at the forefront, and once these renovations are complete, bar patrons will gain gorgeous views of Rio Del Mar State Beach and Monterey Bay.
At Beachside, as with the original Venus establishment, you’d be remiss if you didn’t start your meal with a cocktail. I chose a Negroni Blanco ($14), a crystal-clear Negroni made with Venus’ limited-edition summer gin. It’s appetizingly bitter and herbaceous, and lighter than a traditional Negroni. There are eight other cocktails on the menu, plus two “no proof” alcohol-free cocktails and a short, curated list of wines and beers.
My appetite piqued, I grabbed the menu. There are several favorites from the Westside Venus Kitchen’s menu, including the Venus Burger ($18), five-cheese mac & cheese with cornbread crumbles ($14) and crispy Brussels sprouts appetizer with cashew cream ($14). I see that Harry, who hails from coastal Georgia, has imbued many of the dishes on the seafood-centric menu with low country Southern flavors. The hush puppies ($8) — poppable little balls of fried cornmeal — are delightful slathered with honey butter. One standout dish was the oysters Bienville ($18). I don’t normally care for cooked oysters, as they’re often overdone and tough. But these, topped with a savory mix of shrimp, bacon, morel mushrooms and scallions, were perfectly set and still creamy and oceanic.
Longtime Café Rio customers will be excited to see sand dabs ($18) still on the menu. It was a flagship dish at the former restaurant, and Harry wanted to keep it for returning patrons. His version is fried in cornmeal and presented like a calamari appetizer with lemon, tartar sauce and Crystal hot sauce. It’s tasty, but it looks lonely on the plate by itself. Venus later told me he and the chef are working to elevate the dish to an entrée in the coming weeks.
For our entrées, I couldn’t resist the lobster roll ($26). Maybe they’re de rigeur on the East Coast, but they’re hard to find in California, and I don’t know anyone on the West Coast who doesn’t jump at the chance to order one. I wasn’t disappointed. Thick, fluffy Pullman loaf-like white bread was toasted and stuffed with sweet lobster meat tossed in tarragon aioli. A crunchy celery-and-fennel slaw set off the rich meal.
The crowning dish of the evening: the Lowcountry Boil ($36), although it wasn’t what we originally expected. When I think of a low country boil, I think of crawfish, shrimp, sausage, corn and potatoes, boiled for god knows how long in an obscene amount of Old Bay seasoning and piled high over newspaper on a long table. Harry’s version is like a cioppino — shrimp, mussels, clams, spicy andouille sausage, roasted corn and fingerling potatoes swim in a tangy tomato broth that’s utterly divine. I politely declined several attempts by the server to clear it from the table until I had scooped every last spoonful from the bowl. (However, I also think it would be fun to have the newspaper version at some point, too.)
In the coming weeks, guests will see the menu expand. Harry plans to add more share plates, salads, entrées and desserts, plus a seafood raw bar. “When people see the ocean, they want to eat the ocean,” Venus told me a few weeks ago about their approach to the menu.
My husband and I relaxed at the end of our meal with a sweet-tart slice of Key lime pie ($12), and watched the sky over the bay darken to a deep blue from the huge bay-facing windows. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that there really aren’t that many places in the county to enjoy a creative, nuanced meal with a view of the water. With the addition of Venus Beachside, we’re lucky to have one more.
Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside is open 5-9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Make reservations and view menus at venusspirits.com.