Vim Dining & Desserts continues to fly under the radar for many Santa Cruzans, but wins repeat customers with its menu of new American cuisine and service with a thoughtful, personal touch on the Westside.
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When I think back on how many times I drove past Vim Dining & Desserts before finally going inside, I can’t help but shake my head in regret.
Although its location on busy Mission Street in Santa Cruz has the benefit of high visibility — you can’t miss it as you drive north toward the edge of town — the persistent traffic makes it difficult to cruise by for a good look. And when it opened in 2019, I had questions. Was it affiliated with Mission Inn & Suites, with which it shares a parking lot? Was the name a reference to “vim and vigor,” or something else?
The answer to the first question is no, Vim and Mission Suites are not connected, and yes, “Vim” is meant to evoke a revitalization of the local dining scene. But truly, the most important thing to know about this Westside gem is that, according to husband-and-wife owners Jesikah Stolaroff and Erik Skaug, at least 60% of their customers are repeat diners, and there’s a good reason for that.
Vim’s menu of new American cuisine is both creative and comforting, presented with polished and personable service in an atmosphere that balances swanky and serene. That’s a difficult bar to meet for any restaurant and it’s why many guests who visit the Art Deco-gilded neighborhood spot quickly become passionate fans. Plus, because of Stolaroff’s pastry background, the dessert menu of house-made cakes, pies and other treats might be the best in town.
“We want people to feel like this is a place to celebrate,” says Stolaroff. She and Skaug, who manages the front of the house, strive to make guests feel special through little details that make a big impact — from greeting them with complimentary sparkling wine, personalized menus that note a special occasion and a cupcake on their birthday.
“People really love knowing that effort went into making sure that they got acknowledged personally and that their special event mattered enough to be noted,” says Skaug.
Even if the only thing you’re celebrating is a last-minute babysitter, like my husband and I were on a recent Saturday night, we were pleased to receive a cone of complimentary popcorn dusted with porcini powder and nutritional yeast while we looked over the menu and cocktail list.
Our first course was a stunner — creamy burrata ($15) surrounded with both roasted and raw pickled squash, plus pepita gremolata and plush cubes of cornbread drizzled with chili-infused honey. From the butter charcuterie board ($22), we piled fresh sourdough with silky chicken-liver mousse and tangy cherry compote, as well as a nutty browned, cultured butter.
Stolaroff has a knack for making sure a variety of textures and flavors are present on every plate. My pork tenderloin ($34) with creamy parsnip puree and bitter greens would have been wonderful on its own, but the added crunch of parsnip chips and a side of three savory biscuits with warm honey made the dish truly memorable.
“It’s all about balancing. If this is rich, what can be acidic? What can be fresh, if this is starchy?” says Stolaroff of her process. “I want everything to be purposeful and then make a balanced dish.”
A former vegetarian, she cares deeply about offering compelling plant-based and gluten-free dishes that incorporate complete proteins as well as different flavors and textures. On the menu that evening, I was tempted by the vegan and gluten-free red lentil and sweet potato dahl ($32) with coconut creamed kale and avocado chutney just because it sounded so cozy.
“I try to push the creativity but still make it comforting,” says Stolaroff. “I think, will someone eat this and say, ‘Wow, this was like a hug’?”
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Here, not saving room for dessert would be a mistake. These days, most restaurants can’t afford a pastry chef, which is why short dessert menus with simple sweets like gelato and brownies have become the norm. But Stolaroff’s first love was baking and she has worked in pastry. In addition to designing the regular menu, she offers a list of five to six seasonal and decadent desserts, like a chocolate tart with orange caramel and white chocolate ganache; lemon-vanilla cheesecake crowned with a rosy layer of cranberry curd; and a vegan chocolate ice cream sandwich with cassis-scented caramel and coconut whipped cream.
Stolaroff grew up on the Eastside of Santa Cruz and dreamed of opening a restaurant in her hometown from a young age. As a teenager, she baked cakes for birthdays and weddings before earning degrees in nutritional science from UC Berkeley and culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of American in Napa. After, she worked in restaurants and catering services throughout the Bay Area, and was the sous-chef at Oakland’s Michel Bistro when the French-inspired restaurant earned a Bib Gourmand from the prestigious Michelin Guide.
Back in Santa Cruz in 2018, Stolaroff was scouting possible locations for her own restaurant when she met Skaug, also a Santa Cruz native, who was bartending at the time.
“I said, ‘I’m opening a restaurant. Are you in or what? It’s a big commitment — it’s not just me,’” says Stolaroff. Skaug was in, and took on front-of-house management while helping craft the beverage program. The two married in 2021.
Together, the young couple — both Stolaroff and Skaug are in their mid-30s — have tackled a string of unprecedented hardships in the restaurant industry, from discovering that the building they had just leased was crumbling at the seams to surviving a global pandemic less than a year after opening.
However, they say that operating through the first year of COVID wasn’t nearly as difficult as finding staff, a persistent issue. “We lost a lot of people from the industry, and they haven’t come back. And I don’t think they will,” says Skaug. “People think, I either want to do something different or this industry needs to be restructured and become more equitable for people. Nobody’s figured out quite how to make that happen yet.”
Skaug and Stolaroff limit parties to six people in order to maintain a high level of hospitality while ensuring their valuable staff doesn’t burn out. It’s been a difficult boundary to set, especially as word about Vim has gotten out and interest has grown, but one they feel ultimately benefits everyone. “It’s too hard on the kitchen [to have large parties]. If you put in an eight-person order, everybody behind has to wait 30 minutes for their food,” explains Stolaroff.
Despite the difficulties of the past three years, the personal relationships Skaug and Stolaroff have made with their customers make it all worth it. “Every single night that I’m here there’s somebody sitting in the restaurant that I know by name from them coming in so often that we’ve formed a relationship,” says Skaug. “That’s really the most rewarding thing about being here.”
Vim Dining & Desserts is located at 2238 Mission St. in Santa Cruz and is open Wednesday through Saturday, 5-8 p.m. Call 831-515-7033 for reservations. Find more information at vimsantacruz.com.