Bait the hook: Dining renaissance underway at the Santa Cruz wharf

Nautical is the theme inside Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With the reopening of Stagnaro Brothers and Firefish Grill, a Humble Sea pop-up, Makai’s island grog and a summer concert series, the wharf is aiming to tempt Santa Cruz locals into the mix at the popular tourist haunt.

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Restaurants at the Santa Cruz Wharf are keen to highlight menu items that have evolved far beyond the clam chowder bread bowls, burgers and deep-fried white fish that we ordered as children when visiting the sea lions. These much-loved dishes are still available at many locations — no need to strike fear in the hearts of traditionalists — but sashimi-grade ahi poke, 12-hour-roasted tamarind pork and broiled oysters with spicy guacamole are quickly gaining rave reviews from a savvy new generation of diners.

“We’re investing in building momentum this summer,” the City of Santa Cruz’s development manager says of goings-on at...

The elevated menus have already proved effective at three well-loved restaurants. Prior to the pandemic, anchor tenants Riva Fish House, Firefish Grill and Stagnaro Brothers each served more than a thousand meals on a busy Saturday. But two of the three have been closed: Stagnaro’s due to the pandemic business climate and Firefish after a major fire gutted the restaurant.

With the reopening of Stagnaro Brothers and Firefish Grill, and recent launch of Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery and Vino by the Sea, a reimagined dining experience at the wharf is well underway. Plans for a stunning new version of the Miramar Fish Grotto are in development, and Lookout has a sneak peek here.

The Humble Sea pop-up beer garden

A pop-up Humble Sea Brewing beer garden is the plan for vacant prime real estate on the wharf.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Always looking for ways to improve the array and appeal of wharf restaurants, City of Santa Cruz Development Manager David McCormic said the decision to reach out to Humble Sea Brewing Co. was an easy one. “The wharf suits the Humble Sea brand and they’re known for being willing to experiment and try new things,” he said. “We thought a collaboration that creatively makes use of the empty commercial space and showcases a popular local brewery would be a win-win.”

A poster for the summer 2023 Santa Cruz Wharf concert series

Santa Cruz Wharf Tuesday Night Live Summer Concert Series

The Santa Cruz Wharf will host a free concert the second Tuesday of the month from May through September at the Wharf Stage (21 Municipal Wharf). The event, which will also include games, a photo booth and business pop-ups, runs 6-8 p.m. Find more information here.

May 9: The Lost Boys feat. James Durbin
June 13: Extra Large
July 11: The Joint Chiefs
Aug. 8: Sweet VooDoo
Sept. 12: Jive Machine

The Humble Sea Beer Garden is expected to open on weekends in April. Reports are that an event permit for the pop-up is bouncing around in the final stages of city approval. Frank Krueger, co-owner of Humble Sea, says he’s excited to get up and running. “The beer garden format is a perfect use for that patio space,” he said. “We’ll keep it simple and trick it out with picnic tables, games and a container bar to get it open as soon as possible.”

The beer garden will ramp up to pour every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and on weekends through October. Humble Sea is aiming to secure arrangements with food trucks touting menu items beyond the usual wharf lineup. Plans to install utilities, storage, windscreens and railings are underway, and work is scheduled to begin as soon as the use license is issued.

Stagnaro’s and Firefish reopening just in time for summer

Renovations at Stagnaro Brothers include its reimagined Upper Deck Lounge.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Anchor tenant Stagnaro Brothers restaurant was set to reopen Thursday. In decisions about remodeling and redoubling the family commitment to the restaurant, this third generation of the Stagnaro family is determined to remain true to great-uncle Giovanni Stagnaro’s original mission: to offer the freshest seafood at reasonable prices. “He wanted people to feel like a welcome part of the family here,” said family spokesperson Carol Tara. “His goal was for guests to leave happy with a full belly.”

Consistent with the Stagnaro legacy, the familiar seafood-forward menu will offer pre-pandemic pricing. After extensive renovations, the restaurant downstairs retains its original booth seating, with a new bar and hostess station. Upstairs has been reimagined as the Upper Deck Lounge, and will offer a lighter menu including a new poke bowl, an ahi tower, a vegetarian sandwich and, of course, Stagnaro’s famous clam chowder. To update the bar menu, Stagnaro’s has brought in local beers from Humble Sea, Discretion Brewing and Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, as well as a new lineup of 28 mostly local wines.

Bringing in diners midweek and off-season

Firefish Grill is scheduled to reopen in June after a disastrous fire in April 2022. Its format — fresh seafood, steaks and burgers cooked over mesquite in an exhibition kitchen — coupled with weekday specials has helped to triple business with locals. Riva Fish House also brings in locals with a busy bar, award-winning clam chowder and recent accolades as best local seafood restaurant.

Firefish Grill is aiming for a June reopening after a disastrous kitchen blaze in April 2022.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Both restaurants are operated by second-generation owners who have put a great deal of effort toward upping their local appeal. Firefish owner Mark Gilbert warms up when he talks about growing up in his father’s seafood restaurants. He insists — hands down — that the best way to prepare salmon is to cook it over a mesquite fire, and serve it with a little beurre blanc. In fact, this preparation became the central concept of Firefish. Taking a different line, Riva owner Peter Drobac describes his establishment’s “stellar” clam chowder, which has no bacon and allows the clams to shine, and its popular calamari appetizer, loaded with larger pieces from the steak. He adds emphatically, “We don’t do tentacles.”

Lofty plans for the Miramar

A first peek at plans for the new Miramar Fish Grotto reveals features sure to win over even the most wharf-averse, chowder-dissing local. The two-story restaurant will have a rooftop patio bar featuring local beers and wines, a made-to-order seafood chowder bar, and a walk-up oyster bar. Current designs offer indoor and outdoor dining with sweeping views of both Cowell Beach and the Boardwalk. It is expected that the permitting and buildout will take two years, so if all goes well this summer, Humble Sea will stay through the summer of 2023 until construction begins, likely in the fall.

A merry-go-round of tasty cocktails at Makai

Get your tropical cocktail on at Makai's patio.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The winner for best pandemic-era addition to the wharf is Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery, a Hawaiian, tiki-themed restaurant with a menu featuring tamarind and BBQ pork, fresh tuna poke, ribs and coconut shrimp. Its innovative cocktail menu has garnered a loyal following among locals who can choose among carefully crafted options including a Mermaid’s Kiss, a Courageous Koi or a Dragon’s Bite. Cocktails and the full menu are available outdoors on the patio, indoors at a table or at the revolving bar that rotates every half hour so each seat has a view of the bay.

Vino by the Sea, under new ownership since the pandemic, now offers live music every Wednesday through Sunday evening with local wines and beers plus a menu of small bites, dips and charcuterie (and a bird’s-eye view of the summer concert stage).

Vino by the Sea skews local with its wine and beer selections ... and the view's not too bad, either.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)