Firefly Tavern brings new concept to former 99 Bottles space

Firefly Tavern took over the spot on Walnut Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz formerly occupied by 99 Bottles of Beer
Firefly Tavern took over the spot on Walnut Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz formerly occupied by 99 Bottles of Beer.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Aiming to provide a spot in downtown Santa Cruz that both fosters a sense of community and boasts delicious food, Hans Losee and April Wilkerson opened Firefly Tavern in April in the Walnut Avenue location that formerly housed 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

This story was originally featured in this week’s Lily Belli on Food newsletter. Be first the first to hear about food and drink news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Lily’s email newsletter here and text alerts here.

Walk into the former 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall on Walnut Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz today and you’d barely recognize it. Gone are the personalized plaques across the back of the bar, and the brick wall has been painted a shade of dark charcoal. A vintage-inspired peacock-adorned wallpaper wraps most of the downstairs dining area; the upstairs has been transformed into a sophisticated lounge with antique chairs and a gallery wall, thanks to the design team at Stripe.

Hans Losee and April Wilkerson opened Firefly Tavern at the end of April, bringing new life to a well-loved location. Losee, who also owns the two locations of Firefly Coffee, had been looking for the opportunity to start a full restaurant and kitchen when the downtown spot became available. You might also recognize Losee from his many bartending jobs around the area, including at Oswald Restaurant, the Crepe Place and Brady’s Yacht Club. He also tended bar at The Table in San Jose, ran a line of artisanal craft beverages called Artisan Elixirs and helped launch the cocktail program at Venus Spirits. He took over Firefly Coffee’s flagship location on Front Street three years ago and opened its second location at 1700 Commercial Way several months later.

“I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant in some capacity and it was sort of serendipitous,” he said of the Walnut Avenue location’s availability. “It’s a really great fit and we’re really enjoying it.”

Losee hopes to create a destination, a hub downtown that will foster a sense of community and also boasts delicious food. Losee and Wilkerson brought in chef Jose Ortega, who formerly worked at the Kitchen at Discretion and most recently as a butcher at Shopper’s Corner.

“Jose and I have known each other a long time and I’ve kind of followed him around,” said Losee. “He has a great skill set and work ethic, and high standards.”

The menu is eclectic, with many Southern and Asian influences, including a waffle-fry poutine, red beans & rice, and a cheesy grits dish served with andouille sausage, shrimp, root veggies and a fried egg that’s reminiscent of a grits-and-greens dish from the former Kitchen at Discretion. There’s also a classic double cheeseburger, a Korean fried rice dish and several salads and small plates, among other dishes.

Creating the menu has been a collaborative effort between Ortega and Losee, bringing together Losee’s inspiration with Ortega’s vision and style.

“I’ve been cooking nonstop for the past two-three years and discovered a new creativity,” said Losee. “I was getting better and better, and many of the dishes on our menu are things that I’ve been cooking a lot.”

The portions are plentiful. On a recent visit, my party of four adults each ordered an entree and all took home leftovers.

Currently, the Firefly Tavern is licensed for only beer and wine, but Losee says he hopes to eventually obtain a full liquor license so he can make more use of his years of cocktail experience. In the meantime, he plans to get creative with some wine and beer cocktails. The restaurant’s hours are still being finalized, but the goal is to be open seven days a week, with brunch served on weekends.

Mia and Dave Bossie closed 99 Bottles in March 2020, a casualty of the pandemic. The owners of (now-closed) local pizzeria Tony & Alba’s, Dave and Terri Terwilleger, had planned to turn it into Twig’s Tap House and had done extensive renovations to the space, but Dave Terwilleger died last year and those plans came to a halt. Now, under Losee and Wilkerson, who is instrumental in keeping everything behind the scenes running, 110 Walnut Ave. is ready for its next act.

Firefly Tavern, located at 110 Walnut Ave. in Santa Cruz, is currently open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to close on Saturdays and 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, though hours are subject to change for the time being.