The lobster roll at Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside.
The lobster roll with tarragon aioli, sherry vinaigrette, house Kennebec chips at Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside.
(Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

Remodeled Venus Beachside puts spirits front and center, leans into seafood

After a six-month makeover, Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside is back open for business on the Esplanade in Rio Del Mar. Craft cocktails headline the new-look bar, and in addition to faves from its Westside sister location, Beachside boasts lobster rolls, clam chowder and a changing slate of dishes featuring freshly caught fish.

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Aptos residents, take note — Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside reopened over the weekend in Rio Del Mar after a six-month-long interior remodel, with an inspiring cocktail list and a seafood-focused menu that also includes favorites from its Santa Cruz sister restaurant.

A refresher: Sean Venus founded the award-winning Westside distillery Venus Spirits in 2013 and, in 2020, opened a spirits-focused bistro-style restaurant, Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen, adjacent to the tasting room. Last spring, Venus purchased the restaurant space on the esplanade that held Cafe Rio for more than 30 years and, after a few updates and a new coat of paint, opened Beachside last summer. He closed Beachside last fall for a full renovation, which is now complete.

Now, the dated wood paneling and dark carpet are long gone, replaced by a chic, industrial-style design and open floor plan. The redesign was headed by Santa Cruz-based Stripe Design Services, whom Venus also worked with at his other establishments. The new space is consistent with the design of the tasting room and Westside restaurant, incorporating burnt wood, barrel wood and a copper bar top, with coastal elements woven in, like the ocean-colored tiles covering the dividers.

Notably, the bar, once tucked away in the back corner, has been moved to a centerpoint position at the front of the restaurant, where it beautifully displays Venus’ artisanal whiskeys, gins, vodkas, rums, agave spirits and aquavit. The bar team churns out an impressive menu of 15 craft cocktails, including three “no proof” concoctions, plus six dessert cocktails.

The kitchen is now in the back of the restaurant and expanded to accommodate more staff and improve the workflow. A long service window allows diners to glimpse the team, headed by chef Gaby Molina, hard at work. Molina has also been the chef at the Westside restaurant since it opened.

Venus also added a semiprivate dining room for small parties. Inside, Venus Spirits liquor bottles filled with dried botanicals and grain line dark walls and a large wood work table can seat up to 14 guests.

The menu offers many fan favorites from the Westside restaurant, including the crispy Brussels sprouts with cashew cream ($16), the five mac & cheese with cornbread crumble ($14) and the spicy El Ladrón burger ($22) made with Venus agave spirit. The Southern-inspired dishes from last summer’s menu are mostly gone and replaced with California cuisine consistent with the Westside restaurant.

Pan seared rock cod Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside.
Pan-seared rock cod with California squid, oyster mushrooms and chilled niçoise salad at Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside.
(Lookout Santa Cruz)

On a visit Friday, I focused on the seafood unique to this location, starting the meal with fried calamari with crispy Thai chilis and fried garlic ($16) and ahi crudo with grapefruit, paper-thin jalapeño and cucumber ($18). The clam chowder ($14) was cozy and comforting, served with smokey bacon-fat-rubbed toast. The lobster roll, which was pioneered on the original menu, is back. Market price for this item was $36 on my visit; the buttery, homemade brioche roll was so stuffed with sweet lobster meat, I think it was worth it. A calamari roll ($22) filled with fried calamari is half the price if guests still want seaside hoagie vibes without the sticker shock.

An entree titled From The Sea featured local rock cod over tiny purple squid, meaty oyster mushrooms, fresh peas and capers in a savory broth. Venus says this item and others on the menu will change with the seasons, always featuring freshly caught fish. The beer-battered fish and chips will soon get an upgrade from rockfish to halibut and some share plates might be added in the coming weeks, but the menu is mostly set. “We’ll be doing seasonal tweaks and seeing what people are interested in,” Venus says. “So far it’s oysters, calamari and lobster rolls.”

We finished the meal with a slice of coconut cream pie, made next door at the Venus Pie Trap, Venus’ pizza- and pie-themed café — a perfect ending to our beachfront meal.

Wednesday through Sunday, 5-9 p.m., 131 Esplanade, Aptos; reservations and menu at