A few blocks inland, you reach the downtown area. At first glance, you might mistake the Pacific Blue Inn for a condo building, but it's a new bed-and-breakfast. The owners built this nine-room place from the ground up, using many green materials, and opened it Memorial Day weekend. The inn is not long on character, but if you want a location handy to the main drag, it can't be beat.

Closer to the east end of town, you find the Pleasure Point neighborhood, where the Pleasure Point Inn stands across the street from a tiny bluff-top park that looks out over a prime surf break. The inn, 9 years old, has four rooms, with breakfast served in a common area that overlooks the street and ocean. It's not a good fit for kids or a dog, but if you have one or more of those, the same owners rent out six houses in Santa Cruz and nearby Capitola.

The 10-room Bella Notte Inn stands in the same general neighborhood. It's a smallish hotel in a 2007 building, so everything in it is spacious and in top shape. There's no pool (apart from the Dream Inn, the lodgings listed here do not have pools), but the beach is just a three-minute walk.

Feed the hunger

Now on to the eating, beginning with downtown.

Oswald has been in Santa Cruz for years, but chef Damani Thomas and his partners closed their old location in 2007 to move downtown, then reopened in December 2008. The new space is big and minimalist, with a black ceiling, black carpet and off-white walls. In a late October visit, after a strangely long wait (only four tables were occupied), I had the $10 wilted bitter green sandwich (Gruyere cheese, olive tapenade, aioli), and it was very good.

The Gabriella Cafe is an unassuming little place, with an even littler patio, where I had a tremendous lunch. It's been there since 1992; chef Bradford Briske moved up from sous chef last January. (Briske, formerly a vegetarian, started eating and cooking meat after he moved to Santa Cruz.)

Chances are the owner, Paul Cocking, will be your waiter, and chances are your table will be a two-top. It's a mostly Italian menu, with house-made pasta and main dishes including tripe pizza and squid ink cavatelli. I had the pappardelle with lamb ragout (and a fennel mint after) and was glad I did. I also liked staring at the wall, where somebody spent many hours finding, trimming and assembling twigs until they spelled out GABRIELLA.

Just a short stroll away stands Soif Wine Bar, open since 2002. (Soif means "thirst" in French.) The wine shop is small but gets praise from wine-trade insiders. In the dining and drinking area, the ceilings are high and the walls are covered with terra-cotta paint, grape-leaf sconces and four ancient grape trunks -- entire root and trellis systems that loom against the wall like tall, gnarled abstract sculptures. I can vouch for the pan-seared scallops with risotto and shiitake mushrooms.

You'll probably want to drive the mile and a half from downtown to La Posta, and it will be worth the trip. La Posta is an Italian restaurant with such dishes as Dungeness crab ravioli and roasted whole branzino (a European sea bass) with baby fennel and olive relish. It opened in 2006. The space was once a post office, but now it's gone mod, with angled walls. There's a bar up front and a few cool dangling lamps shaded by old Italian postcards. I liked the prosciutto-melon-fig dessert and the easygoing but expert service.

To see a part of Santa Cruz that has changed dramatically in recent years, head to the West Side of town. Here you'll find the Bonny Doon Vineyard's tasting room (which opened in late 2008) and the adjoining Cellar Door Cafe. The restaurant is a joint effort by Bonny Doon wine- maker Randall Grahm and chef David Kinch, with the kitchen run by executive chef Charlie Parker.

The dim, curvaceous dining room is inspired by the form of a chambered nautilus shell. Small plates dominate the menu and family-style dining is strongly encouraged, with a couple of long tables in the middle of the room and only a handful of two-top tables. Do not be alarmed by the UFO -- that's a visual reference to Bonny Doon's Le Cigare Volant, a Rhône red blend with a similar flying object on its label.

If you arrive in the neighborhood too early for dinner, you can find Kelly's French Bakery just a scone's throw away. Kelly's operated downtown for many years but decamped to take over this former Brussels sprouts packing house in 2003. It's now known as the Swift Street Commons, and the complex also includes Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and neighbors the Bonny Doon tasting room. During Thanksgiving weekend, I grazed steadily and happily on Kelly's pumpkin pie (and some of the olallieberry pie too) for about 48 hours, and it's pretty affordable.

If you're pinching pennies, there's Charlie Hong Kong, near the Rio Theatre. It specializes in organic Asian street food. Along with noodle dishes and rice bowls with chicken, pork, beef and seafood toppings, it has salads and Vietnamese sandwiches. The bright greens, yellow and reds make it easy to find this eatery, which opened in 1998, taking over a former 1950s ice cream stand. Most of the seating is on the covered patio, but there are a few counter seats that look out the window at the world going by on Soquel Avenue.

Here's what you do after you've been in town a few days and gotten acclimated. Order a big, steaming Charlie Hong Kong lunch, take a seat with a view of the avenue. Then, as the drivers and bikers roll past, mouth these words to them:

"Dude. What's your hurry?"

chris.reynolds@latimes.com

latimes.com /santacruz

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