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Santa Cruz, how do I love thee? Let me count the confectionary ways

It’s easy to find Santa Cruz’s best-known spots — the sandy beaches, the boardwalk and the breathtaking cliff walks. But locals have a few secrets too. One of these is that this coastal town has a surprising number of high-quality bakery/cafés. It’s not clear how this happened, but we don’t ask why — we just enjoy.

These are Santa Cruz institutions, places where you can pick up a fresh-baked loaf or meet friends for coffee and a chat. Wherever your explorations of Santa Cruz take you, these neighborhood eateries, each with its own character and specialties, are great places for a treat or a full meal.

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The complementary, and comforting, aromas of freshly baked sourdough and earthy roasted coffee welcome you to Companion Bakeshop, a friendly bakery tucked in a small shopping center at the north end of town. It’s a good spot to stop as you arrive or leave town along Highway 1.

Companion has an open, modern feel: glass (through which you can watch the bakers work), light wood and white subway tile. On a recent foggy morning when I visited, the sounds of halting Italian from a casual conversation class at a nearby table blended with soft guitar music from overhead speakers.

Every loaf, except the baguettes, is sourdough of some sort. You’ll also find plenty of pastries — tea cakes, galettes and croissants — to go with that coffee. Fun fact: This space becomes a wine bar on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

Take your pick of bread at Companion Bakeshop in Santa Cruz.
Take your pick of bread at Companion Bakeshop in Santa Cruz. (Jenny Carless)

Info: Companion Bakeshop, 2341 Mission St., Santa Cruz; (831) 252-2253. Open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Just a half-mile from West Cliff Drive, Kelly’s French Bakery is a cozy stop before or after a stroll.

If you’re picking up a loaf, try the Francese (you can taste the olive oil) or the four-seed Compagnon. In the morning, pair your latte with one of the colorful macarons, an olallieberry tartlet, a black-bottom cupcake — or go whole hog with a cinnamon bun smothered in butter cream.

Kelly’s also offers lunch and dinner items such as grilled panini sandwiches, quiche and lasagna, which you can enjoy with a glass of wine or a beer.

Kelly’s was a trailblazer in its lively little neighborhood — a former all-industrial zone that now hosts wine-tasting joints, microbreweries, shops and restaurants.

Fun fact: Kelly’s makes its own ice cream.

Apart from pastries and assorted bread, Kelly's French Bakery in Santa Cruz also serves lunch and dinner.
Apart from pastries and assorted bread, Kelly's French Bakery in Santa Cruz also serves lunch and dinner. (Jenny Carless)

Info: Kelly’s French Bakery, 402 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz; (831) 423-9059, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

Emily’s Bakery is the place for muffins, whose sweet aroma greets you as you enter. Apple walnut, lemon, poppy seed, chocolate, blueberry … you name it. They’re big and flavorful, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get one straight from the oven. Emily’s sits at the intersection of Mission and Laurel streets.

It alsos offers cake slices, croissants, scones, sweet rolls and sandwiches. While you stand in line trying to choose, you can watch bakers work their dough behind the counter or enjoy the collection of zebra memorabilia and artwork on the walls.

Emily’s is small, with an industrial vibe—most people pick up and go—but if you stay, try the deck outside, surrounded by trees, where you can watch a small stream below.

Fun fact: Owner Emily Reilly used to be mayor of Santa Cruz.

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Enjoy the collection of zebra memoribilia and artwork at Emily's Bakery in Santa Cruz.
Enjoy the collection of zebra memoribilia and artwork at Emily's Bakery in Santa Cruz. (Jenny Carless)

Info: Emily’s Bakery, 1129 Mission St., Santa Cruz; (831) 429-9866. Open 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Cakes, cakes and more cakes. I defy you to find a local who hasn’t considered the Buttery when contemplating a dessert for that special occasion. Carrot cake is a customer favorite (a traditional recipe with walnuts on the sides); the devil’s food whipped cream is also fantastic.

You’ll find cupcakes too, decorated with coconut flakes, sprinkles and even rose petals. You’ll also see tempting pastries (scones, croissants, cheddar cheese twists) and breads (German rye, whole wheat and more). The cafe can set you up with sandwiches (the BLTA is popular), soups and salads.

The Buttery is a cheery spot, often bustling inside, with a more relaxed, dog-friendly area outside. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump from the Santa Cruz Harbor, past the historic Victorians of the Seabright neighborhood. Fun fact: You can enjoy live music on the patio on Sunday afternoons.

The Buttery in Santa Cruz is the spot to go for that special-occasion cake.
The Buttery in Santa Cruz is the spot to go for that special-occasion cake. (Jenny Carless)

Info: The Buttery, 702 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz; (831) 458-3020. 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily

Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, just six miles south in quaint Capitola, is the grande dame of the area’s bakery-cafes. It celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

The humming main room features colorful mosaic-like tabletops, while the enclosed patio (with fireplace) is more calm. Display cases are filled with almost-too-gorgeous-to-eat delicacies such as slices of lemon chiffon cake, raspberry Napoleons and pecan crocodiles.

The Rosticceria, which serves oven-roasted meats, pasta, salads and more, has a loyal following. Regulars enjoy the “Blue Plate Dinner” specials.

A slice of lemon chiffon at Gayle's Bakery in Santa Cruz.
A slice of lemon chiffon at Gayle's Bakery in Santa Cruz. (Jenny Carless)

Fun fact: Gayle Ortiz opened the bakery in 1978 because her love for baking had taken over her house. Husband Joe told her that she needed to move her operation out of the kitchen.

Info: Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, 504 Bay Ave., Capitola, Calif.; (831) 462-1200. Open daily: 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

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