Whenever we head south from San Francisco, we love day trips along the coast and Route 1 is such a beautiful drive, regardless of whether you only go as far as Pacifica, which we can reach in fifteen minutes, a little further along in stunning Half Moon Bay (we love the Ritz Carlton — be sure to read our review of the property a few years back), Santa Cruz (low key and fun for families), Carmel (loved our stay at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands), Monterey (also has fabulous restaurants and views) or even further along, like Santa Barbara and Ojo.
We have friends in Portola and Aptos, both of which are a stone’s throw from Santa Cruz, where a friend has a yacht membership and we go sailing from time-to-time. While we were down for a sail recently, my immediate thought was to start reviewing some of Santa Cruz’ restaurant gems. Then, we learned about Cafe Rio, an-Aptos based beach restaurant from our friend Brad who loves their fresh seafood and so we decided to check it out.
Although there is a parking lot between you and the beach, the restaurant is facing it, so be sure to get there early, go for a stroll along the beach or hang out for the afternoon and then end your day with dinner at Cafe Rio.
There were plenty of fresh seafood options on the menu to choose from, whether it be a Shrimp Louie Salad, a Fishmonger Soup (clam-based fish chowder), their Linguini and Clams (yum!!) or one of their delicious starters. We went for the Seared Ahi Tuna (pictured above), which is Cajun spiced with sauteed peppers and onions accompanied by a soy mustard dipping sauce, and the Salmon/Ahi Poke, apparently a local favorite. Pictured below, it is served with fried won tons and soy ginger sauce.
Healthy foodies (and Italians) will love their Fire Roasted Artichoke which they serve with a Chipotle aiole – oh so delish! It’s also a fun one to share with a table.
And then of course, there’s fresh oysters on the half shell. If it’s on the menu (ever), I have a hard time saying no. Meatier than most, I was thrilled by my choice, although others at the table had hoped I was going to go for the Mussels with saffron, onion, basil and tomato butter — maybe next time!
They certainly did sound divine as did the Skewered Grilled Prawns with orange chili sauce and pineapple salsa and their Crab Cakes with arugula fennel salad. Had there been more people at our table and we had more time, their crab cake app would have been a must order.
Let’s take a look at some of their seafood entrees. Rio favorites include Sand Dabs, Calamari Dore, Swordfish with pineapple salsa (nearly went for this one), the Ahi Tuna in a soy miso ginger beurre blanc (below) and the Salmon with grilled Thai chili ginger glaze.
They offered a scrumptious bass as a special on the menu (below), so we had to say “one of those please.” Light and fresh, it was a perfect option after such a healthy selection of appetizers. We didn’t order anything heavy (if that’s not an issue, go for the Rio clams with bacon and peppercorn butter), a cheese board or a fried dish, although it’s always tough to pass up fried calamari if on the menu and they do offer it.
The heaviest thing that hit our table was a must order — the seafood ravioli, also on the “Special” list for the evening. So much decadence here: scallops, lobster, cream sauce, mushrooms – you name it. It had a “wow” flavor and everyone at the table had at least one taste.
A few other seafood platings just to whet your appetite.
They also have some fun pasta offerings as well, including a delicious sounding Wild Mushroom Risotto (we didn’t try it). They serve it with several mushroom types (shitaki, cremini and oyster) in a mushroom glace and a white truffle oil. Wow, right? Veggies can opt for their vegetable lasagne and lamb lovers will have a hard time passing up their Lamb Bolognese which they make with a papparrdelle pasta.
As an aside, we think it’s a great family restaurant spot as well — they have larger tables and there’s also a cool bar area. They offer fries as a side, and garlic mashed potatoes and there are burgers and boneless short ribs on the menu, a great family option and always a fun plate to share.
While they have a reasonable selection of cocktails, we paired our meal with Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc all night since seafood is the order of the day at this beachside eatery. And, we managed a healthy sampling of many of their fish dishes and shellfish offerings.
Ready for sweets yet? Their dessert menu has you covered and all of them are beautifully presented.
Would we return? You betcha! Even though it was bustling on a weekend, we found it easy to hear each other speak, not always the case with a busy restaurant along the coast. Animal lovers will also appreciate their dog-friendly patio.