Johnny’s Harborside Restaurant

Restaurant Review: Johnny’s Harborside Restaurant

The Santa Cruz Harbor is home to several hundred boats – everything from stand-up paddleboats to the Chardonnay  to every kind of boat in between. Particularly in the summer, it’s a busy, crowded plane, and it’s well-served by several restaurants, including Aldo’s, El Palomar, the Crow’s Nest and Johnny’s Harborside. Of all of them, Johnny’s is the best by quite a margin, despite its completely uninspired name.

Johnny’s is located in one big room, in the second floor of a building on the south side of the harbor, tucked into the parking lot below the bridge. It’s a pretty unassuming building – grey, with windows on the second floor, and an outdoor staircase.

However, once you get into the restaurant, everything changes. The room is bright and clean and modern, with windows providing a spectacular view of the moored sailboats in the harbor. There’s a full bar, seating for about fifty, and a clean, industrial décor that feels exactly right. This is the kind of place you want to settle into for a drink and a really good meal after a day’s sail – which is exactly what you’ll get. At least, the meal part. The sail is kind of up to you.

The Location

Johnny’s is in the Santa Cruz harbor parking lot, on the south side, just below the Murray Street bridge. To get there, you take the bridge over the harbor, turn right onto Lake Avenue, and take the very first right down into the harbor parking lot. Be careful – the turnoff comes fast. Although there is VERY limited street parking in the neighborhood, there’s lot of parking in the harbor lot – bring quarters.

Address: 493 Lake Ave Santa Cruz, CA 95062

Phone: 831 479 3430

The Hours

Monday & Tuesday 11:30 - 20:30

Wednesday - Friday 11:30 - 21:30

Saturday 11:00 - 21:30

Sunday 10:00 - 20:30.

Brunch served Saturdays and Sundays until 14:00

The Ambiance

Busy, loud and fun. People coming and going to pick up take-out orders, chatter at the bar, and an active, energetic crowd. Great place.

The Service

Good. Our server was right on top of our dinner, drinks came quickly, the table was bussed expertly and fast – all good.

The Price

Expensive - $87 for dinner for two, including drinks for two. The portions are modest.

The Food

The food is excellent – expertly done seafood, featuring whatever is the local catch of the day. And they completely avoided the bane of seafood restaurants – the dreaded Deep Fried Fish Bits syndrome. Not too heavy on the frying and the grease – everything was lightly done, flavorful, fresh and original.

As an appetizer, we started with crab cakes. An old standy, but also the acid test for a seafood restaurant, right? These were terrific. Light, almost airy, with just the right mixture of crabmeat and filling. The tartar sauce was homemade, and very fresh and light. The perfect way to begin the meal.

For an entrée, we decided to order the Chef’s Daily Trio for Two. This is three different kinds of fish – chef’s choice – prepared and served each of three ways. On our night, it was tuna, prawns and sand dabs, served Southern Summer style (blackened on white bean & roasted corn succotash with sautéed kale and sweet corn butter), Cal Asian style (with sticky rice, steamed edamame, orange ginger gastrique, and summer fruit salsa) and Parisian style (with citrus beurre blanc, chévre mashed potatoes, Parisian vegetables, and lemon marmalade). Three different fish, each served a different way.

It was AMAZING. A review of each of the three dishes would take pages, but let me just summarize by saying that everything worked. Each of the three different kinds of fish was perfectly done, in a way that emphasized its flavor, texture and taste. The Trio was really a kind of tasting menu for seafood, with each dish set up as an exploration of the possibilities of what might seem like some really unusual ingredient combinations.

We did not have dessert, so no word on that. However, in thinking about our meal at Johnny’s, I ultimately come back to economics, thus: for the restaurant, fish is an expensive, tricky ingredient. It goes bad quickly, the supply varies, and it’s costly. In response to this, there are basically three strategies. The first is to charge the customer a lot, which won’t work in a market like Santa Cruz. The second is to take cheap fish, bread it and deep-fry it, which produces fairly nasty food, but can be dished out inexpensively.

The third is to serve relatively small portions, thus keeping your cost under control, but to do something creative with it. This is what Johnny’s does. Simple pieces of fish were turned into genuinely interesting, creative, flavorful and original dishes. Everybody wins. Except, of course, the fish.

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Johnny’s Harborside
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Published On: Tuesday, July 30th, 2013