Friday, October 13, 2023

Curiosities: The Beach Street Cafe

What is the oldest commercial building on Beach Street in Santa Cruz? Is it the Casino and Neptune's Kingdom—the former Plunge Natatorium? Is it the Carousel or Giant Dipper? Or is it something people see everyday but barely spare a glance at? While several private residences dating to the 1870s and earlier survive across Beach Hill, the structures along the waterfront are relatively new, dating only to the early 1900s. The Casino and Natatorium buildings date to 1907, replacing the earlier Neptune's Casino and Plunge buildings that burned down in 1906. In fact, this fire destroyed most of the oldest commercial buildings on the waterfront, including the Dolphin Bath House, which had been converted into the Tent City Restaurant, and several other associated structures. Only some tents and cottages, as well as the Plunge's powerhouse survived. However, one other building was only partially damaged in the inferno and quickly returned to service: the restaurant today known as the Beach Street Café.

Dabelich's Grill with the Casino to the left and the Sea Beach Hotel in the distance, ca 1910. [Margaret Koch Collection, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History]

This little restaurant at 399 Beach Street was erected from March to May 1904 by Ralph Selleck Miller, who had previously co-owned the Miller–Leibbrandt Plunge until Fred Swanton's Santa Cruz Tent and Cottage City Corporation bought it in 1903 to convert it into the Neptune Plunge. Miller bought the land from Frederick Hihn, who owned everything between Main Street and Cliff Street between First Street and the waterfront. A private home, which appears in a few early photographs of the waterfront, once sat at the intersection but Miller had it torn down for his new building. This narrow structure was two stories tall, with three rooms downstairs and four upstairs. Prior to opening, the walls were whitewashed and the roof was painted green. The restaurant was built for around $2,500. At the time it opened, the café was the only independent restaurant on the waterfront, with all other eateries owned by either a hotel or Swanton's company. Miller owned a substantial stake in the amusement center and his café was an expression of faith in the project.

Neptune Casino and Plunge with the Miller Building just to the left of the Casino beside a building labeled "Restaurant," ca 1905. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections]

Throughout all of its history to the present, the little café at the corner of Cliff and Beach Street has made cameo appearances in thousands of photographs of the Casino and Boardwalk. Though rarely the subject of photographs, it is an ever-present reminder of the enduring legacy of this restaurant. Miller himself had little do with the building once it was erected. As a member of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, he delegated daily management of the café to a Mr. Fletcher of Capitola. From March 1904, he ran the business as a temperance café, though his primary food option appears to have been French fries. Advertisements in the Sentinel ran every day through the summer of 1904 promoting Fletcher's fresh crisps, sold across from the Neptune Casino. Later proprietors mostly avoided daily advertisements as unnecessary since the majority of the shop's traffic came during the summer months from tourists.

Advertisement for Dabelich's Grill from the Surf, June 15, 1905.

In January 1905, management of the café was transferred to George Dabelich, former proprietor of the Pacific Restaurant on Pacific Avenue across from the Pacific Ocean House. He immediately set to work converting the fries shop into a small short-order restaurant. One of the downstairs rooms was converted into a kitchen, while another became a private dining room, with the largest room converted into a public dining room with tables and counter seating and painted entirely in green. The upstairs rooms were converted into private dining rooms with views of the Monterey Bay. Miller took this opportunity to add a cement-lined cellar underneath the building. He also installed a cement walkway around it, possibly the first concrete sidewalk on the beach. The Dabelich's Grill and Bar Room opened to much more fanfare than Fletcher's café on April 3, with seventy-five meals served by Dabelich himself, since he hadn't hired a chef yet.

The Tent Casino, erected following the fire that destroyed the Neptune Casino, with Dabelich's Grill in the center background, summer 1906.

Daily advertisements for Dabelich's began to appear in the Surf from mid-June 1905 and ran until November 15. Shortly afterwards, it was announced that the grill would close, but the bar would remain open and begin selling cigars and cigarettes. On the morning of June 22, 1906, the great Casino fire burned down most of the structures at the waterfront. Dabelich's Grill suffered serious damage in the inferno, but remained standing. He reported to the Santa Cruz Evening News that he estimated his loss of stock and furniture to be $1,990. Apparently, only two walls and some internal walls of the second floor survived the fires, but the building was partially protected by the fact that a fire hydrant was just outside the building so firefighters were constantly on hand to put out flames. Much of Dabelich's products survived the fire, either because they were stored in the cellar or were removed from the building. Dabelich opened a pop-up shop beside his fire-damaged building the next day. Meanwhile, Ralph Miller immediately set to work rebuilding the restaurant.

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with the St. Francis Grill to the left of the Casino, late 1920s [UC Santa Cruz]

The restored building reopened in mid-July, once more under Dabelich's oversight. Very little is said of the business for the next few years and it may have operated more as a bar than a restaurant as it had before the fire. On May 1, 1909, George H. Collin, a former San Francisco bar owner, took over management of what was then known as the Cliff Saloon. He may have renamed it the Cliff Tavern, but records are unclear. He ran the bar for five summers and then transferred management back to Miller, who was partnered with Mary Spellman at the time. Details are very scarce regarding the restaurant from 1913 to 1921. Next door, where Boardwalk Bowl's courtyard is today, Peter Pappas erected a restaurant, which opened on June 17, 1916. Due to the widening of Beach Street, Miller and Pappas were both forced to move their structures back from the road in late 1919. Miller ran his saloon for another year but, in April 1921, leased his old café to Pappas, who merged the two establishments to create the St. Francis Grill.

The newly upgraded Cocoanut Grove with the St. Francis across the street, ca 1960s. [UC Santa Cruz]

Pappas had been running concessions at the Boardwalk with his brother, Constantine, since 1910. Over twelve years he had amassed a small fortune and made the best of it in April 1922 when he purchased from Agnes Hihn Younger the entire block between Beach Street and First Street, and from Cliff Street to Westbrook, minus the Breakers Hotel and Miller's small café, the latter of which they leased. The combined restaurant and bar was upgraded that same month, doubling the size of the dining room and adding a larger kitchen and cellar.

Advertisement for the St. Francis Grill, published in the Evening News, February 2, 1931.

St. Francis operated for forty years, only closing its doors at the end of the 1961 summer season. Ralph Miller died on August 29, 1950, and ownership of the building passed to his son, Ralph, Jr., though the Pappas continued to run it. For an unknown reason, Peter Pappas demolished his original 1916 restaurant around 1955, shifting all focus to the older two-story Miller building. For decades its site remained a vacant lot until the Seaside Company converted it into a courtyard for Boardwalk Bowl. Management of the St. Francis Grill passed to Peter's children in November 1957, when Tony, Mary, and Ethel Pappas took over and renamed the restaurant the St. Francis Cocktail Lounge.

Demolition of the Casa del Rey overbridge, with the St. Francis Grill to the left, early 1950s [UC Santa Cruz]

The Pappas gave up their lease to a collective named Shorebreakers on May 14, 1962. One of the Shorebreakers, Sumner Treanor, a former Chicago Bears player, ran the St. Francis Lounge with his wife, Jo, who played piano and sang each night during the first months that they ran the bar. However, advertisements suddenly stopped on January 8, 1963, and Shorebreakers went out of business at the end of 1965. In May 1964, the collective leased the building to Jim Trillo, who opened Opus de Jazz, a record store and music venue. Despite his bold ideas about operating year-round and trying something new, he could not pay his bills. He declared bankruptcy in September 1965, but probably closed his business before the end of 1964. Basil J. D'Anna took over management of the building in April 1965, presumably as a lessee of Shorebreakers, although they purchased the property at some later point. D'Anna, riffing off his nickname 'Monk,' named the restaurant Monk's Lounge.

Sentinel advertisements for the Treanors' St. Francis Lounge (August 3, 1962), Opus de Jazz (August 20, 1864), and Monk's Lounge (February 11, 1966).

Monk's ran as the Brown Bag Deli during the day in the summers and as a nightclub in the evenings. Upstairs, one of Santa Cruz's first gay bars ran from 1971 to 1972 as The 141 Club, though it was not widely advertised due to public perceptions about homosexuality at the time. At this same time, Ralph Miller, Jr., died and the property passed to his wife, Letitia Dean Miller. Monk's proved a popular musical venue for a decade, riding out the Hippy era before shutting its doors in 1976. The café passed through several different managers after this, with Michael Williams, Louis Russo, and David Leefeldt taking it over in July 1976, followed in April 1979 by Barbara and Paul Tucker, and then Carlo Boyd and Donald Wallingford in April 1981. The Tuckers regained the lease in 1982 and then sold it to Michael Hendel in February 1983, who sold it in October 1984 to Willie and Dollie Case, who continue to run the business today. The Cases have decorated much of the restaurant with Maxfield Parrish magazine covers and artwork, while also retaining artifacts from the café's earlier iterations. The couple also ran the Wharf House in Capitola until a storm in 2023 led to its removal from the wharf.

Advertisement for the Beach Street Café, published in the Sentinel, August 11, 1994.

The Miller family still own the building today, with Susie Ashla and Wendy Lambeth possessing it since the death of their mother in 2000. From 1979, the restaurant at the corner of Beach and Cliff Streets has operated under the name Beach Street Café (or briefly Beach Street Deli). While it has certainly changed hands many times, the restaurant/bar/grill/saloon/deli/café has remained open almost continuously since it first opened its doors over a century ago. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk may have some of the oldest buildings on the Santa Cruz waterfront, but this little restaurant has survived fires, earthquakes, and floods to become the oldest commercial building of them all.

The Beach Street Café at 399 Beach Street, ca 2015. [Victor Pan]

Citations & Credits:

  • Various articles from the Santa Cruz Surf, Evening News, and Sentinel. 1903-2005.

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