Thanksgiving at Makai Santa Cruz

It was a beautiful day for a drive over the hill to Santa Cruz for lunch at Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery for Thanksgiving. We did this a couple years ago and had a great time with the family and thought we’d try again this year. Last time it wasn’t overly busy but the secret seems to be out since they were quite busy today.

At first blush, Makai seems like just another tiki-leaning Hawaiian place located at a tourist location. Sure there are great views of the ocean from Makai’s Santa Cruz Wharf location, but some of Makai’s special feature really elevate the experience. We asked to be seated in the rotating bar section, which we think is a kick and also means that every table gets a window view (it also means you’re not in the blinding sun all the time either). We also like the clear floor sections where you can see the ocean and even some sea lions underneath the restaurant.

Our food was pretty good, burgers for the boys and fish dishes for the adult. And some wonderful Crab Rangoon and Spam Musubi appetizers. Service here is friendly and pretty good.

It is nice to see Makai continuing with a heavy lean towards originals on their cocktail menu. Sure, the Mai Tai or Saturn are classics that do well but the originals I today were quite good and far better than you might expect if this was just a “tourist place”. They also have a bunch of nice mugs and glassware to collect if that’s your thing.

The surf-inspired original cocktal called The Bonzer has Lemon Hart Rum, allspice liqueur, Velvet Falernum, coconut cream, cinnamon, and lime. This was quite well-balanced; creamy but not too much so. Meanwhile, the Punch to the Skull was a great capper for me. I dug the cocktail made with Denizen white rum, Aperol, Velvet Falernum, Dry Curacao, and lemon juice. Just enough Aperol to not overwhelm the rest of the ingredients.

Makai Santa Cruz Waterfront Dining and Cocktails

Celebrating Mai Tai Monday with a real good one that we sampled on lunch on Saturday. Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery is a Hawaiian and tiki themed restaurant on the Santa Cruz pier. We’ve been there a few times and had a good experience, so seemed like a great time to visit again and reconnect with friends. Our meal and service were great.

The cocktail menu is refreshed and there are even more originals here now, plus a very well appointed rum tasting list. I went for the Mai Tai and found it quite good, using Appleton Signature Jamaican rum. Meanwhile Mrs. Mai Tai had the Kahanamoku featuring vanilla rum, lemon, lime, coconut cream, and spiced rum float. Leaning sweet, but still pretty good if you like it that way.

The rum list is extensive and priced competitively. We went a little upscale for some Appleton Hearts 1995, only $62 for a 1½ oz pour. Plenty enough to split between the two parties.

I know that purists hate tiki bars with windows, but I can never penalize a place that has ocean-front views (see also: Trader Vic’s Emeryville). And Makai’s view is really worth it. We saw flocks of pelicans and also hoards of sea lions nearby. It was a beautiful day on Saturday, perfect for a friendly meal and tasty food and drinks.

Makai Island Groggery Thanksgiving

We had a great Thanksgiving lunch at Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery in Santa Cruz. We’d been meaning to check this place out now that indoor dining is available, so this was a perfect opportunity for a little road trip over the hill.

There is a lot that’s great about Makai. The interior is very nicely appointed with a combination of Hawaiian, marine, and tiki elements. The back bar and seating area sit on a rotating platform, which circulates every 30 minutes. So all diners sitting at tables get an ocean view. Staff was friendly and service was great.

We enjoyed the food, including burgers for the kids and a poke bowl for Mrs. Mai Tai. My Mahi was not traditional for Thanksgiving but I loved it, and the Spam Misubi was excellent.

The non-alcoholic drinks Mrs Mai Tai tried were quite good, and priced accordingly ($5). She especially liked the Hibiscus Lei.

Hibiscus Lei and Mai Tai

Unfortunately, the two cocktails I had weren’t as good. The 1944 Mai Tai was not balanced – far far too lime forward (you know I lean sweet but this was not a personal preference – it truly had too much). The limp mint would have been better off being omitted. Better was the Mr. Makai served flaming in the gorgeous skeleton surfer mug that I took home. Still too lime forward, but at least I got a little bit of the rum and the dragonfruit-ginger syrup. They do have a modest but high quality collection of rums on site for cocktails or for sipping.

Overall, we enjoyed our visit. The location at the end of the Santa Cruz pier is picturesque. We always like dining indoors even if windows are a feature, but Makai does have outdoor seating. There’s also a nice private dining room called the Captain’s Table that has more nautical elements and porthole screens. We’ll be back.

Makai in Santa Cruz

Finally made it over to Santa Cruz’s newest tiki bar and restaurant. Mrs. Mai Tai and I took a drive and ended up in Santa Cruz. Makai is on the wharf and in addition to online orders has two dining modes in person. We chose the take-out window and the very well-spaced picnic tables nearby. Ordering is efficient and the staff member working the window was very nice, but all alcohol is only canned/bottled. So, no Makai cocktails are available.

I had the Spam Musubi and it was truly fantastic. Freshly grilled and topped with sauce, this was the best I’ve ever had. I also enjoyed the Ahi Sliders which were also very good. Julie said her Corn Chowder was very good also. I’ve heard that cocktails are not the strong-suit at this restaurant, but the food most certainly seems to be a strength.

Makai is also currently offering table service for outside seating in their covered parklet out front and also around back in the sun. I was told the full menu is available from this mode, including cocktails. It is a bummer that cocktails aren’t available from the to-go window, but we did lessen our seating time and personal interaction with this mode and so that was the right decision for us right now.

We’re looking forward to returning when infection rates go down.

Makai Island Kitchen and Groggery Open in Santa Cruz

We have a new tiki bar opening, now that Makai is now open in Santa Cruz.

Initial reports are that this is a pretty good tiki bar, considering its touristy/general audience location. We’ve added it to our write-up of Tiki Travels: Central California.

Makai Island Kitchen & Groggery

Located on Santa Cruz’s picturesque wharf, Makai offers a good tiki experience while still appealing to a wide audience. The interior includes work from Bamboo Ben and the bar rotates. Food is family-friendly and reasonably priced, including Pupus, sandwiches,  bowls, and island-inspired entrees. Cocktails aren’t comparable to craft cocktail tiki bars, but are more than worthy considering the general-audience clientele. They serve a large variety of classic tiki drinks, including both a 1944 Mai Tai and an Island Mai Tai, along with a few originals.

Photo courtesy Alexis Antionio /