Sometimes you want Mexican cuisine in a semi-formal setting. Sometimes you want a more relaxed, patio atmosphere. And sometimes you just want a delicious burrito or taco and a beer, cheap.
Originally the ornate Hotel Palomar in the 1920s, the downstairs lobby area and bar (originally called The Circle Bar) was converted to a restaurant decades ago, becoming the multi-pronged dining experience it is today in the 1980s. The upper stories are currently being used as apartments for low-income renters.
The original Hotel Palomar was a luxury hotel, owned by Andy Balich, an important local real estate developer at the time. The restaurant retains many of the original design elements of the swanky old hotel, including the mission-style architecture and wide, spacious seating area of the main dining room.
The main dining room, the most formal of the three dining areas, offers a full-service menu and mouth-watering Michoacan-inspired dishes such as sopes and chile verde. They also have a delicious seafood section, featuring enchiladas filled plump with dungeness crab. There are also a full range of drinks, with both traditional and imaginative margaritas available. This is the best Mexican place downtown for more formal occasions, such as family dinners or anniversary celebrations.
The cantina, though more casual, also feels nice and open, thanks to a huge skylight overhead. All the same dishes are available here, but the atmosphere is decidedly more relaxed, and you can even sit at the bar. This is a great lunch option, or you can use it as an excuse to bond with coworkers after a long day at the office.
And speaking of bars — just walk through an open doorway on the side of the cantina and you’re in the taco bar. This is where you can get tacos, burritos, and quesadillas filled with tender carne asada, juicy chicken, or delicious guacamole. My friend Jasmine, a proud Mexican-American who makes a mean carne asada herself, marvels every time she eats here about how tasty the tacos are — it’s just that good.
The taco bar is the part of El Palomar that make Santa Cruz locals and college students love it as much as they do — and that might have something to do with the weekday happy hours, every Monday through Thursday from five to nine, when you can get a burrito for three dollars and tacos for two dollars each, not to mention a fifteen dollar pitcher of margaritas. Come here often enough and you’ll start to notice that the same people are here every week, which makes it all the more fun.
It’s come a long way from its origins as The Circle Bar inside the Hotel Palomar, but this three-in-one Mexican restaurant is consistently delicious, and a great time all around. If I were the type of writer who resorted to such cheap puns, I might even venture to say that, like many historical sites in Santa Cruz, it’s come “full Circle.”
1336 Pacific Ave.
Santa Cruz, Ca