Santa Cruz has a bad reputation when it comes to pot. The city's liberal views and lush "green" college campus lead many to believe that there is more smoking than anything else going on. While the city does have its share of potheads, and, while the school happens to be located on High Street, in my years there I did not see anymore use of marijuana than at any other school I’ve visited.
My biggest argument against the reputation? Look at the late night dining options in the city. Any town that had such a high population of late night "munchers" would cater to their needs and reap a handsome profit. But alas, there are few options in this little surfing community.
I was a counselor in Santa Cruz and often worked evenings, getting off after 11pm. I would often be hungry and want the occasional meal that was not fast food. There were primarily two spots to hit in Santa Cruz - Saturn Cafe and the Crepe Place.
The Saturn Cafe is the most quintessential Santa Cruz restaurant there is. At the risk of shooting a hole in my theory, I must admit that often the entirety of the clientele and staff appears high. Still, it is the little things that make it oh so wonderful. Open till at least 3 am (it used to be 24hrs), you will still find it fairly lively till closing. Each table is decorated and themed differently from the others. You could be seated at a table that displays Michael Jackson's career, or one that has a collection of toys from 80s TV cartoons.
Upon sitting down, you will see on the menu that the Saturn Cafe's policy is that the wait staff is not there to "serve" you, but that it is more on an equal level. They will give you food and drink when you both mutually feel like it. The service is slow, but just wait - don't be the oppressor.
The menu is almost all vegetarian. The only meat you will find is in a tuna sandwich. The meat substitutes are all of fine quality; the soy taquitos are top notch and the chix patties taste just like chicken. The fries are some of the best in the city. Perhaps you have heard of the famous "Impeach Bush" fries that they serve in place of "freedom" fries. The desserts are all great, even the tofu pies.
Saturn Cafe is not for everyone; leave the impatient, conservative grandpa at home for this one. For others, the Crepe Place is a nice option. It is usually the winner for best, late-night dining in the local alternative newspaper.
The menu is almost exclusively crepes, as would make sense, and if you aren't familiar with the thin pancake stuffed with various toppings, then this would be a good place to try one. The Crepe Place stuffs its crepes to the absolute max with options like spinach and chicken, chile verde, jambalaya, and other creative and tasty options. You can also create one for yourself by picking ingredients.
There are also dessert crepes which feature good fresh fruit, high quality ice cream, tasty nuts, rich chocolate sauces, and a bunch of other options. The Crepe Place is open till around midnight on weekdays and till 2am on the weekends. The service is slightly faster than Saturn's.
There are other places open late like Denny's or other diners, but for non-chains or good food, there aren't many places open past 11pm. I'd say that makes for a nice, peaceful, and laid back town. Or it could be a town full of kids trying desperately to open the macaroni and cheese box and laughing all the while. Perhaps it’s a little of both.