.Gabriella, the Unofficial ‘Date-Night’ Destination of Santa Cruz

The downtown spot’s Northern Italian cuisine and cozy atmosphere is a formula for romance.

Paul Cocking worked as a line cook at Howard Johnson’s while in college in SoCal. After 20 years teaching English at a Los Angeles high school, HoJo’s all-you-can-eat fried clams began beckoning Cocking—or, maybe, he just grew tired of the traffic and yearned for a change in his life. Not only did the former educator move to Santa Cruz, where his parents had been living, he decided he wanted to get back into the restaurant biz.

In 1992, Cocking found an available spot for rent in downtown Santa Cruz—he fell in love with the location, on a nice quiet side street. Over 30 years later, Gabriella Café is still a local favorite for Northern Italian cuisine, including traditional pasta Bolognese with a red meat sauce and sandwiches made on freshly baked focaccia bread. The Meyer lemon panna cotta highlights the dessert menu. 

Gabriella is open Tuesday-Friday for lunch, Tuesday-Saturday for dinner and Saturday and Sunday for brunch. Cocking chatted with GT about his two careers and why he loves owning a “date-night” restaurant.  

What are the biggest differences between teaching and running a restaurant?

PAUL COCKING: I always say the difference between teaching and owning a restaurant is that everyone wants to be at a restaurant, including the teachers. Teaching English properly is also very difficult, and owning a restaurant often feels like hosting a party. I find it a lot more enjoyable, and I also have an intense fear of loneliness, so I really love the highly social aspect of being here. I’m getting old, and people ask why I don’t retire, but it feels like I’m already half retired, and I’ve never been happier. 

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What is your favorite memory at Gabriella?

One of the most enjoyable things is seeing couples come in; being a date-night restaurant is very pleasing. My favorite memory from 30 years in business was when a young man got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend. A video crew snuck in behind her and captured the moment, and the whole restaurant applauded when she said yes, and it was very fun.

910 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, 831-457-1677; gabriellacafe.com.

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