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Saturn Cafe is an extremely hip, vegetarian, queer-friendly restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz, California. It's in a round building on Pacific Ave. (a block away from the bus station), and has the biggest selection of vegetarian burgers you'll find in a restaurant.

From the history on their page: "The Saturn has been in existence since 1979. It was founded by a very cool guy named Don Lane (he was also the Mayor of Santa Cruz in 1992) who started the Saturn in a converted house on Mission St. By 1981 they had outgrown that particular location and moved across the street to 1230 Mission St., where it remained for 17 years. Originally the Saturn served soups, salads, sandwiches, and outrageous desserts and was strictly counter service. Over the years the menu grew, and in 1996, when the ownership changed to Annie Schuessler and Tristan Nathe, and later Abigail Andromacha in 1997, we switched to table service and bought ourselves a real grill and a fryer, thus beginning the transformation into the real restaurant world. On New Years Eve at virtually the stroke of midnight, Saturn Cafe at 1230 Mission St. became a thing of the past as an electrical fire burnt the inside of the cafe beyond repair. We decided we should take the hint and find ourselves a new home for the new millenium. We gazed longingly at the empty, round shaped building at the corner of Laurel and Pacific and dreamed of neon Saturn rings and a mezzanine. We've had to put the mezzanine plan on hold until we have more money, but every other fantasy we have been able to dream up has found a way into the new Saturn, 145 Laurel Street."

Inside this round building you have to follow a black spiral wall with bright red flames painted on it to the counter or wait-to-be-seated area. Seating is an adventure, because each table has a different theme. I've sat at the employee table, which is covered with silly and outrageous polaroids of the people who work there, a table covered with religious paraphernalia, a table which houses toys from about any happy meal that you can think of, a fairy table, the tea party table, an alien table, and one covered in recipes and pictures from cookbooks that must be out of the 60s or 70s.

But what about the food? Expensive, unless you go to Cheap Eats (11-5 on weekdays) when select menu items are at a drastic discount. On the whole very yummy. I always get the nachos (of which they have a vegan variety if you're interested), but they also have lots of vegetarian burgers and sandwiches, most of which have some sort of fake meat. Not just gardenburger, either: you can choose between that, a Boca burger, or a Chix patty, which is meant to taste like chicken. The desserts are still outrageous and very very yummy, although most aren't dairy-free. They do have some of the best vegan chocolate pie around, though.

Their logo is a stylized Saturn, complete with rings and flames coming out of it, and they sell it on shirts, stickers, and temporary tattoos. Come by on a Tuesday evening for live music, or wear a wig on a Wednesday for a 20% discount. Oh, and take a picture of yourself in the photo sticker booth, which prints teeny tiny photo stickers with psychedelic backgrounds (which are stuck all over the booth and most of the tables, and the menus, and the sugar containers, and the bathroom...), or use the jukebox, which features Bjork, Sleater Kinney, and Ani Difranco, among others. Oh, and try to use the bathroom while you're there, if only to see the giant Elvis drag king on one door and the fabulous fairy drag queen on the other.

For the menu, visit saturncafe.com.

Like any other establishment which achieves status as a "hangout", especially for a hip college crowd, the Saturn Cafe is significant more because of its crowd than because of its menu - Though the calling power of its desserts cannot be ignored. Their phone number is 831-429-8505, and they tend to be open from 11:30 am to 3 or 4 in the morning. They're an excellent place to grab a snack or a meal, or fix your sweet tooth, most times you're awake.

Saturn has always been a place where you could get a decent vegetarian meal. I'm personally more of a carnivore than anything, but having been a b geek in Santa Cruz I had plenty of friends who were. And occasionally it's nice to be able to go have a nice low-grease meal in a dark, mellow atmosphere. Mind you, I'm talking about the second location here, at 1230 Mission. This is a Chinese restaurant of some sort now. It shares a parking lot with a great Thai restaurant, Westside Video (a great local video store), and a Dry Cleaners or two.

The outside of the building was always painted a fairly dark color, and the windows had a serious tint, so it stayed reasonably bearable inside even on exceptionally bright days. As for the inside, the place was fairly homey, and there were some Saturn-related decorations hanging. Definitely a sort of laid-back early eighties feel.

The labeling of the bathroom doors is worth note. I recall vividly my mortification (at the tender, naive age of 15) trying to decide which bathroom I should use: Us or Them. The bathrooms are of course unisex, each intended for a single person, and the labels were changed occasionally for the amusement of patrons and employees alike.

Now, oddly enough on the heels of the bathrooms, we must discuss dessert. The primary ice cream-based dessert of choice amongst geeks was (and perhaps still is) the Chocolate Madness - which is now "Two Gramma's cookies, a scoop of chocolate burnt almond ice cream, hot fudge, chocolate mousse, whipped cream, & chocolate chips." I seem to recall the ice cream being variable, and the cookies being a big fat brownie, but it's been quite a while since I've been there - And this particular incarnation of "there" hasn't been there for a while, either. There are also Mud Pies, which are now made only with Turkish Coffee, Vanilla, or Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream (in a chocolate crust), but were once made with whatever ice cream sounded interesting at the time. It was common to have as many as six different flavors to choose from, if you got there at the right time - Which could be any time.

The building containing Saturn's new invocation at 145 Laurel Street is shaped like a dumbbell, and they're in one of the round sections. They have some fairly exciting new foods for veggies, like some really frighteningly good meatless corn dogs. They taste just like the real thing, but they have slightly less flavor. The desserts are a little wimpier and the place doesn't have the same feeling of community it once did, like you were walking into someone's home, and they were selling you food - But it was good, and while not cheap, the prices were never outrageous.

Frighteningly enough, I want to say that the business in that building used to be a car dealer, perhaps even a Saturn dealer. But that would be too perfect. More recently, it was a Boston Market, but that didn't last long; Santa Cruzans' instinctive distrust for chain stores put them out of business fairly rapidly. The space next door is now Wired Wash internet-connected coin-op laundry (Formerly Wash Rock, a good place to read or study). The other end of the building is occupied by a Kinko's.

My fond memories of the second location of the Saturn Cafe include playing Mau with perverts and geeks while munching down on veggie food I really couldn't afford, and drinking Orangina, which I don't believe they carry in the new downtown spot. The feel has shifted from the family den to something more closely akin to the Peach Pit.

Regardless, Saturn has a great history, a happening crowd, tasty veggie chow, and hip decor. If you're a veggie, or into chocolate and ice cream, so happy together, you are required to visit the Saturn Cafe.

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