Like most of the Caribbean islands, the indigenous cuisine of Puerto Rico leaned heavily on starchy taro, fruity papaya and mango, fresh seafood and domesticated goat, pig and chicken. With lots of breading and deep frying involved.
No more. The culinary atmosphere started improving with the “nuevo criollo” movement some 20 years ago, and now Puerto Rico offers a huge variety of restaurants, chefs both home-grown and imported, and a much-improved food-to-table sensibility. And the improvements are seen both in the crowded urban districts clustered around San Juan, as well as out on the island.
Distincte surveyed some of the most knowledgeable sources on the island to select a list of the seven best places to dine in Puerto Rico, ranging from the popular votes of websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp to the more erudite opinions from the foodie press. Our final selections were heavily influenced by some fine meals we have enjoyed ourselves over the years!
If you’re planning a visit in the near future to Puerto Rico, you can’t go wrong by dining out at one of these excellent places.
Chef and owner Peter Schintler opened Marmalade a dozen years ago after a highly touted career cooking at some of the finest resorts and restaurants around the world. Located in an unassuming building on Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan, this restaurant offers five-star quality at extremely reasonable prices. People have been known to fly halfway around the world just for a bowl of Marmalade’s white bean soup and dish of lobster risotto, but there is nothing on the menu that doesn’t excite the palate. The Chef offers ever-changing tasting menus (you can select how many courses you want or can afford) which are always perfectly paired with wines. Marmalade is consistently listed as one of the island’s top restaurants, and the raves are fully deserved.
Address: 317 Calle Fortaleza, San Juan, 00901, Puerto Rico
Reservations: (787) 724-3969
This upscale dining room is located in the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan’s busy Condado neighborhood, overlooking the blue Atlantic Ocean. The hotel was built in 1919 and has long been a fixture on San Juan’s hotel row. Executive Chef Juan Jose Cuevas is a native-born puertorriqueño who has fully embraced the locavore movement, scouring his island for farmers and growers of local vegetables and fruits. Seafood is a mainstay of the restaurant, especially the Scallop a la Plancha, fresh snapper crudo spiced up with clams, or the traditional guanica soup with shellfish, potatoes, pesto and cherry tomatoes. Beef and lamb are also excellent here. There are tasting menus and an excellent wine cellar. A very good dress-up, special occasion kind of place.
Address: Condado Vanderbilt Hotel,1055 Ashford Ave.,San Juan, PR
Reservations: (787) 724-1919
The flagship restaurant of Chef Wilo Benet, who has single-handedly helped to redefine Puerto Rican cuisine, this somewhat funky room now occupies space in the Condado Plaza Hotel. Chef Wilo’s food is always understated and simple in presentation: it’s just the tastes that go zing! Start with the “pikadera” section of little hot and cold tastes, a blend of appetizers and tapas-like bites before jumping into the mains: charred yellowfin tuna with onion escabeche, red snapper filet with chorizo emulsion or beef carpaccio lollipops with truffle oil and parmesan cheese. Great wine list and excellent service makes this a don’t-miss.
Address: Condado Plaza Hotel, 999 Ashford Avenue, San Juan
Reservations: (787) 721-6194
This is not a place for everyone, unless you enjoy really good food and lots of it! First, the restaurant is tucked away in the Guaynabo section of San Juan: crowded and somewhat commercial and not the kind of place one would expect to see lots of tourists. Second, it comes disguised as a gourmet food and wine shop…diners keep going to the restaurant parts in the back. And then select the wine they want to drink from the shelves which cover the walls. A bit utilitarian, and the service is never very good, but the place has an electric, young vibe and the food is spectacular. Be forewarned: the portions are huge so be prepared to share or cart half your meal home! Everything’s good: steamed mussels, ahi tuna, churrasco and steamed dumplings. Good fun and great food.
Address: 5B Cll Tabonuco, Guaynabo, PR
Reservations: (787) 775-1210
Chef Jose Santaella brings his version of Puerto Rican home cooking to this glitzy and chic section of Santurce, where the beautiful people crowd the bar and tables to see and be seen, while munching on the delicious tapas offerings. In addition to empandillas, you can graze on rice fritters with baby bananas and quail eggs, blue-crab alcapurrias, mini tacos with ahi tuna, scallops wrapped in bacon or the leachon and italian sausage au gratin with a criollo sauce and sweet potato mash. Mojitos and other cocktails are more the tradition than wine, but there is a good cellar.
Address: 219 Calle Canals, Calle Canals, San Juan, 00907, PR
Reservations: (787) 725-1611
311 – Trois Cent Onze
Onion soup…fresh fois gras …bouillabaisse. Are we still in San Juan? Oui. Or si. A good indication of the maturity of the culinary scene in Puerto Rico is that this unashamedly Gallic restaurant proudly shares a prime Fortaleza Street location in Old San Juan, and people line up for a reservation. A good French bistro is welcome anywhere in the world, and this one fits the bill with its elegant decor, excellent service and superb wine list. Kudos to Chef Carlos Guzman Tavarez.
Address: 311 Calle Fortaleza, San Juan 00901, PR