Every travel destination opens up endless possibilities in terms of gastronomic delights, provided you are flexible and adventurous enough to try out local cuisine. If you are lily-livered and simply want to make a beeline to the nearest American fast food chain (the sign of familiarity that calls out to your homesick stomach), then why bother to travel at all, at least for pleasure? For pleasure lies in tasting “parts unknown”, and yet they do not have to be that unknown/mysterious and you do not have to undertake the arduous task of finding the best of the best in a new place, all thanks to someone who has been there and tasted that! I am talking about how you can benefit from the wisdom of my experience, aka, this blog post on the top San Juan restaurants. So, be a savvy tourist, read through this comprehensive list and get ready to take on the buzzing culinary scene of San Juan, pronto!
San Juan Restaurants : JOSE ENRIQUE
Puerto Rico is witnessing a silent, yet marvelous culinary revolution where local chefs are whipping up creativity in the kitchen with island ingredients kissed by modern sensibilities all over in San Juan restaurants. One of the leaders in this movement is rising chef Jose Enrique, who got onto the James Beard semi-finalist list in the past due to the creative storm unleashed in his restaurant by the the same name. This restaurant is in the Condado area and is nested inside a cheery yellow art deco building with no sign and is unique in that way amidst all other trendy San Juan restaurants. Weekends get busy with wait times of as long as 2 hrs, so its best to arrive for lunch on weekdays. Although the menu is primarily meat and fish, my vegetarian friend got meat free appetizers as well as a delicious customized entree. This San Juan restaurant does not seem to have a liquor license but they make it up with great non-alcoholic cocktails. Bottom line-food is out of the world great with flavors bursting at every mouthful. The fish (Snapper and Mahi-Mahi) were so very fresh and were so well complimented by the spices and the sides centered around them. Do not miss this restaurant for anything! Unrelated food trivia: The road to this spot has some pretty interesting murals below an overpass, check them out if possible!
San Juan Restaurants : Oceano
True to its name, the trendy Oceano is right next to the ocean (in Condado) and has a nice outdoors seating area to take in the view. This place is pricy/fancy but let that not deter you from a few drinks and appetizers. We went in the early evening for the latter, but you get great food for dinner as well, with special focus on local catch.
San Juan Restaurants : Cafes
Besides San Juan restaurants, there are some amazing cafes here, and I would be remiss if I failed to include three of the best ones in town. The first is Casa Cortes chocolate bar, which as you guessed it, is everything chocolate centric but also has savory items for lunch. If you need to give into your sugar cravings, don’t forget to order the oh so flaky croissant with a chocolate hazelnut filling and the sinful cold drinking chocolate. The floor upstairs doubles as an art gallery and you might want to take a peep after you are done gorging on Chef Ricardo de Obaldía’s creations!
Second, is the old as time La Bombonora, Old town San Juan’s pride and home to the famous Mallorca, a Spanish pastry (Spanish name: ensaimada) kissed by a dusting of powdered sugar. I got a lemonade slurpee and the sweetness of the Mallorca was a perfect balance to the former’s tartness. Don’t give this place a miss if you are ever in Old town! Resplendent with plush red leather seats and marble table tops, its vintage vibe and great food (breakfast and lunch served) are a surefire hit!
Third and possibly my favorite was the serene Cafe Berlin near Plaza Colon in Old town. Not only does the interior have this old world, Parisian feel, but also the menu has something for everyone, with a major nod to vegetarians and vegans (this is one of the rare vegetarian restaurants in San Juan and is not to be missed by veggie lovers). I had a tofu scramble and some tarty green apple juice and loved both. Don’t forget to ask for some guava butter for your toast, it is seriously yummy!
If you are in need for some serenity and tranquility, you cannot beat the beauty of a shaded, leafy courtyard aka Patio del Nispero in the historic hotel El Convento (a 17th century convent converted to a luxury hotel and in the heart of old town). Get some appetizing brunch while relaxing in the patio and start your day bright and happy! I had a simple granola yoghurt bowl, but the yoghurt and figs were some of the best and freshest I’ve ever had. Highly recommend this San Juan restaurant for breakfast/brunch/lunch and even dinner.
Finally, dinner brings me to this San Juan restaurants list offering the very best of a dynamic gourmet scene on the island. I do not have photos due to lack of proper lighting, and even if I did, the measly iPhone photos would not do the deliciousness any justice. Do me a huge favor and visit Marmalade, often considered the best restaurant in San Juan. Dinner comprises of 4/5 or 6 course meals with optional wine pairings. Vegetarians have all the reason to rejoice since an entire menu page is devoted to meat-free wonders. The other two spots are sister restaurants of Aguaviva and Dragonfly, the former being Puerto Rican seafood centric and the latter with this amazing latin-asian fusion food as their USP. I had some great vegetarian mofongo at the former, and amazing sushi (both vegetarian and otherwise) at the latter. Of the two, Dragonfly is more vegetarian friendly. All three San Juan restaurants are on Calle Fortaleza.
A parting note on Puerto Rican street food before I end this blog post. Most squares in old San Juan (named plazas) sell fresh coconuts, which can parch the thirstiest of souls with their cool juice and soft pulp, something unique to island living which cannot be replicated by the bottled/canned stuff sold in Whole food. That and the Piragua (Puerto Rican shaved ice with syrup) are a must try. I did see the kiosks selling Mofongo, the famous Afro-Puerto Rican food made of mashed and stuffed plantains (btw, did you know that plantain is a Taino word?) but its best to try some good mofongo at a reputed restaurant or cafe, such as the famous cafe Manolin (a local favorite and one that I had to skip due to lack of time). For vegetarians/vegans, a vegan/meatfree version can be found at Cafe Berlin mentioned before
This concludes my list of must visit San Juan restaurants. If you are in this beautiful island, do not miss some of these places to get a true flavor of what is cooking here, and for the love of all things sacred, please do not rush to the Wendy’s nearby! Have fun and Bon Appétit ! Read my other post here on must visit attractions in San Juan or this detailed five day itinerary of Puerto Rico for more gastronomic finds!