Home > Food > Discover > Is Puerto Rico the next big dining destination?

Is Puerto Rico the next big dining destination?

Puerto Rico’s restaurant scene has never been better. Here’s why

A neighbourhood in Old San Juan. (Zixi Zhou, Unsplash)

By Bloomberg

LAST PUBLISHED 02.12.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

Maybe you’ve heard about the ascendant restaurant scene in Puerto Rico. Most people haven’t: The island is still principally known as a highly convenient place for sun and beaches, with no passport required for US citizens, and the food scene is often relegated to what’s convenient to cruise ship ports. 

If you didn’t know, Puerto Rico has become one of the most exciting destination-dining scenes in the Caribbean. It's rich with exciting concepts and heritage-minded chefs who showcase culinary traditions and fresh local ingredients in ways that range from ingenious riffs on Puerto Rican classics to exuberant explorations of Mediterranean cuisine—and even noteworthy pizza. This is all happening in spite of the long-lasting impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the subsequent Covid-19 pandemic.

TRENDING STORIES

In fact, those two crippling events inspired many chefs to work with the most readily available ingredients—what they could obtain from the island’s fields and surrounding waters—while also giving them opportunity to cultivate fresh concepts.

Also read | A pastry chef shares a gelato guide to Italy

The creative wave in dining options is surging as Puerto Rico welcomes a record-breaking influx of visitors. As of August, year-to-date arrivals at San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport climbed to 4.2 million passengers, an increase of 20% compared to the same period last year. According to Tourism Economics, travel and tourism brought in approximately $8.7 billion in revenue for the year through June, a 63% increase from 2018 highs. As of the second quarter this year, AirDNA has tracked a 12% increase in lodging demand for the year, while independent rental demand more than doubled since 2019. 

As the food scene has expanded, both in San Juan and within reasonable driving distance,  restaurant prices remain affordable, especially in comparison with other Caribbean destinations such as Anguilla and St. Barts. Here are the seven most exciting places to eat in Puerto Rico, from a fine dining farm-to-table restaurant helmed by the island’s first James Beard Award-winning chef to a wood-fired homage to the region’s cooking traditions. 

SAN JUAN

Cocina al Fondo

Natalia Vallejo, who scored the title of James Beard Best Chef South in June, transforms local produce and protein foods into dishes that speak to the island’s heritage. Delicately fried lionfish is served in a country bean casserole; yellowfin crudo is enlivened with caramelized pineapple. Meals at her villa-style San Juan restaurant, with its verdant backyard patio, feel like lively dinner parties. They’re powered by cocktails from bar star Karla Torres, who deftly weaves regional fruits, flowers and botanicals into memorable libations. 

Tia Dora

MORE FROM THIS SECTION

view all

Tucked away near San Juan’s beachy, breezy Ocean Park community, chef Raul Corea’s slim restaurant evokes the Mediterranean. The food, served mezze style, is colorful and creative: Options include fire-roasted prawns, daubed with preserved lemon aioli and served with magenta triangles of watermelon radish, and bucatini tossed with za’atar and parmesan in a reimagined cacio e pepe; entrees start at $23. Vegan options abound, too. The cocktail menu is equally compelling, full of such delectable riffs as a cooling cucumber sumac margarita. 

Café Caleta

Set near the historic Catedral de San Juan Bautista, this charming newcomer is a coffee shop by day and a wine-cocktail bar at night. Don’t ask for any flavor shots with your expertly pulled espresso drinks; Caleta doesn’t believe in them. Alongside is a fun, funky selection of bottles and classic-inspired tipples, including a righteous mezcal-powered Negroni. The food served throughout the day is internationally influenced: horchata-spiced challah bread French toast at breakfast, house-made pastrami stacked on a bialy-like pretzel bun for the lunch crowd and, at dinner, catch-of-the-day ceviche crowned with crunchy peanuts. (Dishes at night start at $14.) 

La Santurcina

One of the newest additions to the island’s pizza scene may be its best. Located in San Juan’s vibe-y Santurce neighborhood, its airy space is decorated with slice-minded pop art and plenty of plants. Chef-owner Francis Guzman and chef Stephen Reyna, who also helm the city’s celebrated farm-to-table restaurant Vianda, turn out beautifully bubbled, Neapolitan-inspired rounds, often with clever vegetable toppings such as their signature Beetaroni, with thinly sliced, sausage-spiced beets. Tables fill up quickly, so arriving early will bring the best chance of scoring a seat. 

Celeste

Snuggled between Old San Juan and Condado in Puerta de Tierra, this chic seafood-centric wine bar highlights fresh catches from the surrounding waters. Chef-owner Sebastián Martínez Tully’s seemingly simple plates have complex flavors, such as cubes of raw yellowfin tuna tossed in umami-packed curry leaf oil and grilled razor clams lavished with arugula-embellished chili sauce. Don’t miss the desserts, including tender chocolate cake topped with a cloud of allspice-accented whipped cream and a drizzle of honey-sesame caramel. 

Also read | Top chefs pick their favorite hawker stalls in Singapore

OUTSIDE SAN JUAN

El Pretexto

This verdant, 3.5-acre mountaintop retreat outside Cayey on the southeastern end of the island—an hour from San Juan—offers immersive property tours and dinners twice a week. Founder Crystal Díaz is a super connector who knows everyone in Puerto Rico’s food community; she hosts sunset soirees that begin with a walk through her bountiful garden and orchard and past the property’s newest villa. The four-course meals by acclaimed chef Luis Cabrero, which go for $75, unfold on the deck with a view of the hills tumbling down to the azure Caribbean coastline. The seasonal dishes blend influences from the diaspora, European colonizers and Caribbean culture, such as chorizo-packed chickpea stew served with a toasted slab of garlic-rubbed baguette from a local baker.

Bacoa

Three veteran chefs from Puerto Rico power this exuberant, exciting enterprise: Tia Dora’s Correa, René Marichal and Xavier Pacheco. The restaurant is situated in a restored hacienda overlooking a small, stream-fed lake on a finca (country estate) in the town of Juncos on the eastern end of the island, a 45-minute drive from San Juan. The menu, which capitalizes on wood-fired grilling, offers refined interpretations of Puerto Rican favorites: salted cod fritters, crispy skinned branzino with slender ribbons of calabaza squash, and sausage pudding in a glistening puddle of pork demi-glace. 

Also read | What makes a city a dining hotspot?