By Ian Keown
“We have people come in off the beach and order caviar and a bottle of Chateau Lynch-Bages,” says Rory Rodger, manager of the Lone Star Restaurant on the fashionable Platinum Coast of Barbados.
Clearly, beach dining in the Caribbean has come a long way from the days when everything was grilled over charcoal on an upended steel drum. Caviar, wraps and sushi now take their place alongside grouper Creole and beer from the bottle at driftwood shacks. Today’s top beachside bistros come with tablecloths and quality china and often cater to expense-account executives who come in the front door while the sun-worshippers shuffle in off the sand. Some of them are just so comfy and congenial the guests tend to hang out and make the restaurant their daylong base for fun in the sand. “La Plage,” says owner Thierry de Badereau of his restaurant on St.Barths, “is a place where people come for lunch, stay through dinner, then go for a midnight swim.”
One reason for the upgrade in beachside dining has been the number of Michelin-starred and celebrity chefs who have decided to ship their talents from New York and Paris to the balmy Caribbean, as chef or owner or consultant. The most recent high-profile example is the arrival of Jean-Georges Vongerichten on St.Barths to supervise cuisine at the ultra-chic Eden Rock, including Sand Bar, where the bikini-clad can now munch on whole wheat pizza with black truffle beside the island’s most photographed beach.
I’ve been tracking the shacks-to-riches story of Caribbean beach restaurants for more than quarter-of-a-century and after several calorie-defying missions to the islands I’ve distilled the possibilities to an elite selection that includes both the newsworthy and some longtime favorites. Most of them have a few things in common: cover-ups are usually requested, except where the tables are set directly into the sand; they’re all open to the cooling trade winds – refrigeration is reserved for the kitchens; and they can all be entered directly from the beach – in other words, from towel to table in a few brisk steps across the sand.
Barbados, with its relatively prosperous executive class, has more than its fair share of these upgraded beach bars. The Lone Star shares its white sands with luxury rental villas so you might find yourself brushing past actor Hugh Grant or millionaire soccer stars. A former garage (“Lone Star” was an early brand of petrol), it’s now a chic 4-suite hotel with a stylish dining pavilion decked with navy blue awnings, 24 ceiling fans and tables covered with double sets of cloths. Thai Chicken and Blackened Dolphinfish share an eclectic menu with British/Bajan stalwarts like Leek & Herbs Bangers & Mash and Flying Fish Cutter. The well-balanced wine list is sensibly priced — but that Chateau Lynch-Bages 2000 to accompany your caviar will set you back $820. (246/419-0599; www.thelonestar.com; lunch 11:30-3:30 seven days a week; entrees mostly $14 to $28; spacious restrooms can double as changing rooms.)
On Grenada, Hotel Laluna brings a celebrity buzz to tucked-away Morne Rouge Beach (its cottages attract actors and fashionistas like Morgan Freeman and Jerry Hall) so the lunchtime pizza-and-sandwich menu struck me as something of a downer even for a thatch-roofed pavilion. “It’s a lunch menu,” responds Italian owner Bernardo Bertucci, “if someone wants to order from the dinner menu, that’s fine!” Take him at his word and upgrade to Pappardelle Laluna or Thai Peanut Chicken Curry — they do more justice to the Richard Ginori china than a fish sandwich. (473/439-0001; www.laluna.com; lunch 12-4, 7 days a week, year round; entrees $12-$24; showers, spacious restrooms).
Not surprisingly, St.Barthelemy is a prolific source of what the French call pieds-dans-l’eau dining with style and flair– but you may need a stiff cognac when you see the tab. Restaurant La Plage, a tent-like setting right on the sands of iconic St.Jean Bay, serves up the kind of dishes you’d expect to find on the Cote d’Azur — Carpaccio de Betterave au Chevre and Feroce d’Avocat a la Langouste — each dish presented like a work of art. Even the menu covers are color-coordinated with the pillows and cushions. (590/27 53 13; www.tombeach.com; open 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week; entrees $30-$45; alfresco showers, spacious restrooms.)
If the big news in beachside dining these days is the arrival of the estimable Jean-Georges on St.Barths, the newcomer that gave me the biggest charge is the new Jacala on Anguilla because it’s owned and managed by the former chef de cuisine and maitre d’ of the much-lauded but temporarily-shuttered Jo Rostang at Malliouhana Hotel. Located on mile-long, restaurant-rich Meads Bay Beach, the building itself is an undistinguished, open-sided pavilion fronted with an open dining deck, so what makes Jacala so special is its polished service and refined cuisine. Jacques Borderon and chef Alain Laurent (hence, Jac-ala) both trained in some of France’s highest-rated restaurants and have now transformed their new beachside quarters into a French oasis with the kind of refinements that signal “class act.” The butter is fresh (and chilled under silver toques, no less), breads are freshly baked, olive oil comes in dainty miniature cans and the presentation is meticulous. Grilled Watermelon and Goat Cheese Salad drizzled with home-made balsamic dressing is a multi-tiered masterpiece of culinary refinement – and the perfect mid-day restorative. Especially when topped off by a glass of Laurent’s home-made orange-flavored digestif. (264/498-5888; open 10a.m. to 10p.m. Wed-Sun; entrees $12-$38; loungers and sunshades are “free for everyone, not just clients – we are not that kind of restaurant”; spotless restrooms are adequate for quick changes to cover-ups.)
Forget the sun, sea and sand — any one of these restaurants could lure me back to the Caribbean time and time again.
Ian Keown is currently a contributing writer for Caribbean Travel & Life. Over the past 30-odd years his byline has appeared in Travel & Leisure (as a contributing editor), Gourmet (as contributing editor), Diversion (as contributing columnist), Departures, ForbesFYI, San Francisco Examiner, Worth and Opera. His guidebooks include his own series of lovers’ guides: Guide to France for Loving Couples, Very Special Places: A Lover’s Guide to America, European Hideaways and Caribbean Hideaways (which the Miami Herald called “the bible.”). He is the recipient of the Marcia Vickery Award for Travel Writing and the first Anguilla 40 Award for in Recognition of Outstanding Contributions to Anguilla Tourism.