In the heart of Puerto Rico's historic capital, these eclectic eateries combine atmosphere, hospitality and outstanding cuisine
San Juan is a food-lover’s destination, serving up everything from island classics to sophisticated fusion cuisines. New tastes crop up all the time, but there are some that keep me coming back for more each time I visit the island. And to add to the appeal, three of my favorites are located among the cobblestone streets and historic buildings of Old San Juan, adding an extra helping of ambiance to the menu.
Casa Cortés Chocobar
As a confessed chocoholic, I can’t think of a better place to satisfy my cravings. The Cortés family is the Caribbean’s premier chocolate makers, sourcing cacao grown on their farms in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to create a range of luxurious, melt-in-your mouth confections. The Chocobar was created to celebrate and showcase the culinary traditions of cacao. Located in a renovated historic building on Calle San Francisco, it is part museum, part art gallery and one of San Juan’s favorite places to stop for a sweet treat.
But the restaurant is much more than just a place for chocolate drinks and deserts, as there is extensive menu built around the common theme of cacao. The bar is energetic and on occasion there is live music with a vocalist wandering throughout. On my latest visit, after a meal of salmon with a sauce blended in cacao and a desert made with an assortment of chocolate confections formed into a replica of the cacao fruit, I set off for an education of the history of Puerto Rican cacao. Upstairs are galleries showcasing a portion of the Cortés family extensive fine art collection. Other areas throughout the dining room are devoted to the story of cacao. Streaming videos depict the process of chocolate development and manufacturing in the Caribbean. Murals by artist Nestor Otero showcase the origins of cacao as well as the history of the Cortés family. More of the artist’s work can be seen at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Art, culture and sweet rewards, all in one place. What could be better?
You might run into Loyda Rosa Figueroa at the farmer’s market on Saturdays picking up herbs and organic veggies. As the owner/chef of Verde Mesa, she gets most of her ingredients from her organic farm, but also keeps an eye out for new varieties of locally sourced veggies and herbs that can be turned into something delicious. Now operating in a new space just down the street from the original on Calle Tetuán, Figueroa continues to please the eye, the palette and the body with a wholesome variety of fresh, organic dishes.
After first discovering Mesa Verde soon after its 2011 opening, I now stop in at least once every time I’m in Puerto Rico. Her new place maintains a vintage, eclectic decor that will transport you to an 18th century chateau, with stamped tin ceilings, Venetian mirrors and crystal lamps. Chairs are mismatched and drinks are served in ball jars. Vegetarian cuisine is the main focus, including her signature Verde Mesa rice, which includes a mixture of in- season vegetables and chickpeas. Seafood is also on the menu and may include ceviche, salmon cured with lavender and ginger or scallops served on a bed of parsnip mash, dressed with fig foam. Ask for a table near the window overlooking the park that faces out to the Bay of San Juan, and be sure to order her famous Purple Cloud dessert.
El Picoteo Tapas Bar
A stroll through the narrow streets of Old San Juan always reminds me of Spain. To make the connection more vivid, I like to head for El Picoteo Tapas Bar for an authentic taste of Iberian tradition. The setting is equally evocative, as this restaurant is located within the Hotel El Convento, a former Carmelite convent that is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. The dining room and bar are tucked into a patio on the hotel’s third level, overlooking a courtyard shaded by a giant nispero tree. Bird songs provide background ambiance by day, and coquí frogs chime in at night.
The bar is often packed with convivial locals and visitors sharing hot or cold tapas with a glass of tempranillo or sangria. Tables overlook the terrace and gardens below are hard to come by on weekend nights when flamenco dancers liven up the crowd. The menu remains typically Spanish with an added Mediterranean dish here and there. The torta Española is as good today as it was over a decade ago when I first frequented the restaurant. Other favorites are garlic shrimp, paella, just like you’d get in Spain, and the Tabla Mixta, a Spanish antipasto with Manchego cheese, Serrano ham, Spanish sausage with an assortment of olives, breads and truffle honey. Pure Spanish ambience just like you were in Madrid.