Epic Eats in the Caribbean's Culinary Capital
Thankfully untouched by this year's unprecedented hurricane season, the Cayman Islands are ready for prime time -- prime time being right about now. With northern temperatures dropping, that bathwater-warm Caymanian aquamarine is starting to look especially good, as are its talc-like shores.
But there's another local draw, and it's so epic, you eventually have to remind yourself it's not the only reason you're there: the food scene. With more than 100 nationalities contributing to the resident melting pot; the Caribbean's only AAA 5-Diamond restaurant; roadside shacks that rival the finest dining establishments; and Eric Ripert's celebrity chef-studded Cayman Cookout festival (which celebrates 10 years this January), the island trio is rightly known as a major culinary capital.
Here, eight of the best ways to dig in, with a beloved classic and a new hot spot for each.
1. Sundowners by the sea
No matter how you've spent your day -- say, snorkeling atop a fish-filled shipwreck, or cradling docile stingrays, or wandering through lush iguana habitats -- there's a required local ritual when you're done: sipping something delicious as the sun drops into the sea.
A classic version: The vibe at Calico Jack's Bar & Grill -- with tables right on the sands of Grand Cayman's signature Seven Mile Beach -- is seaside super-casual (as in, even flip-flops can make you look overdressed). Greatest hits include the jerk chicken, conch fritters and frozen drinks in plastic cups.
A new favorite: Also boasting a prime position on Seven Mile Beach, the seaside pool bar at the new Hemingways has fast become a sunset hot spot thanks to an inventive menu (both the snacks and drinks lean Caribbean-Asian fusion) and mood-setting DJ. Turns out bao buns and a cold Plum Sour (bourbon, plum sake and yuzu) pair perfectly with a setting sun.
2. Blowout romantic dinner
There's a good chance you're in this stunning swath of the Caribbean on your honeymoon -- or "wedding-moon," given the islands' popularity for destination weddings. But even if you're just celebrating a random weekend away together, that's reason enough for a magical moonlit meal.
A classic version: There's almost no table at the beloved seaside Wharf Restaurant & Bar that isn't romantic (in fact, many a wedding takes place here), but you can up the ante by arranging for a torch-lit table under a private cabana in the sand. With Caribbean waves for a soundtrack, indulge in the likes of Caribbean lobster bites with coconut-vegetable slaw and passion fruit sauce or baked sea bass with basil pistachio crust and Champagne sauce.
A new favorite: For more secluded waterside dining, head to the Cayman Islands Yacht Club, where you’ll find the rustically romantic Bàcaro. With a steady drift of sailboats for a backdrop, share signature small plates such as pork belly with roasted shallots and cabernet jus or seared jumbo scallops with local greens, roasted pepper and pumpkin puree. Or move up to a medium plate and try the veal cheek Wellington, roasted artichokes, pecorino and thyme.
Admittedly more famous for its surf than its turf, this island group is steadily changing that perception with produce so fresh and flavorful that ever more restaurants are incorporating hyper-local fruits, veggies and herbs into their offerings. And some menus are now nearly 100% farm to table.
A classic version: George Town's the Brasserie has not only its own on-site organic garden, but fishing fleet as well -- so the restaurant is both farm-to-table and sea-to-fork. Translated into menu terms, that means something like this: Cayman Crab and Mango Salad with pickled cucumber, shaved radish, sprouts, avocado puree and crispy local plantain (though the offerings are seasonal and ever-changing). Even the ice cream menu reflects the same ethos, with such flavors as local soursop, salted caramel mango and lemon curd.
A new favorite: At the nearby historic waterfront's Cayman Cabana, a recently instituted tradition has already become a local favorite: the Thursday night Farm to Table dinner, a seaside spread served at a communal table under the stars. Because the four-course feast is highly seasonal and wholly dependent on whatever the island's farmers harvest that week, no two are ever the same, but past hits have included the coconut ceviche and tomato flatbread.
4. Global imports
Because the Caymanian population is so multicultural (see: that stat about the 100+ nationalities here), this is one island group that handily defies the stereotype of meh global cuisine. On the contrary, you can find standout offerings from all over the world.
A classic version: Casanova's by the Sea in George Town has long been a go-to, with Italian offerings that beat the motherland's, according to one of Grand Cayman's most notable locals: "Empire" star and Caymanian romance ambassador, Grace Byers. Test her assertions with one of the restaurant's signature pizzas or the grigliata di pesce (grilled lobster tail, shrimp, calamari, scallops, salmon and snapper in a rave-winning parsley-lemon-garlic sauce).
A new favorite: Tucked inside the always-hopping Camana Bay (a mix of restaurants, shops and residences), Pani Indian Kitchen serves up astonishingly good, pan-regional Indian food. One of the chef's own favorites is the Kashmiri rogan josh (an aromatic lamb dish), but you can't go wrong with the chatt (street food) platter. Think crispy puri with potato, onion, chickpeas, cilantro chutney and a spicy drizzle.
5. Burger joints
Though science has yet to discern why, the human body's reflexive response to a day spent snorkeling or diving through Technicolor seascapes is a killer craving for burgers and fries. At least in our experience. And the Cayman Islands deliver on both fronts.
A classic version: Seven Mile Beach's Burger Shack has exactly five things on the menu: Shack Burger (beef), Cock-a-Doodle (chicken burger), Veggie Burger, Top Dog (beef hot dog) and a Cheese Toastie. Plus fries and shakes. And though you can't make a wrong choice, the signature angus beef burger is often cited as the island's best.
A new favorite: While there's an ever-changing menu at Craft Food & Beverage Co., also on Seven Mile Beach, one item never budges: the signature Craft Burger, a half-pound beef patty piled with house-made bacon, brie and pickled red onions. And to wash that all down, there are about 50 beer choices.
6. Music hot spots
Because no proper island escape is complete without at least one night's worth of live music, complete with tasty treats and drinks...
A classic version: With an original English double-decker bus anchoring the decor, the aptly named Deckers Caribbean-Inspired Grille Bar and Lounge hosts a beloved local acoustic duo on weekends. Order some jerk calamari or coconut shrimp and a round of Deckers South Sides (gin, muddled cucumber, mint, lime juice and soda), then settle in for a set of fun pop covers and original compositions.
A new favorite: On Thursday nights, the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort's Anchor & Den sheds its nautical gastropub-y identity for the buzzing Mercat Tapas, complete with flamenco singers and dancers, fabulous tapas (naturally, there's plenty of jamon) and sangria.
7. Wellness-focused food
For all the local indulgences, sometimes you want to go light and nutritious, especially if you're going to be hiking the island trio's trails -- or perhaps kayaking its shores. None of which means you need to sacrifice flavor here.
A classic: Stop by Jessie's Juice Bar in either Camana Bay or Governor's Square for all-natural smoothies, juices and house-brewed kombucha, among other treats. One of the best choices: The Carmen Miranda smoothie, with OJ, pineapple and watermelon juice, strawberry, peach, mango and banana.
A new favorite: Amazon Café in George Town is a green, eco-friendly spot that seriously walks the walk -- or bikes the bike ride, as the case may be (this solar-powered purveyor of organic goodness offers bicycle delivery service). The frappes were an instant hit, as was the carrot cake.
Caymanians take their Sunday brunch seriously, so you'll want to build in some time -- for both the meal and the post-prandial snooze -- before you move on to water sports, bike riding or anything else that requires more energy than a nap.
A classic: One of the most famous fixtures on Seven Mile Beach, Ferdinand's Sunday brunch at the Westin serves up a menu as expansive as the sea view. Think pasta station, carving station, dim sum and sushi station and smoothie bar — just for starters.
A new favorite: Ave -- the main restaurant at the new Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa -- serves up a Sunday brunch that's generating all manner of buzz: Hit the "liquid buffet" for craft cocktails made with fresh-pressed local fruit juices, or simply order the house-favorite Raventos i Blanc Cava. Then toast to the vast deliciousness spread before you, from the hand-rolled sushi, to the cheese and charcuterie spreads to the lord-have-mercy desserts.