I actually came up with this list when a fellow journalist asked me what my five favorite restaurants in San Juan were. It was, to be honest, a question I'd never considered, simply because there are so many worthy of top five consideration. In fact, many restaurants hover right on the edge of these five, and I may have to go to a top 10 list soon.
For now, I'm going to go with the below selections, which run the gamut from an affordable, rustic neighborhood eatery that's only open for lunch to a posh culinary superstar by my favorite chef in Puerto Rico.
I've had no shortage of praise for Pikayo and Chef Wilo Benet, one of the defining figures behind Puerto Rican cuisine today. The food is a perfect storm of outstanding, bold flavors, uncompromising respect for comida criolla, the local cuisine on which Chef Benet was raised, the artistry of fine dining presentation, and an impeccably chic setting.
Pikayo is infused with a wonderful sense of whimsy. Sliders and lollipops aren't typical of world-class fine-dining menus ... but when they're made with pork belly (the burgers) and beef carpaccio with truffle oil and parmesan cheese (the lollipops), you'll soon overlook the comfort food connotations and focus on the delicious flavor combinations. And then you'll discover you can't get enough.
Most Puerto Ricans, from blue-collar workers to senators to celebrities, would agree with me on this: When you want true, old fashioned, home-cooked Puerto Rican food, you just can't beat La Casita Blanca. Set in a quiet corner of Santurce, this place is a no-frills local eatery where you can find terrific local staples. The best day to go is Sunday, when heaping cauldrons of the food Puerto Ricans love are lined up for a gut-busting feast.
In San Juan, this is certainly one of the most authentic representations of what pure Puerto Rican cooking is all about.
A departure from Puerto Rican cuisine, Augusto's is some of the best European fine dining you'll enjoy in the city. The service is impeccable, the atmosphere elegant and more formal than most eateries in San Juan, and if you like foie gras, the foie here is outstanding. So is the wine list, among the best on the island.
Located in the Courtyard Marriott in Mirama, Augusto's is a bit removed from the hustle of the tourist hotspots. But if you want a special dining experience and old-school service, you'll be happy to take the cab ride over.
I'm a big fan of all of the restaurants under the Oof! banner, I've always enjoyed dining at Dragonfly, Toro Salao, The Parrot Club and Koco. So what was it about Aguaviva that puts it above these other finalists? For me, it was the ceviches.
Aguaviva's creative, Puerto Rican takes on a variety of ceviches offer a refreshing seafood alternative to the typically artery-clogging fare you'll find on the island. The restaurant also has an excellent raw bar, a variety of creative dishes, and, for those of you who love fried food, a to-die-for calamari sandwich. Throw in the watermelon sangria and the scrumptious cheese-drizzled fried oysters, and Aguaviva wins a special place in my heart and my stomach.
It took two trips, and two phenomenal meals, to convince me that Budatai is legit ... but now I'm a firm believer. Chef Roberto Treviño has received his well-deserved share of the spotlight from the culinary world. He's a genial, talented personality who has put his stamp on Budatai with a menu rich in Asian-Caribbean fusion. Think fried rice with amarillos, peking duck with a mofongo stew, stir-fried yuca and soy-glazed salmon with coconut hash. If those sound appetizing, trust me; they taste even better than they sound.
Oh, and save room for dessert. There exists a chocolate-based concoction at Budatai that can be accurately described as a happy meeting place between Puerto Rico and Nirvana.