Dine in Style (Really) in San Juan

1. Where to Stay

El San Juan Hotel & CasinoPhoto: Courtesy of El San Juan

Puerto Rican fashion designer—and former Esquire editor—Nono Maldonado is behind the twelve grand suites at the new Chateau Cervantes (from $300), in the heart of Old San Juan. Look for Art Deco interiors behind the hotel’s sumptuous baroque façade, with tiny gated balconies overlooking the historic quarter’s cobblestone calles. There’s a 40-seat restaurant, too.

Buddha Bar designer Stephane Dupoux has given a much-needed dose of contemporary cool to the historic El San Juan hotel (from $229) in the leafy—yet megaresort-filled—Isla Verde neighborhood. A sleek new pool, with its podlike chaise lounges and aqua t’ai chi classes, anchors the resort’s redo, and no fewer than eight restaurants (including New York steakhouse, the Palm) compete for diners.

In leafy, old-monied Ocean Park, Numero Uno on the Beach (from $115, including continental breakfast) is a sleepy alternative to the Isla Verde big shots, with a mere fourteen rooms (all recently renovated, many with balconies), swimming pool, and a prime slice of sandy beach with free lounge chairs and umbrellas. Pamela’s, the attached Nuevo Latino restaurant, is well worth its own visit for chef Esteban Torres’s multiculti menu.

2. Where to Eat

The Strip House at El Conquistador.Photo: Courtesy of the Strip House

Experience San Juan’s restaurant revival in full force at the Ritz-Carlton, where a pair of flashy, New York–based newcomers—Il Mulino and BLT Steak—are steering the city’s culinary scene away from Old San Juan. This is Il Mulino’s first foray into the Caribbean, with a menu—inspired by Italy’s Abruzzi region—that has become near legendary back in Manhattan. At BLT Steak, French chef Laurent Touroundel’s pairing of prime meats and creative sauces is served in a richly furnished, dark-wooden dining room with a peekaboo open kitchen, where Touroundel mans the stoves every other week.

Steak purists should head for the venerable El Conquistador resort about 45 minutes east of San Juan, where New York’s Strip House has just opened its first island outpost. The trademark rich red walls, clubby leather chairs, and vintage burlesque photos are there, and chef John Schenk’s meaty menu takes its cues from the Village original.

Back in Old San Juan, keep an eye open for El Toro Salao (“the salty bull”) (367 Calle Tetuan; no phone yet) in SoFo, the restaurant-filled area South of Fortaleza Street. The soon-to-debut tapas joint is the latest in a string of SoFo hot spots—including Dragonfly, the Parrot Club, and Aguaviva—created by restaurateur–radio host Emilio Figueroa.

3. What to Do

The Puerto Rico Convention Center, site of the CIRCA art fair.Photo: Courtesy Puerto Rico Convention Center

Art admirers should visit in late March when the city’s massive new convention center hosts CIRCA, the first international art fair to be held in the Caribbean and Central America. The four-day fair’s Caribe Mix section will present ten galleries focused on Caribbean-based artists—from Cuba and Mexico to the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and, naturally, Puerto Rico.

If you miss the fair, there’s still plenty of art to see, with classicists displayed at Galeria Botello—which honors fifties-era Spanish-Caribbean painter Angel Botello—in Old San Juan. The island’s contemporary talents meanwhile hold court at Espacio 1414 (1414 Avenida Fernandez Juncos; 787-725-3899), a two-year-old warehouse space in Santurce with an impressive roster of emerging artists.

For post-art eats, check out Pikayo in the nearby Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (229 De Diego Avenue; 787-721-6194), where local celeb-chef Wilo Benet—a former chef de cuisine at Puerto Rico’s Governor’s Mansion and a veteran of Le Bernardin—creates colorful combos like halibut with mashed apio and sautéed Japanese squid.

If you’re in town on the first Tuesday of the month, finish up your prowl with an evening in Old San Juan for Gallery Night, when over twenty area galleries and museums throw a massive, art-filled open house.

4. Insider’s Tip

Sunset at Playa Balneario Luquillo.Photo: Courtesy Cel Kulasekaran

Though San Juan’s new boîtes could keep you busy for days, those in search of real Rican cuisine should head out of town. A mere twenty miles from San Juan is the lush Playa Balneario Luquillo, a government-run beach where offshore reefs disappear into an azure lagoon and numerous smoke-spewing food stalls line nearby Route 3. Stop for a cold drink and a platter of tasty comida criolla snacks like piononos, plantain slices wrapped around beef stew and flash fried in a crisp farina crust, or bacalaitos, deep-fried salt-cod pancakes spiked with garlic and oregano.

5. An Oddball Day

Waterfalls in El Yunque.Photo: From left, courtesy Puerto Rico Tourism Company, Puerto Rico Convention Center

To counter a weekend’s worth of calories, make the hour trek to the 28,000-acre Caribbean National Forest—a.k.a. El Yunque —about 25 miles east of San Juan. Its dozens of trails are easily marked, clearly graded for difficulty, and lead to waterfalls, observation towers, and swimming holes. Your hotel can arrange guided tours, but the park is easy to navigate solo with maps and itineraries provided by El Portal Tropical Forest Information Center (787-888-1810) at the park’s entrance.

Arrive early to beat the heat and the crowds and stick around for lunch at Las Vegas (Road 191, Kilometer 1.3, Rio Grande; 787-887-2526), the colorful, flower-filled—if oddly named—restaurant set right in the jungle. Order expertly prepared mod-Rican dishes such as skewered fish with hunks of bacon, a meaty osso buco, and roast pork with mofongo, another local garlicky, fried-plantain favorite.

6. Related Links

Go to Puerto Rico lists all of the island’s basics, from historic attractions to top shopping locales.

Brush up on your comida criolla knowledge at Hecho en Puerto Rico, which details the evolution of the cuisine and includes favorite recipes.

Get up to date on the island’s political—as well as cultural and culinary—intrigue at the English-language Puerto Rico Herald.

Dine in Style (Really) in San Juan