Cool cafe-style joints are all the rage in Manali -- especially in the backpacker-haunted quarter of Old Manali, where you can sit for hours, chilling out to the pleasant vibrations of good music, decent coffee, and a generally laidback crowd; the best of these is The Lazy Dog Café. Bear in mind that most of these joints don't take credit cards (they're usually only open in the summer months, Apr-Oct, so operate cash businesses), and on the odd occasion you might be forced to put up with ill-mannered dope-smoking groups. Although you'll just as easily find a crowd of very sociable, mindful types.
If you're prepared to travel a bit to track down good Tibetan cuisine, ask your driver to head for Phunsok, a family run eatery on the riverbank 2.5km (1 1/2 miles) from Manali toward Solang (it's on the left-hand side just ahead of the turn to Vashisht). Food is freshly cooked so don't expect it to arrive in any hurry; seating is outdoors, and you can enjoy the scenery while you wait. For fine Tibetan fare (and a very warm, sociable vibe) closer to town, stop by Old Manali's Yangkhor Garden (tel. 01902/25-4160 or 98-0525-7981), presided over by a jolly Tibetan mother figure named Kumsamg. It's a seasonal restaurant (which shifts to Goan in the winter) and feels bit like a fifties diner, with red vinyl sofa benches, a TV in the corner, classic rock tunes, and an intimate lounge atmosphere -- not to mention a photo of the Dalai lama peering down at you from one wall. The ceiling is strung with bags of water said to scare away the flies -- and it seems to work. Kumsamg's menu is a mixed and multifangled one; Italian, Indian, and even Chinese items are available, but stick to the Tibetan dishes, and ask Kumsamg to help you understand the difference between thukpa, tingmo, thanthuk, and fingsha; if you can't decide, ask for a plate of steaming momos (dumplings).
Manali's best Indian restaurant is Mayur (Mission Rd.; tel. 01902/25-2316), located in the main bazaar, just off The Mall. Kangra Valley-born Rajesh Sud has been in the restaurant business since 1970 and opened this Manali institution back in 1978. Try the murgh tikka masala (barbecued chicken with spices) or the fresh, locally caught wild trout, prepared in the tandoor oven with a subtle blend of yogurt and aromatic spice.
For authentic Italian (including reasonably good coffee), Il Forno (tel. 98-1692-2481), housed in a century-old house in Dunghri en route to the Hadimba Temple, is your most authentic option, although it's only open for dinner. Roberta Angelone, who is from Naples, returns to Manali each year to create memorable fresh-made pastas (ask if the ravioli is available) and real-deal pizzas. If you couldn't be bothered to hike up to Il Forno, then head for Johnson's Café .
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.