If you're like lots of folks vacationing in Aruba, you'll spend all day on the beach thinking about where to dine that night. The options are prodigious. Few places as small as Aruba boast such a variety of quality restaurants. In fact, with the exception of the French islands and Puerto Rico, Aruba leaves most of the Caribbean in the dust.
This is due in large part to fierce competition. Most restaurateurs never stop thinking of new ways to bring you through their doors. And most are loath to leave anyone behind, so there's usually something for vegetarians, kids, and couples celebrating special occasions (how about a romantic private room or a table on the beach?). Because some form of entertainment has become almost de rigueur, expect to be serenaded by live bands, jazz saxophonists, or a pianist. Frequent culinary competitions spur chefs to experiment and hone their skills, constantly raising the quality bar. They are also constantly changing their menu, but each has a house specialty so be sure to ask for the most popular dish.
While most restaurants serve Continental cuisine, plenty of other restaurants offer eclectic menus. When you're not feasting on steak, you can choose seafood, Aruban specialties, Argentine, French, Caribbean, Swiss, Indonesian, Cuban, Italian, Mexican, or Asian Fusion. In recent years, familiar chains have sprouted up on the island, ranging from Dunkin' Donuts, Burger King, and Pizza Hut to Benihana, Tony Roma's, and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. While not reviewed here, they certainly offer additional options that are familiar and consistent.
Restaurant prices are steep in Aruba, but with good reason. Almost nothing grows on the arid island, so most edibles, with the exception of some seafood, are imported. That gets to be expensive. Fruits and vegetables come primarily from the United States and Venezuela, but some make the trip from as far away as Europe. Beef is flown in from Argentina and the U.S. Portions are large, and can easily be shared if that's any consolation. In fact, most desserts are served on full-size dinner plates, and are more than enough for two to enjoy. Some venues have adopted a tapas theme, where items are served as appetizer portions, which can be enlarged to an entree portion with an additional fee on request.
Most restaurants are an $8-to-$16 taxi ride from your hotel, but many are within easy walking distance of the major resorts in the High-Rise area. If you have a car, call for explicit directions: Inadequate street signs and difficult to understand directions could lead to wrong turns and missed reservations. Another caveat: If you're going into Oranjestad from the hotel areas, allow yourself some time to get there. Traffic into the capital is absurd at times, and parking can be hard to find.
It used to be tough to find a restaurant that was open for lunch on Sunday, but no more. Some -- especially hotel restaurants -- even do a lavish brunch, but double-check before you set out.
Epicurean & Eclectic -- The Aruba Gastronomic Association, or AGA, Salina Serca 39E, Noord (tel. 800/793-6028 in the U.S., or 297/586-1266 in Aruba; www.arubadining.com), a group of nearly 30 of the island's restaurants -- including such recommended spots as the French Steakhouse and Gasparito -- offers a Dine-Around program with three options. For $117, you get coupons good for three dinners; $190 gets you five dinners; and for $263, you can have one dinner every day of the week. Children 4 to 12 eat for half price; it is not recommended for children 3 and under. The five-course Wine-Around dinner costs $85 per person and includes perfectly paired wines. The coupons are good at any of AGA's member restaurants and never expire, so you can always turn in old coupons for current ones on your return trip. Each dinner includes an appetizer, main course, dessert, coffee or tea, and service charges. Breakfast and lunch or dinner plans as well as custom plans are available, and $50 gift certificates can be purchased for only $45. Coupons can be purchased from AGA, or at any De Palm tour desk. You can also fill out the online fax order form at www.arubadining.com or www.aruba.com.
Eating Out in Aruba: Dining Details
What to Wear? -- Dress is almost always casual. At many places, dinner dress is elegant casual (sundresses for women, long pants for men). A couple of restaurants enforce a "no shorts" policy. Some casual restaurants have sandy or uneven floors so practical shoes may be the best style.
How Much to Tip? -- Many, but not all, restaurants add a service charge, ranging from 10% to 15%, to your bill. Most of this money is distributed among all restaurant employees, so your waiter will receive only a portion of this. If you feel your waiter or waitress has earned it, leave about 10% on the table. If no service charge is automatically added, tip 15% or 20% if the service was exceptional.
What About Reservations? -- Reservations are universally appreciated. During the high season, or for large groups, they're necessary at the most popular places, especially ones with a view of sunset, so be sure to request a table where you can see the view. Your hotel concierge will be happy to make reservations for you, but if you have a special spot, it doesn't hurt to book a few weeks ahead.
Where to Sit? -- Many fine restaurants in Aruba have ample outdoor seating. With cool breezes after the sun goes down, the climate is usually comfortable verging on glorious. If you are one who simply needs AC, be sure to check first as some venues do not have any indoor seating.
What About Smoking? -- Smoking is permitted in all bars and restaurants, and a nonsmoking section is not mandated by law, so if you are opposed to dining next to someone dangling a cigarillo, be sure to ask if the restaurant you select has a no smoking section before you book a table.
What About Sustainability? -- Many restaurants in Aruba continue to serve local species that are on the decline, such as conch and Caribbean lobster. If you are concerned about your impact, you may want to steer clear of Caribbean lobster, conch, and reef fish, such as grouper, snapper, and grunt, and opt for equally tasty ecofriendly alternatives, such as wahoo, dorado, and barracuda, caught far off the fragile reef. Some tasty vegetarian options are also frequently offered including pasta, risotto, and polenta, so choosing a non-meat option every other meal or so can help.
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.