French Polynesia has a plethora of excellent restaurants. I'm not fabricating when I say I've seldom had a really bad meal here. You are in for a special treat when ordering tomatoes and other locally grown vegetables, for more than likely they will be as fresh as if they had come from your own garden.
Many visitors are shocked at the high prices on the menus and in the grocery stores. Most foodstuffs are imported, and except for sugar, flour, and a few other necessities, are subject to stiff duties. On the other hand, you won't have sales tax added to your bill, and although the practice is widespread here these days, you will not feel compelled to tip the waitstaff, as in the United States. In other words, Americans will not have to add up to 25% to the cost of restaurant meals. See below for how I save more money on food here.
Except for breakfast buffets, prices in hotel and resort dining rooms are now comparable to those in the better outside restaurants.
Local Fare: Ma'a Tahiti
As would be expected, French is the dominant cuisine in these islands. Local French residents demand their steaks in red-wine sauces, mahimahi under a vanilla sauce, and canard (duck) with orange sauce, which seem to appear on every menu, as does carpaccio (thinly sliced raw beef or tuna) and sashimi (especially good when it's fresh yellowfin tuna).
While the Tahitians have adopted many of these dishes as well as Chinese ones, they still consume copious quantities of ma'a Tahiti (traditional Tahitian food), especially on Sunday. Like their Polynesian counterparts elsewhere, Tahitians still cook meals underground in an earth oven, known here as an himaa. Pork, chicken, fish, shellfish, leafy green vegetables such as taro leaves, and root crops such as taro and yams are wrapped in leaves, placed on a bed of heated stones, covered with more leaves and earth, and left to steam for several hours. The results are quite tasty, since the steam spreads the aroma of one ingredient to the others, and liberal use of coconut cream adds a sweet richness.
Many restaurants serving primarily French, Italian, or Chinese cuisine also offer Tahitian dishes. One you will see virtually everywhere is poisson cru, French for "raw fish." It's the Tahitian-style salad of fresh tuna or mahimahi marinated in lime juice, cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes, all served in coconut cream. Chili is added to spice up a variation known as Chinese poisson cru.
Most of Tahiti's big resort hotels have at least one tama'ara'a (Tahitian feast) a week, followed by a traditional, hip-swinging dance show.
Snack Bars & Les Roulottes
Tahiti has two McDonald's, but locals still prefer their plethora of snack bars, which they call "snacks." You can get a hamburger and usually poisson cru, but the most popular item is the casse-croûte, a sandwich made from a crusty French baguette and ham, tuna, roti (roast pork), hachis (hamburger), lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers -- or even spaghetti. A casse-croûte usually costs about 300CFP (US$3.75/£1.90) or less.
Also in this category are les roulottes -- or portable meal wagons. A friend of mine says he hates the idea of dining in a parking lot, but les roulottes are one of the best values here, with meals seldom topping 1,500CFP (US$19/£9.50). They roll out after dark on most islands. The carnival-like ambience they create on the Papeete waterfront makes them a highlight of any visit to the city.
Despite the high prices, you don't have to go broke dining here. In addition to finding the nearest "snack," here are some ways to eat well for the least money:
- Unless you have no choice, do not have breakfast at the resort hotel dining rooms, which charge 3,000CFP (US$38/£19) or more per person. You can have a perfectly good breakfast for less than half that at a snack bar or patisserie.
- Likewise, do not buy a hotel meal package except on remote islands, where your resort's restaurant is your only choice. Dining out is as much a part of the French Polynesian experience as is snorkeling.
- Order breakfast from room service if you don't want to go out and your hotel restaurant serves only an expensive buffet. Room service menus usually are a la carte, meaning you can order individual items whose total may be much less than the full buffet price.
- Dine at restaurants conventionné, which get breaks on the government's high duty on imported alcoholic beverages. Wine and mixed drinks in these establishments cost significantly less than elsewhere. They can charge no more than 700CFP (US$8.75/£4.45) for spirits served on the rocks, but cocktails can be more than twice that amount. I buy rum on the rocks and then add my own Coke to it. You can also order vin ordinaire (table wine) served in a carafe to save money. The chef buys good-quality wine in bulk and passes the savings on to you.
- Take advantage of plats du jour (daily specials), especially at lunch, and prix fixe (fixed-price) menus, often called "tourist menus." These three- or four-course offerings are usually made with fresh produce direct from the market.
- Consider sharing a starter course. Unlike some American menus, which list the main course as an entree, here an entree is the first course, and it is likely to be a more substantial serving than an American appetizer. If you have a light appetite, an entree could suffice as your only course, or you can share one with your mate or a friend. I discreetly glance at other tables to check portion sizes before ordering.
- Make your own snacks or perhaps a picnic lunch to enjoy at the beach. Every village has at least one grocery store. Fresh loaves of French bread cost about 51CFP (65¢/30p) each, and most stores carry cheeses, deli meats, vegetables, and other sandwich makings, many imported from France. Locally brewed Hinano beers sell for about 250CFP (US$3.15/£1.60) or less in grocery stores, versus 500CFP (US$6.25/£3.15) or more at the hotel bars, and bottles of decent French wine cost a fraction of restaurant prices.