Without a doubt, St. Maarten/St. Martin has some of the best food in the Caribbean. Both the French and Dutch sides offer epicurean experiences galore, with nearly 500 restaurants to choose from. St. Martin has become a competitive training ground for a number of classically trained culinary wizards and Michelin-bound chefs. Although the Dutch side is much more Americanized (you'll spot KFC and Burger King, among fast food chains), some of the island's most exciting international restaurants are here -- this, after all, is the melting pot of the Caribbean.
Truth be told, the standards are so high on both sides of this tiny island that few restaurateurs can get away with mediocrity for long; even the hotel restaurants are way better than most. Speaking of which, I'd like to mention a couple that for space issues aren't reviewed below. La Samanna's Le Réservé (www.lasamanna.com) offers a sublime fine-dining experience in a setting that's hard to beat: high above curving Baie Longue. At the other end of the dining spectrum, the Tides is a modest, old-fashioned dining room with a seaside setting at Mary's Boon Beach Resort (www.marysboon.com). The head chef, Leona, has been cooking here for almost 40 years, and the food is delicious -- and you're so close to the sea that the spray practically perfumes your meal.
Yes, you can eat well pretty much wherever you go. You'll find great dining in Marigot, in restaurants lining the waterfront and at Marina Port la Royale. Philipsburg, for all its slightly tawdry tendencies, has a number of truly fine eateries on and around Front Street. Numerous options have sprouted in St. Maarten's Maho district, while its neighbor Simpson Bay has dozens of casual but topnotch watering holes overlooking the lagoon where fresh seafood reflects the community's longtime fishing heritage. But the island's true culinary mecca is the charming fishing village of Grand Case, perched near the northern tip of St. Martin: No other Caribbean town offers so many wonderful restaurants per capita, sitting cheek-by-jowl along the narrow mile-long Boulevard de Grand Case.
La Belle Créole -- Befitting its turbulent colonial history, St. Maarten/St. Martin is a rich culinary melting pot. The local cuisine, symbol of the island's voyage on many levels, is primarily a savory blend of Arawak (the indigenous people), French, African, even East Indian influences. The Arawaks contributed native tubers like yuca (aka cassava) and dasheen (whose leaves, similar to spinach, are also used), as well as cilantro, lemongrass, and achiote for flavoring. The slave ships introduced plantains, sweet potato, green pigeon peas, and assorted peppers. The various European influences bore fruit in fresh garden staples like onions (and breadfruit imported from Tahiti because it proved cheaper for feeding slaves). The East Indians brought curry with them, an essential ingredient of Colombo, a meat or chicken dish of Tamil origin, as well as exotic spices.
True Creole cuisine is fast vanishing: It requires patience and work, long hours marinating and pounding. But you can still find authentic dishes whose seasonings ignite the palate. Look for specialties such as crabe farci (stuffed crab), féroce (avocado with shredded, spicy codfish called chiquetaille), accras (cod fritters), blaff (seafood simmered in seasoned soup), boudin (spicy blood sausage), bébélé and matéte (tripe dishes stewed with anything from breadfruit to bananas). Conch (lambi) and whelks are found in fritters and stews with fiery sauce chien. Wash them down with local juices: mango, guava, papaya, and less familiar flavors such as the tart tangy tamarind; milky mouth-puckering soursop; pulpy passion fruit; bitter yet refreshing mauby (made from tree bark); and the milkshakelike, reputedly aphrodisiacal sea moss. And try a ti' punch aperitif: deceptively sweet, fruit-infused 100-proof rum.
Dutch St. Maarten
Rates are quoted in dollars on Dutch St. Maarten. Unlike in French St. Martin, restaurants do not include a service charge, and gratuities are appreciated.
Philipsburg -- The harborfront Pasanggrahan Restaurant (19 Front St., Philipsburg; tel. 599/54-23588; www.pasanhotel.com) in the Pasanggrahan Inn, is a peaceful, shady oasis for lunch or a drink. The food is good and fresh, and the views of Great Bay are wonderful.
Simpson Bay Area -- Travelers in the know (and those who watch the Travel Channel's Anthony Bourdain as he chases his appetite around the globe) are already clued in to Hilma's Windsor Castle, located on the main road in Simpson Bay. Even by shack standards, Hilma's is rudimentary, basically a mini-trailer with an awning and four stools. Hilma's specialty? Johnnycakes filled with all sorts of delicious things, like ham, eggs, or cheese. The star is a saltfish johnnycake, spiced with peppers and onions ($2). Hilma's is open Monday through Saturday 7:30am to 3pm.
French St. Martin
Locals and tourists alike have been raving about the food and genuine Parisian ambience at Le Tropicana (tel. 590/87-79-07; on the Marina Port la Royale in Marigot; open daily lunch and dinner), a French restaurant that has blossomed under new management.
In the French Quarter in Orleans, Chez Yvette (tel. 590/87-32-03) serves up Creole/West Indies cuisine in a vintage cottage trimmed in gingerbread. This is home cooking, St. Martin style, with superbly prepared mains like fish, conch, goat stew, ribs, and stewed chicken served with heaping platters of rice and peas and sides of freshly made johnnycakes. Yvette passed away several years ago, but her husband, Felix, is the master chef in charge. For those looking for an authentic island meal, this is it. A platter costs around $20.
Note: Rates are quoted in either euros or dollars, depending on how establishments quoted them at press time. Prices in St. Martin restaurants include taxes and a 15% service charge, but you may want to add an extra gratuity if the service warrants it.
Lolos: Local Barbecue Joints -- Open-air barbecue stands are a St. Martin institution, dishing out big, delicious helpings of barbecued ribs, lobster, chicken or fish grilled on split metal drums, garlic shrimp, goat stew, rice and peas, cod fritters, and johnnycakes -- all from $10 to $20, a real bargain on pricey St. Martin. In Grand Case, the two best, Talk of the Town (tel. 590/29-63-89) and Sky's the Limit (tel. 690/35-67-84), have covered seating, a waitstaff, and sea views. Several excellent lolo-style Creole restaurants are found in Marigot facing the marketplace and ferry port, including Le Goût and Chez Coco -- but my favorite is Enoch's Place (tel. 590/29-29-88), which serves terrific garlic shrimp (10€), stew chicken (10€), and stew conch (8€); each platter comes with rice and peas, cooked plantains, and salad. Derrick Hodge's Exclusive Bite (no phone) is right by the city's scenic cemetery. The Dutch side has its own versions. For lunch, try Mark's Place (no phone) in Philipsburg's Food Center Plaza parking lot; after 6pm, head for Johnny B's Under the Tree (no phone) on Cay Hill Road in Cole Bay.
Grand Case: Dining in Foodie Haven -- No other town in the Caribbean features as many restaurants per capita as the small village of Grand Case, set near St. Martin's northernmost tip. Don't be put off by the town's ramshackle, feet-in-the-sand appearance: Behind the wooden Creole structures are French-, Italian-, and American-style restaurants managed by some very sophisticated cooks -- and many of them have gorgeous beachside settings. Here are some tips on dining in Grand Case:
- Don't pick the first restaurant you see. Stroll down the Boulevard de Grand Case; menus are prominently displayed out front as are the nightly specials. Some restaurants even offer $1 = 1€ prices.
- Drink to the sunset sur la plage. Before you dine, do as the locals do and sip a drink as you watch the sunset melt into the sea on Grand Case Beach. One terrific spot is Calmos Café (40 bd. de Grand Case; tel. 590/29-01-85; www.calmoscafe.com), with chairs and candlelit tables in the sand for the nightly sunset ritual. The competition is neighbor Zen It (49 bd. de Grand Case; tel. 590/29-01-85), where you can sip a beer on the raised wooden porch overlooking the beach. A new, more upscale spot is Le Shore (28 bd. de Grand Case; tel. 590/51-96-17), which brings an element of Miami Beach and the Hamptons to little Grand Case, with a small pool and lounge chairs facing the beach.
- Dress lightly. Most restaurants are not air-conditioned.
- New parking area pluses: The big new parking lot near the airport and across from Calmos Café is a great addition for a town that only recently had traffic going both ways down the narrow two-lane Boulevard de Grand Case, traffic that had to dodge cars parked higgledy-piggledy on both sides of the street and pedestrians wending their way down the street. Now traffic is one way from the parking lot area -- and cars have a place to park away from the main drag.
- New parking area minuses: On the other hand, the new parking lot also means more cars and vans. This is a peaceful place that can get overrun with tourist shuttles during the evening hours.
- Prepare to shop. Most clothing shops and art galleries along the Boulevard de Grand Case are open during the evening dinner hours to take advantage of the influx of visitors.
- Don't miss "Grand Case Tuesdays": It's Carnival every Tuesday evening during high season as the Boulevard de Grand Case is closed off to vehicular traffic for a street festival featuring musicians, food stands, and a crafts market.
Dinner in the Treehouse -- Set on a carbet (covered wood patio) at Loterie Farm's entrance, the Hidden Forest Café (www.loteriefarm.net) serves delicious lunches and dinners; it's open from noon to 3pm and 6:30 to 9:30pm from Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 6pm on Sunday. It sports a funky-chic treehouse look, with photos of dreadlocked musicians, a blue-tile bar, oars dangling from the rafters, and hurricane lamps.
This is the domain of Canadian-born, self-taught chef Julia Purkis, who says her surroundings provide inspiration (and, of course, fresh ingredients from the organic gardens and forest). Her sophisticated culinary techniques and presentation (including often-edible floral garnishes) are all the more impressive given the cramped, basic kitchen and frequent power outages. You might start with cumin chicken rolls, mahimahi fingers with red pepper tartar sauce, shrimp spring roll, or brie in puff pastry with mango chutney. Standout main courses include grilled salmon with apple-ginger compote, rare duck breast with banana-mint-tamarind salsa, pan-seared sea scallops with vanilla rum sauce, and Julia's signature curried spinach-stuffed chicken.