Perhaps no place has a more “mixed” culinary rap than the Caribbean, with its $30 beachside hamburgers and salads tossed with produce long since wilted on its journey from the mainland. Jokes about the cuisine were once deserved. But today the island’s restaurants are increasingly run by chefs from London or New York, bright young things who insist on ingredients shipped in overnight—or, better yet, grown on-site. “A new generation is taking the basics found here and elevating them with innovative preparations,” says Wilo Benet, one of Puerto Rico’s most applauded chefs. And so we’ve gathered some of the best restaurants in the Caribbean right now. A few have only recently opened; others are longtime favorites that have been updated with new menus or new chefs; and several have refreshed, renovated, or just redecorated. —John Newton
Triumphant transformation: Beach House, St. Kitts
Located on the island’s southeast coast in what used to be the Turtle Beach Bar and Grill, this restaurant isn’t technically new. But its renovation at the hands of local designer Gina Harris Rey and the Los Angeles firm Hirsh Bedner Associates is so complete, the place is virtually unrecognizable. Opened in May, the 90-seat restaurant and lounge retains the original airy colonial-era feel, with glowing lanterns and hardwood floors. Executive chef George Reid, formerly of Anguilla’s Cap Juluca Hotel, does a seafoodcentric Caribbean menu with a mix of African, French, Spanish, and Asian influences. The Beach House is the first element of Christophe Harbour, a larger development that will include two luxury hotels and a megayacht harbor, along with other restaurants and boutiques. Dinner, $120. At Turtle Beach, South East Peninsula; 869-469-5299; stkittsbeachhouse.com.
The Modern Classic: Pikayo, Puerto Rico
Arguably the most important chef in Puerto Rican cuisine today (the late R. W. Apple Jr. wrote that he brings “an astonishing degree of refinement to humble ingredients”), Wilo Benet did stints at New York’s Water Club and Le Bernardin before opening Pikayo in San Juan in 1990. Since then the restaurant has dispelled any notions that the island’s cuisine is just rice and plantains. This spring Benet updated his contemporary space at the city’s Museum of Art of Puerto Rico with colorful low banquettes and works by local artists. He’s added new menu items, too, like sautéed shrimp with crispy bacon mofongo and saffron broth, highlighting the country’s alta cocina, or haute cuisine. This month Benet’s more casual Varita, specializing in wood-fired pizzas, opens nearby at Condado Plaza Hotel. Dinner, $130. At 299 De Diego Ave., Santurce; 787-721-6194; wilobenet.com.
Best East Meets West: Maya’s, St. Barths
Everyone knows to call in their reservation requests early during the winter holiday rush at Maya’s, a St. Barths icon that’s been around since 1984. The open-air restaurant on the harbor in Gustavia continues to serve sophisticated Asian-inspired fare—fresh sashimi and curry-flavored dishes—to its loyal and urbane clientele, many of whom fly in from New York or Los Angeles. No two meals are the same, since chef and owner Maya Gurley creates her menu based on what catches her eye at the local produce and fish markets. Dinner, $160. At Public Beach; 590-590/277-573.
Best New Hangout: Horse-Eye Jack’s Bar & Grill, Turks and Caicos
Home to several of the Caribbean’s most refined resorts (including Amanyara, Parrot Cay, and the new Regent Palms resort), the Turks and Caicos can sometimes feel too tony for its own good. So for travelers in search of a break from oppressively elegant dining, the simple fare at the new Horse-Eye Jack’s Bar & Grill is a smart addition. Located on Providenciales, the main island of the Turks and Caicos, this casual outpost specializes in jerk chicken and fish caught right off the beach’s pier (grouper served up as fish and chips; tuna in a wrap with lettuce and tomato). Part of its appeal, as much as the food, is the restaurant’s calendar of events, which includes full-moon parties and DJs visiting from the mainland. Dinner, $30. At Blue Hills, Providenciales; 649-941-4955; horse-eyejacks.com.
Late-Night Bite: Scarlet, Barbados
As on so many other Caribbean islands, nightlife here usually means a steel drum band and rum punch garnished with a paper umbrella. But this spot, which arrived in 2006 on the island’s west coast, aims to change that, with black lacquer tables and Andy Warhol prints on vibrant red walls. The doors open at five in the afternoon, and there’s no set closing hour; they’ll keep pouring drinks as long as guests imbibe. Pair martinis (listed on the Thirst Menu) with eclectic small plates, the best of which is the rice noodle salad with seared Thai beef and the sticky toffee pudding. Dinner, $70. At Payne’s Bay, St. James; 246-432-3663.
Seaside Supper: Barrel Stay, Anguilla
When Englishman Graham Belcher arrived in Anguilla back in 2005, he took one look at the then-dilapidated Barrel Stay restaurant and called his wife, Jill, raving. Three weeks later the two moved here from England. Since reopening the restaurant, they have transformed it from a humble beachfront canteen to one of the island’s top culinary spots. The wooden open-air space is right on the beach at Road Bay, in the center of Anguilla, about three miles from the large resorts on the East End. Its largely French Caribbean menu focuses on grilled seafood, like local lobster and crayfish, and everything is homemade, including the popular Valrhona chocolate tart and pineapple and raspberry ice creams. Dinner, $120. At Sandy Ground at Road Bay; 264-497-2831; barrelstay.com.
For Local Flair: Kaibo Restaurant, Beach Bar, and Marina, Grand Cayman
Despite talk of a recession, the offshore bankers who gave the Cayman Islands their moneyed glamour are still frequenting Kaibo Restaurant, Beach Bar, and Marina. In November 2007 the more polished Upstairs at Kaibo relaunched after renovations; it is only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights and is known for its attentive waitstaff and laid-back setting (ceiling fans, nautical touches). Before settling down for the meal, diners start with one of the 30 rare Caribbean rums from the bar—Daniel makes a great mojito with mint grown at Kaibo. Chef Steve Fanning serves satisfying fare, like lightly blackened snapper with cucumber and mango salsa, and coconut-crusted sea scallops—all without pretension. Dinner, $70. At 585 Water Cay Rd., Cayman Kai; 345-947-9975; kaibo.ky.
Beach Shack Chic: Double Deuce Bar, Nevis
In 2004 Mark Roberts opened this boîte on Pinney’s Beach, and it may well be the only beach shack in the world to have a chef and co-owner with such a swanky résumé, including postings at London’s Berkeley Hotel and Nevis’s Montpelier Plantation Inn. Instead of trying to bring high-end dining to the shore, Roberts keeps it simple with a menu of barbecued ribs and organic beef burgers. The decor is mostly what one would expect from a beach shack—paintings of fish and Balinese masks adorn the bright walls—but the lively atmosphere keeps diners coming back. Dinner, $75. Pinney’s Beach, Charleston; 869-469-2222.
Best Alfresco Atmosphere: Rock House, Harbour Island
Since debuting in the forties, the building that is now home to the Rock House has been a Harbour Island mainstay. It operated for decades primarily as a bed-and-breakfast until its divine new co-owner, Wallace Tutt, a southerner turned Washington, D.C. lawyer, decorator, and hotelier, reopened it in 2002 as a ten-room boutique hotel. When frequent travelers to the Bahamian island arrive for dinner, they expect the ten or so Europeanish menu staples, for instance a local conch chowder made with boniato (a tropical sweet potato), a West Indies salad with blue swimmer crab, and roast lobster tail served with a green basil butter. The new dining pavilion, which opened in November in a tented poolside area, seats 30 and has several banquettes that can be curtained off for more privacy. P.S.: Ask Wallace if there’s any chance for a slice of his mother’s red velvet cake. He’ll understand. Dinner, $150. At the corner of Bay and Hill streets; 242-333-2053; rockhousebahamas.com.