Cartagena’s dining scene has improved drastically in the past few years, rivaling Bogota and other much larger metro areas in South America, with several much-hyped openings outside of Daniel Castaño’s Vera. Write ups in the New York Times, Vogue, and elsewhere have proven that the city’s restaurants deserve the attention. In fact Cartagena has always been great food destination, even before it became the historic center cleaned up and became the darling of the jetset. It has long benefitted from Colombia’s distinct range of ingredients and the rather diverse population. It was my first ever stop in South America and it will forever remain in my culinary consciousness for that reason.
Vera: Vera’s chef is Daniel Castaño, a Mario Batali protégé who is also the head chef at Bogotá’s popular Emilia Romagna and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based supper club social experiment A Razor, A Shiny Knife. He’s talented. The coastal Italian dishes fit right in with the fashion forward hotel and the beautiful crowd that frequents it. (Inside the Tcherassi Hotel + Spa, Calle del Sargento Mayor 6-21, Centro Histórico, Tel: 575-664-4445, www.tcherassihotels.com/dining.html)
La Perla: This is tiny, yet an uber trendy restaurant in the historic center opened in November. Roberto Carrascal who is considered the top mixologist in Colombia for his work at Scirocco Bar in Bogota, turns to Peruvian-Mediterranean fusion. The cocktails are quite adventurous and most involve Pisco (plus there’s homemade Limoncello). Try squid ink risotto, ceviches, tiraditos, causa, and wahetever specials they have lined up. (4 – 42 Calle de Ayos, Centro Histórico, Tel: 575-664-2157).
El Pulpito: Part of Colombia’s rapidly expanding cevicheria scene. This is rather small and informal and the cebiche is served in Styrofoam cup, but you cannot deny the quality of the flavors. It’s quite cheap, there are just small servings prepared with your choice of seafood (octopus, shrimp, scallops, fish, etc) and choice of sauce.
El Santisimo This perennial favorite moved locations in 2009 and has since re-energized itself. The creative Colombian-Mediterranean fusion restaurant is as well executed as they come. Opt for the excellent small plates such as Chango (Red Snapper stewed in coonut milk) or entrees such as Mahi Mahi slathered in octopus curry. (Calle del Torno 39-62, Centro Histórico, Tel: 575-660-1531):
La Vitrola: This was one of Cartagena’s best restaurants well before it had a selection of fine dining places.The food is slanted toward Cuban and Caribbean with stand bys like Ropa Vieja and grouper Carpaccio. Rickety ceiling fams and black and white tile floors keep the feeling of Old Havana alive. (Calle Baloco No. 2-01, Centro Histórico , Tel:575-660-0711).
8-18: This all white trendsetter opened in 2008 and has yet to lose its luster. Seafood, with a Caribbean/Spanish vibe is what’s on the menu. (Calle Gastelbondo No. 8-18; Tel: 575-664-61-22, www.restaurante8-18.com).
Juan del Mar With three namesake restaurants, Juan del Mar is like the Jean Georges of Colombia. The menu is a little bit like Vera – it’s very coastal Italian – but it’s extremely long and they have a ton of pizzas. A good place to come with a group and drink and chat for hours and hours. (Centro Plaza San Diego; Tel: 575-664-5862).
La Cevicheria: This miniscule restaurant near the Hotel Santa Clara is as casual as they come, but where else will you find a ceviche with mozzarella cheese? (Calle Stuart 7, Centro Histórico, Tel: 575-664-2760).
Club de Pesca: Cartagena’s “fish club” was popular with visiting yachties and dignitaries years before a cruise ship ever felt safe enough to enter Colombia (it’s been open since 1956). You’ll find exactly what you would expect: fresh fish and lots of it. The dining area is right beside the old stone city walls and butts up against the water. (Fuerte San Sebastian del Pastelillo, Manga, Tel: 575-660-4594, www.clubdepesca.com).
FOODIE FINDS IN CARTAGENA
Boca Grande Beach: While resort filled Boca Grande is the least authentic part of Cartagena, if you search the palm trees on the beach you can find groups of Afro-Colombians selling meals. Fish, just pulled from the ocean, is grilled wole and served with a lime, rice, and a cocktail.
Fruit Ladies: The woman that stroll the old city carrying baskets of fruit on their head have become one of Cartagena’s best photo-ops – for a price. That fruit they sell in their baskets, you can actually buy (it’s a little overpriced yet convenient). Try lulo or the star apple.
Arepas: These are the quintessential Colombian snack. These corn pancakes are sold form small carts all over the city, sometimes stuffed with ham, cheese, or eggs. Sometimes they are grilled alongside chorizo.
Mango Biche and Watermelon: Carts selling cut up fruit such as watermelon or mango are scattered about everywhere in Cartagena. Try the Mango Biche, a tart green mango served with salt and dried chile powder.
Cheese and Guava: En route to Getsamani form the center you’ll encounter stands selling guava paste and white cheese. Pair them up and it’s an incredible, flavorful snack.
Look out for spiked Limonada de Coco (Coconut Lemonade) or Limonada de hierba Buena (Mint Lemonade), otherwise ron (rum) is the spirit of choice.
Cafe del Mar: Café Del Mar has for the past few years been Cartagena’s favorite watering hole. And it should be. It’s perched up on the old city walls and looks out over the Caribbean. The breeze is good, the drinks are better.(Baluarte de Santo Domingo; Tel: 575-664-6513 www.cafedelmarcolombia.com)
Quiebra-Canto: This true to the word local bar with two levels plays salsa music all night long. It’s simple, but you cannot argue against the authenticity. (Carrera 8B, No. 25-110, Edificio Puerta del Sol; Getsemaní, Tel: 575-664-1372)
Tu Candela: Cartagena’s it spot when everything else is closed. It’s usually packed to the brim and it’s hard to get a drink at the bar, but if you want to dance or get picked up, this is the place.(Portal de los Dulces, Centro Historico, Tel: 575-664-8787)
Café Havana: During the daytime Getsemani’s Café Havana looks like the world’s moist shuttered, decrepit old building. At night he doors swing open and salsa music carries out into the street. One of the most lively bars in town. (Calle Media Luna and Calle del Guerrero, Getsemaní, Tel: 315-690-2566, www.cafehavanacartagena.com)
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.