San Juan, celebrated for its sizzling salsa clubs and island rum-infused mojitos, predictably doesn’t disappoint in the bar and restaurant department, with plates and libations showcasing both Puerto Rican and international flavors. Read on for our top picks from the latest crop of bar and restaurant openings:
Red Coral Lounge
Fresh from a January renovation that pumped $2.3 million into this hip space set inside the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino (in the stylish Condado neighborhood), Red Coral Lounge far surpasses typical hotel lounge expectations. Sip on jalapeno- or dragonberry-flavored mojitos (among 10 mojito options on the menu), and hit up the dance floor with a decidedly local crowd, as DJs and salsa dancers—the latter showing off atop the bar, no less—amp up the vibe on some nights. Expect elegant accents like turquoise brocade fabric on seatbacks, off-white ottomans, and a large, freestanding, carved-wood structure by local artist Neftali Maldonado that mimics a coral reef (pictured above).
Also in the Condado neighborhood, this tapas-driven bar serves up everything from Padrón peppers to paella, and seared pigskins to patanas bravas (a fried-potato and tomato sauce dish), along with drool-worthy red and white sangrias. Open since summer 2010, Bar Gitano’s popular outdoor terrace draws local crowds, while the interior decor highlights light-yellow and jet-black walls covered by a collection of mirrors, empty frames, and artwork depicting Spanish bullfighting scenes. Headed up by Roberto Treviño—an Iron Chef America contestant whose restaurant group also owns Budatai down the street and El Barril next door—the wine list is among the best in San Juan. Nearly all of the offerings are Spanish-label wines (12 are sold by the glass), with most bottles priced in the $30 and $40 range.
Pieria Restaurant & Lounge
Open since February 2011, Pieria Restaurant & Lounge is a hidden gem of a tapas bar worth hunting down: Look for the narrow jade-green doorway, set in the heart of Old San Juan, that opens into a large bar area set underneath an arched ceiling. The menu features dishes unique to Puerto Rico, such as mofongo (smashed plantains) and camarones al ajillo (garlic shrimp in fried plantain), but also taps into other global regions for inspiration. Case in point: Korean short ribs and bánh xèo (fried Vietnamese pancakes). The owners, Eunice and Rafael Sosa, come with some serious culinary cred: Eunice supervised hospitality divisions at Ritz-Carlton hotels, while Rafael has firsthand familiarity with dishes from some 30 different countries.
Hugging the Atlantic Ocean beachfront in Condado, the fall 2011-debuted Oceano is set smack on the sand next to the Atlantic Beach Hotel: The views don’t get any better than this. Entirely open-air, the two-story restaurant offers full bar service and an extensive food menu. Ceviche and pizzetta options run the gamut, or you can order the Puerto Rican Fantasy (eight fritters served with a side of cilantro mayo) for an instant immersion into local flavors. Waitstaff are laid-back and friendly, sporting coordinating tees in ocean-inspired hues. Oceano’s owner hails from New York City and has traveled the world, touching down in many nightspots that inspired the creation of Oceano, with its sleek white, minimalist decor. Arrive after dark and expect a little bumping and grinding to the combined tune of techno beats and waves crashing upon shore.
DiVino Wine & Tapas
Last summer, DiVino Wine & Tapas debuted inside Verdanza Hotel, in the Isla Verda section of San Juan (near the airport), and was received as a wine-lover’s dream. Not only are 40 wines (from several wine regions, including Sonoma, Tuscany, and Mendoza) poured by the ounce, but the pairing options are equally plentiful, with a generous selection of cheeses, pâtés, mousses, cured meats, and artisan-made marmalades. If picking your poison becomes too overwhelming, simply select from a pre-determined, and well-curated, flight of wines. Fancy woodwork for the flooring and walls, along with built-in benches topped with black-and-white pillows, combine for a comfortable rec room kind of feel, with an upscale twist.
Thinking of a trip to San Juan?
For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, plus the best planning advice, check out our online San Juan Travel Guide.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Red Coral Lounge