The glitziest town on the Pacific Coast, Puerto Vallarta is home to a thriving food scene featuring everything from traditional cantinas to avant-garde gourmet restaurants.
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Puerto Vallarta is the Cancún of the Mexican Pacific – a city of high-rise hotels framed by the rugged Sierra Madre mountains, fringing a vast bay of soft sand sprinkled with islands. Hugely popular as a beachside getaway for Mexicans and Americans, the city has restaurants for all budgets and tastes. From spots overlooking the water to pocket-sized eateries tucked into the pretty 19th-century old center or dotting the foodie beach suburbs north and south of town, Vallarta is home to some excellent restaurants.
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Three blocks from the sea and close to the Zona Romántica in southern Vallarta, Trio offers intimate dining in upmarket cantina surrounds. Wooden tables are draped in heavy white linens, colourful Mexican art adorns the walls, light spills from the street through art nouveau stained glass. Service is discrete and elegant, while the food is a fusion of Mexican ingredients and European panache: swordfish steak comes in a garlic, ginger and chili ponzu sauce, while juicy roast Mexican rabbit is served up with Italian herbs.
A plush, arty and air-conditioned dining room with hipster exposed brick and brightly colored mural art, Makal serves delicious comfort food like slow-cooked pork with guacamole and pan-seared fish of the day. With slick, welcoming service and a location in the heart of the Zona Romántica, you’d expect Makal to be pricey, but this is one of the best-value mid-range restaurants in the area; even with the added IVA tax (not shown on menu prices).
Cafe des Artistes
Thierry Blouet has been delighting locals with his elegant Franco-Mexican bistro cooking for more than three decades: dishes like tender roasted suckling lamb in Mexican herbs, marinated octopus and albacore tartare with avocado (served on a salt block) are dished-up al fresco in the leafy garden or the elegant dining room. The best way to sample the cooking is the five-course tasting menu, complete with amuse bouches and wine pairings.
Vitea offers good-value, casual bistro dining within cork-popping distance of the sea. The setting feels Mediterranean – with cafe tables shaded by an awning spilling onto the Malecón promenade. Food from Swedish chef Ulf Henriksson is simple but elegant Mexican-European comfort cooking: think cauliflower goat’s cheese gratin with poblano chili and spinach or pan-seared octopus with Mexican chorizo. Also don’t miss out on Ulf’s signature chocolate and kahlúa cake, best accompanied with a strong, aromatic European espresso.
Mar y Vino
A table with a view? From the pool? While you eat? That’s Mar y Vino, on the rooftop of the Playa Los Arcos Hotel. Tables sit in the shallow end of a swimming pool – with your feet cooling in the water as you get lost in the view of Vallarta’s brilliant-blue bay shimmering below and bobbing with yachts. Come early for an icy mojito, and watch the sun sink – red as a blood orange – into the ocean, then order shrimp-filled burritos or charcoal-grilled octopus, and wash it all down with a bright Baja chardonnay.
Joel Ornelas’s multi-award-winning modern Mexican restaurant, overlooking the river in the heart of the Zona Romántica, is the premier fine-dining kitchen in Vallarta. Expect beautifully presented dishes from the best local ingredients, with a focus on seafood. The menu changes daily but includes dishes like Pacific soft shell crab sashimi with 36-hour baked heirloom tomatoes and blue, white and yellow corn esquites salad (Mexican corn salad), truffled with huitlacoche mushrooms. Dishes are matched with sommelier-selected wines.
Even backpackers on the tightest budget are delighted by Maria Baja. This simple street-side cafe-restaurant on the southern edge of the Zona Romántica serves huge tacos and tostadas, made with the best ingredients and in bewildering variety. The most popular include the marlin, devilled octopus, and tuna and mango. They are best enjoyed spiced up with one of Maria’s seven homemade salsas and washed down with a freshly squeezed lime juice or a basil and pineapple agua fresca (fruit drink).
The most beautiful view in Vallarta? It’s 20-minutes south of downtown – at Le Kliff – whose restaurant terrace hangs over the bay, perfectly poised for sunset. Come in the late afternoon to savor the view, the superb cocktails (like the house mariposa, made with mezcal, pineapple and coconut and spiced with cinnamon, ginger and cardamom seeds) and the excellent comfort cooking (steaks, lobsters and catch of the day cooked in passion fruit sauce). Book well ahead to ensure a cliffside pew.
Josué Jiménez and Mauricio Leal’s multi-award-winning restaurant serves contemporary Mexican food with a gourmet twist. The menu is strong on seafood – think shrimps with saffron rice and Mexican sweet chili sauce or octopus with black-bean puree and confit potatoes. Dishes are beautifully presented and matched with wine on request, and the elegant open dining room – lined with raw stone and a living wall – could well be in Beverly Hills.
Overlooking the lush woodlands around the Cuale River, cooled by an ocean breeze and serving well-prepared international and Mexican comfort food (and excellent icy margaritas), the River Cafe is a popular spot for a slow lunch or dinner. Popular plates include the Mexican river platter with quesadillas, nachos, guacamole and spicy salsas and seared tuna with roasted tomatoes, goat’s cheese and red pesto. There’s live jazz in the evenings and soft chill-out sounds the rest of the day.
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, why not book into one of the best boutique hotels in Puerto Vallarta? Or perhaps one of the best resorts? For more inspiration while you’re in town, check out the top things to do, including the best beaches in the area. And don’t miss out on the top restaurants in Puerto Vallarta.
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