Expert guide to Jamaica
Jamaica is arguably best known for its white sandy beaches and reggae music, but the island is also deservedly famous for its cuisine. Be sure to try local specialties such as ackee and saltfish, Ital cuisine (a natural diet free from meat, additives and chemicals), curried goat and patties – be it at corner shops, beach shacks or the fine dining restaurants that dot the island. And if, heaven forbid, you don’t develop a taste for spiced Jamaican fare, there’s an array of international dining options in the main tourist towns as well as the all-inclusive resorts.
Montego Bay and Northwest coast
The Houseboat Grill
No trip to Montego Bay is complete without dining out in this colourfully painted double-decker houseboat, on an inky-black lagoon, that’s hailed as the island’s best restaurant. The Caribbean fusion menu changes regularly: tropical starters could include grilled palm hearts or 'peel and eat' shrimp, followed by beef medallions and plantain-mashed potatoes. Dine inside in the cosy dining room, under the stars on the upper deck or waterside, where guests are entertained by the nightly aquatic ballet performed by snook and tarpon game fish. After dinner, join the Jamaican regulars in the bar for a rum cocktail.
Contact:00 1 876 979 8845; thehouseboatgrill.com
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Best table: Bag a table on the upstairs deck in the southwest corner to watch the nightly sunset show
Ocho Rios, Port Antonio & North Coast
Boston Bay jerk shacks
Around 15 kilometres east of Port Antonio lies Boston Bay, the 'home of jerk'. Today jerk (a style of barbecuing) is Jamaica's most well-known culinary delight but, up until the 1950s, it was pretty much unknown outside of this small coastal community. Six smoky jerk pits line the main road near the entrance to Boston Bay beach, their pits smoking from 10.30am daily. Try Shaggy's Jerk Shop (though all are equally good) and pair the fiery flavours with a cold, grapefruity Ting soda, before rocking away to the tunes that DJ Sheppy spins from his musical shack.
Contact: Fairy Hill; bostonjerkcenter.com
Reservations: Not necessary
Ocho Rios Jerk Centre
Jerk chicken, pork and conch abound at this casual canopied open-air restaurant, but there are also daily specials such as goat head soup on the menu. It’s easily Ochi’s largest jerk centre yet can still get crowded when the cruise ships are in port. Thirsty? Slam down a Red Stripe or a fruity rum punch and watch sports (Jamaica is crazy for cricket) on the big screen while you wait for your food to arrive. On Friday nights, DJs fire up the dance floor. There are better jerk joints in Jamaica, but arguably none as vibrant as this venue.
Contact: 00 1 876 974 2549; @ochoriosjerkcentreja
Reservations: Not needed
Miss T's Kitchen
Located in the heart of 'Ochi' in a relaxed garden setting, and run by friendly Anna-Kay Tomlinson – affectionately known as Miss T. Try her home-style curried goat or traditional oxtail stew. Vegetarians will enjoy Miss T’s chickpea stack or rundown vegetables (local greens, plantain and pumpkin stewed in coconut milk). Everything is served on rainbow coloured tables under a tin roof against a backdrop of reggae music. There’s a decent rum-heavy cocktail list too.
Contact: 00 1 876 796 0099; misstskitchen.com
Reservations: Highly recommended
Negril and the West Coast
Ciao Jamaica serves, as its name suggests, crossover Italian and Jamaican fare in a charming, open-sided gingerbread-style building on Negril’s famous West End Road. Dine on generous portions of jerk chicken penne pesto (an Italian classic with a Jamaican twist) or West Indies seafood linguine (shrimp sautéed in an aromatic sauce of light curry, coconut, thyme, lemongrass and Jamaican rum with al dente pasta). Call ahead for free hotel pick up.
Contact: 00 1 876 957 4395; ciaojamaica.com
Reservations: Only necessary if you want to take advantage of the free hotel pick up
Best table: Any on the upstairs wraparound veranda
Sweet Spice Restaurant
Sweet Spice is a local favourite set in an unassuming brightly coloured wooden building on the road to Savanna la Mar. To keep you fuelled up for Negril’s legendary nightlife, tuck into conch steak, stewed beef and oxtail. There are also plenty of tropical fruit juices including papaya, banana and Irish moss. Portions are big and prices pleasingly low but, despite the unpretentious setting, you’ll need to make at least a little effort with your wardrobe: “No shoes, no shirt, no service” is Sweet Spice’s mantra. For an authentic taste of Jamaican home cooking, this is one of the best spots in Negril.
Contact: 00 1 876 957 4621; sweetspicerestaurant
Kingston, Blue Mountains & Southeast Coast
Run by father and daughter duo, Michael and Robyn Fox, this rustic Blue Mountain spot is popular with Kingstonians at the weekend who love the fusion of European and Jamaican cuisine. To start, there is pea and mint soup and saltfish fritters; then comes barrel-roasted chicken topped with Blue Mountain herb gravy and a veggie lasagna; and finally there’s an unmissable rum fire ice cream cake for dessert. If you can’t face driving back to Kingston, there are quirky hotel rooms where you can rest your head for the night.
Contact:00 1 876 944 8151; 17milepostja.com
Reservations: Reservations preferred
Devon House I-Scream
I-Scream serves the best ice cream in Jamaica, something the lines out of the door bear testimony too. The Devon House place offers more than 20 flavours (plus some sorbets) – everything from rum and raisin to grape-nut and the beer based Devon Stout, a signature scoop that’s made with the local tipple. Grab a cone or a cup and enjoy your scoop in Devon House’s sprawling gardens. More of a savoury tooth than a sweet one? Head next door to Devon House Bakery where locals swear by the posh lobster patty.
Contact: 00 1 876 702 3808; @devonhouseiscream
Reservations: Not possible
Best table: The tree-shaded lawns of Devon House
Tracks and Records
If anyone can seize Bob Marley’s crown as the most-revered Jamaican, it’s Usain Bolt. The charismatic athlete has added another string to his bow and opened a chain of restaurants called Tracks & Records, with dishes including jerk chicken and pork, fried fish and bammy (a cassava flatbread). They’re record holders when it comes to rum too: expect more than 150 varieties. Factor in 45 flat-screen televisions for watching sports, karaoke nights and reggae shows and you certainly have a high energy vibe. There are branches in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios but the Kingston outpost is the original and the best.
Contact: 00 1 876 906 3903; tracksandrecords.com
Reservations: Recommended on Friday and Saturday nights
South Coast and Central Highlands
The lynchpin of the Treasure Beach community, Jack Sprat is a laid back beach bar, music venue and restaurant. Take a seat inside the Creole-style house, where the walls are adorned with reggae album covers and movie posters, or alfresco at a candlelit table under illuminated trees. The menu is peppered with excellent local seafood dishes – snapper, lion-fish, lobster and octopus, served brown stewed, fried, jerked or Jamaican escovitch-style – and Naples-worthy pizzas. On Thursday evenings Jack Sprat runs open-air film nights where visitors and locals can watch cult Jamaican movies for free.
Contact: 00 1 876 965 3583; jakeshotel.com