Like many, I sometimes bristle at the use of the word Foodie. So pervasive and overused it often comes across as a joke. When Hipsters have rejected the phrase, surely so should I. Yet, when it comes to describing the type of person (me for instance) who spends weeks planning where and what to eat before their next adventure, it still seems fitting.
When I create my culinary wish list for a trip, I use several sources. Everything from NY Times, LonelyPlanet and Bon Appétit to as many food blogs and local tourist sites as I can find. I will warn you though, I believe some local tourist sites suffer from a case of the “do me a favor” and sometimes lead you down the wrong path.
I recommend reading as much as you can before you go, THEN going to Tripadvisor to make your saves based on your research. If you follow Tripadvisor reviews alone you’ll miss some of the great spots that don’t openly campaign with the Tripadvisor crowd. I sat next to a group of tourist at La Cevicheria who were frankly using TripAdvisor reviews like the bible to order. Thing is, those are strangers you don’t know, ripping off opinions. While I agree that checking out user reviews on a place in bulk can be helpful, the individual reviews when taken for truth instead of opinion basically become a measure of who posted last.
The Tripadvisor app however is extremely helpful for keeping all your research in one place. You can do the hard work before you go and you don’t have to over-plan your trip. You simply have all your top picks in one place, on a map and when you find you’re hungry, you can pull it out and search around for which one of your picks is closest for feeding your growing appetite.
Here are my top 10 picks in order and a few stories from someone who has been to Cartagena recently:
- La Perla: Hearty Carnivore pleasing meal. Can you say ox tail braised then cooked for six hours. Find It
- Brujas de Cartagena Restaurante: Peruvian Ceviche and Tiradito goldmine for fresh fish and citrus flavors. Find It
- El Barón Cafe & Liquor Bar: Lunch and Cocktails in the style with which I would like to become accustomed. Find It
- Carmen: Romantic dinner for foodies. It’s the first time I’ve understood the concept behind a haute cuisine plate. Try The Beach and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Fresh fish, edible sand, coconut rice sea foam and “green sea” which I admit, I have no idea what it was other than delicious. Find It
- La Paletteria: Posh Popsicles with Panache are the perfect midday snack and a very good reason to skip Gelateria Paradiso which is highly rated but nothing special. Find It
- Oh La La!: Cartagena Culinary scene is diverse enough to brag about their French food. Find It
- Cafe del Mar Cartagena: Skip the food but make sure you watch the sunset from this elevated seaside spot on the wall with a Caipirinha. Find It
- La Vitrola: Try for a nighttime reservation, hard to get but lunch is too slow to get the full effect of the history and tradition here. Find It
- Prispri: For a quick lunchtime empanada, pan de bono or fresh juice on the go (skip the coffee here though.) Find It
- La Cevicheria: The simplicity of the approach to ceviche is as refreshing, as does the cold beer we so gratefully guzzled while waiting for a table. Find It
Our appetites seemed to be on siesta during the full heat of the day in Cartagena. Often we would nip inside to find air conditioning and a cool drink at noon and then order up a snack or share a sandwich if our appetites woke up. There were two spots where this led to a great snack sized meal which I recommend first, El Barón Cafe & Liquor Bar and second Prispri.
Here is the point in the story where the Food Geek comes out in me. I’ve traveled with my Husbands parents through Northern Europe and by the end of the trip, it became a joke that we only ate when I got excited about a place. I would see something across the street or a plaza and walk straight in the direction in search of what I believe to be a new culinary find.
While in the Plaza just outside Cathedral San Pedro Claver (a great spot to visit) I turned around and my Foodie radar went off. I noticed a tiny, tasteful little unassuming doorway. Considering the tourist monstrosity that dominates the square next door, it would be easy to overlook. Drawn to the looks of a cool spot, I walked close enough to see a stylish bar in a tiny space that was crying out “come inside, get out of the heat and pull up to a cool drink” and so we did.
El Barón Cafe & Liquor Bar was the absolute perfect spot to cool off and grab a small bite. It served as one of the few placed our heat fighting fedoras which screamed tourist seemed not only welcome but strangely fitting. Styled everywhere you look, the bar was an inspiration in and of itself. The bar tender mixed a mean drink and the sandwiches were made to order with the absolute best ingredients. I wouldn’t call it authentically Colombian by any means but that made the spot no less charming or delicious. We were so delighted with our cool break find that I broke one of my travel rules when we visited a second time during the same trip.
The second lunch spot was a little less high style but still adorable with a slightly more traditional menu. Prispi is essentially a coffee shop with empanadas, pan de bono, pastry and simple yet incredibly fresh juices blended up in front of you at the adorable counter. You can step in anytime during the day for a bite to go or a bench in the bright, cool interior. The staff here were incredibly friendly and honestly, genuinely enjoyed working there together and it showed. Their tasty yet uncomplicated work was not only served up, but played out in front of you with nothing more than a glass wall between the tables and the kitchen.
Ceviche is all over Cartagena and in general it’s amazing. Fresh fish, bright citrus and a no fuss approach plated with saltine crackers. La Cevicheria was our first stop in the city for a meal and it truly hit the spot… once we finally got a table. Since it’s a spot Anthony Bourdain brought attention to in an episode of No Reservations I wonder if it doesn’t rely a little on this international reputation. It’s good, don’t get me wrong I recommend going but for dinner not lunch. The wait time was longer here than anywhere else we visited and with no place to wait inside, you’re basically standing outside in the noon sun without shade listening to the group of tourist next to you hack up the name for dishes and drinks as they read off the Tripadvisor app all the reviews, word for word. Did I mention the wait in the hot sun? We ended up making it work for us by ordering up a few beers and taking over sidewalk chairs snug against the building the minute they opened up.
Before our trip, I had read an older NY Times review noting La Vitrola as an institution in Cartagena. Not to be missed, the reviewer suggested a visit at lunch if you wanted to try the food due to packed crowds at night. So I set about planning one reverse day. Splurge at lunch, save at dinner. La Vitrola as it turned out does have amazing food and service that rivals any white glove place around. We ordered light, it was after all lunch. Sharing a ceviche appetizers and one main plus and drinks, we found all the food delightful. However, with a local holiday and a smaller lunch crowd in general, we had the place to ourselves. We ended up staring longingly at the corner where the jazz band lights up the place at night, wishing we could experience the full La Vitrola of the Colombia king pin past. So while we really loved the experience, we left hungry for more and still a decently hefty bill, especially for lunch.
The true disappointment came later that night when I didn’t head my own advise above about cross checking references and trusted a local travel site. In short a bad idea for food savvy budget conscience travelers. In a city where food prices–when you go for the good stuff–can rival that of a New York City night out, you want something on the plate that makes you happy you decided to shell out the cash. You want to feel satisfied and smart based on your researched choices, not taken for a ride.
Thus we landed at Palo Santo trying not to break the bank, which I can honestly not recommend. Aside from the food being lack luster, we ordered an appetizer for two which came with a half bottle of wine. We should have known better when a full bottle arrived at the table. It was about that time when I started really looking around and saw the elevated kitchen, with glass overlooking the dinning room that I’m pretty sure hadn’t been cleaned since colonial times. We should have gotten up and left, instead we went for the ride. Skip this one is all I will say.
The next night, I nailed it going back to my traditional save the budget for dinner approach. We went back to El Barón for lunch, a sure fire win to reset my foodie mood and ended the day feasting on peruvian ceviche at Brujas de Cartagena Restaurante. Oh man was I in heaven here. My Husband knows me well, I think he took one look at the place and the menu and thought to himself, this is the place to splurge for my wife on this trip. Turning to me he said “I’d like to make an indecent proposal. How about we order the tiradito and ceviche samplers and split it.” If you have a weakness for seafood and citrus, which my husband knows I do, this is the best idea in all of Cartagena as far as I’m concerned.
With these two dishes I was pigging out, completely unrestrained eating. Fresh fish including shrimp, calamari and squid combined with various levels of citrus and a little heat, even an inventive olive marinate. I was drunk with lust over this much fresh seafood and citrus. I imagined shrinking down and swimming with the fish in the dishes in front of me, my Cartagena version of Willy Wonka. Walking out, despite eating every single morsel presented to us, I had no remorse or gross overstuffed feelings. Just pleasantly full and blissfully thankful for the meal, the cool night breeze and a short romantic stroll back to our hotel.
Our final night in Colombia turned out wonderfully strange and serves as a prime example of the plentiful options for amazing food in Cartagena. We started out searching for 8-18 a very well reviewed restaurant. Excited to top off our stay with another great meal, we walked to streets and began to wonder… did we pass it. Again, I say learn here from my mistake! After several attempts at finding wifi and searching again for the restaurant, we gave up figuring it must have closed. Even after returning home and searching for the answers online, I’m not sure if 8-18 closed, moved or is open and hidden.
In the end I’m delighted we missed it. We ended up heading towards La Perla. To continue the oddities of the evening, as we arrived at La Perla, we were told they were happy to have us, but warned the restrooms were not working. Normally, I would take this as a sign and move on. Thankfully though after a look at the menu and the restaurant, combined with having spent nearly an hour prior searching for 8-18, we decided to stay.
The food was outstanding. Perhaps the best meal of the trip. My husband got the steak he was craving after humoring his wife’s love of ceviche so frequently over the last week. Myself, I had a revelation on my plate. In front of me sat braised ox tail cooked for six hours over a simple yet delicious mashed potato base. How could so few ingredients be this outstanding. My plate literally had two things, meat and potatoes and I was ready to–and actually later did–walk to the kitchen and bow to the chef in thanks. It was as if the most tender beef in the world, drank nothing but the finest coffee and feasted on the finest chocolate all it’s life before becoming that decadent yet simple meal.
Aside from the meal that rocked my understanding of how amazing lesser used cuts of meat can be, the service at La Perla was friendly and spot on. We ordered a lower price bottle of wine, which they were out of. In replacement they offered a lovely bottle of Cabernet for the same lower price point, a truly classy move.
Once we stepped out of La Perla the strange came back when we landed at our second spot for the evening, Cafe Havana. We realized the entire trip we were hitting everything earlier than the locals. Very strange for a couple with a combined total of 15 years living in New York City. At Cafe Havana we sat waiting for an hour as the club slowly filled. After a full bottle of wine at La Perla we joked we were too old for this and ordered up two cold frosty cokes. One more drink and my head would have found the bar the perfect pillow for a nap. I went to the bathroom, to wake myself up as much as anything, only to discover the water was out here as well. By the end of the night when we returned to the hotel, we realized the water was just out in Cartagena. We never knew the reason the water was out in Cartagena or if it is a regular occurrence. I’d love to hear from other travelers if you’ve experienced the same.
What’s amazing to me is that in Cartagena in one week, we found numerous meals that will stay in my memory as stand outs. My Husband knew what he was doing when he suggested this trip for our anniversary. He also knew what he was doing when he scouted out the two chairs at the peek of the roof of our hotel. Every single night, we watched the sunset before dinner and returned to the glow of city lights after dinner to talk and enjoy a final glass of red for the night. I wished that night that every beautiful sunset I see is one I share with my Husband for the rest of my life.