I spent some time in Old San Juan as a digital nomad. I discovered that among the best things to do in Old San Juan is eat. Old San Juan has a lively food and drink scene. Whether you are looking for inexpensive but tasty meals or gourmet treats, Old San Juan has something for you. These are some of my favorite spots.
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La Casita de Rones
Close to Pier 1 of the cruise ship docks is a pink building that can be an introduction to the rums of Puerto Rico. They offer a rum-tasting flight for $45 and several tropical-themed cocktails. La Casita also offers a menu including sandwiches, tacos, steak and, of course, mofongo.
Barrachina (real home of the Piña Colada)
The blended version of the Piña Colada (rum, coconut cream, and pineapple juice) was invented at the Puerto Rican restaurant Barrachina. The original Piña Colada was served over the rocks and also originates from Old San Juan, invented by bartender Ramón “Monchito” Marrero at the Caribe Hilton in 1954.
You can still get a Piña Colada at Barrachina, and you can order from a menu of Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo. My daughter honeymooned in Puerto Rico and fell in love with this local dish. Everyone agrees that mofongo has smashed plantains, but after that, each restaurant seems to have its own local version. At Barrachina, I had a mofongo topped with a chicken breast. It was served with the nearly ubiquitous mayo ketchup sauce.
At Barrachina, you can eat inside or on their lovely patio.
Pirilo Pizza Rustica
A local contact at the tourism board and a guide both suggested Pirolo Pizza Rustica as the best pizza in Old San Juan, and it did not disappoint. I had the 5 cheese pizza with some extra pepperoni, but the signature Pirilo pizza was also recommended to me, which, like so many dishes on the island, has plantains. Pirilo also has a second location in San Juan in the Ocean Park neighborhood by the beach.
El Balcon Del Moreno
In my quest for the best mofongo, I also ate near the tourist information center at El Balcon Del Moreno. I liked the presentation of this mofongo in the traditional dish that is used to smash the plantains, even if it did not rate in my top half for mofongo flavor.
The Cave near Plaza de Armas is a bright, cheery place and not at all cave-like. It is a Cuban restaurant. I had one of their lighter dishes from their tapas menu, which was a black bean and rice risotto. It was a very simple meal but also one of my favorite meals in the city. The Cave gets good reviews for its montaditos (small sandwiches with sweet and savory ingredients) or its fried garbanzo beans. The Cave also has a small cocktail menu.
El Patio De Sam
Sam’s Patio is a traditional Puerto Rican restaurant. This restaurant is located down the street from the most popular bars on Calle San Sebastián. Its front entrance looks out at Plaza San Juan and the monument to Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of San Juan. While Sam’s Patio is historic, it only dates back to 1945. The story goes that it was popular with U.S. servicemen stationed in San Juan during WWII who were there to protect the shipping in the area from German U-boats. With its quiet interior courtyard it was a nice alternative to the lively bars up the street.
It is a great place to order fried pork and tostones (fried plantains) with mayo ketchup (with adobo).
Deaverdura is one of the top-rated restaurants in old San Juan. It is a comfortable casual restaurant with engaging staff. When you sit down, they don’t hand you a menu but talk about different options you might be interested in. The restaurant is so well known for its vegan-friendly options that my local food tour guide thought it was a vegetarian restaurant. This is not complicated food, but a good example of local cuisine.
I ordered a rather simple but delicious meal of chicken with rice and beans. Instead of the fried plantains, which are prevalent in Puerto Rican cooking, Deaverdura offered fried breadfruit. It was interesting to try breadfruit. It tastes, stop me if you know what’s coming, like bread.
Casa Luna Rest
Casa Luna rest is a newer restaurant that is doing some dishes very traditionally but in a modern and colorful restaurant.
I had mofongo (fried plantains with garlic, onion, and butter), chicken criolla, rice and beans, and a Piña Colada cocktail. One thing that was different about this mofongo was that it was more of a mofongo kit. It was pieces of plantain served in a wooden motor and pestle. My table mates and I mashed our own plantains. It was an interesting experience, but frankly, for flavor, my favorites were the very tasty beans and chicken.
El Convento Hotel
I ate at the patio restaurant, which is one of two restaurants in the old convent turned hotel, El Convento across from the cathedral in Old San Juan. I was staying at the hotel, so I ate there partially just for convenience. The menu was more international, with dishes like risotto, pasta, and burgers, but the food was pretty good. I would have eaten there again if I had not been trying as many restaurants as possible. The service was a bit slow the night I was there, but to be fair, it was the day before Hurricane Fiona hit the island so things were a bit unusual all over the city.
Mercado La Carreta – Best Breakfast in Old San Juan
I was invited to eat at Mercado La Carreta as a guest of the local tourism board (they paid). After checking out their website, I chose to eat breakfast there and was not disappointed. Just up the steps from Plaza Barandilla, this light and airy restaurant sits on a corner with big open windows. It does not have outdoor dining, but it feels like it has outdoor dining when you sit at one of the tables right in the window.
I had the French toast combination from their brunch menu. It was half strawberry cheesecake french toast and half blueberries and cream cheese french toast. Oh my goodness, was this great! Get a side of bacon to have some salty to go with the sweet, and then plan on walking the city for hours to work off the calories.
The service was great. I thought I was getting extra special service from Jim, who was my waiter. He was chatting with me about other places to see in Old San Juan. It wasn’t until he brought over the bill that I realized he had no idea that I was getting sponsored by the tourism board. He just treats everyone as if they are a special guest.
Cafetería Mallorca – Puerto Rican Breakfast
For a low-frills traditional Puerto Rican breakfast, head down the steps from Mercado La Carreta to the other side of the Plaza Barandilla for Mallorca Cafe. In addition to the pancakes and eggs, you can treat yourself to a mallorca. This sweet bread sandwich was introduced to the island by a Spaniard from the Island of Mallorca, from which it derives its name.
A Mallorca is a sliced sweet bread sandwich that is buttered and filled with something like ham, egg, and cheese and then pressed and covered with powdered sugar. This seems like something made to have with your morning coffee, and they are traditionally eaten at breakfast. I almost ordered it without sugar, if such a thing is possible, but when in Old San Juan…
It was quite delicious. When my daughter was on the island for her honeymoon, they loved the mallorcas at La Bombonera, which is a block to the west, but I could not tell if La Bombonera is still in business as it was closed every time I walked by.
Café Cuatro Sombras
Café Cuatro Sombras is a coffeehouse that serves single-source Puerto Rican grown coffee. This is a farm-to-cup coffee experience and a chance to enjoy a good cup of Joe and also support the local farmers. The coffee comes from the Hacienda Santa Clara, which is owned by Pablo Muñoz and his wife, Mariana Suarez. The hacienda has been in the Muñoz family since 1846. The coffeehouse was opened in 2011.
In addition to a cup or a bag of coffee, you can also buy something sweet to start your day.
Anita for Gelato
To beat the Puerto Rican heat, what can be better than a scoop or two of gelato? That was a rhetorical question. Anita’s has some great flavors, both traditional flavors as well as some tropical fruit inspired ones.
La Factoria – Best-Known “Secret” Bar
La Factoria may be the best-known bar in Old San Juan. It anchors Calle San Sebastián, which is the party street in Old San Juan, but it is a bit tricky to find as it literally has no sign. It is a cocktail bar. It has been included in lists like the best 50 bars in the world. The surprises don’t end with the lack of a sign. Its unmarked location includes “secret passages” to 6 different bars with different drink menus. This is a bar that is going out of its way to be different. It is also the “only bar in Latin America to be named and/or nominated for the TOTC Spirited Award, TW50BB, and James Beard Award all in the same year (2018)”. So… something they are doing is definitely working for them.
Best Beer Bar – La Taberna Lúpulo
If you are more of a beer fan than a cocktail fan, then right across Calle San Sebastián from La Factoria is a bar that locals told me was their favorite beer bar, La Taberna Lúpulo. It features pub food and “50 taps and 150 bottles of the finest Belgian, English, German, and American Craft Beers.” On Saturday and Sunday mornings, they offer a hangover brunch that starts at 11 am.
To round out well-known bars on Calle San Sebastián, Mojito fans can pick up a $5 Mojito at El Cafetín, which is next door to La Taberna Lúpulo. They also offer a wide selection of house “chichaitos” (guava, coconut, and passion fruit).
Los Tres Cuernos
Los Tres Cuernos (The 3 horns) is a bar that is not up on Calle San Sebastián but was recommended to me by my waiter Jim at Mercado La Carreta. I subsequently learned that is a favorite bar among the locals of Old San Juan. This is a bar with lots of atmosphere. The walls are covered with dollar bills signed by previous patrons. It is known for well-priced drinks… so I guess people had money left over and decided to staple it to the walls.
Carli‘s Fine Bistro & Piano
For a lovely night out in San Juan, consider Carli‘s Fine Bistro & Piano, which is in the Art Deco Banco Popular de Puerto Rico building. This is an upscale restaurant which is reflected in the prices. You can come for a starter and a cocktail or a full dinner of pasta, risotto, seafood, or meat from their extensive menu.
The restaurant features live music. The night that I was there, this was in the form of a guitarist out on the patio instead of someone at the piano inside.
Flavors of San Juan Food Tour
One of the ways I discovered some of these great restaurants was the Flavors of San Juan food walking tour. I love a good food walking tour, especially if you can take one when you first get to town. Hurricane Fiona ruined my plans to do this tour first thing, but it was still fun. They introduced me to the following restaurants mentioned above:
First Stop: Cuatro Sombras
- Cortadito (macchiato coffee)
- Croissant with black forest ham, swiss cheese, and guava butter
Second Stop: Patio de Sam
- Fried meat with veggies & Tostones with mayo ketchup sauce
Third Stop: Casa Luna Rest.
- Mofongo (fried plantains with garlic, onion, and butter)
- Chicken criolla
- Rice and beans
- Piña Colada cocktail
Fourth Stop: Anita’s Gelato
Your tour may certainly varry from this itinerary. Along the way, our guide Marjorie Ana filled our heads with knowledge and with other great suggestions of places to each in Old San Juan.
My tour was paid for by Discover Puerto Rico, for which I am grateful.
Cocina Abierta – In Nearby Condado
One of my best dining experiences was not in Old San Juan, but a short Uber ride away at Cocina Abierta in the nearby Condado neighborhood. Thanks to Discover Puerto Rico for sponsoring this wonderful meal (they paid). I was surprised to learn that Puerto Rico imports 85% of everything they eat. Cocina Abierta is presenting a menu with just local ingredients in an effort to try to change that. They are also helping promote a local app for your cell phone called PRoduce!, which allows locals to buy farm-to-table.
Cocina Abierta has both inside and outside dining. It was raining the night I was there, so I opted for inside.
I visited Cocina Abierta shortly after Hurricane Fiona hit the island of Puerto Rico. The night I was there, they had a special menu to benefit local farmers who were affected by the storm. My dinner consisted of 4 courses.
1st course: “wild leaves” salad with tropical fruit vinaigrette, ausubal cheese, and candied nuts. A wonderful blend of sweet and sour flavors, but don’t pair it with a lavender and ginger beer mocktail. That was a rookie move on my part.
2nd course: tacos al pastor with oyster mushrooms for “meat,” star fruit pico de gallo, and breadfruit tacos. This was delightful. I ran out of soft tacos before I ran out of filling, but I did all but lick the dish.
3rd course: a pork mofongo (mashed plantains) with a ginger BBQ sauce and a mushroom consommé. I told my waiter that my search for the best mofongo may be over, but he actually prefers the mofongo on their normal menu, which has shredded duck inside and a Pekin duck sauce instead of BBQ.
Dessert was a pineapple tart with a coffee caramel sauce, white chocolate crumble, and a lemon sorbet. Just roll me out to my Uber, a happy man. The food scene in Old San Juan is great, but for people looking for a high-end dining experience, don’t overlook a trip to Condado, which has other great restaurants in addition to Cocina Abierta
San Juan is a great city for eating. Take a food tour. Go on a mofongo quest. Have your morning mofongo and enjoy your visit.
Read more about where to stay in Old San Juan in Digital Nomad Cities – work from Old San Juan Puerto Rico.
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