The St. John Dining Paradox: Mellow Elegance, Intense Flavors

St. John's dining scene offers a lovely paradox: even the finest eateries offer a mellow, relaxed atmosphere where jackets and ties are not only not required, but not even part of the vocabulary (who would want to wear a jacket in the heat anyway?) However, the casual attitude does not extend to the food itself, whose flavors are serious indeed – seriously vivid, intense and exciting.

Flavor, flair and even fire are words that can easily be used to describe the food on St. John, an island where dining is the second most popular activity after going to the beach. Seafood is the common denominator at the top 10 restaurants on the island, but that's where the similarities end. Each eatery has its own signature style and niche, whether it be the French-Asian fusion at Asolare, "neo-Caribbean" at Morgan's Mango, or nouveau-Malaysian at Fatty Crab (bet you've never had pickled watermelon served atop a chunk of crispy pork before. Didn't think so).

Though unusual combinations excite, there's also a strong streak of traditionalism. Zozo's and Cafe Roma both pride themselves on their command of the Italian language of cuisine – with one offering northern Italian in an elegant seaside setting, and the other offering hearty pizzas and lasagna in a lively trattoria-style dining room.

All the eateries mentioned above are centered in Cruz Bay, but St. John's great food also extends to Coral Bay and beyond. Aqua Bistro excels at American and Mediterranean classics, while it's worth making the trek to Shipwreck Landing just for the curry nut crusted grouper.


As the name suggests, this family-owned restaurant is one of the best places in Cruz Bay for fresh fish. At least six fresh fish specials are offered each night. The list is drawn up just before opening to ensure diners receive the day's freshest catch. Typical choices include salmon, wahoo, swordfish, snapper, shark, mahi-mahi and escolar. Juicy steaks, chicken and pasta dishes round out the menu. Be sure to try Fish Trap chowder: snapper, white wine and a melange of spices go into this creamy stew. The house special dessert is the sumptuous coconut cake with rum caramel sauce. Smart casual. Reservations necessary for parties of six or more.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: Fish is St. John's specialty, and The Fish Trap really knows how to serve it up right.

Karen's expert tip: Before you go out to the patio for your dinner, stop for a drink in the mahogany bar. The walls feature a mural hand-painted by a local artist.

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Fatty Crab
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt

This sleek, chic eatery specializes in Malaysian/Indonesian-inspired food. Monday through Saturday the dinner menu includes innovative appetizers and signature entrees such as crab ramen, watermelon pickle and crispy pork, Indonesian fried rice, and yellow curry chicken. The open-air layout and crisp bamboo design make for an exciting, inviting night. The drinks are as innovative as the food and include the Chupacabra (tequila, chili, watermelon, pineapple and lime) and the fatty Manhattan (small batch bourbon, smoked cherry syrup and vermouth). Wine is also available by the glass. On "smoke-out Sundays" the brunch menu features breakfast classics with a twist, like flapjacks with creme fraiche batter, smoked maple-blackstrap syrup, and chili-maple bacon.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: Fatty Crab is unique among St. John restaurants for its unusual menu and sleek design.

Karen's expert tip: Fatty Crab originated in New York City, where there are two branches.

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Shipwreck Landing
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt

This large, friendly waterfront bar/restaurant draws a combination of local boaties and snowbirds and visitors staying in nearby villas. They come for the hearty menu of burgers, seafood dishes and creative cocktails. You'll want to try house specialties such as the excellent conch fritters, the grilled mahi-mahi, or the curry nut crusted grouper. (Lunch and dinner menus differ slightly.) Blender drinks are also a specialty here: try the Shipwreck Shake or the Bushwhacker. There is live music most weekends and on Wednesday nights after the locals get back in from afternoon sailboat races. Like St. John itself, Shipwreck is open-air and very casual - you can wear your flip-flops and shorts, even at dinner.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: The open-air design, ocean view and tasty seafood entrees make Shipwreck favorite for a mellow island evening.

Karen's expert tip: The building is made from local, hand-cut stone.

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Aqua Bistro
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt

This relaxed Coral Bay eatery offers fine American and Mediterranean food in a casual atmosphere. Fish, pasta, soups, salads, sandwiches, steaks and pizza comprise the extensive menu. Favorites include the flatbread pizza, jerk chicken sandwich, crab and tomato bisque, and parmesan-crusted grouper. There is a large kids menu, and nightly specials such as ponzu tuna on Friday and prime rib on Wednesday. In season there is music on Friday night from 5:30 to 8:30 and Sundays 3:30 to 6:30, which you can listen to while you eat or slurp an exotic fruity cocktail. The Key Lime martini is to die for. Happy hour is Monday through Friday 4pm - 6pm.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: Relaxed yet upscale, Aqua Bistro offers excellent seafood and a quintessential St. John experience.

Karen's expert tip: Aqua Bistro is one of the "official" venues for the annual St. John Blues Festival.

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This casual Italian eatery offers trattoria-style cuisine, a full bar and a vast wine selection. Traditional favorites like seafood manicotti, veal Marsala, fettucine alfredo, and chicken Parmesan are on the menu, as well as more than 20 vegetarian options. The pizzas are excellent - try the white pizza for something different. Italian wines are sold by the bottle or by the glass. The lively dining room, which features a beautiful wall mural, is located on the second floor of a building that sits right in the heart of Cruz Bay. Casual to smart-casual attire. Reservations accepted. NOTE: Cafe Roma closed in April 2013 due to a devastating fire, but is scheduled to reopen in November 2013.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: Cafe Roma's buzzy atmosphere and hearty Italian staples earn it a spot on this list.

Karen's expert tip: The mango-passion fruit cheesecake is must-try dessert.

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Morgan's Mango
Photo courtesy of Karen Elowitt

This "neo-Caribbean" restaurant features a uniquely delicious seafood-heavy menu food with a West Indian- Latin twist. Dive right in with an appetizer of Anegada crab and lobster cakes, Barbados flying fish, or quesadillas with skirt steak and brie. If you still have room in your stomach try a main course such as the Haitian "voodoo" snapper roasted with Cajun spices, the mahi-mahi with Cruzan rum and mango sauce, or Poppas Pickapepper Jamaican steak. Another good bet - whether you are vegetarian or not - is the veggie platter. Black beans and fried plantains are served with fresh green salad, sweet potatoes, rice, and an ear of corn. Try the mango-banana pie for dessert, or one of the 30 frozen bar drinks. Casual to smart-casual attire.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: Morgan's Mango is a favorite because of its unique "neo-Caribbean" food and fancy frozen drinks.

Karen's expert tip: Two fresh soups are made every day.

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This stylish street-side restaurant offers a taste of Spain in the heart of Cruz Bay. The ever-changing menu includes starters such as hearty gazpacho, boquerones, and seared foie gras with grape-gewurztraminer compote. Main courses are heavy on fish and steak and include Basque-style grilled local yellowtail snapper, linguine tossed with shrimp, lobster, chanterelle mushrooms, eggplant, and paella for two. You'll kick yourself if you miss the incomparable tarte tatin with calvados ice cream for dessert, or the chocolate truffle cake with carajillo ice cream. Naturally, there is an excellent wine list, and if you dine on a Monday, your meal will be accompanied by live jazz.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: Creative, authentic European food is what makes La Tapa an island favorite year after year.

Karen's expert tip: Though you won't get a view of the ocean here, you can request outdoor sidewalk seating if you want to feel the pulse of Cruz Bay.

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Caneel Bay Resort's Equator restaurant (formerly the Sugar Mill), specializes in Caribbean fusion cuisine with a modern twist. Served adjacent to an 18th century sugar mill, diners can see the grounds and the ocean from their perch in the terrace dining room. For starters, try the jerk-spiced crab cakes served with a roasted yellow pepper sauce – simply divine. The authentic Caribbean callaloo soup is another wonderful choice. Traditional entrees like grilled veal chops are available for your main course, or you can go exotic and try the pumpkin melange or tuna with lemongrass. Attire is smart-casual to dressy. Reservations are required.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: An elegant restaurant inside an elegant resort is the recipe for a great dinner.

Karen's expert tip: Be sure to order a side salad, since all greens are grown locally on the island.

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The name of this elegant, open-air St. John restaurant means "a leisurely passing of time without purpose." Diners are encouraged to start with drinks as they soak in the beautiful sunset vistas over Cruz Bay. When it's time to order, start with the excellent pork spring roll appetizer or silky prawn and coconut milk soup. For dinner, sample the sashimi tuna served on a hot plate with plum sake vinaigrette, or chicken in yellow curry sauce. But menu items change every night, so who knows what delicacies you'll find on the menu when you're there! Attire is smart-casual to dressy and reservations are highly recommended. Located next to the Estate Lindholm Bed and Breakfast.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: If the food doesn't knock you out, the cocktails, sunsets and warm service at Asolare will.

Karen's expert tip: Save room for the house special dessert, the chocolate pyramid cake, which has homemade vanilla ice cream at its center.

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Classic northern Italian cuisine is on the menu at this popular restaurant, located at Gallows Point Resort. The menu changes four or five times a year, but you can usually find staples like veal scallopini and eggplant Parmesan, plus unique creations such as Caribbean lobster fradiavolo and osso bucco with saffron rice. For starters, try the squid ink fettucine, calamari with pesto aioli or smoked duck sausage with gorgonzola polenta. If you have time before your meal, head upstairs to Jax Bar and enjoy one of the best sunsets in the Caribbean while you sip a cocktail or a glass of vino. Not surprisingly, the wine list is excellent and tends toward Italian, but also includes selections from around the world. Attire is smart-casual and reservations are suggested.

Recommended for St. John's Best Restaurants because: Authentic Italian food, a knockout wine list and stunning views make Zozo's a winner.

Karen's expert tip: Zozo's is moving to Caneel Bay Resort on November 1, 2013.

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Meet Karen Elowitt

Karen worked for several years as a newspaper reporter and copy editor before becoming a travel writer. She worked for renowned  travel expert Peter Greenberg before going freelance, and now...  More About Karen