Aruba Restaurant Highlights


My mom and my two sisters and I recently spent a week in Aruba for research. No, you didn't misread that. We went to hot, sunshine-filled Aruba and spent days working on our tans, reading books for fun, playing cards, and filling up on grouper for research.

My family has been thinking for years about "skipping Christmas" and heading off to a warm, sunny island, but we always wait until the last minute and it doesn't come together. This year, we're trying to get on top of the planning.

Since we're all pretty familiar with Aruba, we figured that would be the island to head to. So we were there to look into some houses that might be available to rent during Christmas. The houses are in residential areas rather than along the beach where we're used to staying, and we soon realized that this could make a big difference in how much everyone might enjoy the trip.

I know it sounds a little strange to be saying we couldn't enjoy fun in the sun if we weren't in a familiar spot, but you know how you can get so familiar with a place that there are certain things you're accustomed to doing there? That's how it is for us. We're used to heading to Smokey Joe's for dinner the day we arrive (and it's just across the street from Playa Linda, where we normally stay). We're used to waking at the crack of dawn and heading down to the beach (just behind Playa Linda) to secure a chickie for the day. We're used to walking around the little shops on the main drag, strolling over to Maggy's to get pedicures, or stopping in to Taste of Belgium for a chocolate lava cake or two.

Chickie 38 at Playa Linda, Aruba

As we looked into and talked about houses, we realized that we wouldn't be able to do those things so easily. With a potential group of 10, we'd need two to three cars to get us all to the beach or to restaurants. It hit all of us at the same time that maybe this wouldn't be the right thing. So our research trip didn't have the intended outcome but it was worth the research. We figured out that trekking everyone down there wouldn't result in the vacation we were looking for (and it was fun to have a girls' week in the sun). So it's back to the drawing board on the holiday trip planning.

Sunset at Playa Linda, Aruba

But, having done all that "research," I have some Aruba restaurant highlights to share with you. I've learned a lot and come a long way since my disappointment with the Aruba dining scene on my first visit. I've since found some worthwhile spots that I definitely recommend checking out.

Aruba Restaurant Highlights

Best Spots for Snacks and Casual Meals

Smokey Joe's

Smokey Joe's is our go-to-spot for grabbing dinner on the day we arrive. Shrimp on the barbie is a must order for me. My sister Martyann usually goes for wings or barbecued chicken and cheese fries (the cheese fries are really good). My mom likes the ribs. And my sister Lindsay gets the fish and chips. There are tons of Island-y drinks on the menu too. And the bar area is great for watching sports, like UConn, my alma mater, in the Final Four or the Boston Bruins in the playoffs -- depending what time of year you go. On this recent visit we tried some pastechies for the first time. We got one of each kind of the flaky pastries, and while the chicken and beef ones were OK, we all agreed that we'd be ordering the Dutch Gouda cheese ones again.

Pastechies at Smokey Joe's, ArubaShrimp on the barbie at Smokey Joe's, Aruba

The Pelican Nest Seafood Grill

Two words: Gary's Delight. This is a platter of lightly battered, fried grouper bites. They are hot, fresh, and delicious. We ate at the grill one afternoon and then got the grouper bites to go another afternoon. We brought them back to our chickie and made little fish nachos with the bites, some tortillas, and some guacamole that Martyann made. Best island lunch.

Best Spot to Grab a Steak

El Gaucho

I'd been to El Gaucho on my first two Aruba trips, and we were all wishy-washy about whether we were going to go on this trip. Not because it's not good but because it's a little difficult to get to. We headed out one evening intending to have dinner at another restaurant and after lots of driving back and forth, eventually finding the restaurant, learning that they were out of the one dish we really wanted to try, and making an exit, we headed back in the direction of our hotel and ended up deciding to drive around and find El Gaucho. Long story short, we found it and stayed for dinner. We shared an amazing bottle of Catena Malbec and ate lots of Argentine meat. The El Gaucho steak is a specialty and my mom and sisters got that. I chose the Argentine platter this time for a little something different. It came with tenderloin, pork sausage, ribs, pork loin, and beef short ribs. The pork loin actually stole the show. The meals come with three sides and the broccoli with garlic and the smashed red potatoes (which they were unfortunately out of) are not to be missed.

El Gaucho steak at El Gaucho, ArubaArgentine platter at El Gaucho, Aruba

Best Spots for a Nice Night Out

Madame Janette

Madame Janette is my mom's favorite spot on the island and she's introduced all of us to it. In the past we've gone a little later in the year and been able to get the many asparagus specials when it's in season. We were a little too early for asparagus this year, but my mom and Lindsay got the other favorite dish: almond grouper (plus sides of potatoes au gratin and creamed spinach). I went with something a little different and tried the coconut shrimp with Thai red curry. It came with pineapple rice and was a nice sweet and savory dish. Martyann got the pork tenderloin schnitzel, which came in a very generous portion, covering her plate and hanging over the sides.

Almond grouper at Madame Janette, ArubaCoconut shrimp at Madame Janette, Aruba


My sisters and I decided to surprise my mom with an early birthday dinner while we were on the island and booked a table at Barefoot for the dinner-on-the-beach, feet-in-the-sand experience. It was an excellent choice. We could look out on the beach and watch the sun setting over the water right from our table. Our waiter was incredibly friendly, offering to take as many pictures for us as we needed. (He even knew how to operate my Canon Rebel.)

Sunset at Barefoot, Aruba

My mom and I split the seafood ragout for an appetizer and were impressed right off the bat. The ragout featured a mixture of seafood in a creamy sauce all contained in puff pastry. We loved it. Lindsay and I both got the grouper romana for our meals. The grouper came on a bed of pasta tossed in a tomato sauce with olives and capers and was topped with Parmesan cheese. Martyann went off menu and got a caesar salad with chicken (she's not a fan of fish), and my mom tried the chicken and pineapple (a mixture of the two namesake ingredients and vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce). We were all really happy with our choices and decided Barefoot would be added to the list of restaurants we would return to (it's in good company with Madame Janette, El Gaucho, The Pelican Nest, Smokey Joe's, and Taste of Belgium).

Seafood ragout at Barefoot, ArubaGrouper romana at Barefoot, Aruba

Best Spot for Dessert

Taste of Belgium

And I saved the best for last. Taste of Belgium is our favorite dessert spot, and we went twice on this trip. It's all about the moulleux, a decadent lava cake made with dark Belgian chocolate and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. You need to order it and be prepared to wait a little bit for it. A specialty coffee, such as the one we tried with ponche crema can help pass the time. And if you're not a chocolate fan or you want another dessert too, we discovered that the gaufre de liege is also well worth ordering. It's a  sugar waffle topped with strawberries. The waffle gets this nice crunch from the sugar. And the strawberries are even better dipped in the chocolate lava. It's like the desserts are meant to be ordered and eaten together. The lava cakes are small but decadent, and I'd suggest one per person (or maybe per two people if you're not that hungry, but you might be sorry you didn't order your own).

Moulleux at Taste of Belgium, ArubaMoulleux at Taste of Belgium, Aruba

Specialty coffee with ponche crema at Taste of Belgium, ArubaGaufre de liege at Taste of Belgium, Aruba

OK, so those are my Aruba highlights. Don't miss these spots if you head down there.

Have you been to Aruba before? What's your favorite island to vacation on?