There are certain places—show-stopping hotels, Award-winning restaurants or local dive bars, incomparable vintage shops—that are worth planning your whole trip around. The restaurant Santaella in San Juan, Puerto Rico is one of those places.
Relying on a melting pot of influences—Spanish, African, Taíno (Native American), and French to name but a few—Puerto Rican cuisine has a rich history that is being made richer still by a host of new chefs that are experimenting with contemporary takes on traditional dishes. Jose Santaella is one such Chef, who provides an authentic but elevated taste of Puerto Rico at his trendy namesake restaurant in the hip San Juan neighborhood of Santurce.
Chef Santaella, a San Juan native, is committed to using the highest quality local and organic ingredients—no small feat in a region that imports over 80 percent of its food. He regularly sources from a marketplace across the street (one of the last of its traditional kind in the city), and after Hurricane Maria hit last year, expanded his supplier network to include sustainable and organic farms across the island as part of World Central Kitchen’s #ChefsForPuertoRico movement. The dishes on offer at his restaurant put local and traditional ingredients—seafood, plantains, tropical fruits—front and center while adding unexpected (and delicious) twists to showcase his international experience. Quesadillas are made with goat cheese and trickled with truffle oil, and salmon is cooked with an Asian-inspired glaze and served on a bed of local vegetables.
Why it’s worth traveling for: While recovery efforts after last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria have been slow—it took until August of this year to restore power to the whole population—most restaurants and hotels in San Juan have now reopened and are actively looking for business. Tourism is an essential industry, accounting for 10% of Puerto Rico’s GDP, and by supporting a locally-owned business like Santaella that is dedicated to supporting sustainable agriculture, you’ll be supporting the island’s recovery while enjoying a meal to remember where only the freshest and most flavorful ingredients make it onto your plate. It’s a win-win.
You’ll like it here if: You have an eye for interiors. The space was designed by world-renowned Puerto Rican architectural firm Toro Arquitectos, and features a lush tropical garden sitting in a glass box that runs the width of the restaurant. Edison Bulbs dangle from the ceiling and rich, wood tables are littered with candles and tiny, potted succulents.
The price: Roughly $160 for dinner for two (including drinks and dessert).
The crowd: Well-heeled locals and expats who are there to enjoy an evening, not just a meal.
What should you bring or wear? How do you prepare? Feel free to dress up—heels, dresses, and button-up shirts won’t look out of place.
Any pro-tips? Leave room for dessert because at Santaella, dessert is not an afterthought. There are often ten-plus options on offer, many of which are served with homemade ice cream.
What else should you do around the area? Santaella sits in Santurce, a vibrant San Juan neighborhood that can still be considered slightly off-the-beaten path. Take some time before dinner to wander Calle Loiza—known as San Juan’s “Avenue of the Arts”—and enjoy the murals and street art that color the buildings and storefronts. After your meal, cross over to ‘La Placita,’ a hundred-year-old plaza that hosts a traditional farmer’s market in the day and comes to life at night—with live music and salsa dancing spilling out from the many bars into the streets. There’s no shortage of options, but we’d recommend Jungle Bird, a tiki-esque bar that serves inventive (and inventively-named) cocktails.