Despite its proximity to popular destinations like Saint Martins and Saint Barts, tourism in Anguilla only took off about twenty years ago, and, consequently, the restaurant scene there feels in its teenage years. Anguilla has about a dozen stand-alone establishments catering to both tourists and locals with creative menus, first-world standards of cleanliness, friendly service, and spectacular settings. However, we found the food, even within the same restaurant, to be inconsistent. This turns out to be the price of staying on an island without a slick tourism industry, and we happily paid it.
The best meal we had on the island was at our hotel, the Malliouhana. (If you ever go, order the unique and delicious “beans and greens” salad tossed with tahini.) The setting is spectacular, on a cliff overlooking Meades Bay, a beach that looks ripped out of a cheesy postcard of the Caribbean. To be fair, any ocean-side restaurant in Anguilla has by definition a spectacular setting. Every beach on the island is powdered sugar and aquamarine and untouched. A friend who saw my pictures asked if I had photo-shopped the colors; they are so brilliant, they are almost unreal.
Case in point, our next meal, at Jacala, on the sand at Meades Bay. Jacala is presided over by one of its French owners, a man who is remarkably high strung for someone running a beach restaurant. He was not pleased by Jake’s sandy appearance and sent us back outside to wash him off better. I decided not to be put off by this exercise; if the owner was picky, so much the better for the food prospects. And indeed, the meal was one of our better ones; my conch ceviche was delicious and thoroughly Caribbean. The highlight of the meal, however, came when a neighboring table ordered a whole fish carved table-side, and our adorable waitress brought my boys the fish’s head. Her name was Charmz (I did not make that up; I am not that good), and she regaled Max and Jake with stories of how delicious fish head is. In the end, she talked them into eating not just the meat in the head, but the eyes, one eye each. I have since learned that, although Anguillans do enjoy fish heads, even they generally skip the eyes. It makes one wonder what else a pretty girl will talk my kids into in the next decade.
In typical Anguillan fashion, we ran into Charmz again the next day on the other side of the island having lunch with a friend. She ran around on the beach with the boys, helping them find shells. At one point, when Jake was being particularly obnoxious, she looked at me with a smile and said “that chile is life!” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and bang my head on the table and beg her to come home with us.
Our fanciest meal was at Blanchards, the first free-standing upscale restaurant on Anguilla (but of course “fancy” is a relative term on Anguilla). I had read A Trip to the Beach by Melinda Blanchard, which tells the story of how the author and her husband made and executed on the incredibly ballsy decision to open Blanchards in 1994, when tourism on the island was still in its infancy. Both the book and the restaurant are heartfelt; the Blanchards clearly love Anguilla and its people. However, if you ever find yourself daydreaming that you would enjoy opening a restaurant on an island in the Caribbean, I highly recommend picking her book up. Among other obstacles, you will discover that every ingredient and supply shipped or brought to a British island in the middle of nowhere has to go through customs, which may or may not operate more quickly than thousands of dollars of wine turns sour in the tropical heat. As for dinner, Mark’s jerk shrimp was delicious, my lobster ravioli was homemade but not particularly tasty, and it was pretty pricey. I had some sympathy for the prices, though, after reading the book.
Our favorite date night started at Sand Bar, a restaurant which serves a menu of small plates in the middle of Sandy Ground, a beach town sitting on, you guessed it, a large sand bar. Most such tropical towns are infested by Senor Frogs and tee shirt shops; this one is perfection. There are some arty shops, a few restaurants, and a couple of beach bars, the main port of the island on one side and a salt pond on the other. I imagine it is how Cabo San Lucas or Cancun felt in the old days, when rum-runners rubbed shoulders with tax evaders and disenchanted society girls, when anything could happen and it was actually possible to lose yourself in these islands. After dinner, we walked down the beach to Elvis’s, a perfect beach bar with a sixteen-foot boat for a bar. Elvis’s is the kind of place where locals mingle with tourists and the yacht crowd, which pulls into the harbor for the night. I cannot imagine a more perfect Caribbean evening.
But by far the most memorable dining experience was lunch at Scilly Cay. In case you ever want to go, here are the directions: Drive to Island Harbor, a fishing village on the eastern end of Anguilla. Walk to the end of the pier and wave. Wait. You will start to see activity on Scilly Cay, a very small island a couple hundred yards away. You will be confused as to whether or not the activity has anything to do with your wave, but you will wait on the pier anyway because your taxi cab has left and you are not sure what else to do. Eventually, you will see a small boat row in your direction. The driver of that boat will smile and help you on board but provide no assurances as to where you are going. You will get on board anyhow and not ask questions because you will start to have an odd feeling that whatever happens is meant to be. The boat will indeed take you to Scilly Cay, where you will wander off the boat and into the only covered structure on the island. You will be greeted by “Gorgeous”, an older Anguillan man who appears slightly out of it at first, but turns out to be both a real charmer and very sharp. “Chicken or lobster?” You will answer “lobster” and “rum punch”, and then you will wander around until you find a table in some kind of shade. You will quickly realize that you probably should only have one of Gorgeous’s rum punches.
Scilly Cay is the most unique of the restaurants we ate at while visiting Anguilla, but it is also a perfect example of what makes each restaurant on the island so special. It feels like a tropical dream, eating lobster, feet in the sand, under a palapa, in the middle of a clear sun-soaked sea teaming with fish. At one point, we realized our waiter was showing the kids how to build a track in the sand and race hermit crabs. The boys decided the waiter was their new best friend and followed him into the kitchen to see how the lobsters were cooked. No one seemed in the least bit phased. I sipped my beer (for real, you should only have one of those rum punches) and tried to convince myself that it was all really happening. The moment was perfect without being manufactured in any way.
In retrospect, that is how I felt about all the restaurants on Anguilla. It was not the food but the experience I feel in love with. Dining at each one felt like stepping back in time to when a traveler could pull his or her boat up to a tropical island and eat fish with the locals, to when the Caribbean “look and feel” just happened organically. The restaurants, like everything else on this island, exude love and pride and beauty and specialness. And, really, for what else do we travel?