For a small country, the Bahamas has a lively culinary scene — from humble traditional dishes like “steam fish with peas 'n' rice” sold at casual beach shacks to sophisticated international fare at five-star resorts.
It’s anchored by ocean-fresh seafood, which is always on the menu, typically snapper, grouper, lobster and the reigning star, conch (pronounced “konk”). Synonymous with Bahamian comfort food, this marine mollusk is eaten steamed, grilled, “scorched” (chopped into bite-size pieces), “cracked” or frittered (battered and deep-fried), raw in a ceviche salad, swimming in a tomato-based chowder and even as a burger. Playing second fiddle is the Caribbean, or spiny, lobster, not to be confused with the Maine lobster. Unlike that cold-water cousin, it doesn’t have large edible claws or meat as soft and sweet. Still, at the start of lobster season, Aug. 1, many restaurants create special menus, most notably the three-course crustacean-based Lobster Fest at Ristorante Luciano’s of Chicago.
National specialties, as ubiquitous as beach sand, also include pan-cooked Johnnycake, a beloved Bahamian shortbread; souse, a meat-based stew; Bahamian stew fish, partially pan-fried catch of the day smothered in spicy red sauce; and for dessert, guava duff, spongy guava jam-spiraled pastry drizzled with butter rum sauce.
Speaking of rum, the national drink shows up in such classic cocktails as Goombay Smash (with pineapple juice and coconut water) and the fruity Bahama Mama, while classic Sky Juice is made with gin, coconut water andcondensed milk, of all things.
Apart from the Out Islands, where Bahamian soul food is a mainstay, you can try it at such non-touristy Nassau eateries as Nesbit’s or Bahama Grill. Saturday brunch is a treat at Le Petit Gourmet Cafe, especially if you have the guava cream cheese-stuffed French toast, or at the Doongalik Farmers Market.
Transforming traditional ingredients with an international twist, new chefs and restaurants may be turning Nassau/Paradise Island into the Caribbean’s next culinary hotspot. At Baha Mar, for example, conch shows up in master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi’s first Caribbean outpost. At the SLS’s Cleo, Bahamian ingredients make their way into one of Nassau’s first Mediterranean-inspired restaurants (think Israeli flavors and Syrian spices). James Beard Award-winner Michael Schwartz’s latest venture is the rustic Italian eatery Fi’lia.
One of the most popular restaurants in town is the Italian Cafe Matisse, with a charming garden patio. Overlooking the harbor in downtown, Lukka Kairi serves creative Bahamian dishes tapas style, such as cracked conch sliders and lobster mac and cheese. Wild Thymeoffers Bahamian fine dining in a recently renovated, historic Bahamian home.
Ways to save: Dine at the neighborhood take-outs where locals eat. Alternatively, cook what you catch, especially in the Out Islands. When you go fishing, ask one of the dock hands to clean and filet the fish for you. Just pay them a tip. Then ask your restaurant to cook it up. It doesn’t get fresher than that!
For in-demand restaurants, make a reservation on holiday weekends and during the peak season. Otherwise, booking a table is unnecessary.
Want to go really local? Every island in the Bahamas has a traditional fish fry — a laid-back social event where you can eat authentic Bahamian food, drink rum, listen to Caribbean music and meet locals. Carrying on a pre-Columbian tradition of grilling fresh seafood over an open fire, seaside stalls and pop-up restaurants have traded in fire pits for gas stoves and outdoor coal grills. The food is seasoned with the hot peppers and spices of the African Diaspora, with lime essential for fish. It’s always accompanied with starchy sides such as pigeon peas and rice, Bahamian baked macaroni, fried plantain, potato salad and coleslaw. Between the portion sizes and carb overload, this is stick-to-your-bones filling. Bring cash.
Nassau’s largest fish fry is at Arawak Cay. Its 30-plus food stalls and eateries are active every night, including classics like Goldie’s Conch House and Twin Brothers, Bahamian-Haitian fusion Oh Andros, and the modern standout, Frankie Gone Bananas. A few Out Islands notables include the Friday-night Fish Fry at Anchor Bay in Governor’s Harbour, Eleuthera, and the weekend Regatta Beach Fish Fry in New Bight, Cat Island — perfect for sunset watching and mingling with locals.