It’s always exciting traveling to a new destination. The opportunity to explore a new city and experience the local culture is always a rush. However, after that initial burst of wonder fades inevitably one of the first questions on our lips is: Where are we going to eat?

One of the best parts of any vacation is having the opportunity to sample the local cuisine. The culinary art varies widely from region to region and patronizing local eateries – rather than eschewing them for familiar American chain restaurants – is something every traveler, no matter how unsophisticated their palette, should do.

Okay, so you’ve made the decision to skip the Outback Steakhouse and try a strange new restaurant. New problem: Which one? One of the reasons many travelers opt for the big chain restaurants is because they know what to expect from them. They can rely on getting a tasty, if unspectacular, meal. By choosing a random restaurant on the street one gives up that assurance of a good meal. With only a limited number of dining out opportunities it is understandable that people don’t want to risk a bad experience on what essentially amounts to throwing a dart while blindfolded.

Compounding the problem is the sheer number of choices facing those who would take a risk and try something new. In Puerto Vallarta you can’t travel a stone’s throw without passing a restaurant, cafe, smoothie shop or taqueria. One can spend hours wandering the streets, checking out the menus, trying to decide which restaurant looks better than the rest.

Having recently returned from Puerto Vallarta I can personally attest to this problem. Luckily we had arrived armed with recommendations from friends and family who are frequent travelers to the city. Those suggestions, combined with some research of our own and some conversations with locals, helped ensure we never had a bad meal during our stay. Now that I’m back I’d like to pass that valuable information along. Now, this list of restaurants is hardly comprehensive. There are so many choices in P.V. that you could eat a different place every night for a year and still not come close to trying all of them. With that in mind, here are my picks for some of the best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta:


Breakfast

To be honest, I’m not a big breakfast guy. I’m just as happy grabbing a couple of bananas and a handful of peanuts and getting on with exploring. That said, I can appreciate that most people like to sit down and have a nice meal to start their day. Here are a couple of standout restaurants where you can break your fast in style:

The Pancake House

For decades this legendary breakfast spot was known as Memo’s Pancake House. However, these days the owner (Memo) has dropped his name from the sign, and the place is now known simply as The Pancake House. There is usually a line-up to get in (a good sign for a restaurant), but the wait generally isn’t very long and once you get your meal you’ll be glad you sacrificed the extra few minutes of your day.

The back part of the restaurant is the nicest spot if you can get a table there. Tropical plants abound and it feels like you are eating in a lush garden. The service is prompt and friendly, despite the fact that the place is usually packed.

The food was delicious. My dad has been going to Puerto Vallarta for fifteen years and never had a bad meal there. I couldn’t resist with the Banana Pecan Waffle, which arrived covered in whipped cream – a decadent treat that more closely resembled a dessert than a meal. If you have a sweet tooth I highly recommend giving this tasty dish a try.

My wife opted for the Eggs Benedict and she enjoyed hers immensely as well. Other dishes on the menu include a variety of other waffles, crepes and pancakes, of course. Eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and all the other usual breakfast staples are there as well, including Rancheros Huevos if you are looking for breakfast food with a more local flavor. The fruit garnishing the dishes is fresh and plentiful and no matter what you order you won’t walk away from the table hungry.

The Pancake House can be found on Badillo in Zone Romantica, just a few blocks from the beach.

Freddy’s Toucan

A few blocks closer to the beach, again on Badillo, is another great breakfast spot that certainly gives Memo’s place a run for its money. Bright and colorful with tantalizing aromas, the restaurant practically grabs you by the nose and drags you through the doors. Before you realize your stomach has hijacked you you’ll find yourself seated with menu in hand, wondering what just happened.

Thirsty? Start out with the jumbo orange juice. Unlike restaurants back home where ordering a “large” juice gets you what amounts to a tall shot glass, at Freddy’s you can almost fit your head inside the fishbowl of glass your OJ arrives in. Also, unlike back home, this stuff didn’t come out of a carton. It is fresh squeezed and tastes just like sticking a straw into the top of an orange. Delicious!

Though I know I preached trying different things at the opening to this article I am ashamed to say I got the Banana Pecan Waffle again. I just couldn’t resist! As you can see, the presentation of my breakfast this time around was a work of art. While the waffle itself wasn’t quite as good as the one at Memo’s, and there were less pecans the whipped cream more than made up for it. At first it seemed like a disappointingly small dollop, but it was so thick that my fork literally stood up in it. A little went a long way and I still had whipped cream left after the waffle, bananas and pecans disappeared.

If that doesn’t sound sweet enough for you then try the black forest pancakes. My mother-in-law ordered those and they were pure chocolate decadence with plenty of strawberry goodness to boot.


Lunch

Lunch is something of an awkward meal while traveling. Usually you are right in the middle of doing something interesting when the growlies strike and you opt for something quick and easy so you can get back to the fun with a minimum of interruption. Thankfully, Puerto Vallarta offers a plenitude of such options so you needn’t resort to hitting McDonald’s.

Lunch is the perfect time for hitting one of the literally hundreds of roadside taquerias you’ll find throughout the city. Whether you like chicken, beef, fish or shrimp you can find a taco to suit your taste. A little hungrier? Try a quesadilla or a burrito. Any of the above choices come with cheese, veggies and salsa fresca. Not only are they tasty, but they are cheap too. Depending on your hunger level a meal will generally run you between 12 and 60 pesos (between $1 and $5).

If you’ve really got a big appetite then grab a half a chicken. Every couple of blocks you can find them cooking chickens over a rotisserie. Roughly 50 pesos will get you half a bird, along with a generous helping of potatoes, some green chiles, and a pouch of tortilla shells to wrap it all up in.

Langosta Loca

If you are only in the mood for a snack then go find Langosta Loca. Right down on the beach in Zona Romantica, these guys cook up delicious shrimp and marlin skewers on the grill. Grab one each, add some salt and lime and you’re good to go. You’ll see vendors walking around selling these skewers on the beach, but if you want them hot and fresh then go right to the source. So delicious. I only regret I didn’t eat more of these during my stay πŸ™‚

If you are really brave (My wife was. Me, not so much.) they also sell fresh caught raw oyster. They sell them by the dozen, for about ten bucks, but Denise managed to convince them to sell her three for 30 pesos. They are extremely large, and though they look slimy and disgusting she assures me they are super tasty. I took her word for it, but still declined to verify it myself.

Though we only ever tried the skewers Langosta Loca also has a full menu. Their beach location is prime, so if you are looking for a sit-down meal rather than a grab and go lunch then this is a great spot.

Sea Monkey

Much like real estate, when it comes to eating out, sometimes it is all about location, location, location. If you are looking for a spot right on the beach to grab a bite and enjoy a few cervezas or margaritas then Sea Monkey is a great option.

With thatch palapas on the sand you can get out of Puerto Vallarta’s blistering sun for a bit while you eat. It is a great place to people-watch as there is a steady stream of locals and tourists alike wandering past on the boardwalk. They do have a full menu, but we stuck with their snack food, which was plenty for us. Just check out the size of these onion rings! They also have really good chicken wings, available in spicy, extra spicy and insane.

To be honest, the food here is really just a bonus. Most come here for the view and for the cheap drinks. Those cervezas and margaritas I mentioned above are only a buck apiece! If you are looking to enjoy a lazy afternoon then whiling away a couple of hours here getting a good buzz on is a nice way to do it.

Note, if you are over on the Malecon then Sea Monkey also has a sister restaurant called Cheeky Monkey. It has a similar menu, the same drink deals and a great view of both the boardwalk and the ocean.

Cafe Roma

Sadly, we didn’t discover this gem until our last full day in Puerto Vallarta, but we’ll definitely be returning on our next visit to the city. Located on Encinos, right by the river market, this second floor restaurant is easy to miss. However, those who do manage to stumble across it are treated to some of the best thin crust pizza they will ever taste.

Though we generally tried to keep our lunches light we broke that rule at Cafe Roma. We started off with a delicious appy of coconut crusted onion rings, then got down to business, delving into their signature pizzas. I love fresh pineapple, so always tend to order the Hawaiian at pizza joints when traveling in tropical locales. Our waiter recommended the Meat Lover’s, and suggested I could get a half and half Meat Lover`s/Hawaiian at no extra charge, so I went with that option. My wife and her mom decided to split the shrimp pizza.

While we waited for our food we sipped on ice cold beverages. The beer was the coldest I`d encountered in P.V. and before I knew it I had three empty Pacifico bottles sitting in front of me. Musicians wandered through the restaurant, entertaining patrons, and we shelled out to have a three piece band serenade our table with a “happy song”.

Even more entertaining than the musicians were the wait staff. They were not just friendly, but engaging and funny as well. They told us stories, cracked jokes, and even brought around free tequila shots for the table, posing for a few goofy photos in the process.

The pizza arrived and it was every bit as good as advertised. The thin crust was crisp and buttery and the toppings were plentiful and tasty. The waiter was right. The Meat Lover`s was to die for. With the onion rings and three beers in my belly I was quickly stuffed but I kept soldiering on, alternating between slices of Hawaiian and Meat Lover`s until nary a crumb remained on my plate.

The food was delicious, the restaurant and its washrooms were immaculate, and the service was top notch. Definitely hit this place early on in your vacation, because I promise it will be a spot you`ll want to return to.

Note, that even though I have it listed under my lunch selections, Cafe Roma is open until 10:00 PM, so it is a great choice for dinner as well.

Farmer’s Market

If you happen to be in Puerto Vallarta on a Saturday then go check out the local farmer’s market. There are rows upon rows of local farmers and bakers sampling their wares and the quality of the food is excellent.

Inside a small pavilion there are a number of restaurants offering a taste of their menu for a negligible cost. This is an excellent way not only to enjoy a varied meal but also get an idea of which restaurants you’d like to try for dinner later.

If you spot these two then definitely make a point of stopping and trying out their products. Carlos and Lisa sell locally farmed peanuts, natural peanut butter and a chocolate-peanut butter spread they call Peanutella that will appeal to all those Reese Peanut Butter Cup fans out there.

Their peanuts come in sweet, salted and spicy varieties and all three are delicious. We grabbed a half kilo bag of the sweet peanuts. They were so good I had to stop myself from continually grabbing “just one more handful”. I don’t think my wife got very many before the bag was gone. Oh well, she can have her oysters. I’ll stick with the peanuts πŸ™‚


Supper

Ah, the big meal of the day. Though at breakfast and lunch most of us will happily make do with a bagel, a smoothie or a sandwich, when it comes to supper we want to treat ourselves. Delicious food, great ambiance and good service are all important.

With dozens of restaurants on the Malecon alone, not to mention the hundreds more liberally peppered throughout Puerto Vallarta’s maze of streets, choosing one can be a daunting task. Again, we only sampled a small percentage, but here are four of the best supper restaurants we tried during our time in Puerto Vallarta:

Polo’s

If you love seafood then this is the place for you. In fact, those who don’t enjoy the bounty of the ocean will have a difficult time finding anything to eat here, as they offer only a couple of dishes that don’t involve fish.

That said, if you going for supper at Polo’s it is probably because you’ve been told by a local or frequent visitor that this is the place to go for seafood in Puerto Vallarta, so the dearth of other options on the menu probably isn’t an issue.

In your mind’s eye you are probably picturing a large, expensive beachfront restaurant, but Polo’s is actually relatively small, well away from the water, hidden on a side street, and the prices are very reasonable. So much for expectations.

The restaurant itself is quaint and comfortable, and the wait staff is very friendly, yet formal. Though it is a relatively small place, compared to some of beachfront establishments, it does not feel cramped, nor is it too noisy despite its proximity to the street.

All that is great, you say, but what about the food? Did our meal live up to the glowing recommendations we’d been given? The answer is a definitive yes!

My wife struggled with the menu, not because she couldn’t find anything she wanted, but because she couldn’t find anything she didn’t. Ultimately she settled on the a seafood sampler platter. At 275 pesos it was the most expensive entree either one of us had while there, but considering that works out to a little over 20 bucks it is really ridiculously cheap, particularly compared to what she would have paid back home for a similar feast. Her meal came with a lobster tail, the two biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen and a pair of giant scallops. As you can see from the photo they also take pride in the presentation of their food.

Not being the fan of shellfish that she is I opted for the grilled mahi mahi with garlic butter. It was cooked to perfection and very delicious.

Don’t let the location throw you. This is as good as it gets for a seafood restaurant, and it is light on the wallet to boot.

La Dolce Vita

Though it is fun to check out the little restaurants on the side streets you have to experience at least one supper on the Malecon while in Puerto Vallarta. The atmosphere, the view and the people-watching opportunities simply can’t be beat.

As I mentioned above there is no shortage of places to check out on the boardwalk, but La Dolce Vita came highly recommended by friends of ours who’d recently returned from Mexico so we decided to check it out.

The big line-up at the door was another good indication of the restaurant’s reputation. The wait was longer than anywhere else we ate at during our trip but there are worse places to wait than a world-renowned boardwalk with a view of the ocean. The time passed swiftly and within 20 minutes we were seated upstairs, looking over the balcony railing with a perfect view of all the action.

As the name implies La Dolce Vita is an Italian restaurant and while it may seem a little strange to come to Mexico for an Italian meal it turned out the decision was a wise one.

You may have noticed from my glowing review of Cafe Roma’s thin crust that I am a big fan of pizza. Well, La Dolce Vita’s wood-burning pizza oven got my attention, so I opted for the ‘za. Though it wasn’t quite as tasty as pie I had later in the trip at Roma’s, it was still very, very good and I heartily recommend it to any fellow pizza fans out there.

Denise decided to go for the shrimp and little pumpkin pasta. Little pumpkins, as it turned out, were zucchini chunks, and she declared her meal delicious as well, and lamented the fact that we didn’t have a fridge in our room so she could take home the portion she couldn’t finish.

Though pricier than most of the other restaurants we went to La Dolce Vita was still good value, particularly considering its location in the heart of the Malecon.

El Torito

We had a little bit of good luck discovering this place while in Puerto Vallarta. During our visit to the farmer’s market this was one of the restaurants that were sampling their wares. In this case the wares were pork ribs, and Denise, who’s never met a rib bone that she didn’t want to gnaw on, bought a couple to try. I somehow convinced her to let me have a bite before she polished them off, and we both agreed they were delicious and that we’d have to go find the restaurant for dinner one night.

It took us a few days but we eventually made our way there. Located on the south side of the city it is more properly described as a sports bar and grill than a fine dining establishment, so if you have a quiet night out in mind then you might want to go elsewhere.

We weren’t too concerned about the atmosphere. We were there for the food. Denise’s mom and I both got the ribs, but strangely my carnivorous wife opted for the tortilla soup, another personal favorite of hers. As it turned out she sampled liberally from both her mom’s and my plate, giving her the best of both worlds.

The ribs were absolutely mouth-watering. Large and meaty, basted in a succulent barbecue sauce and cooked until the meat was falling off the bone these were as tasty as any ribs I’ve ever enjoyed at Tony Roma’s or Montana’s. They didn’t skimp either. It was a large rack with generous sides of fries and coleslaw. At 140 pesos it worked out to about eleven bucks. Not too shabby, especially considering the portion size.

El Torito might not win any awards for atmosphere or service, but the food is delicious, and if you are a sports fan, as I am, you can watch the game as you eat.
 
 
Cafe Vayun

My final recommendation is a little more on the casual side. We passed by this sidewalk cafe numerous times on our walks to and from the beach. It is more of a coffee shop than a supper place to be honest, but it does feature a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With tables right out on the sidewalk it is a cool spot to watch the constant flow of foot traffic, have a beer and enjoy a good meal.

It was the ‘All You Can Eat Spaghetti – 63 Pesos’ sign that convinced me to give this place a try. While not quite as big a personal favorite as pizza I do love me some ‘ghetti. We were still contemplating when a “big two thumbs up” from a couple who had just finished their meal convinced us. We grabbed a table and all ordered the spaghetti.

As it turns out, one bowl is all I can eat. One giant bowl, that is. The pasta tasted like it was fresh, not packaged stuff and the meat sauce was delicious. Fresh made buns accompanied the meal. By the time I’d finished mine (and the rest of my wife’s) I was just about full to bursting. Our server came back and asked if I wanted any more, even offering a half-bowl, and despite my fullness I was tempted. It was a test of willpower (and intelligence) and I passed. I regretfully said no, asking for the bill instead.

This might not be a place for everyone, but if you like pasta, and you like getting bang for your buck, then definitely give Cafe Vayun a try.

If you are a local or a frequent visitor to Puerto Vallarta we invite you to leave your picks for the best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta below. Any additional suggestions would be a great boon not only for our readers, but for us as well on our next trip πŸ™‚