There are plenty of delicious waterfront dining options on the beautiful white sand beaches of Negril. (Photo: Westend61 GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)
It didn’t take long upon arriving at Montego Bay’s Sangster International Airport to get a taste of Jamaica’s chill vibe. After meeting our driver, Antonio, who would take my wife and me on the scenic two-hour drive to Negril, he immediately offered us a couple of ice-cold Red Stripes from a cooler in his car’s front seat and shared the often-heard maxim that would sum up our Jamaican experience: “No problem, man.”
Jamaica is one of the world’s most relaxed, laid-back vacation destinations. And Negril is the most relaxed, laid-back spot in Jamaica; a place so low-key that it’s known as the “Capital of Casual.” With its picture-perfect white sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, and spectacular oceanfront cliffs, it’s the quintessential Caribbean paradise. While all manner of water sports and tours of nearby natural wonders are available, our favored activity during a weeklong visit to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary was just sitting, relaxing, and indulging in Negril’s plentiful and delicious food and drink.
Located on Jamaica’s West Coast, Negril was a little-known fishing village until it was “discovered” by hippies in the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s been developed significantly since then and there are several large all-inclusive resorts. But it still retains a small-town, counter-cultural feel, with mostly small hotels, ramshackle bars, and homespun restaurants dotting Seven Mile Beach, the main tourist drag widely considered the country’s most beautiful stretch of seashore; and the nearby cliffs, a separate strip noted for its dramatic bluffs and spectacular views.
Jamaican cuisine is a unique mélange of African, East Indian, Chinese, Spanish, and British influences. Local favorites include jerk chicken, curry goat, and what’s considered the national dish, ackee (a bright yellow fruit brought from Africa that looks a bit like a scrambled egg) and saltfish. Fresh seafood is abundant as are indigenous vegetables like cho-cho and callaloo, and exotic fruits like mango and papaya. Scorching hot Scotch bonnet peppers, ginger, garlic, and allspice, made from the native pimento tree, are found in a multitude of Jamaican dishes. And if you see a restaurant offering Ital cuisine, note that it refers not to Italian food, but to Rastafarian vegetarian cooking.
Dining in Negril is a decidedly low-key (and budget friendly) affair. Dressing for dinner here means trading bare feet for flip-flops, or, maybe, putting on a shirt. You won’t need to make reservations anywhere, except perhaps at a few hotspots at the height of the high season. You’ll hear reggae wherever you go and you’ll invariably dine outdoors, with an awning to keep you dry amid the heavy and frequent tropical rain showers.
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Restaurant service is exceedingly, even disconcertingly friendly (at least to a native New Yorker like me). And while we had read about waiters and chefs operating on “island time,” we only had one meal out of more than a dozen where our wait was noticeably long; and even then, waiting a few extra minutes while watching an incredible sunset with a gentle breeze wafting through the air hardly seems like something worth complaining about.
You don’t even need to leave your lounger or beach towel for most of your meals if you don’t like, with a steady stream of vendors selling everything from beef patties to fresh fruit to fully prepared lobster dinners. (You also likely won’t be on the beach more than a few minutes before someone offers to sell you marijuana.) While we heard complaints about vendors being pushy, we found that a simple, polite “No, thanks,” usually did the trick. It’s worth remembering, too, that Jamaica is a poor country and selling to tourists is how these folks make their living.
Here’s a look at some top picks from a week of Negril dining. Try these out, or explore on your own and discover your own favorites.
Jerk done right. (Photo: Best in the West Jerk Chicken/Facebook)
Best jerk: Best in the West
Jerk chicken is to Jamaica what pizza or hot dogs are to New York. It’s everywhere. And everyone, from taxi drivers to hotel clerks, will gladly offer an opinion on where you should go. A block from Seven Mile Beach, Best in the West is the archetypal roadside jerk stand. It’s a simple, no-frills joint – basically a bar, a scattering of tables and chairs, and a steel drum for cooking – serving up flavorful meats, cold drinks, and irresistible reggae to a friendly, welcoming crowd of tourists and locals.
Seaside dining at Ivan’s (Photo: Joel Roberts)
Best dinner with a view: Ivan’s Bar and Restaurant at Catcha Falling Star
Ivan’s is a longtime favorite in Negril’s West End. It’s a little higher-end than most nearby spots, but the excellent seafood and outstanding service make it an ideal spot for a special event. As good as the food is, what you’ll really remember is the to-die-for view from the cliffs. Come at sunset. You won’t regret it.
Dinner at Pushcart. (Photo: Rockhouse/Facebook)
Best upscale street food: Pushcart Restaurant and Rum Bar at Rockhouse
A few doors down from Ivan’s, and with a similarly awe-inspiring view, Pushcart offers a modern twist on traditional favorites like peppa pot soup and bushman stew. With its colorful, dancehall-inspired décor, a wide selection of rums, and live music most nights, it’s also a great party spot.
Going natural. (Photo: Just Natural/Facebook)
Best breakfast: Just Natural
A quick cab ride from most of the hotels on the cliffs, Just Natural is a world apart. It’s a rustic, one-of-a-kind spot nestled in the woods and run by two sisters who will welcome you like old friends. The menu is mostly (but not entirely) vegetarian and most of what you’ll eat here is grown on site or nearby. It’s delicious, too. The best traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee and saltfish we had.
Rasta dining at Zimbali. (Photo: Zimbali Retreats/Facebook)
Best Rasta-style farm-to-table: Zimbali Mountain Cooking Studio
A seriously bumpy hour-long drive through tiny villages and sugar cane fields takes you to this remarkable spot tucked deep in the mountains. Zimbali is a self-sufficient organic farm with an attached restaurant that offers tours and interactive cooking demonstrations. You’ll get a delicious meal of nouvelle Jamaican food (we had a vegan sushi roll made entirely from farm-grown ingredients, along with snapper cooked in banana leaf), a lesson on how to prepare it, plus an inside look at how this oasis of hippie agricultural entrepreneurship works.
Al fresco drinks at Tony’s Hut. (Photo: Greg Amonett/Facebook)
Best beach bar: Tony’s Hut at the Gatehouse Villa
It’s hard to go wrong when you’re looking for a spot to sit and have a cold drink along Seven Mile Beach. But this tiny, barebones, open-air bar steps from the water is something special, thanks mainly to the bartender, Grace Ann, a delightful hostess who will charm you and, if you dare, beat you at a game of dominoes. Stop in for a quick beer and you’ll end up staying for hours. No problem.
Innovative cuisine at Zest. (Photo: TheCliffJamaica.com)
A new opening to check out is Zest Restaurant at the Cliff, a recently opened hotel hidden past the lighthouse. Vogue Magazine once called chef Norma Shirley “the Julia Child of the Caribbean.” Her son Delius Shirley continues the culinary tradition with his partner, executive chef Cindy Hutson, at Zest. Shirley and Hutson — who also run Ortanique, an upscale Caribbean restaurant in Miami — call their unique style of cooking “Cuisine of the Sun.” Think locally inspired dishes like Blue Mountain coffee and cocoa-crusted lamb rack with breadfruit gratin and a chipotle agave glaze. Grab an open-air table at the cliffside restaurant and watch the sea crash on the rocks beyond.