This Tiny Caribbean Island Should Be Your Next Culinary Destination

St. John's restaurants aren't just resilient, they're reviving the spirit of the whole island.

<p>John Duarte / Blend Images / Getty Images</p> The sun sets over Sanders Bay and Coral Bay on St. John

John Duarte / Blend Images / Getty Images

The sun sets over Sanders Bay and Coral Bay on St. John

My first trip to St. John was by catamaran, from neighboring St. Thomas, in 1991. After that, my family and I came and stayed for one week each February. The island, a 9-mile landmass in the U.S. Virgin Islands that falls just east of Puerto Rico, was a familial home away from home, and after my father died, at a too-young 57, the rest of us took a sailboat from Caneel Bay Beach and took the dust of him to sea, with Springsteen playing in the background. In those early years, and even later, St. John was sleepy. Watching the island develop has been a bit like watching a pot starting to boil, something that happens not at once but incrementally.

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And then, five years ago, back-to-back Category Five hurricanes Irma and Maria unleashed catastrophic damage across St. John. The island has struggled to rebuild, but the story of its resurgence, of its new restaurants, its burgeoning culture, its inventiveness in the face of adversity, has been overshadowed by the second blow of the pandemic. And yet amid these hardships, today St. John is experiencing a culinary renaissance, a pulse felt throughout nearly every restaurant.

<p>Courtesy of Zozo&amp;#39;s</p> The view of Caneel Bay from ZoZo’s

Courtesy of Zozo's

The view of Caneel Bay from ZoZo’s

I felt that pulse on my most recent visit, on a balmy January evening at ZoZo’s. (ZoZo’s is open seasonally and is on hiatus until December 15; check their website for details.) To get to ZoZo’s, you have to ride through the gates of the uprooted Caneel Bay Resort, which no longer exists, looking past the wreckage. The restaurant stands where history and catastrophe have commingled on a perfect slice of sand — a reminder of what St. John was, of its resilience, and of how it’s evolving. It was pouring when our taxi delivered us to the host stand, but no one seemed to mind the rain. At the bar, over a shallow bowl of bucatini cloaked in truffles, it was easy for my husband and me to forget the storms — almost. “As Mother Nature reminded us, man makes plans, and God laughs,” owner John Ferrigno told me. ZoZo’s is his fifth outpost on the island in 25 years, his second in this location. “The rebuilding process was from ground zero,” he said.

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Perhaps it was the same pulse that led me to make an unrecoverable traveler’s error at Morgan’s Mango, when I happened into one of the restaurant’s coveted reservations. Every Tuesday and Saturday, dependent, according to owner Carlos Di Blasi, on the whims of the sea, the restaurant rolls out the Caribbean lobster special­ — grilled locally caught lobster with melted compound butter, plantains, rice, and black beans. Guests pile in for the lobster, and for the lore. “We had, in 2015, a fire that shut us down for eight months,” Di Blasi said. “And then, in 2017, we were hit by the storm.” The restaurant, Di Blasi said, never used to be booked weeks in advance. Now, good luck to those who haven’t made their plans prior to arrival. (Even better luck to those who have passed the lobster up, as I did, despite my server’s warning that I would regret it — which I immediately did.)

<p>Blake Evans</p> Diners enjoy handcrafted pops and dairy-free soft serve at Irie Pops

Blake Evans

Diners enjoy handcrafted pops and dairy-free soft serve at Irie Pops

For an island guarded by the rules of the national park (about 60% of the land is protected), the mood on St. John is of a place where the light switch has just been turned on. Even stalwarts are reinventing their craft. If the past half-decade has hit the island hard, the dining scene has reacted with elasticity.

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Alex Ewald, owner of La Tapa, which opened in 1996, relocated her restaurant to a beach in Cruz Bay this spring. “The bar has gone up,” she said. The island, she continued, is a small community, and the push to improve the culinary scene is everywhere. Some of the island’s younger cooks, who have worked under people like Ewald, Ferrigno, and Di Blasi, are now forging their own culinary paths.

In 2019, Chelsea and Richard Baranowski, married, in their 30s, and from St. John, opened a floating taco stand in Hansen Bay (since relocated to Coral Bay Harbor) called Lime Out. (Open seasonally; see their website for details.) On a thick afternoon between squalls, my husband, sons, and I jumped from a moored charter and swam to the bar, where I ordered a fresh tuna taco with pico de gallo and chipotle slaw and a mahi ceviche taco with cilantro, crunchy radish, and just enough jalapeño.

<p>Don Hebert</p> Dreamy hammock vibes at Mooncottage

Don Hebert

Dreamy hammock vibes at Mooncottage

“We’d love to see a lot more local food,” Chelsea Baranowski said. “There are people that need to take that on.” The phrase “local food,” in a place like St. John, has many meanings. The history of the island, like many of the islands in the Caribbean, is textured. In 1675, the Danes claimed the land as their own. Over the course of the next 40 years, they colonized the land with planters from St. Thomas, until an uprising of enslaved people in 1733 forced the Danish out. The island remained under Danish rule until 1917, when the United States purchased the land.

But whatever your definition of local, the community of St. John is tapping into reservoirs of creativity everywhere you look. Many businesses have tacked toward feeding beachgoers, one sandwich and coffee at a time. On our last morning en route to Hawksnest Beach to laze with turtles, we stopped by St. John Provisions, Meredith DeBusk’s petite storefront in Cruz Bay. The store sells housemade pastries, bagels, coffee, and dairy-free ice pops from the island’s own Irie Pops. (Irie Pops’ main outpost, which also sells dairy-free soft serve and boozy slushies, is down the road, in Mongoose Junction.)

On Hawksnest Beach, I handed over my still-warm ham-and-cheese pastry to my husband. Immediately empty-handed, he looked at me with the stunned half-smile of someone who had found something unbelievable in an unexpected place, a treasure. But that’s what St. John is to me: an island of buried treasures, always emerging from somewhere, bubbling up, ready to erupt with its perfection.

<p>Sarah B. Swan</p> Lime Out’s floating taco bar grill

Sarah B. Swan

Lime Out’s floating taco bar grill

Getting There

From the United States, travelers can fly to Cyril E. King Airport on the island of St. Thomas. From there, take either the passenger-only ferry or the car-and-passenger ferry from Red Hook, on the other side of the island, which can be reached easily by taxi. Ferries must be booked in advance. stjohnticketing.com; bigredbarge.co

Where to Stay

Due to damage from the hurricanes, there are very few hotels on the island; private rentals offer preferable accommodations.

Limetree at Peter Bay

This five-bed, four-and-a-half-bath villa overlooking one of the island’s most prestigious slices of beach sleeps up to 10 people and offers luxury amenities like a pool, hot tub, and fully outfitted chef’s kitchen. From $14,200 per week, cateredto.com

Mooncottage

On the eastern side of the island, this romantic villa overlooks Coral Bay. Suitable for up to four guests, this one-bed, two-bath retreat boasts a private pool, garden, and covered deck. From $4,998 per week, caribbeanvilla.com