Seafood reigns supreme in Cartagena cuisine. Popular fish are pargo rojo (red snapper), corvina (sea bass), dorado (mahi mahi), and sierra (swordfish). Avoid mero (grouper) as it is threatened in the Caribbean waters. Shellfish include langosta (lobster), langostinos (prawns), and chipi chipis (tiny clams). These main dishes are often accompanied with delicious coconut rice and patacones (fried plantains).
Though many restaurants in the Walled City sport Manhattan prices, an inexpensive meal is not impossible to find. There are still a few mom-and-pop restaurants featuring set (cheap!) lunches for locals who would balk at paying over COP$10,000 for their midday meal.
Transport yourself to the Havana of yesteryear at La Vitrola (Cl. Baloco No. 2-01, tel. 5/664-8243, noon-3pm and 7pm-midnight daily, COP$35,000), an always elegant, always packed restaurant that specializes in Caribbean seafood, such as their popular tuna steak with avocado and mango, as well as pasta dishes. Immaculately dressed bartenders are a blur of constant motion as they perform their nightly mojito ritual: plucking mint leaves, crushing them with sugar in tall glasses, pouring in soda and rum, squeezing in some fresh lime juice, then giving the concoction a few vigorous shakes. La Vitrola is pricey, but the atmosphere, with live Cuban music in the evenings, makes it worthwhile.
Serving up the best, freshest ceviche in town is La Cevichería (Cl. Stuart No. 7-14, tel. 5/660-1492, noon-11pm Mon.-Sat., noon-10pm Sun., COP$28,000). It’s got a creative menu, featuring ceviche with mango and ceviche with coconut and lime juice, and outdoor seating on a quiet street.
Tastefully decorated with a lovely garden area, upper-crust Restaurante FM (Cl. 2 de Badillo No. 36-151, tel. 5/664-7973, noon-3pm and 7pm-11:30pm daily, COP$38,000) is named for its owner, Francisco Montoya, who has created a menu that features Caribbean and Mediterranean dishes.
El Balcón (Cl. Tumbamuertos No. 38-85, cell tel. 300/336-3876, noon-midnight daily, COP$22,000) is a friendly place with a view in Plaza San Diego. Get here in the early evening and enjoy a sundowner cocktail as you listen to lounge music or have a light meal like a refreshing gazpacho or their shrimp “sexviche.” Casual and cute, Collage Charladero (Cl. Roman No. 5-47, tel. 5/660-7626, noon-midnight Mon.-Sat., COP$22,000) serves sandwiches, burgers, falafels, fresh juices (watermelon with lime and mint), and refreshing sangria in a clean and cool environment close to all the historic sights.
The Enoteca (Cl. San Juan de Dios No. 3-39, tel. 5/664-3806, noon-11:30pm daily, COP$30,000) never seems to lose its popularity. This institution is best known for its pizzas, professional service, and nice atmosphere, although its pastas are overpriced. While the interior patio decorated with fountains and twinkling lights is certainly atmospheric, you can also dine in their wine cellar room near the front, where the air conditioner always hums.
For a little curry with your shrimp, try Ganesha (Cl. de las Bovedas No. 39-91, tel. 5/660-9165, noon-3pm and 6:30pm-11pm Tues.-Sun., COP$24,000), an authentic Indian restaurant with an extensive menu with many vegetarian options.
La Cocina de Carmela (across from Librería Nacional, Cl. Segunda de Badillo No. 36-50, cell tel. 301/348-7881, 11:30am-11pm Mon.-Sat., COP$12,000) is an unpretentious bargain spot where Colombian and international dishes (served buffet style) are on offer at lunchtime. At night it’s à la carte, specializing in seafood and pasta dishes.
Crepes & Waffles (Cl. Baloco Edificio Piñeres, Local 1, tel. 5/664-6062, noon-10:30pm Mon.-Thurs., noon-11:30pm Fri.-Sat., 8am-10:30pm Sun.) is a wildly successful and reliable Colombian family-style chain that specializes in savory and sweet crêpes and just sweet waffles. With restaurants as far away as Spain, the restaurant has a progressive policy of hiring women who are heads of their households. Besides healthy and quick meals, Crepes is a good place for an ice cream break on a muggy Cartagena afternoon.
In 1965, Dora Gavíria starting selling her fritos (fried snacks) to locals and students in order to support her family of five children. Today she stays in the kitchen mostly, letting her adult children run her stand, but everyone still calls it Doña Dora (Plaza San Diego, 4pm-10pm daily). There’s always a crowd gathered around the small food stall taking turns dabbing a little more hot sauce on their arepa de huevo (egg fried in corn meal), carimañolas (meat-stuffed yuca fritters), and empanadas. Beer is the perfect companion for her fritos. As you are strolling the narrow streets of the Old City, look for street corner vendors of agua de coco (coconut water). This natural sports drink is sold in the actual coconut—just add a straw. It’s an unbeatable thirst quencher on hot days. The going price for coconut water is COP$2,000.