I did my research before visiting beautiful Bonaire – in that, I knew to expect the service to be slower than usual. The charming term for this is “Island Time” and, having been to an island before, I thought I was prepared.
I was not.
Here is my first tip for diners on Bonaire: don’t arrive hungry. I mean, sure, the whole point of eating is that you are hungry and therefore filling a need on behalf of your body. But I’d suggest snacking first.
Because my experience with this Caribbean island’s cuisine is quite limited, I’m not going to judge because frankly I didn’t make it nearly as far off the tourist-beaten path as I’d hoped.
On our first night in town, fresh off the plane, we went to the only place that made sense: the one right on the water. Karel’s has two places across from each other on a small one-way oceanside street, and they’ve got a good thing going in that, by shining lights under their pier to highlight the clear beauty of the water below, people aren’t going to complain too much about the quality of the food, drinks or service.
Our waitress seemed new but did her best, and we were promptly introduced to the Bonaire definition of Island Time. We waited…and waited…and waited for our drinks. Then our food. Then our next round of drinks. Eventually Paul went off in search of said second round, and found my glass of wine sitting there: sad, alone and sweating on the bar, forgotten. (Side note: I’ve found myself in that same position more than once, ha). In fact our waitress never did come back after I’d ordered that abandoned glass of wine…but someone else noticed and took over for her after some time.
Two days later I found myself out exploring on a Sunday, which means not much is open – plan ahead for this, friends! This time I was at the mercy of availability, and so sat with my book on the front porch of the across-the-street Karel’s, where I had a very basic but tasty order of ceviche, and a glass of wine. And then I waited…and waited…and waited for my check, which I finally received after asking for it three times over a 25-minute period.
Alas, there were other places. On an island full of beautiful restaurants overlooking the ocean, we somehow ended up in a boxy, nearly windowless restaurant one afternoon on our way to the beach. To Paul’s credit, he did seek out the place I wanted to try based solely on a recommendation from my seatmate on the airplane over. That place was closed, as were many others due to the majority of the island being on siesta – plan ahead for this also, friends!
The service at the Chinese Box was actually fairly attentive by comparison – our waitress checked on us once, and brought us a pitcher of ice water, praise the gods of super-hot places who never refill your water – but I can’t tell you the name of this place, sorry. I’d describe it as “a Chinese-ish restaurant next to an equally Chinese-ish market,” but there are a lot of those on the island. How about this: it’s the first of the afore-described places you’ll come to after passing Captain Don’s when heading North.
Finally, we started getting it right. After my travel companions did a night dive, we went to the only place open – It Rains Fishes – where they graciously agreed to serve us, and we promptly started to annoy the hell out of them, but they did an excellent job of masking that. First, we sat ourselves in the section our waitress had just finished cleaning in hopes of closing it down. Next, we started asking about vegan options. I don’t really need to go into that, do I? Showing up 15 minutes before closing and proceeding to ask if something on the menu has ANY bit of animal product in it on a tropical island…? Probably the most obnoxious thing we could have ever done as customers. I get it. I was appropriately ashamed of our behavior but, one of our party is vegan, whattyagonnado? So, I give them five stars for trying really, really hard to hide their irritation with us – sometimes that is no small task, I know.
The next night we celebrated a friend’s birthday over tapas at La Guernica – our first really delicious meal on the island, and the service was the best we’d had thus far.
In true vacation-dining form, we saved the best for last. That restaurant recommended to us on the plane was Rum Runners, and we made it there on our final night in town. We again were obnoxious by asking to move because the teenager didn’t want to sit next to the family with little kids (I’m going to go ahead and admit here that he is also the vegan in this story). Then we didn’t like the table they offered us because it wasn’t close enough to the water. Yes, we were those people. I’m so, so sorry. If you have any idea how many times I had to stop my dining companions from just getting up and moving wherever they wanted without asking first, these offenses would seem like small potatoes.
Anyway. After a quick recovery from our host, we were promptly served bread and water, and our server, Jheison, came by to take our order. His energy was engaging, and he put us at ease with his joking manner. When he left our table he called out “okay, I’ll be back in 45 minutes!” which I appreciated, as it was the first time any industry person on the island not only acknowledged the turtle-paced timing of food or drink delivery, but made it funny instead of infuriating. Sure, our food came well before our cocktails, but it was outstanding, and we were easily distracted by the sharks swimming in the sea below us – especially when a man carried a huge tray of bloody bits out from the kitchen and tossed them to the sharks right below our table. Now that is what I call dinner and a show. AND when I asked where the nearest market was because we needed to buy some limes, he showed up to our table a few minutes later with these:
If we find ourselves on Bonaire again, I think we’d cook in more. But for those nights out, we would definitely go back to Rum Runners and La Guernica, so if you’re on your way there, skip the trial-by-error and start with them.
Have you dined on Bonaire? What did we miss? Tell me your favorite dining spots and/or bars in the comments below!