Barbados has plenty to offer, from stellar beaches to boutique hotels to innovative restaurants. It’s the epicenter of Bajan cuisine, the birthplace of rum, and—most importantly—the homeland of Rihanna. Not to mention, the tiny island sits below the hurricane line, leaving it protected from raging storms.
On my four-day trip to the island, I consumed more fish, bread pudding, and rum than I thought humanly possible. And then I had some more. The two hotels I stayed at, Treasure Beach and Crystal Cove (both part of the Elegant Hotels Collection, now owned by Marriott), like to pamper their guests with all things Barbadian hospitality. Read: door-delivered signature welcome drinks, chilled towels at check-in, poolside ice-cold juice selections.
This royal treatment meant I got to sample the properties’ culinary offerings, as well as the island’s varied dining options. Between the Elegant Hotels’ myriad restaurants and Barbados’ eclectic mix of Bajan, British, and Caribbean cultures, I discovered the essential meals you must eat to experience true Barbadian cuisine.
Flying Fish with Cou-Cou & Coconut Cake at Tamarind
You've probably never heard of this combination before, but it's actually the national dish of Barbados. The island takes pride in its local catches, including flying fish—a name coined from the way the fish quite literally jump out of the water while swimming. Barbadians like to cook this fish in a tomato-y, herbed stew that sits atop the creamy, sometimes cheesy cou-cou (which resembles polenta).
You can find this delicacy in many places around the island, being as it's the national dish, but Tamarind's flying fish and cou-cou is extra special because it's award-winning. In 2019, Elegant Hotels held a cou-cou competition to determine the one dish to rule them all. The clear winner was Tamarind chef Donna Forde's basic but brilliant recipe. She kept hers simple: Okra give the cou-cou a bit of color, a side of tangy pickled cucumbers add brightness, and a warm, herby buttery sauce with just the right amount of spice tops if all off.
The only thing that made it better was a slice of coconut cake for dessert. (Pro tip: Never leave a Babados meal without dessert.) Made by Tamarind's executive pastry chef, Dawn Lawrence-Harris, the tropical three-layer coconut cake complete with vanilla ice cream and a mango coulee tasted like a dream. And in fact I'm still dreaming about it weeks later.
Red Snapper, Breadfruit & Macaroni Pie at Pat’s Place
Every Friday night, all of Barbados—and I mean all of it—heads down to the village of Oistins for dinner, drinking, and dancing. The easiest way to describe this phenomenon is a block party, fish fry, and seafood boil all rolled into one. It’s nearly impossible to put into words, though, so you’ll just have to experience it yourself.
When you go, hit up Pat’s Place for its no-frills, fish-first menu. We’re talking local red snapper, mahi-mahi, and swordfish served whole—head and all—in a take-out box. Bring your beer (Banks is the local brew of choice) and your box to one of the long, bustling picnic tables along the water and chow down. But first, add a squirt of the island’s famous pepper sauce to your meal. It will elevate your fish to a new level of excellence.
There are a handful of sides to choose from, including salad and coleslaw, but I went full starch (shocker, I know). Breadfruit, a Caribbean crop that you absolutely must try, tastes like the lovechild of bread and potatoes. No kidding. Macaroni pie is also noteworthy. Another Barbadian specialty, it appears to be your standard baked mac ‘n’ cheese. Take a bite, though, and you’ll realize the secret ingredient is none other than ketchup. Whether that’s your thing or not, you gotta try this dish—and Oistins is the place to do it. When you’re done dining, grab another beer and get dancing.
Chicken Roti & Bread Pudding at Sand Trap
Caribbean cuisine is a combination of many influences, including Indian and Mediterranean. Roti—a tortilla-adjacent flatbread common in Indian cooking—echoes those flavors. At Turtle Beach's Sand Trap, roti is stuffed with a chicken curry so decadent and expertly spiced you could eat a whole plateful. Other popular roti fillings are chickpea, potato, and beef, but the chicken curry is the only stuffing that lets the roti keep its crispy finish (the others make it soggy) while still staying moist.
Here, roti becomes more than just a food. With the postcard-perfect backdrop of Barbados’ southern coast, the sand at your feet, and the picnic-paper-wrapped roti sitting in front of you, it’s an experience you won’t want to miss.
Oh, and you as I've already advised, save room for dessert. You’ll devour the bread pudding’s crunchy caramelized banana topping. It’s love, island-style.
Beetroot Coconut Bisque & Red Snapper at Tapestry
The Bajan-inspired menu at Treasure Beach's poolside restaurant, Tapestry, is based around whatever fresh ingredients are available, but the true genius of the dishes comes from executive chef Javon Cummins' innovative mind. The Barbados-born-and-raised chef is not yet 30 but has already cooked at the James Beard House in New York City and won awards against chefs from all over the world. Cummins' unique spin on each dish is what takes it from standard Barbadian to upscale fine dining.
I delighted in a bright pink soup made from a sweet blend of beetroot and coconut and served, of course, with a rum-based pomegranate mojito. The main event, a locally caught red snapper filet with root vegetables and lots of gorgeous microgreens, did more than enough to convince me it's what I should be eating for the rest of my life. The best part? Any interested guests can book a cooking and plating demonstration with chef Cummins in the hotel's wine room. This gives diners the chance to get to know Cummins and his cooking style in an intimate setting, all before the master goes off to prepare the evening's meals.
Mahi-Mahi Ceviche & Grilled Octopus at Sea Shed
This recently opened West Coast hotspot knows what draws crowds—beachside service, open-air tables, and a stocked bar serving up alllllll the tropical libations. The Sea Shed menu listed at least 10 dishes I would have liked to try, but I managed to restrain myself to just a few small plates, a main course, and two desserts (and a drink, of course).
In particular, the small plates section was poppin'. With chunks of pineapple and spicy coconut dressing, the mahi-mahi ceviche's fresh, beachy vibe perfectly fit the setting. Plus, the juicy piña colada I was sipping on paired like a dream. The chargrilled octopus nailed that smoky seaside flavor without feeling too heavy. Its herb-dappled pairing, a miniature sweet potato salad with spicy mayo, served as an unexpected but welcome hint of freshness. Al fresco dining has never been so good.
Barracuda & Bread Pudding at Colony Club’s Rum Vault
By far the coolest feature of the Elegant Hotels properties was the island’s only rum vault at the Colony Club property, which houses a collection of rum from around Barbados—and the world. One side of the intimate room held floor-to-ceiling curio cabinet shelves of every kind of rum imaginable, including the island’s own Mount Gay label, as well as varieties from Japan and other Caribbean locales.
The dinner there took each of the menu’s three courses and paired them with a rum-based cocktail that complemented and highlighted the flavors of the meal. The coconut-crusted barracuda (a fresh catch of the day) was served on a bed of curry cauliflower with lemongrass and airy lime sugar cane foam topping it all off. The bread pudding (told ya I had a lot) included a delectable rum sauce, vanilla ice cream, bananas, and—the pièce de résistance—crunchy cinnamon twirls for texture. After dinner, guests also have the option to try a rum and chocolate flight, which is served in an adorable vintage-looking box fit with a secret compartment where the chocolates are stashed. This is a smart way to get a taste of what the rum vault holds. My sampler included eight- and 12-year rums with passion fruit and hazelnut chocolates. By the end of the night, I was ridiculously stuffed but ridiculously happy.
Of course, an entire island cannot be reduced to six meals (and their sides and desserts). Honorable mentions go out to many of Barbados' other attractions. At St. Nicholas Abbey Rum Distillery, visitors can learn about how rum is made and say hi to the property's sweet bird friends. Barbados also has beautiful beaches and water for relaxing, boating, and swimming with turtles. Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the swim-up cave bar at Crystal Cove—it's situated under a waterfall in one of the three lagoon-style pools, and it is divine (especially when sipping on an extra-minty mojito).
Barbados is an excellent destination if you're looking for innovative meals, five-star service, and true Caribbean flavor. I'm already counting the days until I can return.