How to do Nassau, Bahamas the Five-Star-to-Dive-Bar Way
Here on the West Coast where I live, when you think beach, you think Hawaii and Mexico. Californians usually skip the Caribbean simply because it’s not as convenient, so when I decided to hit the Bahamas, I was definitely in a Five-Star-to-Dive-Bar state of mind. As always, I planned on visiting the top-rated restaurants, but also to get off the beaten path. I wanted a new experience—no luaus or fiestas, but the Bahamas for what it is, past, present, and future.
Landing in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, where two-thirds of the population lives, the first thing you notice is how friendly and chatty the people are. Depending on your level of jet lag, flight delays, and your partner’s mood, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. If you’ve had a good trip, chatty puts you in a comfortable state of mind immediately, and you’ll slip right into the flow of the islands. If you’ve had a rough trip, though, take a deep breath, put in your ear buds, and get thyself to the nearest bar ASAP.
Be forewarned: When you travel to Nassau and anywhere else near the cruise ships, there are two sets of prices for food and drink: local and tourist. Inevitably, you’ll be charged tourist prices across the board. It’s just the way it is, so when you walk into a beach hut and order a $2 beer, you’re going to pay $5. The reason? The locals are a long-term relationship, and you’re a one-night stand. Do yourself a favor and just deal. Either pay up or go back to your cruise ship or resort instead of getting your panties in a twist.
All restaurants in the Bahamas charge a 15% service fee and a 7.5% value-added tax, too, so be prepared to see that everywhere except in the beach huts/non-brick and mortar joints, where tax is included in cash transactions. The local currency is the Bahamian Dollar. Its value is pegged to that of the U.S. dollar (as of 2018), and U.S. currency is also accepted everywhere.
The main protein on every menu in the Bahamas is either conch (giant sea snail) or grouper (a monster white meat fish). Conch (pronounced “conk”) is a staple in the Bahamas because there are no limits on fishing it and it’s versatile to cook with. Conch works with everything, similar to shrimp. Remember in Forest Gump, when Bubba recited all the endless variations on shrimp dishes? Just replace “shrimp” with “conch” and you’ll get the idea: pan-fried conch, pineapple conch, deep-fried conch, conch ceviche, cracked conch, peppered conch, spicy conch, cocktail conch, conch coming out your eyeballs … the choices go on forever. This is a good thing, and I suggest you try it as many ways as possible.
I was also happy to find that the local non-tourist restaurants aren’t fast food, far from it. It takes at least 15-20 minutes to prepare each dish, so don’t expect it to come out fast like it was just sitting in the kitchen waiting for you. Dishes are made to order, and they come out right off the grill, steaming hot, including the sides—beautiful!
What the Bahamas does lack is in as much in the way of salads and vegetables. It’s kind of like southern cooking; sides might include plantains, macaroni casserole, rice and peas, potato salad, Cole slaw, corn on the cob, and plain lettuce. So, if you’re looking for a Caesar or a chop salad, again, you’d best head back to your cruise ship or resort.
Downtown Nassau is completely overrun by cruise-ship tourists, and jewelry stores and sundries are on every street. There are literally three or four of these floating hotels in port on any given day, vomiting people into town. Downtown Nassau also has a glut of touristy restaurants, which I recommend avoiding. I would visit some of the bars, however, for a refreshing rum runner, daiquiri, or beer.
As you head out of Nassau and toward the airport, you’ll reach an area called the “Fish Fry,” which comprises brightly colored brick-and-mortar restaurants next to a beach with multiple stalls and huts. This is my favorite place to eat local.
Jim’s top-rated local restaurants and beach stalls
Pepper Pot Grill – This downtown Nassau brick-and-mortar is run by a Jamaican family. Looks-wise, it’s dark and shabby, and it doesn’t serve alcohol, but what it lacks in décor and booze it makes up for with its authentic local food: jerk chicken, oxtail, and conch. Try the jerk chicken with a side of potato salad and plantains.
Curly’s – This is a bustling brick-and-mortar in the Fish Fry. The jerk chicken was the spiciest I had on the entire trip, so spicy I couldn’t stop! This was also the first place I tried macaroni casserole, which is similar to mac-and-cheese, but baked in a casserole dish. The pieces come out square, like lasagna, and it was so good I ordered it at every other restaurant I went to.
Twin Brothers – This the restaurant where the infamous grease fire went down during the filming of Top Chef All Stars. It’s the most popular place in the Fish Fry, and tourists flock to it. The food is decent—not the best in the Fish Fry, but worth a stop for its deep-fried conch and a massive, multi-colored, obnoxious-looking drink called the “Goombay.”
Oh Andros – I visited this brick-and-mortar in the Fish Fry at noon on a Sunday, just before church let out. Within 15 minutes of my arrival, every table was jammed-packed, and there was a line out the door for takeout. The plates were the biggest I saw in town. Every plate came with a mountain of rice, enough to feed a family of four, so when ordering for 2-4 people, I recommend sharing a few entrees and a few sides.
Gone Fishin’ – This beach stall in the Fish Fry has the best views, music, bar, and open-air BBQ, with a full bar and some incredible drinks. All meals were cooked to order on an outdoor BBQ, and my favorite two sides were the BBQ corn and garlic bread. I loved this place and ate and drank at it every day just for the vibe.
Tiki Bikini Hut – This beach bar is located between downtown Nassau and the Fish Fry. It’s a perfect place to escape the heat and enjoy a few local Bahamian brews, like the local favorite, Kalik. The hut sits right on the beach, overlooking a lively beach scene, with loud music and plenty of people playing volley ball and other beach games.
Fish – I have to mention this restaurant, even though it’s on Paradise Island, which is 5-10 minutes from downtown Nassau. Fish is owned by world-renowned chef Jose Andres, and it’s located in the Cove tower within the behemoth resort Atlantis, the biggest, most touristy hotel and casino on the island. Fish serves a full range of quality seafood, but the highlight is the nightly special of “Lion Fish,” an invasive species that’s decimating the reef’s fish populations. To help conserve the reefs, Jose supports local fishermen by serving Lion Fish as a regular special. I had it twice, deep fried whole with white and flaky meat and served with a light tartar sauce. This restaurant and dish are a must if you’re visiting the island.
Nassau is a beautiful town with stunning, white-sand beaches, but if you’re looking for a relaxing, effort-free vacation, I don’t recommend it unless you’ve got money to burn and can afford to check into the Four Seasons, with your own private beach and staff at your beck-and-call. The culture is incredibly friendly, but keep in mind that the service is somewhat more relaxed than you’ll find at other beach destinations. What Nassau is great for is family fun, beaches, shopping, and eating like a local within a few minutes of your hotel. If you decide to check it out, just slow down, relax, and don’t miss eating like a local in the Fish Fry.
Five-Star-to-Dive-Bar all the way!
If you enjoyed that story check out this story on Portland Crawfish.