Santo Domingo’s Ciudad Colonial is a microcosm of Dominican culture. Recently renovated, the city’s most historic district keeps tradition alive while evolving as rapidly as the capital’s gastronomic scene. It’s a neighborhood that bustles all day and night with passersby–from shoppers to street musicians, lovers cooling off on park benches, tourists meandering around museums, and mobile vendors hawking everything from fresh coconut water to chicharrón slices. The pedestrian Calle El Conde, running the length of Zona Colonial, as locals like to call the area, is lined with comedores serving platos del día, European-style sidewalk cafés, and fast food stands next to discount clothing stores and barber shops. On street corners, colmados–the quintessential Dominican bodegas–blast bachata and serve ice-cold Presidente beer into the wee hours of the night, when the area’s lantern-lit squares beg for a stroll.
Visit the oldest monuments in the Americas–from the Catedral Santa María la Menor to the Ozama Fortress–and enjoy panoramic views over the Ozama River, flanking the Ciudad Colonial. Along the way, sample local dishes in cafeterias, stop for a dulce de leche, cool off with a batida, and don’t miss dining al fresco on farm-to-table “new” Dominican cuisine in leafy, romantic courtyards.
Meson D’Bari–made even more popular since Anthony Bourdain’s visit in 2012–is an obligatory stop in the Colonial City. The two-story, bright-blue colonial home turned restaurant has been a favorite for over 30 years. Tucked a block away from bustling Calle El Conde, Meson D’Bari delivers “grandmother recipe” Dominican dishes in an old world atmosphere. The bar is a haunt of neighborhood regulars, showing up daily as early as 6PM, while the dining room walls–particularly on the second floor–resemble an art gallery. Head upstairs and sample signature crab-filled catibias–empanadas made with yucca–stewed goat in a criollo sauce, or longaniza, and end with the house dulce de coco. Facebook Page.
La Cafetera Colonial
Serving the best espresso in the Colonial City–no small feat, and they sell their roasted blend–isn’t La Cafetera’s only claim to fame. Sitting directly on Calle El Conde, this cozy diner-style establishment has the luck of attracting poets, scribes, artists, and activists since the 1930s. It’s a place where regulars turn up daily to discuss the day’s events, while choosing from one of a dozen fresh fruit batidas–made with or without sugar and milk–and the area’s cheapest egg sandwich breakfast. Sit outdoors under the umbrellas to watch the Conde’s lively pedestrian stream, or take refuge in the spacious interior, with tables past the counter stools. Calle El Conde, between Calle Duarte and Calle 19 de Marzo.
A sensory experience both on and off the plate, Buche’ Perico is a standout in the Colonial Zone, not just for its stunning outdoor setting, but also for its new Dominican cuisine. The dining area resembles a gigantic greenhouse and noise-free fans masterfully positioned on a high ceiling cool the room while giving the impression of dining al fresco. Dominican ingredients with modern twists lead to soul food bites such as sweet plantain ravioli, cassava and cheese balls, spicy coconut fried fish, and the signature eponymous house dish, originally from the mountainous central DR region of Moca: a creamy sausage and corn-based soup. Facebook Page.
Two years ago, Mercado Colón created buzz with its European-inspired market-style restaurant serving tapas with a Dominican twist. The thrill hasn’t waned. Set in a refurbished colonial building with original tiles and coral stone walls, the woodsy interior counts up to six separate food sections including an indoor dessert area, and an upscale air-conditioned bar. Outside, four distinct food stations hug a colonial courtyard, offering a variety of hot or cold tapas, and wood fired pizza. Mix up montaditos like goat cheese and caramelized onions topped on house-baked bread with pork sliders, or sautéed chorizo, among other options. With such fair prices, the place fills in the evenings with after-work crowds. Facebook Page
You’ll feel like you’re in the Mediterranean from the moment you enter Falafel, steps from the heart of the city, but tucked away enough to feel secluded. Dine in a spacious, multi-level outdoor courtyard with starry city skies for a roof. Small tables are tucked in corners throughout the ancient brick structure, and the affordable Lebanese menu overflows with falafel sandwiches, shawarmas, flatbreads and other meat platters. It’s as romantic a spot as it is casual, attracting a hip, bohemian crowd. Facebook Page.
TIME Vegetarian Kitchen
Vegetarian food had never looked so haute until TIME came on the Santo Domingo dining scene. Seating is either indoors, in a small dining room set around a beautifully lit open kitchen, or on the romantic Plaza Billini. Expect surprising flavors and combinations from Executive Chef Staverio Sassi, made from locally grown, organic products: ricotta goat cheese ravioli in a creamy chives and truffle sauce, steamed rice noodles in banana leaves with vegetables in coconut sauce, or fresh strawberry and black pepper basil sorbet. TIME’s green drinks are equally surprising. The other casual cool factor: come as you are. time.do
Outdoor dining while facing Plaza España and the glowing Alcazar de Colón Palace is the quintessential Santo Domingo dining experience. Among a row of former warehouses cum bistros, Pat’e Palo is a standout for its European-influenced menu, ranging from seafood to steaks, risottos, and house made pastas. Sample artisanal chorizo, gnocchi de yucca al Roquefort, or a foie gras burger. If you’re up for it, visit the humidor inside this first tavern of the Americas–where pirates like Francis Drake once hung out in the 16th century–and savor a post-meal Dominican puro. patepalo.com
Set on a photogenic side street, overflowing with bougainvillea, just behind the artisan shoe store full of colorful, handmade espadrille sandals, a colonial hallway leads you to the indoor/outdoor café lounge that is La Alpargatería. Chill in one of its shady nooks with coffee, fresh fruit juice, a margarita, and snacks ranging from hummus and fondues to tortilla española, among other tapas. The evenings are livelier, when groups gather after work. laalpargateria.com.do
A lingering chat over a cafecito–the DR grows its own coffee–is part of the island’s full culinary experience. One of the most recent additions, Affogato Café, is a favorite for its air-conditioned interior, featuring cozy booths and inspired wall coverings. But its affordable gourmet menu is also a hit with dishes ranging from salty crepes to waffles, stuffed croissants, and one of the best mochaccino coffees in the city. Affogato also knows how to keep it local with its daily Dominican breakfast offering. On Fridays, the café turns into a bistro with cocktail specials and live music. affogatocafe.com
When other spots are closed, Barra Payán’s 24 hour accessibility (for over 50 years!) is a perk of DR dining. Set off the beaten path but within city limits, locals pour in and out of the doorless, blue-walled, roadside diner for its thick, toasted sandwiches stuffed with a choice of at least 20 fillings that range from meat to chicken, turkey, bacon, and cheese and are slathered with heaps of mayonnaise and katchoo (ketchup in Dominican-speak). At just over a dollar each, Barra Payan’s fresh fruit shakes, which can be made with or without milk in over 20 tropical fruit varieties are the perfect accompaniment. Prop yourself at the counter and enjoy as it doesn’t get more local than that.
Santoña Gastro Bar Colonial
Inside the former 16th century home of Juan de la Cosa–a cartographer and navigator who roamed the seas with Christopher Columbus on his voyages to the DR–Mediterranean-influenced tapas and entrees are served in an elegant Spanish courtyard. The equally romantic interior is decorated with period furniture and archeological finds and accented by the sounds of a live guitarist performing from the second-story balcony. Sample oxtail empanadas, queso de hoja–artisan cow’s cheese–bruschetta topped with a bacon and onion marmalade, or cocas, Spanish-style pizzas. Facebook Page.
Until Thai Savanh came along, there was no stand-alone Thai restaurant in Santo Domingo. Now, however, spicy curries and pad thai are now part of the city’s eclectic dining scene, particularly to the delight of foreign transplants, as hot peppers aren’t a prominent feature in Dominican food. Boasting a couple of sidewalk tables, as well as ample indoor seating overlooking Calle El Conde people-watching is pastime here. Pair with green curry with seafood, the house favorite, as well as pho, dim sum, and nems (sausages). Calle El Conde 350, corner of Calle Jose Reyes.
Header image courtesy of Buche’ Perico.