Food for Thought
The colorful flavors of local fare.
Story & Photos By Ramona Settle
There are many restaurants in Providenciales with gorgeous settings and upscale ambience, but sometimes I’m on a quest for simpler island fare. I want to mingle with locals, experience island life, eat like a native. (It also gives my wallet a break!) The Bahamas, Jamaica and Turks & Caicos all have similar basic foods in common. The island way of life required traditions such as stewing tougher meats for hours or “beating” conch to tenderize, extensive use of inexpensive and plentiful “ground food” (root vegetables) and flour-based dumplings and breads, and frying fish as a means of preservation in the heat.
The restaurants described here (not a complete list by any means!) serve up home cooking at its best. In many cases, menus are made up daily, based on what’s available, so you’re always wise to ask, “What’s on the menu today?” Each of these local favorites may seem to have similar fare, but each offers its own special blend of character and ambience, whether a beach view, island gossip, or live music.
Many vacationers don’t have to go far to find Flamingo Café, located between Club Med and Ocean Club at the Cultural Center. The restaurant is owned by Grand Turk native Ricky Clark, and when visitors were trying to find Flamingo Café, locals had never heard of it. They know it as “Ricky’s” (many establishments are known simply by the name of the owner).
Flamingo Café is on a sand road, and what a view! Open air patio dining with fans to keep it comfortable. Turquoise water as far as you can see. (You can also shop for local souvenirs at the Cultural Center kiosks.)
I remember when the restaurant started out with a kitchen window and two tables . . . the cooking became so popular they’ve taken over the entire porch. Stand-outs are fish sandwiches, curry chicken and coconut grouper. I never miss a visit here on New Year’s Eve, as this is the place to be! There’s a beach BBQ bonfire with buffet ribs (the smells from the outdoor grills keep you hungry all night). It’s also the best vantage point for fireworks at midnight.
Next stop is Smokey’s on Da Bay, the original rib shack on the beach nearly two decades ago. The ribs were legendary, and legend has it that “Smokey” Smith did well at previous locations, cashed in, traveled and entertained himself and his friends, and is now back running a restaurant again. No longer on the bay, his latest location is in a small building across from Alexandra Resort. Being indoors, Smokey’s is a good place to go when it is hot or raining.
The ribs remain legendary, complemented by such Caribbean staples as macaroni and cheese, roasted corn and johnnycake. And any time you walk into the small restaurant, you’ll likely find Smokey himself, probably sitting at the bar eating peanuts. There’s beer and wine, drinks and rum punch. Friday evenings are Fish Fry Night with live music and Happy Hour specials in the courtyard.
Nearby is Middle Caicos Café, located within the Culture Market with small shops with local souvenirs. Lisa Harvey-Simonds, the owner and cook, has great stories to tell. Originally from Middle Caicos, she came to work in Provo in 1993 at the original Ramada Turquoise Reef resort (which has since been demolished and is now the Seven Stars Resort). Some time later, she started her café outside a small liquor store called “Shut Up and Drink,” where she started to cook breakfast for some of the regulars on Saturdays. One customer claimed she was the best cook on the island, and encouraged her to open up her own restaurant . . . and Middle Caicos Café was born.
Lisa’s specialties are definitely island-style, including stew conch, steamed fish, fried plantains and the best macaroni and cheese. When I took a quick survey of current customers, her grouper fillet with sautéed peppers and onions and “special seasoning” was a hit. This café is open for lunch from 10 AM to 6 PM, with breakfast on Saturdays at 8 AM.
Blue Hills is a “must” for any culinary tour of native food. As you round the bend into the colorful seaside settlement, Horse-eye Jack’s is the first restaurant you’ll meet. Marked by a huge beachfront deck and a lively bar, the fun and friendly establishment features easy foods such as chicken wings, conch fritters, jerk pork, burgers and a fresh catch of the day, all able to give your tastebuds a treat and your wallet a break! They also offer a rare kid’s menu. Sundays are great for winding down and meeting locals at the bar or playing beach volleyball. Don’t miss the lively Full Moon bonfire on the beach, with food and drink specials.
Right next door is the Da Conch Shack, notorious for being featured in travel magazines, on the Travel Channel and even on reality TV shows. Why? It’s so photogenic! Colorful buildings, contrasting picnic tables, impossibly turquoise water, shaded by palm trees. It’s even been featured in the book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die!
Of course, don’t stop just for pictures, you have to eat . . . and what else but conch, whether served in salad, fritters, cracked, stewed or grilled! And you can be sure the conch is fresh—after you place your order, someone swims out to the holding tank to retrieve it! Go on a Thursday night for live music, and don’t be scared to try the “pistol” of the conch, considered an aphrodisiac.
Further west into Blue Hills is Sailing Paradise restaurant. You can’t miss it, as the colorful cluster of buildings is another photographer’s delight. Here, Orville Hamilton makes the most delicious native foods, from salt fish and stew, to curry goat and oxtail. If your tastebuds are not quite as exotic, the ribs are some of the best on island and they also serve chicken, pork and shrimp with the usual Caribbean sides. They offer catering services for weddings, birthdays and special luncheons, with great prices to match. They also supply something no one else does for tourists—shuttle service to and from major resorts.
Further west is the venerable Three Queens Restaurant, the oldest in Blue Hills, dating back to 1970 before there was a resort or hotel on the island. Dick Been is the grandson of three generations that have run this place. Ms. Martha will tell you what’s on the menu any given day; there’s always grouper, conch and lobster (in season).
While there’s usually a game of slammin’ dominoes going on, Three Queens seems to have the best local gossip! Find out the latest “what’s up,” including both sides of the ever-lively political scene. Three Queens is also the home of the world’s only Conch Festival. Held annually at the end of November, the entire island, including tourists, comes to join the fun.
Last stop in Blue Hills is Froggie’s on Da Beach. They have a second-story deck great for sunset watching that turns into dancing some nights. Food is simple here: conch, fish and chicken, served casually with buckets of beer. Wednesday nights get lively with a DJ and free shots! Froggie’s is more than just a bar and restaurant, they have ATV tours that travel on the beach.
As you ride through Blue Hills, you’ll see little shacks tucked between colorful handmade sailing sloops on the beach. Here, you can always stop for a drink or to buy a coconut. Chances are, you’ll be approached by children selling conch shells. The shells are gorgeous and a great souvenir of the local foods tour. To bring them home, there is an allowance of two shells per person at customs.
Straight south as the crow flies, on the opposite side of the island is the native settlement of Five Cays, home to Bugaloo’s Conch Crawl. Back in the day at its previous location in Blue Hills, Bugaloo Williams was the originator of “fresh from the sea” conch salad and the resulting conch frenzy. His new location in Five Cays doesn’t miss a beat, and has become a spot for locals, expatriates and visitors to mix and mingle, with a great island vibe.
Along with being a master of “conchology,” Bugaloo’s also does well at getting people together, especially on Conch Crawl Sundays. Featuring, of course, conch served in countless ways with live music. Warning: the live music can be rated “R” at times! I don’t think children would notice, but the adults sure do! It’s definitely a fun place to be. Even their Facebook page claims they are masters of “Conchology.”
(Editor’s note: I had to add the name of my rival to this survey of local eateries. When I am not on-island, my husband turns to Miss Moonie to keep him well-fed.) “Miss Moonie” is the local heroine for which Provo’s only 24- hour native restaurant/convenience store is named. She won the hearts of nobles and gentry alike with her decadent South Caicos cuisine and down-home hospitality.
Located just after the last roundabout at the east end of Leeward Highway, Miss Moonies is a virtual pick and choose of local fare, including cracked lobster, boiled, fried and steamed fresh fish, braised oxtails, jerked chicken, loaded okra and rice and the world-famous Uncle Shadie’s chunky conch fritters. No matter what you opt for, it is guaranteed to be served fast, fresh and always delicious from the heated showcase. Folks in the know say not to miss the “moonie” juice and hand-dipped ice cream.
You can also find a huge variety of snacks, staples, fruits, vegetables and dairy products in the store, with excellent prices. Miss Moonies is the only spot to eat after a late night shift or evening spent partying. In fact, from 2 to 5 AM it can be hard to find a seat. There is indoor air-conditioned dining, tables outdoors in a lovely terrace poolside or “to-go” service.
Finally, I must mention Hole in the Wall, tucked away in Williams Plaza on Old Airport Road. Being close to the airport, it makes a great stop between flights (if you are going to an out island) or as a last stop for lunch before you leave.
The location is not scenic. The ambience can be sleepy. Why stop here? This is as “deep” as Caribbean food gets. For breakfast, “true” food consists of seasoned codfish, saltfish and cornmeal porridge. Lunch offers peas ‘n’ grits, johnnycake, and the best jerk grilled chicken on the island. On Fridays, consider sampling Manish Water (a rich goat’s head soup redolent with spices, potatoes and dumplings and rumored to increase virility in men), curried goat or oxtail stew, topped off with ginger beer. They are extremely easy on the wallet when compared to most restaurants here, but not open on Sundays.
My local foods tour is easy to do by rental car, but if you’d rather be “chaufferred,” there are always taxis or one of the new island tours that offer a lunch stop at a local restaurant. Concha Woncha Tours has a fun turquoise trolley that includes stops at the Conch Farm and Chalk Sound, with a native dance and cultural show. Paradise Scooters does an “all-around” Provo guided tour on scooter for $99, which also includes lunch.
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Cover photographer Christine Morden works for Paradise Photography www.myparadisephoto.com , a full service boutique company based in the TCI. She especially enjoyed the Rejouvenance photo shoot to learn about the benefits of coconuts and to smell the amazing scents of their hand-crafted products.