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Sexy, Stylish
SAN JUAN
by Mark Chesnut

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It’s Friday night at La Concha, and at the glowing lobby bar members of San Juan’s young, beautiful elite are gathered, enjoying exotic drinks and swaying to the beat of a live DJ. Some have sunk into the stylish winged chairs and white couches, their faces morphing as the ceiling lights change color. Outside the giant glass doors, patrons savor drinks along the multi-level swimming pool, which at night is dramatically lit to become a sculptural fountain.

La Concha, however, is more than just the newest hotel and hottest bar in San Juan, it’s also a symbol of the burgeoning stylishness of Puerto Rico’s capital. Not that San Juan’s role as a Caribbean trendsetter is a completely new phenomenon. This city of nearly half a million attracted the attention of globetrotters even before the birth of the piña colada, that seductive blend of rum, coconut cream, and pineapple juice. Depending on who you ask, it was either during the 1950s or the 1960s that this intoxicating beverage first hit the bars of San Juan. One story says that back in 1954, a bartender named Ramon “Monchito” Marrero invented the piña colada while working at the Caribe Hilton. Another claims that the drink was born in 1963, at a restaurant called Barrachina, and a third version of the story places the credit with a bar in Old San Juan.

No matter which version of the legend you believe, the fact remains that by then the city of San Juan, a colonial gem that dates to the early 16th century, was well on its way to becoming a vacation hotspot. Once the jet age made travel faster and more comfortable (and Fidel Castro’s rise to power put an end to Cuba’s role as a tourism destination), US vacationers looking for sun, style, and sophistication increasingly began to jet down to Puerto Rico, and especially the capital city of San Juan.

For residents and frequent visitors, La Concha is just the latest (and most visibly striking) example of what some have called the “Condado comeback,” a return of upscale options and amenities for visitors to the metropolitan area’s most centrally located neighborhood. Located midway between historic Old San Juan and the tourist district called Isla Verde (a less interesting area that nevertheless has some excellent hotels), Condado is a bustling beach-front community lined with high-rise towers and an increasing number of interesting restaurants and shops.

A quick stroll along the blocks near La Concha quickly reveals shops bearing names like Cartier, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Salvatore Ferragamo, as well as local designer Lisa Cappalli, who operates a couture shop in Condado (and a ready-to-wear shop in Old San Juan). A noteworthy stop for contemporary art enthusiasts is Primer Piso, a gallery that moved from Old San Juan to Condado in 2008. “Condado is the place to be,” says Michael Williams, the gallery’s director. “I still live in Old San Juan, but really appreciate the access to beaches, dining, and shopping that Condado has to offer. There is a sense of ‘new’ sophistication that the Condado offers, which is unmatched in the Metro San Juan area. With new chic resorts such as La Concha and the soon-to-be-completed Vanderbilt, Condado is sure to become a destination of luxury.”

It’s already a great neighborhood for dining. San Juan as a whole, in fact, is fast positioning itself as the creative culinary capital of the Caribbean. Traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, which incorporates Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno Indian traditions and ingredients, can be savored at a variety of venues, from hole-in-the-wall dives to upscale restaurants. The international diversity of Puerto Rico’s capital is on view at many venues in the city, including Kali, a dark, stylish restaurant where Pan-Asian cuisine fuses nicely with live DJs—a good mix for late-night weekend dining.

Travelers who can’t wait for late night to get their fix of Japanese cuisine in Condado can head to Wasabi, one of several restaurants that offers outdoor dining along Ashford Avenue, Condado’s main artery. Puerto Rican touches enhance the cuisine at Wasabi, where lunchtime specials include the Power Box, which features churrasco (skirt steak), salad, and mofongo de yucca (mashed yucca). Also recommended for tasty outdoor dining is Yerba Buena, which serves up pan-Caribbean cuisine, with major influence from Puerto Rico and Cuba (the “rocking tables” make for great people watching spots, and live Cuban music enhances the experience on weekend nights).

Dining options are equally creative at La Concha, even if you’re not staying at the hotel. For dinner, the most strikingly beautiful option is Perla, housed within a gigantic, seashell-shaped structure behind the main hotel. Perla’s owner, US chef Dayn Smith, has designed a menu based on seafood and contemporary urban American cuisine. Perla’s wine cellar contains 4,000 bottles with more than 1,000 different labels. The restaurant’s bizarre shell structure, constructed in 1958, sits in a reflecting pool; inside are eight hand-blown Murano glass lamps, and guests enjoy beautiful views of the nighttime shore. Main course dishes include seared arctic char with artichoke ravioli, grilled barramundi in tomato chutney, and grilled filet mignon with ginger sauce.

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When the Spanish arrived in Puerto Rico in the early 1500s, one of the first places they built up was the area now known as Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan in Spanish). Located strategically at the opening of a natural bay, it quickly became an important arrival and departure point for the entire island. Impressive forts, including the massive El Morro, as well as dozens of elegant colonial and post-colonial homes and businesses, were built along its narrow cobblestone streets.

In recent years, Old San Juan has been impressively restored to its former glory. While the neighborhood may be noted for its pristine colonial architecture, style-seekers are just as likely to love the area for its trendy fusion cuisine and stylishly designed eateries, especially along Calle Fortaleza, one of the main dining streets.

One of the highest-profile restaurants on Fortaleza (sometimes called SoFo, for South Fortaleza) is Marmalade, a venue that sports a lounge-like atmosphere, with a gigantic, glowing orange chandelier, and a live DJ spinning good vibes. Entrees, which include seafood, duck, and beef, run from $15 to $29, and from Sunday through Wednesday from 5 P.M. until 10 P.M., guests may enjoy a “bottomless” glass of wine, from more than 35 varieties. Celebrity chef and owner Peter Schintler frequently makes an appearance to meet his diners (and he’s planning to open a new restaurant soon, called Jam, in Condado).

Among the newest places to enjoy stylish ambiance and innovative cuisine is La Madre, which opened in August 2008. The menu includes interesting variations on Mexican dishes, including duck quesadilla with wild mushrooms and guacamole, ahi tuna with black beans and salad, and cocoa and chile pork ribs. The ambiance, the work of local architectural designer Reynold Rodriguez, is just as much of a draw as the cuisine. This small but fabulous venue uses materials like vinyl and fabric in whimsical ways, and abstract movies, slides, and old black-and-white footage of Puerto Rican documentaries flash on one wall.

A quick glance at the menus of just a couple restaurants in Old San Juan proves that it’s easy to find gourmet cuisine that fuses Latin flavors with elements from around the globe. Tantra serves up an enticing array of Indo-Latino cuisine, complemented by an extensive wine and martini list. Among the offerings is a six-course Indian tasting menu, priced at $65 per person ($30 extra for accompanying martinis), which includes South Indian red snapper, chicken tikka masala, and dessert.

Continued
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For me PR has become completely boring. The crusing bars are closed. There is no crusing anymore period. Just another follower of the sterile US I'm afraid. Had a lot of fun 15 years ago though
- Steve Alexander , New York

I enjoyed a mix of gay friendly beaches, some local culture, and the gay night life while in San Juan. I stayed at a smaller hotel, Coqui Del Mar, and loved it. I really recommend the Plaza del Mercado that Robert writes about. Fruit smoothie is a must
- Jeff , San Diego, CA, USA

I just went 2 SAN JUAN in early Oct. and I had a blast. I stayed across the sreet from La Concha @ the Holiday Inn Exp. and I was very impressed w/ the area. From the hotel I walked 2 Juniors(B+) & Krash(C-).
- Abraham , Brooklyn, New York USA

You sould come back to Puerto Rico, but hearing every Wednesday night Saliendo del Closet (Comming out of the Closet) with Cecilia La Luz and some colaborators. And you sould get out of the metropolitan area of San Juan.
- Jason Anthony Pineiro , San Juan, Puerto Rico




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