The Quest to Find Real Jamaican Food in an Upscale Setting
Writer Ghenete Wright Muir | Photography David I. Muir
We go to our favorite Jamaican restaurants, because we know we’re going to get good-good food. But if we want a dining experience that includes ambience, great service, or even sufficient seating, we have no choice but to go elsewhere.
Before you bite my head off, and start listing examples of Jamaican restaurants that you believe check those boxes, please do two things: one, note that this is an indiscriminate generalization, and two, tell me the names of those restaurants so I can fly there now! Although I’m discussing the Jamaican experience, I’m pretty sure that many people from other Caribbean islands can relate.
I’m not sure what it is, but the even our best restaurants tend to serve us cafeteria-style, or something just short of being seated and served.
Picture this: It’s lunchtime and you want something that reminds you of yaad (Jamaica)… so you go to your local Jamaican spot. You know the routine – you stand in line and shout out to the lady, “One soup please!” She says, “No soup nuh leave.” “You have escovitch fish?” you ask. “Fish soon ready. You want stew chicken instead?” she replies.
That scenario may work for a random lunchtime outing, but what about special occasions? Who wants to stand in line for food on a date, or when they’re out celebrating their son’s graduation? Exactly. We want to be seated, have a waiter or waitress serve us, and it wouldn’t hurt to have actual tablecloths. So, we go to American restaurants – casual dining chains like Chili’s or Bonefish Grill, or even upscale casual spaces like Grand Lux Cafe. What happens here is that instead of spending our money in our community, we fork it over to others.
I spoke to Ouida Crawford, who had previously owned two Golden Krust franchises, but wanted to bring something different, something with more flair, to the Caribbean community. She opened Red Cafe in Hollywood, Florida, surrounded by an eclectic group of casual and upscale restaurants. Her restaurant definitely had good food. I personally enjoyed it. The ambience was delightful, and the service above par too. While she got some support from the Caribbean community, it was not at the level she needed.
“It’s a struggle to open a fine dining restaurant as compared to a take-out place. Our people don’t really support us the way that we would expect them to,” Crawford says. “They want full liquor, they want live music. There is always something.” After six years, Crawford closed Red Cafe and is now working on opening another restaurant – not Caribbean.
I also chatted with Paul “Goosey” Bennett who closed the doors to Roun-a-Goosey after two years of owning a higher-end Jamaican restaurant in Miramar, Florida. “Being Jamaican, there is never anywhere nice where you and a date could go [to enjoy Jamaican food]. I never found that here in South Florida, so I wanted to bring that. I did have quite a few people who came and enjoyed the ambience, the food… but not enough to keep me going. I just did not get the traffic needed.”
That’s tough to hear when so many of us want that higher-end Jamaican restaurant, or think we do. I polled my Facebook page asking 1000 of my closest friends if they would support an upscale Jamaican or Caribbean restaurant, and the response was a resounding “yes.”
One friend added, with “no bad mind people” on staff. Let’s chat about that for a minute. When it comes to customer service, the staff in many of these restaurants is sometimes apathetic or combative. I mean, you have to be brave to ask for extra oxtail gravy, or even one more slice of fried plantain. Lawd a mercy!
Another one of my Facebook friends wants an upscale Jamaican restaurant, but not one that sells “pineapple rice or some other made up creation.” That’s the irony – the successful upscale Jamaican restaurants tend to be non-traditional.
A few weeks ago, I went on a hot date to Ortanique in Miami with my favorite girl – me. Now, Ortanique has all the elements of upscale dining. As I walked into the dimly lit restaurant, the hostess offered to seat me. I settled in an area reminiscent of an indoor terrace with drawn curtains. Steel Pulse was playing in the background; it was lovely. The food was delicious, but the menu did not offer any actual traditional Jamaican meals. I enjoyed salmon with baby bok choy, and mango tres leches. Mind you, they don’t call themselves a Jamaican restaurant, but it is Jamaican-owned and incorporates elements of the island’s cuisine. They have thrived for years with this gourmet, fusion style. So is that the formula for success?
Goosey thinks Jamaicans just want to grab their food somewhere quickly, and go home to eat. He believes if we are going out, we don’t want Jamaican food. We want “Olive Garden or Red Lobster.” After his experience, he thinks his restaurant would have done better in a location with a more diverse community, like South Beach.
Perhaps newcomer Jamerican Cuisine in Boynton Beach, Florida, has a chance to thrive. It’s located in a mostly non-Caribbean area, and features menu items such as Oxtail Rigatoni. Though it serves up a gourmet feast that has a very strong Jamaican representation, the dishes are definitely not traditional.
A few people on the poll mentioned Rocksteady in Boca Raton as a place to enjoy authentic and tasty Jamaican food in a casual setting. I’ll have to make my way there soon.
With the more successful upscale casual Jamaican restaurants offering gourmet versions of Jamaican cuisine, I wonder if our traditional foods are just not elegant or “stoosh” enough for a dining experience. I mean, can we not dine on brown stew chicken or cowfoot—by candlelight?