Spiny lobster is incredibly popular in Bermuda, and the typical presentation is stuffed and broiled on the half shell like this version at The Wharf.(Photo: Larry Olmsted, for USA TODAY)
The scene: Bermuda is quite unique among North America’s Atlantic islands. Despite many misconceptions, it is not part of the Caribbean or the Bahamas — off the coast of North Carolina, it is roughly the same distance from Puerto Rico as it is from Nova Scotia, and geographically it stands alone. Unlike most Caribbean islands, it was uninhabited before Europeans arrived, and the first residents came by accident — English settlers shipwrecked here on their way to Jamestown, Va. It has been English ever since, and is the oldest and most populous British Overseas Territory and oldest English settlement in the New World — the first town, St. George’s, has been continuously occupied since 1609.
Bermudan cuisine developed from the traditions of the English settlers melded with the seafood and natural resources produced by the subtropical climate, and is different from the food cultures of the Caribbean and Bahamas. It has one of the most homogenous offerings of local dishes, in the sense that the most common distinctly Bermudan specialties are offered all across the island, at almost every local restaurant, while a handful of less common ones are seasonal or require extra effort to find.
St. George’s is Bermuda’s oldest town and while it is not where most visitors stay, it is well worth a visit, full of charm, history, unique shops and The Wharf, a large and popular seaside restaurant featuring most Bermudan specialties made in a traditional fashion. It is quite close to the airport, making it a convenient place to stop upon arrival or before departure. The Wharf has ample indoor and outdoor seating, the latter along a shaded courtyard or out in front on the wharf itself, right at the edge of the water. The inside has a nautical feel with a classic port town bar down one side, doors with brass framed portholes set in them, and two dining rooms with framed schematic diagrams of sailing ships on the walls. The ambiance is especially timely given that Bermuda, a very popular recreational sailing destination, will host the 2017 America’s Cup.
Reason to visit: Bermudan fish chowder, fish sandwiches, spiny lobster, Dark & Stormy, catch of the day
The food: Bermudan cuisine revolves around seafood, and there is plenty of fresh local stuff to be had. Given that anything from off the island is shipped in and pricey, ocean-based dishes are the best bets for visitors, both for value and quality. That being said, food prices across the board are quite high here.
If there is one signature Bermudan dish, it is, without a doubt, fish chowder. It is a broth-based soup, not a chowder in the thick creamy sense, more in the Manhattan than New England clam chowder family. Thanks to a bite from the most ubiquitous local seasoning, Outerbridge’s Original Sherry Pepper sauce, it tastes a bit like chili made with seafood. Some people make it a little brothier, some a little more tomatoey, but the base is always a broth of boiled fish, traditionally including the head, tail and bones with any remaining meat used for another purpose, mixed with tomatoes. It reflects the island culture of avoiding waste, and is similar to making stock from leftover chicken or turkey. It usually does not have big chunks of fish but rather flecks throughout, though some places add additional chunks of filets and more chopped vegetables. It is usually served with a small glass of Gosling's Black Seal Rum, the nation’s famous naval brand, and a small bottle of sherry pepper sauce for the diner to season as they see fit. For many popular items, Bermuda has just one brand, and the rum is Gosling's, the hot sauce Outerbridge’s, which is not your typical hot sauce — more mild and closer to rose than red, made by steeping local hot peppers in sherry.
Bermuda Fish Chowder can be made with any fresh local fish, often rockfish (grouper), and it is the traditional start to lunch or dinner. The version at The Wharf is just a bit on the thick side, no chunks but a distinctive seafood taste, and it is very good. In addition to being the island’s most famous dish, the condiments are its two most famous products, so you get a good sense of place when eating it, and you can really smell the rum as you add it.
The next most traditional dish would be the fish sandwich, but while in other places that has a wide variety of meanings, in Bermuda the dish is very precise. What really sets it apart from almost anything you will have tasted before is that it is served on sweet raisin bread. Yes, sliced raisin bread, with a pan fried and barely breaded (more a crust) filet of fresh local fish, plus cole slaw, tartar sauce and hot sauce (Outerbridge’s, of course). The Bermudan palate traditionally favors a combination of sweet and savory, found in many dishes, but this is the premier example. Because the fish is almost always fresh, and wahoo, the island’s favorite, is most common, the quality of these sandwiches is very good, and the bread gives it a really unique wrinkle that is both delicious and surprising. I was so moved I came home determined to try the same thing with smoked salmon, using raisin bread instead of a bagel, and I think it would work well with almost any seafood, like crab salad. Many places offer the option to swap in whole wheat bread, but I wouldn’t – that’s missing the whole point.
Like pizza or burgers elsewhere, Bermudans argue over which restaurant has the best fish sandwich, and accolades go to Woody’s, the Swizzle Inn, Art Mel’s Spicy Dicy and Rosa’s, which won last year’s island-wide competition by the Royal Gazette. The Wharf is a strong contender and tops in St. George’s, and like its fish chowder, serves the condiments on the side for perfect customization, while some places add them.
Fried fish, usually wahoo, but also rockfish, hind (a whitefish similar to snapper), turbot and hogfish (related to turbot) are common, and any of these will appear as the sandwich, fried fish or Catch of the Day, a ubiquitous entrée at local restaurants. Even Bermuda’s favorite local fast food restaurant, Ice Queen, serves fried wahoo nuggets, using fresh and local fish.
Bermuda is mad for lobster, maybe even more so than Maine, though here it is the warm water spiny lobster (no claws). It is used in all sorts of dishes and some fancy places even add lobster to their fish chowder, but the most common preparation is split lengthwise, with stuffing added to the head area, and broiled. This stuffed lobster on the half shell is all over the island, while stuffed lobster has become something of a rarity in the U.S. The head cavity gets a seafood breading mixture that sometimes contains shrimp and scallops. You get one big chunk of lobster, the tail, and usually you have a choice of half or whole (two halves). It is also common to see lobster paired with other dishes, surf and turf, or with risotto or something similar in which case you might see “Guinea Chick” on the menu, which is a fully mature adult lobster of unusually small size, sort of a mini lobster, often used for combination plates. The spiny lobster is rich like the North Atlantic version, but not as tender, meatier and more steak-like. They are fished and eaten daily, but only in season, from September to March, and they are a very big deal.
The nation’s most famous cocktail is also ubiquitous, and a must try if you favor adult beverages. The Dark & Stormy is a mix of Gosling’s Dark Rum and ginger beer on ice, usually adorned with a lime wedge. While Gosling’s makes ginger beer to complete the package, the preferred brand is Barritt's, and you can sort of tell how seriously a bar takes itself by this distinction — The Wharf pours Barritt's. The sweetness hides the strength and many vacationers find out too late that these are easy to drink.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, if you visit Bermuda you must try this trinity of local specialties: fish chowder, spiny lobster and fish sandwich on raisin bread. The Wharf has standout examples of all three.
Rating: Yum-Plus! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$-$$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 14 Water Street, St. George’s, Bermuda; 441-297-3305; wharf.bm
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.