In a destination as touristy as Montego Bay, it might be easy for travelers in search of our preferred type of “uncommon” dining options to dismiss a place that looks like The HouseBoat Grill. It’s beautiful, yes, but to me it just has a bit of a “Bayou meets Asia Pacific” look that brings to mind the two most dreaded words to uncommon travelers: tourist trap.
That’s what I was thinking when I sauntered down the short path that leads to the restaurant from Freeport Road. I had just wrapped up a couple days of meetings and photo shoots on behalf of one of my hotel clients and was anxious for a change of scenery and a unique dining experience. This looked unique alright, but I feared it would not be in the way I wanted. While walking up the jetty, I was reminded of an ill-fated dinner Patrick and I endured a year ago at a Mexican restaurant in Martinique (what were we thinking?!).
After a few deep breaths, I resolved to make the best of it and rang the small bell that signals the ferryman to come ashore to collect restaurant guests. It wasn’t more than five minutes later that I realized my initial fears about the HouseBoat could not have been more wrong.
Philip, the young Jamaican ferryman, greeted me warmly. A couple steady pulls on the rope and we were safely across to the restaurant. Philip escorted me into the downstairs dining/bar area where I soon met Errol, the bartender, and Ewan, the manager who promptly introduced me to one of the HouseBoat’s prized creations: the Rasmo.
Developed by Errol and Scott Stanley, co-owner of the HouseBoat, the Rasmo is a twist on the Cosmo, combining a shot of Absolut Vodka, half-a-shot of Midori, and a splash of cranberry juice to get the evening started just right.
The drink was very nice, but it wasn’t the main thing that convinced me I was wrong about the HouseBoat. It was more about the atmosphere, the exceptional cuisine and the friendly service.
The downstairs dining and bar area is cozy and dimly lit, with photos tracing the HouseBoat’s colorful past all around. Originally built in late 1970’s the HouseBoat started out as a bar and night club. At some point Steve McQueen stayed on the boat during the filming of the movie Papillion. It was later transformed into a fondue restaurant, which explains some of the seeminly out of place design elements that had me nervous about the place before.
Downstairs is great, but the upstairs section is the real choice spot to dine or enjoy a few drinks here. Open air tables, a small bar and a myriad of lounging areas offer lots of great options for watching the sunset and the lights of Montego Bay. The setting is wonderfully romantic and quiet, with the sounds of the bay, a few clinking glasses and polite conversation standing in stark contrast to the party scene on the Hip Strip just a few miles away.
As for the food, Owner/Chef Richard Nurse keeps the menu choices as fresh as the local meats, fish and produce he insists upon for every dish. A native of Kingston, he trained at Johnson & Wales and worked abroad in Canada, the U.S.and Vienna before returning to his native homeland to open the HouseBoat in 2001. The passion Richard has for the restaurant, Jamaica and fine cuisine is readily apparent if you’re lucky enough to have even the briefest of conversations with him. You’ll also notice that he only has one arm, which makes his wizardry in the kitchen all the more remarkable.
For my main course, I enjoyed the Mahi Mahi with brown rice, asparagus, spinach and grilled tomatoes. I highly recommend it, but if I had the chance, I would’ve opted for the HouseBoat’s main draw: LOBSTER!
Lobster season runs between July 1 and March 31, making those nine months the best to pay this place a visit. The tasty critters are kept in a live lobster pen directly below the boat. There’s actually a glass floor just in front of the main bar in the downstairs area where you can select your lobster of choice; just another of the many nice touches to enhance the dining experience at the HouseBoat.
I was alone for my dinner at the HouseBoat, so yet again the romance of a truly special place was lost on me. Still, as the moon rose over the bay, its quiet lights dancing on the water, I did manage to share an intimate moment or two at the upstairs bar with the HouseBoat’s amazingly decadent Warm Mini Molten Chocolate Cake. Damion, the bartender upstairs, didn’t come out and say it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought that me and Ms. Warm Mini should get ourselves a room. He did leave us alone for a few minutes to help an elderly guest down the stairs, though, which was probably best for everyone.
For more on the HouseBoat, click here to visit them online.