A Meal to Remember
Heads turn and eyes widen as a towering plate of Caribbean lobster thermidor with its rich, cream sauce and al dente pasta is whisked across the terrace and set down in front of a couple seated at a white-linen table on the beach.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography Kenneth Theysen
Later, as the sun dips into the water, Ricardo Chirino winds his way to another table with a plate of pistachio ice cream-filled profiteroles drenched in chocolate sauce, walking slowly in order to allow his guests to eat it with their eyes. He coughs gently as he passes an American couple who has been dining at his restaurant for years – a reminder of their favorite dessert and what they have to look forward to after their mango-Creole grouper and tenderloin in Cognac-pepper steak.
The couple is part of Ricardo’s loyal following. They have known him since when he worked next door, at Matthew’s, in the Casa del Mar Beach Resort. Other guests remember him from even before that, when he worked at the now defunct Rumba Bar & Grill. In the twenty-three years he’s spent working in restaurants on Aruba, he’s made a name for himself, which is why the restaurant he now owns and manages with his sister Anky bears his name.
Ask his regulars why they come back to Ricardo’s, again and again, and unfailingly the answer will be: “The service.” “I want my guests to feel like they’re in my living room,” says Ricardo. “You come to visit as a friend and I will take care of you – that’s the kind of feeling that I want my restaurant to create. I always find time to come to your table and chat with you a few seconds, and so many people like that.” He also caters to customers seeking nothing more than a peaceful evening and a beautiful sunset. “I think some people want to enjoy the meal and the view quietly. I want everybody to be comfortable,” he adds.
A meal at Ricardo’s usually starts with him offering his arm to escort ladies to their tables. The gesture is so appreciated that oftentimes, if several women are dining together, they will wait to be escorted one by one, says Anky. “Sometimes they fight about who gets to be escorted,” she jokes. “Other times, if Ricardo is off that night, they get mad at me!”
If escorting a man’s wife ever upsets the husband, Ricardo explains that when he was growing up, his mom would always ask for his arm when they walked together. “I say to the gentlemen ‘Just so you know, I do this because my mom told me to do it.’” One day, he says, he will walk his daughter down the aisle the same way. As she is currently only seven, however, for now he will settle for his dinner guests.
Ricardo knows, however, that great service and a romantic atmosphere are not enough to make a restaurant successful. You also need great food and drinks. As waves crash on the beach, guests dig into appetizers of coconut-pineapple shrimp, sesame-coated fresh tuna salad with roasted almonds, pickled shallots, mango-wasabi dressing, and classic Caribbean ceviche heaped with cubes of freshly caught local grouper, peppers and red onions in a pungent lemon leche de tigre. They sip white sangria with their seafood linguine or full-bodied Pinot Noir with their charcoal-grilled Argentinian rib-eye special. And while many restaurants on the island offer the same fish or seafood options, Ricardo says the difference is in the ingredients. “The ceviche recipe is standard, but then you fight to get the best fish.” His grouper, red snapper, lobster, and tuna are all locally caught in waters off the coast of Aruba. “Lately it’s a lot easier, because we have Facebook, WhatsApp, all the social media,” he says. “Nowadays, while the guys are fishing, they take pictures and I can basically choose my fish while they’re on the boat.”
He also has firsthand experience with truly fresh fish. “We come from the part of Venezuela that’s fifty miles from here. Our dad had a house right on the coast that he built when I was seven or eight. For me, it was heaven. I was always fishing, diving for lobsters, diving for octopus. I would catch the lobster with my bare hands.”
Now with a seven-year-old daughter of his own, Ricardo knows how important it is for a restaurant to be family-friendly. Kids enjoy tomato pasta, chicken nuggets, pizza, and mini filet mignon. “I also tell parents that if there is something the kids feel like eating, all they have to do is let us know,” says Ricardo. “I can even bring the kids’ food right away. Because once you give kids the food, parents start to relax.”
His two Italian and Colombian head chefs are just as adaptable with food intolerances and special diets. They know that once guests have a good experience, they often see them again and again that week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “Sometimes they eat here every night,” says Ricardo. They come back for the all-you-can-eat grouper on Wednesdays or barbecue ribs on Mondays. They stop by for any of the three daily happy hours, when everything at the bar is two-for-one. And after dinner, on Thursdays, they stay for the weekly karaoke dance party where the kitchen and service staff show guests how to do the Cuban Hustle (four steps to the right, four to the left, cha-cha to the front, and twist to the left) and cheer as kids and parents belt out everything from Katy Perry to AC/DC.
The karaoke has become so popular that some brides even plan their receptions around the event. “We’ve catered a few weddings already, because after the ceremony, they don’t have to hire music or anything. They finish dinner then move to the bar. We have pictures of brides in their white dresses on top of the bar,” says Ricardo. “Sometimes they end in the water,” adds Anky.
While Ricardo’s is only going into its third year, it already feels like an establishment, a place where guests look forward to returning year after year and first time visitors of the island put on their bucket list. “I keep telling everybody I’m going to stay here for the next forty-five years,” says Ricardo. “I love this view. It’s spectacular. I never get tired of seeing the water, the beach, hearing the noise of the water, the sea. I grew up with this. From my father’s house, I saw the sunrise coming out of the water and the sunset going in, but I also see other people appreciating it every day, people who remind me that they don’t have this all the time, since they come from snow. It makes me appreciate what I have.”
Indeed, as the ocean devours the last streaks of red and gold on the horizon, and guests linger over the last sips of passion fruit martinis, it is easy to see why people remember Ricardo’s.