El Tábano (Carr. Tulum–Punta Allen, 2.2 kilometers/1.4 miles south of junction, tel. 984/134-8725, 8 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, US$5–20) is Spanish for horsefly, a good sign that this is no ordinary roadside eatery. Rough wood tables on a gravel lot belie a surprisingly nuanced menu, including papaya and tomato gazpacho and fresh fish carpaccio. Turns out the chef cooked at one of Tulum ’s top resorts before opening a place of her own.
Fusion Thai is the specialty at Mezzanine (Carr. Tulum–Punta Allen, 1.3 kilometers/0.8 mile north of junction, cell. tel. 984/113-1596, www.mezzaninetulum.com , 8 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, US$10–25), one of Tulum’s chicest hotel on the beach. Curries—red, green, or pineapple—and fried Thai tofu in peanut sauce are among the dishes served in a fashionable dining area or on a shaded outdoor patio, both with fine sea views. A full bar and cool music make this a place to linger.
La Zebra (Carr. Tulum–Punta Allen, 4.8 kilometers/3 miles south of junction, tel. 984/115-4726, www.lazebratulum.com , 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat., until midnight Sun., US$12–25) has a lovely beachfront patio and palapa-roofed dining area; at night, the long entry path is lit by lanterns. The menu is a bit plain—mostly standard fish and chicken dishes—but the Firestone Soup is a treat: seafood soup prepared at your table using a red-hot stone to cook the ingredients. On Sunday there’s a barbecue and salsa party starting at 8 p.m. (free dance classes at 6 p.m.).
Posada Margherita (Carr. Tulum–Punta Allen, 2.4 kilometers/1.5 miles south of junction, tel. 984/801-8493, www.posadamargherita.com , 7:30–10:30 a.m. and noon–9 p.m. daily, US$8–30) specializes in gourmet Italian dishes, which are prepared with organic products and homemade pastas and breads. A huge tree-trunk plate of appetizers also is brought to each table (think olives, roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts)—almost a meal in and of itself. Service is personalized to the point of having no menus—instead, the waiter typically pulls up an extra chair to discuss with you the dishes being prepared that night (ask for prices before ordering—many customers are shocked when the bill arrives). It’s busy most nights, so you may have to wait to get a table.
Casa Banana (Carr. Tulum–Punta Allen, 4.7 kilometers/2.9 miles south of junction, tel. 984/877-8512, www.tulumnv.com , 7:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. daily, US$5–15) serves up tasty well-priced Mexican and Caribbean dishes in a brightly painted patio dining area. Try the motuleños, a classic Yucatecan breakfast made with fried eggs, beans, cheese, salsa, and peas all atop a fried tortilla, or the blaff, white fish marinated in lime and herbs that will transport you directly to Martinique. Casa Banana is located on the inland side of the road, opposite (and part of) Hotel Nuevo Vida de Ramiro.
One of the best breakfast places in town, Azafrán (Av. Satélite near Calle Polar, cell. tel. 984/129-6130, www.azafrantulum.com , 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Thurs.–Tues., US$4–9) serves up superb morning meals made with gourmet products: homemade bagels with prosciutto and Brie, crepes stuffed with an assortment of fresh fruits, chaya omelets, and pâté platters with fresh baked bread. Organic coffee is a must, as is the fresh squeezed orange juice. The only bummer about this place is that there are only six tables—come early to beat the crowd.
Le Bistro (Calle Centauro near Av. Tulum, cell. tel. 984/133-4507, 9 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, US$4–15) is a bustling café offering a full range of French delicacies—from freshly baked croissants to duck confit. Tables are set outdoors, either on the front porch or under umbrellas in the back courtyard; neither is very charming, but the food is so good, it’s easy to overlook.
Don’t let the nautical theme fool you; La Nave (Av. Tulum between Calles Beta and Osiris, tel. 984/871-2592, 7 a.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat., US$7–14) is more about thin crispy pizza than fish fry. Whether you go all out with a Brie and prosciutto pizza or stick with a classic margherita, you’ll leave satisfied. Pasta dishes and hefty appetizers are excellent alternatives.
El Pequeño Buenos Aires (Av. Tulum btwn Calles Orion and Beta, tel. 984/871-2708, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, US$6–25) serves excellent cuts of beef, plus an array of crepes and even a few vegetarian dishes if meat isn’t your thing. If it is, though, the parrillada Argentina comes piled with different cuts and sausages—a perfect sampler if you can’t decide exactly what you want. For lunch on a budget, try the menu ejecutivo—the special of the day plus a drink for US$6–10.
For seafood, don’t miss Altamar (Calle Beta near Av. Tulum, cell. tel. 998/282-8299, www.altamartulum.com , 7 p.m.–midnight daily, US$8–15). An upscale restaurant featuring regional dishes like pan de cazón, or whole fried fish prepared using gourmet ingredients and presented with flair. Seating is in an open-air, classy dining room just off Avenida Tulum. Cooking classes also are offered if you’re looking to increase your culinary repertoire.
Cetli (Calle Polar Norte at Calle Orion Norte, tel. 984/108-0681, www.cetli.com.mx , 5–10 p.m. Thurs.–Tues., US$10–20) serves up modern Mexican creations by Chef Claudia Pérez, a Mexico City transplant and a graduate of one of Mexico’s top culinary schools. The menu is full of the unique and unexpected, from chicken and chaya roll in peanut mole to agua de pepino con yerba buena (mint cucumber water). Chef Pérez herself is a delight and sometimes doubles as the restaurant’s host and waiter.
For home-style Mexican cooking, head to Don Cafeto’s (Av. Tulum btwn Calles Centauro and Orion, tel. 984/871-2207, 7 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, US$5–18), where Mexican staples like mole and enchiladas are served up along with ceviche plates that are meals unto themselves. On a hot day, try a tall cold chayagra, an uplifting blend of pineapple juice, lime juice, cucumber, and chaya (similar to spinach).
The Zona Hotelera’s largest market, El Pipazo (Punta Piedra, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. daily) is one room filled with snack food, canned goods, water, liquor, and sunscreen.
For basics and then some, head to the Super San Francisco de Asis (Av. Tulum at road to Cobá, 7 a.m.–10 p.m. daily).
Tulum Pueblo has a great local fruit and vegetable shop (6 a.m.–9 p.m. daily) on Avenida Tulum at Calle Alfa.
A classic Mexican bakery, Carmen Tulum (Av. Tulum near Calle Osiris, 6 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, US$0.50–1.50) is a bustling shop offering everything from fresh rolls to chocolate-filled cuernos (croissants). Follow your nose—you can smell the goodness from a block away.