Where to Eat on the Riviera Maya

From tacos made with just three ingredients to a molecular dinner served in a resort dining room, from a cold beer on the beach to a mezcal-based cocktail with a chili-rimmed glass, you will not soon forget the bright tastes of the Riviera Maya.

Highlights
Tankah 69 Mza 1 Lote 24 SMZA 26, 26, 77509 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Just a five-minute walk from the popular Market 28 souvenir zone downtown, Café con Gracia has earned a stellar reputation among 20-something locals for its refreshing frappés (choose from an extensive menu like mint, mango, bubble gum, and Nutella). Adorable if tight, this former residence serves coffee drinks and desserts in its backyard garden, indoor rooms, and front terrace. Also on the menu are tasty bagels, waffles, and other beloved breakfast items. Daytime is quiet at this indoor-outdoor venue, but in the evenings, it can fill with customers.
Av Uxmal, Mza 02 Lte 33, SM 3, Benito Juárez, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
What was once an abandoned house on one of downtown Cancún’s central avenues is now an outdoor garden for Mediterranean cuisine. Each night the small regular menu is complemented by a list of daily specials on the chalkboard, as well as innovative, high-end cocktails and desserts not found elsewhere in town. Dishes—like the homemade empanadas or the artisanal ravioli stuffed with plantain and goat cheese—are made with mostly local organic products. The garden restaurant’s alluring ambience—twinkly lights, rafter-strung lanterns, and bougainvillea that climbs the walls beneath the stars—beckons you to a fairy-tale evening perfect for romance. Dinner only.
Inside La Isla Shopping Village in Cancún’s Hotel Zone, this sensual dinner spot occupies a beautifully lit tropical garden overlooking the lagoon. Over the years, it has become one of the city’s most renowned dining rooms, thanks to its dreamy atmosphere—dozens of semi-private tables beneath palapa-roofed cabanas—and Southeast Asia–inspired cuisine. Menu options include spicy pha de Phuket (deep-fried fish in tamarind chili sauce) and lamb chops with chili-mint sauce, as well as several vegetarian dishes. For the most romantic experience, book a sunset table next to the lagoon.
This iconic downtown restaurant was on historic Avenida Nader years before the neighborhood became hip. The focus here is on Italian dishes with creative twists, like the Van Gogh pizza topped with grilled shrimp and goat cheese, or the artisanal ravioli stuffed with lobster, along with a selection of wine and cocktails from its outdoor bar. But the gorgeous outdoor setting of El Tigre y El Toro is what really attracts local insiders. The menu’s Mediterranean flavors blend with a Caribbean ambience amid lush greenery, candlelight, and lanterns that hang from swaying palm trees.
Blvd. Kukulcan Km. 9.5, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Expat owned and run, this spot brings California-style burritos to Mexico. The tiny outdoor restaurant—featuring only three long tables—routinely fills with an eclectic mix of locals, foreign residents, and tourists in search of a casual spot for laid-back socializing. The hole-in-the-wall chic surfer vibe pairs well with made-to-order burritos and tacos with several kinds of seafood and tortillas; you’ll also find umbrella drinks, traditional Mexican micheladas (beers served with ingredients like lime juice, chili powder, and Worcestershire sauce), burgers, and ceviches. Best of all, it’s open round the clock, making it an easy option for wee-hour snacking when Party Center clubs let out.
km 19.4, Kukulkan, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Even though it’s right across the street from top Cancún resorts near the southern end of the Hotel Zone, the entrance to this open-air restaurant remains known only to locals plus a few in-the-know travelers. Walk down the wooden staircase to find a dirt floor, a palapa roof, and tranquil lagoon views, plus affordable Caribbean seafood dishes prepared in an outdoor kitchen. You’ll also get traditional comfort food like ceviche and garlic shrimp, along with a selection of Mexican beers, but the highlight is the hot and fresh pescadillas, shredded fish in pan-fried tortillas.
Downtown Cancún’s bullring is surrounded by local dives and restaurants, making the area a top nightlife destination for locals. Las de Guanatos is the most popular spot, famed for massive one-liter micheladas—beer mixed with varying ingredients like Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, or even shrimp, plus salt or chili powder on the rim. An extensive menu features Mexican and American pub grub, but it’s also one of the only places in the city where you can find Guadalajara-style tortas ahogadas: shredded pork sandwiches topped with onions and smothered in sauces ranging from mild to super spicy. The terrace fills on weekends, thanks to a buzzy vibe and live outdoor music.
Calle 10 Margaritas 25, 22, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
One of Cancún’s oldest restaurants, La Habichuela was a 1970s original whose owner wanted a place to hang out with friends. It’s become an upscale dining room featuring local Mayan recipes alongside Mexican-Caribbean fare. The now iconic restaurant borders downtown’s Las Palapas Park, and has a charming backyard garden adorned with twinkly lights and climbing vines. Start the evening with balché, an ancestral Mayan drink made from the bark and roots of the balché tree that have been soaked in honey and water. For your entrée, try the amaranth fish bathed in flavorful tamarind and mango vinaigrettes.
Azul Beach Resort Riviera Cancun by Karisma, Cancún, Q.R., México
Sleek contemporary design at this luxurious restaurant hints at innovative presentations within. Le Chique offers guests a single menu that can reach 30 carefully prepared courses of gasp-inducing molecular cuisine that takes inspiration from numerous cultures as it focuses on adding a twist to the traditionally Mexican. Each bite-size dish might not be just as it seems, with margaritas made into spheres and street foods deconstructed into a gourmet experience. Despite its location in a Riviera Maya resort 20 minutes south of Cancún, the restaurant is open to the public with an advance reservation.
As you walk north along 5th Avenue, the crowds start thinning out and businesses become more locally owned, making for a quieter version of the eclectic downtown vibe. At Calle 38, take a right. You’re now in one of the city’s most beloved neighborhoods, where luxury shops and souvenir stores give way to charming eateries and small-scale beach hotels. Here, jungle trees cast shade on open-air bars and restaurants such as La Cueva del Chango, with its cave-like atmosphere and natural Mexican cuisine; Piola, serving pizzas and pastas; and Trujillos, where wood tables and strings of lights surround a seductive outdoor bar.
Calle Quinta Avenida, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77720 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Evincing a nautical but contemporary style, this open-air restaurant serves some of the best tostadas in Playa del Carmen. The signature delicacy is a crispy tortilla covered in any number of toppings, and at Las Hijas de la Tostada, expect them to be piled high with just the right blend of sauces and seafood. Try two or three, especially the camarón roca, with shrimp, eel sauce, and a drizzle of pureed chipotle, or raw options like the tostada Uxmal, with tuna and spicy salsa.
Calle 6 Norte, Centro, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Fusion, one of Playa del Carmen’s oldest and best-loved beach bars, has an indoor restaurant area, but it’s most famous for its outdoor lounge, right on the sand, under palm trees, and hard by the Caribbean. Fusion’s central location in the busiest part of the downtown area makes it ideal for enjoying a day under a palapa’s shade, or a night out on the town with live music and fire shows. The menu offers a variety of international cuisine, so you can find almost anything you’re craving, whether it’s tacos, Argentine empanadas, or classic pub grub à la burgers and wings.
So close to mad 5th Avenue yet with nary a tourist in sight, this downtown Playa del Carmen park is a favorite stop for locals in search of fast, cheap eats. As you pass under the large stone archway at the southeast corner, you’ll see a pathway lined on both sides with carts selling traditional Mexican street food. Pour the available salsas over greasy tortas, quesadillas, and tacos, or try a healthier breakfast option with some fresh fruit juices. This spot exists for quick bites over plastic plates, so you won’t find any tables—most customers eat while standing or ask for a stool. And remember: Glass bottles must be returned to vendors.
Calle 34, Centro, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
This Playa del Carmen restaurant takes its name from a traditional Mexican dish known as aguachile: chili-marinated shrimp with lime juice, onion, and sometimes other ingredients that lend it a strong, spicy-citrus flavor. With its open-air setting and laid-back, beachy style, plus a location a few blocks from bustling 5th Avenue, Los Aguachiles is in fact more local hangout than tourist joint. There’s an extensive menu of other casual Mexican seafood, most notably delicious tacos and tostadas (crispy tortillas piled high with traditional ingredients), as well as mezcal cocktails and chamochela (michelada-style beer mixed with sauces, then rimmed with chili powder and decorated with a shrimp).
Calle 10, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77720 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Since around 2000, this iconic Swedish-owned restaurant and bar, just steps off Playa’s always-packed 5th Avenue, serves up an eclectic mix of Asian-European fusion cuisine. The appetizers just might be the highlight, in iterations like a flavorful cheese in mango-mint sauce, or the Vietnamese yellowfin tuna rolls wrapped in rice paper and served with a side of spicy Asian coleslaw and nuoc cham sauce. For your main course, try the famous noodle dishes and pad thai. Vegetarians love it here, too, not least of all for the noodle and curry dishes into which tofu is happily added.
Calle 34 norte #128, Municipio de Solidaridad, Col.Gonzalo Guerrero, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77720 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Named for the bright-red paste made from numerous spices that’s used as a rub in southern Mexico (the intense color comes from the achiote seed), Axiote abides by a simple rule: It uses only Mexican ingredients in the dishes it prepares according to cutting-edge culinary technology. That rule translates into a gourmet experience like few others. Unique options such as octopus dressed in Mesoamerican huitlacoche (corn smut) and recado negro (a smoky-spicy black sauce) make up the small menu and daily specials, alongside a host of chefs’ scrumptious inventions. The restaurant’s simple interior, which combines contemporary and rustic style, appropriately takes a backseat to the incredible cuisine.
Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km 10.5, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Once just a popular food truck in a temporary locale, Charly’s now has its own permanent location on Tulum’s hip hotel strip. Its chefs have managed to take traditional Mexican meat-based dishes and turn them into 100-percent vegan recipes while still maintaining the classic flavors. Try the vegetarian version of an aguachile (seafood marinated in lime juice, onion, and chili) or a trio of tacos with your fillings and toppings of choice, like imitation carnitas, porkless crackling, or mushrooms. Best of all is the restaurant’s garden location, whose atmosphere of cool, beachy charm features shady trees and wicker lanterns.
Carretera Tulum a Boca Paila Km 8.2, Ejido Pino Suarez, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Embodying the city’s beach-chic vibe, this oceanside hotel restaurant and bar is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. La Zebra serves authentic Mexican dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, some from the Riviera Maya region and others from different parts of the country, including classic corn tamales and cochinita pibil tacos. During the daytime, try one of their popular aguas frescas: a drink combining fruit with other natural ingredients, sugar, and water that’s a refreshing way to beat the heat. After dinner on Sundays, hit the beach to dance at weekly salsa parties under the palms.
Carretera Tulum Boca Paila 7.6Km, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Hartwood prides itself on having no menu; instead, there are daily options based on whatever is available from nearby ranches and farms. Of course, that means locally sourced ingredients only, in the service of innovative, Mexican-inspired dishes. The never-the-same menu has made Hartwood one of Tulum’s most popular and in-demand dining rooms of late. Its dreamy ambience, with a gravel floor and a palm-shaded outdoor setting, melds beautifully with recipes created in the moment. Walk-ins are usually not accepted; book a table well in advance.
Carretera, Boca Paila km 5.2, Manzana 10 Lote 16, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Mateo’s claims to have the best fish tacos on earth, and yes, they are pretty great! Set in the heart of Tulum’s coastal hotel strip, this big outdoor restaurant is one of the most popular in town for its easy location, eye-catching lantern-lit ambience, and great cooking. They call themselves a Mexican grill and there are plenty of tacos, burritos, and fajitas, but you’ll find kebabs, big burgers, and even ribs, as well. Customers also love the fresh smoothies like the Happy Hippie, made with mango, papaya, cantaloupe, pineapple, and honey. Not particularly fancy, Mateo’s wins as a cool spot to hang out while enjoying solid food and drink.
Beach Road Km. 7, Boca Paila, QRO, Mexico
Disco ball, lounge, jungle, and cuisine all come together at this trendy restaurant located on Tulum’s main hotel-zone avenue. The venue is renowned for its eclectic style that blends unusual lighting, a lush outdoor setting, and live DJ nights for a cool, hippie-style vibe. Dinner is prepared over open-fire grills and in wood-burning ovens, resulting in flavorful Mexican favorites like taco samplers, quesadillas with epazote, grilled avocado, and slow-roasted pork belly. Gitano also specializes in strange but enticing cocktails from its mezcal bar, like ones that include ingredients like rum, hibiscus, and tropical fruits.
Boulevard Punta Nizuc - Cancun Km 22.5, Nizuc, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
With just a few plastic tables beneath some palapas, this hidden gem on Cancún’s more natural southern side has an incredible location right at the mouth of the river that connects the Nichupté Lagoon to the Caribbean. The tikin xic (pronounced tee-keen sheek) is a must if you want to try the region’s most iconic seafood—this local Mayan dish is typically prepared with grouper split in half, then marinated in red achiote paste, wrapped in a banana leaf, and baked in a pit. The river here has clear, calm waters suitable for swimming, even if the path down is a bit rocky.
51 Avenida Yaxchilán
This decades-old venue ranks as one of the best in Cancún for authentic tacos al pastor: marinated, spit-roasted pork in corn tortillas, topped with pineapple (ask for it con todo to get chopped onion and cilantro, or order a gringa for pastor-meat with cheese on a flour tortilla). Smack downtown on the Avenida Yaxchilán bar-and-restaurant strip, this eatery delights visitors with its colorful Mexican tiles and strolling mariachis; yet the food is so good that half the customers are locals. For drinks, try the special margarita with your choice of tequilas.
Calle 34 Norte Entre 5ta Y 10, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77720 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Loved by locals, this quaint, comfortable Playa del Carmen spot commits to food, ambience, and service, with dishes that highlight tastes from Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s most celebrated culinary regions. Dare to order some salty grasshoppers called chapulines and and enjoy excellent tlayudas (flat toasted tortillas laden in your choice of topping). Mixed drinks at the bar are famous, too, especially the vast mescal selection. An economic choice for lunch and great any time of day.
Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Soft lighting, floor-pillows, rich woods, and great food. Welcome to Humo Tulum, a healthy option for contemporary Maya cuisine that really delivers. Whether it’s the catch of the day or a vegan “meatball,” Humo’s tasty and eclectic menu is square on the pulse of food’s healthiest trends. Feel the vibe beneath an enormous palapa; well worth a trek to the slightly out-of-the-way location.
Tulum Centro, Tulum, Q.R., México
With plants and hot pink flowers covering the roof, Tres Galeones is hard to miss in the town center of Tulum. Simple, easy and delicious, this restaurant embodies the laid-back spirit of beach life with its basic decoration and fresh seafood dishes. Shrimp or fish tacos, tostadas, or the famous marlin burritos are perfect for lunch or dinner. On Saturdays, swing by to listen to live music and sip on a cold beer or tasty cocktail. For those that love the food, don’t forget to visit Tres Galeones in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City as well.
More From AFAR