AS the pandemic hit two years ago most of the travel industry in Spain went into full disaster mode.
Meanwhile, in Marbella, the hotels and restaurants braced themselves for an influx of captains of industry, celebrities and royalty.
The perfect haunt to ride out the crisis, it seemed like half the world’s super rich headed to its crystal shores, as hotel occupancy soared and restaurant reservations hit the roof.
It’s no coincidence that Marbella counts on the highest number of Michelin starred eateries in Spain, per capita.
The resort of 147,000 year-round residents enjoy no less than five Michelin stars spread across four restaurants between its golden arches. And there used to be a lot more, before wunderkind Dani Garcia chucked in his trio when he closed his eponymous joint at the Puente Romano hotel two years ago.
But that’s only half the story, for there are at least a dozen more that are jostling for the honour, while seven also count on prestigious ‘soles’ (suns) from Repsol’s Spanish food bible.
My personal favourites are Ta-kumi and el Lago, which despite its iffy golf course location, has never let me down for food.
And then there is Kava, which is the most unusual, creative spot right in the heart of town, run by a self-taught chef with a Masters degree in law. Originally from Marbella, Fernando Alcala spent years working as a solicitor in Switzerland, before deciding to give it a go back home in the kitchen two years ago.
Meanwhile, on the Golden Mile, the Boho Club is glamorous and up the road in San Pedro de Alcantara, you have the excellent Savor, while the secret spot El Cortijo de Ramiro, in Guadalmina, is where the power-brokers-in-know go to eat.
Right up in the hills, worth a drive, is the charming restaurant at Alcuzcuz, which technically is in Benahavis.
For beach restaurants you are spoilt for choice, although the amazing Macaao, in San Pedro takes some beating.
It has a real touch of class and is run with an iron fist by Belgian Michel Dhondt, who heralds from a long line of restaurant owners and trained with Alain Ducasse on the Cote d’Azur.
In the heart of the old town Taberna La Nina del Pisto is a great spot, while Altamirano comes highly recommended by most.
I must also mention Skina, which now has two stars in the heart of the old town, and its owner, a sommelier by training, Marcos Granda’s new Asiatic restaurant Nintao, which already has a star around the corner.
But Marbella has something for everyone. There are well over 100 different nationalities cooking here, from Japanese to Dutch and Chilean to Korean.
Take a walk around the old town and follow your nose to see what is open.
I’ve always liked Belgian-run Casanis, an elegant spot with a great local menu, while Italian restaurant Cibo on the main road into Marbella is always reliable.
Up in Banus it is harder to find genuinely good food and it can be very hit or miss.
Saying that, I have eaten well at the likes of Jacks and Mumtaz and was recently delighted to come across the stylish Leone, run by the same group but with much more focus on the food quality.
Global glamour and world’s best chefs
When you’ve got so many people, who can easily drop €500 for a table for two on a Wednesday lunch, you understandably attract the stars.
And it is not just the likes of Robert de Niro, Michelle Obama and Hugh Grant who I have spotted dining in the old town.
Thanks to a fabulous annual event, A Cuatro Manos, organized by Dani Garcia for years at the Puente Romano, I have got to meet the great and the good of Spain’s globally-famous food scene.
Interviewing el Bulli legend Ferran Adria was a real standout, while getting to grill Joan Roca and Valencia star Quique Dacosta twice, comes a close second.
More exciting even, was meeting French legend Joel Robuchon, who gushed about the Andalucian food scene, while New York’s Eleven Madison Park maestro Daniel Humm, would hardly stop talking.
One of the most extraordinary eateries has to be La Sala.
Written off by just about everyone when it opened a decade ago on a busy roundabout just inland from the N-340 motorway, it has turned out to be – almost certainly – Marbella’s most successful restaurant and one of the most enduring.
Run by Ian Radford and wife Claire, with a bit of help from a celebrity eleven of former Premiership footballers, including Steve Carr, David Bentley and Shay Given, it is a must-visit for any holiday to Marbs.
Just about everyone has been for lunch from Jamie Oliver to Harry Kane and this emporium of glass and seductive lighting, is at its best on a weekend lunch or early Friday evening on its wonderful deck terrace.
Surprisingly good is the food, while you are bound to have fun after the meal as the music kicks off. If you are looking for meat or fish, there is usually a contemporary twist
Above the hordes
One of the true secret spots in Marbella is the Benabola Hotel Sky Bar.
The only rooftop dining spot above Puerto Banus offers views as far as the eye can see… and then some.
Lording it over the famous marina, this is the best place for an early evening tapa and cocktail, or a nightcap following supper.
Even better, come for the evening and join those-in-the-know alongside various celebrities.
And anyone ordering two cocktails or more gets free underground parking (follow the Benabola Hotel signs and get your card franked at reception).
And, if you want to really experience the high life then book a room at the hotel.