Jose Ignacio, Uruguay

Best Restaurant in Uruguay: La Huella

We’d landed in Montevideo early that morning – “early” meaning the first and only American Airlines arrival of the day: 6 a.m., on the overnight from Miami. By the time we pulled into La Huella, well after 11 p.m., we’d had a full day of back-to-back-to-back meetings in Uruguay.

This was April. The cool of the Southern Hemisphere’s approaching autumn was already settling over the coastal hamlet of Jose Ignacio, where La Huella sits on the sand, literally yards from the cold, South Atlantic waters. Inside, the entire place was bathed in that kind of sexy, candlelit darkness that forces you to squint at the menu and makes you feel swaddled. We settled atop stools at the bar, ordered a bottled of a fabulous yet obscure Argentinian Malbec, and my boss looked, putting her menu down, looked at me and said, “Ahhh – Mama’s home.”

Yes – we’d been here before. Many times to this point. For several years, we were running and speaking at investment conferences in Montevideo and Punta del Este. And with every trip to Uruguay – often twice a year – we found our way to La Huella at least once. And with good reason: Restaurants rarely pair food, ambiance, and location as well as La Huella.

BEst Restaurant in the Universe: No, Really.

From all outward appearances, La Huella (pronounced: la way-zjuh, Spanish for “the footprint”) is an overgrown, open-air beach snack-shack of weathered wood. In the spring and summer, canvas awnings shade wooden patio furniture. Inside, the place is a collection of dining rooms, a bar, and an open-air kitchen. Combined, it all seems like something kids would throw together when building a fort in the woods from found pieces of plywood.

Officially, La Huella is a parador – something akin to a roadside inn. Which seems appropriate, given its location on a road disappearing into the sand in a village of 200 people.

The restaurant is in fact, however, one of the very best in South America, and has been voted as such. It’s the kind of place where, in season, reservations are impossible unless you know someone who knows the owners. But, should you in fact land said reservation, chances are good you’ll be dining and drinking alongside Argentine and Brazilian billionaires in board-shorts and their bikini-clad supermodel girlfriends and mistresses – though you’ll never realize a Master of the Universe is within arm’s distance. The only telltale sign of wealth: Ferarris and Lamborghinis the Brazilians import for the summer since they can’t safely drive such pricey cars back in Brazil the rest of the year without risk of kidnapping or theft.

In short, La Huella is, as Bon Appetit magazine once gushed, “The best beachside restaurant on the planet.”

For me, this is the single best restaurant in our universe. And I don’t say that to blow a bunch of hype up your ass.

I’ve eaten at Michelin-starred eateries and those on Michelin’s watch list. I’ve eaten at the oldest restaurant in the world (El Botin, Madrid) and some of the best in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Tokyo. And I’m saying that if I knew tomorrow would be my last day addicted to oxygen, I’d get my ass to Jose Ignacio to spend my final hours in a place that feels as close to home as any restaurant possibly can. It’s that damn comfortable. It’s that damn good.

During the day, the crowd lounges on outdoor decks or hangs out on the sand, nursing bottles of local beer and glasses local wine (and Uruguay produces some world-class, though widely underappreciated wines) until the sun sets. Early evenings are quiet as the staff prepares for the dinner crowd, which begins showing up about 10 p.m. Indeed, if you make it to La Huella for dinner you’ll undoubtedly see young kids curled up and sleeping on benches under handmade wool shawls the restaurants keeps in abundance to ward off the cool, evening air. Neatby, parents enjoy a meal and conversation with friends.

At La Huella, it’s food as much as Ambiance

Of course, it’s not just the chill ambiance on the sand that draws the rich and fashionable. It’s the food.

Urguyuans and Argentinians are Olympians when it comes to grilling. And La Huella excels at grilling. You’ll find fabulous seafood, pulled fresh from the Atlantic, as well as some of the best, beef and lamb. In Uruguay, cows and sheep graze on grass. That’s it. They’re not hopped up on hormones and force-fed an unnatural diet for the benefit of the industrial meat complex. So, steaks taste better here, and they’re more healthful.

Truthfully, spend enough time in Uruguay – and I have over the last decade – and you can get tired of meat. So, when I’m at La Huella (I’m lucky in that I have friends in high places here) I regularly go for the grilled corvina, the octopus, the ceviche and sushi, and other grilled ocean critters. And you can’t start any meal without a glass of Argentinian Malbec or Uruguayan Tannat and a plate of grilled provolone cheese served in a plate dimpled like a golf ball and dusted with oregano. The grilling takes place on a large parilla – a uniquely South American grill. It’s one of the many Instragrammable spots inside and outside La Huella.

For dessert … gotta choose the Volcan de Dulche de Leche, the Uruguayan/Argentine spin on a traditional chocolate lava cake.

Finish off with some more wine – particularly a sweet Tannat dessert wine – on one of the outdoor decks, and you’ll have wrapped up one of the best, most-relaxing restaurant experiences you can have.

La Huella: What to Know Before you go

Call ahead. Seriously: CALL. AHEAD.

If you know you’re going to be in or near Punta del Este, the main beach town about 40 minutes to the west of Jose Ignacio, then call as soon as your dates are set in stone. Find out if any tables are available on any days you’re in town. Be flexible.

If you’re heading to Punta in summer, the town swells to 500,000 from its normal population of less than 20,000. So, good luck with a reservation. Chances are you won’t find a seat, given the unquenchable demand for a space at La Huella. But try anyway; you never know.

Frankly, the best time to visit is the shoulder season: late-March through May and September through just before Christmas. You’ll miss the crazy crowds, and you’ll still have nice weather, though maybe a bit cooler. You should still call ahead since even in the off-season La Huella remains popular with Uruguayans. Moreover, at some point in the off-season, La Huella goes to a minimal schedule and is open just a few days per week.

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