When I first saw Puerto Natales, more than three decades ago, it was primarily a wool-industry service center, and a stopover for backpackers headed to Torres del Paine – and, at that time, only a relative handful of people visited this part of Patagonia. Accommodations were mostly basic (I stayed at the Residencial Magallanes, pictured below), and the supplies themselves limited – the plainest groceries. You usually had to overnight and, if you found a restaurant, the standard would be grilled lamb or mutton, plus the occasional fried fish. The 1982 edition of The South American Handbook (the only guidebook then available) mentions no specific restaurants, though a handful of hotels and other accommodations offered food.
The Handbook’s editors would hardly recognize today’s Natales, where an attractive waterfront and downtown now teem with hotels, hostels, outdoor gear franchises – and plenty of fine restaurants. Recently, in a week in town, I chose a different and distinctive option every evening, and here are three of my favorites.
What is Afrigonia (pictured above)? Improbably, figuratively and literally, it’s a gastronomic marriage between Zambia and Chile, in the persons of chef Kamal Nawaz and his wife Nathalie Reffer. Yesterday’s mutton has become tender lamb on a skewer, with a side of saffron rice, and the seafood masala (shrimp and scallop curry, pictured below) adds an unaccustomed spice to the local scene. Afrigonia’s prices may be on the high side but, after trekking around Torres del Paine, you deserve something unique and special.
A more recent appearance, Santolla is a seafood restaurant – part of the adjacent IF Patagonia Hotel – whose design indulges contemporary container chic (as pictured below). The bar and dining rooms consist of three ground-level containers, joined together, with the kitchen perched above them. From the outside it looks utilitarian, but the interior is cozy (even rustic) and king crab – it takes its name from the Latin term for Spanish-language centolla - is the specialty here.
Afrigonia and Santolla are both upscale options, but Mesita Grande appeals to the backpacker in me with its thin-crusted pizzas, all served at two long communal tables. My twenty-something daughter called it the best pizza ever, but I also like Mesita’s pastas, particularly the ñoquis (gnocchi), and exceptional ice cream. If it’s not the best restaurant in Natales, it may be the best value – and that’s saying a lot in a town whose dining options continue to improve. Given its success here, Mesita has also opened a branch in the provincial capital of Punta Arenas.