The Bukit Peninsula, Bali’s southern tip, is best known for five-star luxury resorts and spas, exclusive restaurants, and picturesque Uluwatu, the Balinese sea temple at the tip of the island.
For locals and those tourists in the know, however, the area’s real draw is enjoying Jimbaran seafood on the beach.
The quiet fishing village of Jimbaran is home to some of Bali’s most exciting seafood cuisine, and nothing else on the island is quite like it.
For us, the ocean barbecue ambiance, complete with lapping tides and exceptional sunsets, is always a highlight of our visits. This is a unique opportunity to dine on the sand and to savor the experience of fire-grilled seafood, Indonesian style.
The full parking lot is our first clue as to how popular a destination this is, as is the busy strip-mall stretch of modest warungs (cafés) that block our view of Jimbaran's beach. We are early and our dinner companions haven’t arrived yet, so there’s still time to take a walk along the water. With camera in tow, of course.
We enter a warung, jam-packed with people who are inspecting bins of freshly harvested shellfish and tanks full of assorted fish, all candidates for tonight’s dinner.
A couple of clueless tourists at the door are poring over its menu as we pass, and we shake our heads. In Jimbaran, seafood heaven comes delivered on a plate. This is not the place for a menu full of french fries and chop suey.
Behind the shellfish bins, the grill masters are sweating from the heat as they throw coconut shells into the flames. The air is full of fragrant smoke. We watch them at their work, as they baste their grill baskets and expertly turn them at just the right moment.
I try to get a glimpse of the fish in the tanks along the wall, but the crowds around us make it hard to get a clear view. I decide to leave that for later. it's too early to select tonight's meal victim anyway.
At the water's edge on Jimbaran beach
The white sand beach on the other side is littered with tables and buzzing with activity and we meander between the chairs and waiters to stroll to the water’s edge, where Balinese and pale-skinned tourists are sharing the waves and late afternoon sun.
A balloon vendor finds a customer, fantastic creatures arise out of the sand, and local women with kids in tow pass by, hoping to sell their typically Indonesian snack fare to hungry, budget-minded folks on the sand.
Just as we begin to consider a beachside snack, our friends arrive with parents in tow and we join them at a table. It’s nice to see Mama and Papa again. Counting the Little Guy, we are a group of seven, but the warung is set up for that. Quite a few longer banquet tables adorn the sand for larger groups like ours.
My chair sinks into the sand as I join our friends at the table while Dan and his friend return to the warung’s tanks to select which fish we will enjoy. We all opt for the classic Indonesian dish ikan bakar. Barbecued fish is the ‘real deal’ here. Nothing can be fresher than a fish that was swimming only moments ago.
That’s fine with me; Dan knows far more about good fish than I do anyway. I turn my attention as our waiter asks about drinks. I order two large Bintangs. Bali’s beer is refreshing, dirt cheap and large enough to last us all evening.
Meanwhile life unfolds around us. People take selfies, swim, and play in the sand. The vendor’s bouquet of balloons begins to dwindle and mothers pack up their children and head home to prepare the snacks they will sell tomorrow. Farther out across Jimbaran Bay, sunlight glints as a steady stream of jets arrive and fly off to destinations unknown.
And we have nowhere to be except right here, right now. Immersed in the moment, I sigh at the luxury of it all and sink my toes into the still-warm sand beneath my chair. Dan and I toast our friends with smiles and swigs of our Bintangs.
No Indonesian meal is complete without rice. Before long our waiter arrives with plenty of it, heaped in covered baskets to keep it piping hot throughout our meal. Of course, the ubiquitous rice is accompanied by the ever-present hot sauce, sambal. I gingerly test its spiciness – some can be lethal to the tongue – and determine that it’s got a serious kick. Sambal is not for the faint of heart. Woes betide anyone who doesn’t know that Indonesian hot sauce needs to be used with discretion.
Soon more dishes appear. The steaming plates of cap cay and kangkung are fragrant with spices and garlic. Mama eyes Dan and our newly-arrived platter of grilled mahi-mahi, fragrant with herbs and the smoke of coconut husks. She’s concerned because Dan is the only bule she’s ever known who likes the cheeks and eyeballs as much as she does. Westerners usually leave those behind, but Dan knows a secret: The meat in the head is actually really sweet.
Our waiter places a final touch of bowls of citrus-laced water on our table, a visual reminder that Indonesians like to eat with their fingers. We will rinse our fingers in the water both before and after our feast.
Mama decides to offer Dan half of the head, then nods in approval when he gets every last bit of his share.
The sun sets quickly in Bali. As the light fades, staff come to light candles for our table. The beach soon becomes dotted with hundreds of twinkling lights, joining the stars and fishing boats in the distance.
By the time our flavorful meal is finished, nothing is left but skin, bones and a very few overlooked grains of rice. We lean back in satisfaction and continue our conversation until the Little Guy’s eyes begin to droop. Even though Jimbaran warungs have a “linger longer” custom, his flagging energy is our signal that it’s time to head home.
No individual element makes eating on Jimbaran Beach impressive; it’s the package deal that holds the allure. The buzz of a few hundred candlelit conversations, the incredible spice aromas wafting out from the dozens of grills, waves crashing in the background, of course the flavor-packed food, are all part of what makes warung dining in Jimbaran so incredibly attractive.
We’ll be back.
How much does it cost to eat on Jimbaran beach?
Although prices have been climbing in recent years, eating on the beach in Jimbaran is relatively inexpensive. With a few exceptions (I'm looking at you, lobster), meals are well below the $15 mark (USD). Add a few drinks to the bill and you might spend an extra US $2-10 more.
Here are two recent menus. As a rule of thumb, 100,000 Indonesian rupiah convert to about $7.50 (February, 2016).
Tips on finding a good place to eat in Bali
Here is some more information to help you plan your own trip.
- With over 40 warungs to choose from, it’s easy to become befuddled. Fortunately, they are divided among Jimbaran’s three beach areas (Kelan, Kedoganan and Muaya), so that makes it a bit easier.
- Most warungs have similar menus. The differences lie in flavor, cost, and quality of service. Don’t be afraid to ask an experienced Jimbaran traveler or a local for their recommendation; they will happily share their favorites.
- If you want to play it safe, head to Muaya. (We ate at Menega Café) For whatever reason, the warungs there are particularly attractive to tourists.
- You pay for your seafood selection by kilogram. Indonesians love to barter and competition is high between cafes, so pull a staff member aside to quietly negotiate a discount. Begin by offering 50% of the asking price and haggle from there. Based on your bargaining skills you can easily land 20% or more off your seafood selection.
- Arriving early (say 5:00pm-5:15pm) should allow you that freedom of choice. You won’t always have to make a reservation, but at peak holiday periods that is certainly the way to go. If you stay a few hours, make sure to pay your taxi driver beforehand to wait on you. It can be nightmarish trying to find one after finishing up.