Port Jefferson has a honky-tonk seaside feel that’s unique on Long Island. (Perhaps it’s the Connecticut day-trippers that come over on the ferry from Bridgeport.) Your first impulse may be for a lobster or some clams, and this can be satisfied at the venerable seafood houses Steam Room and Harbor Grill just steps from the harbor, or PJ Lobster House is a mile south. For a postprandial ice cream, stroll over to Roger’s Frigate or Kilwin’s. If the kids demand pizza, take them to The Pie, one of Long Island’s few coal-oven pizzerias.
But you can also stray off the beaten culinary path with ramen or barbecue, over-the-top doughnuts or cross-cultural tacos. Here are 15 good bets.
Pasta Pasta (234 E. Main St.): This quaint spot is one of Main Street's culinary veterans, serving up enormous bowls of -- well, pasta -- since 1991. Two homey dining rooms (but no bar) set the stage for robust portions of dishes such as sesame-crusted calamari, pappardelle Bolognese and veal parmigiana, cooked by chef Martin Garcia. Earlier this year, Debra Bowling, a longtime waitress here, bought the place from the original owners and is gradually introducing more keto- and gluten free-friendly dishes, including cauliflower crusts for house pizzas. Despite the name, though, fresh pasta is not made on premises. More info: 631-331-5335, pastapastaportjeff.com
Prohibition Kitchen (115 E. Main St.): This rollicking, cozy morning-'til-night gastropub serves dishes that bounce from Latin to soul food to vegan, and that almost seem designed for social media cameos: a fried chicken sandwich on a doughnut (The Dirty Mother Clucker), waffles topped with Fruity Pebbles and lobster mac-and-cheese stuffed inside -- well, another doughnut. (Owner Lisa Harris also owns the East Main & Main doughnut shop around the block). Breakfast is served all day, the wine list is wholly drawn from Long Island (and beers from New York State), and cocktails are eclectic but totally on point, from a mint-topped rye julep to a spiced paloma with fresh grapefruit juice and hot honey. Come 10 p.m., the lights are dimmed and cocktails are poured into teacups, just as they were during Prohibition. More info: 631-473-0613, prohibitionkitchenpj.com
Toast Coffeehouse (242 E. Main St.): This is the OG of the Toast breakfast-to-lunch chain, opened in 2002 by Terence and Jennifer Scarlatos. A steampunk vibe sets the pace for breakfast that can travel to the usual places -- omelets, scrambles, waffles, French toast, pancakes -- but also get funky and frivolous with dishes such as pork belly benedict and raspberry-cheesecake pancakes. Come lunchtime, loaded sandwiches such as the Bad Larry (grilled turkey, avocado, white Cheddar and bacon on toasted flatbread with avocado-ranch dressing) make appearances, as do wraps and salads. Just leave plenty of time to eat here: Toast's enduring popularity means brunch waits, in particular, run long. More info: 631-331-6860, toastcoffeehouse.com
East Main & Main
East Main & Main (250C E. Main St.): This trend-driven doughnut shop was an immediate hit when it opened in 2017. The glass case always contains a few classics, such as sour-cream or chocolate frosted, but it's the outlandish likes of caramel cookie dough doughnuts or those topped with Lucky Charms that kick up a buzz. Coffee comes from For Five Coffee Roasters and while there's a few seats for eating in, cart your doughnuts down to Harborfront Park and nosh with a view of the water for a pure Port Jeff experience. More info: 631-509-4716, eastmainandmain.com
Barito Tacos & Cocktails
Barito Tacos & Cocktails (201 Main St., Suite C (upstairs)): Finding the Main Street stairway to Barito is slightly tricky, but once you do, you'll encounter into a hip, sunny temple to inventive Mexican (and central American) food, decorated with Aztec murals and Caribbean hues. Chef James Klapak sometimes takes an unorthodox road to the plate, augmenting stalwarts such as carnitas tacos and tortas with street-corn fritters and duck confit pupusas. During the busy weekend brunch, Mexican classics such as chilaquiles share the bill with masa pancakes, and cocktails like jalapeno-infused margaritas and Fernet Branca-spiked Mexican coke fuel a kinetic late night scene. More info: 631-828-8808, baritomexican.com
The Fifth Season
The Fifth Season (34 E. Broadway): After a short stint in Greenport, The Fifth Season moved to Port Jefferson in 2008, taking over a sprawling location that offers dining and drinking inside and out, downstairs and up. The menu changes seasonally, in summer you can enjoy burrata with a trio of eggplant preparations (fried, marinated and caponata), braised calamari with chorizo and spinach, pan-roasted Crescent Farm duck breast with duck confit croquette and seared scallops on corn puree. Every day brings fish and vegetarian specials. More info: 631-477-8500, thefifth-season.com
Local's Cafe (106 E. Main St.): A town without a coffeehouse is a town without soul, or something like that. That Port Jefferson can call Local's its own renders it lucky indeed. The funky, slightly industrial cafe (and corner patio) are often swarming with a vibrant meld of students, local creatives and tourists. Owner Jiten Singh learned his trade at Caffè Vita in New York City, and uses its roasts here; his 22-hour cold brew, in particular, is a smoky, caramel-like drink, and is served in tap, as are a few craft beers. In the morning, pastries, pancakes and avocado toast dominate; at lunch, burgers, quesadillas and Indian-ish bites such as a chana masala wrap filled with spiced chickpeas take center stage. Turmeric-ginger, beetroot and matcha-tea lattes, as well as kombucha, are some of the non-java offerings. More info: 631-509-0627, cafelocals.com
Tiger Lily Café
Tiger Lily Café (156 E. Main St.): Tiger Lily Cafe has been serving "alternative cuisine" and fresh-squeezed juices for longer than many of its patrons have been alive. The menu at this self-described "alternative" eatery, established in 1998, ranges from classic Moosewood era lentil-brown rice salad hummus to off-the-moment kale salad with butternut squash and veggie-quinoa salad. Vegetarians, vegans and gluten-avoiders will find plenty to eat, but there are also wholesome sandwiches, salads and wraps made with cheese, turkey, chicken and crab. Plus smoothies (dairy and soy), soy-protein energy shakes, coffee and tea and homemade sweets. The cafe displays the work of local artists and features local musicians as well. More info: 631-476-7080, tigerlilycafe.com
Ruvo East (105 Wynn Lane): A few steps off the main drag, Ruvo East provides an oasis of Italian-American comfort in a rambling, cozy setting. The 13-year-old offshoot of the Greenlawn original is a dependable spot for rice balls and meatballs, steamed shrimp and fried calamari, veal chops and shell steaks, branzino and salmon and pastas Bolognese, alla vodka and much more. Bargain hunters, take note: A $12 lunch menu is served seven days a week and, from Sunday to Thursday there's a three-course fixed-price dinner for $33.95. More info: 631-476-3800, ruvorestaurant.com
Smoke Shack Blues
Smoke Shack Blues (138 Main St.): After four years running the kitchen at landmark restaurant Wave Seafood & Steak at Danfords, Jonathan Levine jumped ship to open a barbecue joint, Smoke Shack Blues, three blocks up the street. There, he and his tight crew man two massive smokers, assorted fryers, flap tops and grills in full view of the no-frills dining room. Ask for the juicy (i.e. fatty) brisket and be rewarded with succulent slices with a near-black salt-and-pepper bark. All the other standards are here too, pulled pork or chicken, ribs, wings and pastrami. Meats can be had in platters or on sandwiches. Good beer list and, in the back, there's a play area for kids. More info: 631-438-6797, smokeshackblues.com
C'est Cheese (216B Main St.): Founded in 2011 C'est Cheese is one of Long Island's best cheese purveyors as well as a cafe whose menu tends toward the cheese-centric, with salads, sandwiches and boards that can be created with any of the shop's scores of domestic and international cheeses. Owner Joe Ciardullo has a soft spot for the blues -- he usually stocks about a dozen, including Ewe's Blue from Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. in the Hudson Valley. His other passion is for the stinkers known as washed-rind cheeses. The cafe has always had a great beer selection, but in 2017, Ciardullo expanded the back of the store to establish Craft Growler Bar & Bottle Shop (631-509-1605) featuring a dozen taps and hundreds of cans and bottles. More info: 631-403-4944, cestcheesepj.com
Slurp Ramen (109 W. Broadway): Slurp is one of the Island's top ramen shops; it certainly has the best view: You can watch the ferry dock as you slurp contentedly one of Slurp's traditional ramen soups, from the classic tonkotsu pork version to yuzu-kissed broth with Japanese fried chicken to vegan ramen with tofu, corn and cabbage. Owners Francesca Nakagawa and her husband, chef Atsushi Nakagawa, met as students in Kyoto before eventually moving back to her native Long Island. In 2016, they opened this cozy, no-frills spot that also serves rice bowls, steamed buns and salads. More info: 631-509-1166, slurpusa.com
Wave Seafood & Steak
Wave Seafood & Steak (Danfords Hotel, Marina & Spa, 25 E. Broadway): Adjacent to the ferry terminal, and with its own 100-slip marina, Danfords occupies the catbird seat in Port Jefferson. The sprawling facility hosts events and conferences as well as diners throughout the day. Dine or drink outside on the deck, or in the well-appointed restaurant or bar. Chef John Bauer's menu is full of likable modern standards such as tuna poke, burrata with tomato ragu, citrus-glazed salmon, short ribs braised with Thai chilies and charred cauliflower steak, as well as classics such as crabcakes, clams and oysters on the half shell, Angus rib-eye and the "Long Island lobster pot" with a two-pound lobster, littleneck clams, mussels, shrimp and chorizo. More info: 631-928-5200, danfords.com
Old Fields (318 Wynn Lane): In 2014, Old Fields of Greenlawn took over the old Pace's Steakhouse and it didn't take long before the new restaurant felt like it had been in Port Jefferson for ever. With lots of exposed brick and rustic wood, the place looks great, and the menu is full of homey, straightforward classics such as fried chicken with biscuit, French onion soup, roast chicken on saffron rice, shrimp and grits, steaks (flat iron, filet, rib-eye and skirt) and the Old Fields burger with bacon, Cheddar and fried onions. At "oyster happy hour" (5 to 6 p.m. every day at the bar), Blue Points, littleneck clams and shrimp are $1 apiece.More info: 631-331-9200, of1956.com
Port Jeff Brewing Co.
Port Jeff Brewing Co. (22 Mill Creek Rd.): This colonial-style house is tucked away on a lane within the Chandler Square outdoor mall. Its deck, usually swarming with locals swilling pints and chatting, can sometimes feel like a low-key house party. Inside is a tasting room with a brick floor, 11 taps, barrels for tables and the bow of an old skiff doubling as a counter. There are usually a few IPAs among the lineup, but no food -- you're encouraged to bring in takeout from any of the spots that surround the brewery, such as nearby Slurp Ramen. And if you get truly piqued by the beer in your glass, tours of the brewery are offered at 4 p.m. on Saturdays. More info: 877-475-2739, portjeffbrewing.com