Some Like it Red Hot
It’s not easy being a tourist. You’re not familiar with where you are, you’re unsure of where to go, you’re not totally aware of all there is to see and do, and it’s not always easy to figure out what you’re looking for.
— By Joanna Fox
— Cover: Stephane Domenge, Mixologist / Owner – Scarlet
There are definitely a lot of different sources that have made tourist life much easier to navigate with tips, opinions, reviews and descriptions of fellow traveller’s experiences, but regardless of all the information that’s out there, nothing is better than a recommendation from someone in the know. You can’t get any better than advice from the oldest source around: ask a local.
As a tourist, I’m always trying to seek out the local experience, or as close to it as I can get, so that was my game plan when I first arrived in Barbados. Luckily for me, a good friend of mine happened to be living on the island for the past year, so when I asked him where to go for a fun night out filled with delicious drinks and great food he replied without even missing a beat.
“Go to Scarlet”.
Now because Barbados is such a small island and tourism is also one of it’s main industries, it’s not often you’ll find yourself somewhere without any tourists around. It’s really when you find a spot here where both locals and tourists love to frequent that you know you’ve hit on something special. Scarlet is the perfect example of such a place.
Once you know where Scarlet is, it’s easy to spot, but at first it’s not totally obvious, in spite of the fact that it’s a scarlet red house in a very busy area on the West Coast of the island.
“We don’t advertise much”, explains Stephane Domenge, who owns Scarlet along with his delightful wife, Sophie. “We rely very much on word of mouth and it doesn’t look like much from the road: it’s all enclosed and modern. That was one of our main things when people said to us, ‘Why don’t you put a neon sign outside that says you’re open?’ People pass us and they don’t know. But I feel that if people are curious, they’ll get rewarded”.
We certainly were rewarded the night we spent at Scarlet. Before I even begin though, I have to say this: one of the reasons I fell in love with Scarlet (besides Sophie and Stephane) is probably also one of the gutsiest moves I’ve ever seen a restaurant in a gorgeous, tropical location make. There are no windows. None! That’s just totally insane! And I mean that in the best way possible, of course.
“It is crazy, isn’t it?” Laughs Sophie. “But it kind of works. It’s a good people-watching place too, lots of things happen. It’s also nice to cool down because it’s really hot here and it’s hard to find a restaurant that’s totally air-conditioned”. It actually takes a bit of time, once you’re seated at Scarlet, to realize there are no windows. There’s just so much else to distract you. Just like the outside, the inside walls and ceiling are also painted deep red with pop art prints of Marylyn Monroe and Jackie Onassis adorning the walls. Along one side of the open room is a sleek bar, and along the opposing wall is a long banquette with several black tiled tables that make up the entire side of the room. There are additional tables scattered throughout the center and a disco ball hanging down right in the middle of the restaurant.
Scarlet isn’t very big, in fact, it’s a pretty cozy space so if you’re looking for a hushed room and some privacy when you’re out to dinner, this might not be ideal for you. We begin to chat with our neighbours sitting to our left who seem to know the lay of the land and are all having some of Scarlet’s signature dishes. It reminds me of eating in bistros in Europe where you can’t help but rub elbows with your fellow diners and I have a fondness for that convivial energy.
“It’s fun, you know, it’s a fun place to run. It’s meant to be fun, it’s meant to be loud, it’s meant to be a good time”, elaborates Sophie. “It’s always got energy, and it’s full of life. That’s what Scarlet is. You either like it or you don’t like it. It’s not your romantic, let’s propose tonight type restaurant. It’s more like the chat with other diners, get to know strangers, type of place. Especially here, you don’t know who’s local and you don’t know who’s a tourist. It’s fun just to get thrown in there and see what happens”.
The drinks certainly help get the ball rolling here and are the main reason why Scarlet exists at all. Although Sophie was born in Barbados, her family is English and she grew up in London. She worked in the hospitality industry and that’s where she met Stephane, who had moved there from France and was working as a bartender. They married and relocated to Barbados with the hopes of opening a cocktail bar.
Stephane was appalled at the state of the bar scene when they first arrived. “There was no where that did proper cocktails. You could get a martini maybe at The Cliff, but they were not expanding and doing a big list with original drinks, fresh fruits and herbs.”
“When we got here, which was 2004, it was so difficult to find a spot for Scarlet so we struggled”, says Sophie. “We knew we wanted to be on the West Coast and we wanted an easy location for everybody so we started off doing functions and catering, that sort of stuff. A year into it, we found Scarlet, but it was a complete mess. It was a bar before, a big rum shop, and we had to knock out the main room. It was fantastic though because it had that Bajan feel but also allowed us to make it into what ever we wanted inside, which is exactly what we were looking for. We wanted a mid-range place to go and have drinks and have fun, which we felt was lacking here”.
When Scarlet opened in 2006 it was originally a bar that served tapas-style snacks, but that didn’t last too long, as Stephane explains. “Somebody told us when we opened, they said that our customers are going to make the place the way they want it to be. You could try to push them into a direction but at the end of the day… it all comes down to them”.
It’s a good thing customers pushed Scarlet into serving food as they’ve transformed some of the best comfort foods, influenced by British gastro pubs and food that both Stephane and Sophie like to eat. From fried prawn crackers to five-spice seared tuna, coconut curries and satay skewers, to Stephane’s home-made bur-gers, all the food at Scarlet is a reflection of the couple’s attention to detail and strong culinary point of view.
I honestly don’t know if I would have stopped and taken a chance on Scarlet if I didn’t get that local tip, but one thing is for sure, I’m so happy I did. Scarlet is more than just a place, it’s a real personality. Far from being the wallflower, Scarlet is more like the girl who’s dancing on the table.