THE look of concentration on his face is only matched by the cut of his jib.
Dressed smartly in his civvies, he takes pride of place in the heart of the kitchen, carefully filleting a large chunk of Cadiz’ finest bluefin tuna.
“It’s a job he always insists on doing,” explains a waiter outside. “He really enjoys doing it and no-one is going to argue with the boss.”
This is Manuel Marquez Caravaca, better known as ‘Manolo’ at La Rada, a restaurant that has been serving up Estepona’s finest seafood for three decades.
It’s certainly been something of a success story for Caravaca, who started working at La Rada with his father, when it was just a tiny cafe beside the main coast road, well before the motorway arrived.
Today it serves up to 500 people on a busy day in summer, which is no surprise, going on the knowledge of Manolo, who buys as much as possible from Andalucia’s own waters and insists – adamantly – on wild, organic fish.
“While difficult, it’s entirely possible still, you just have to work a bit harder and buy what’s good on each given day,” he explains.
Another man who’s as passionate about fish – and just as insistent on cooking it in his own kitchen – is Alfonso at Estepona’s other seafood stalwart, El Pescador.
Sitting slap bang on the main beach, few places have developed as quickly and as stylishly in the town over the last decade.
Through sheer hard work and a clever eye for quality and panache, he has turned his place into the other key fish restaurant in town… and it is perhaps no surprise that he used to work at La Rada just over a decade ago.
You sit by the promenade overlooking the sea and eat only the best fresh fish from the nearby port. My tip is the sea bass in salt, an absolute joy.
It is certainly a hard act to follow but Estepona is slowly developing a food culture to rival that of nearby Marbella.
Little by little, more exciting and varied places are opening up around the town and along its coastline, dishing up every kind of cuisine, from Japanese to Venezuelan and Goan to Peruvian.
Driven by an influx of wealthy and more demanding expats, particularly Scandinavians over the last few years, the town’s chefs have had to up their game.
Take Erik’s Jazz Bar right on the front; this friendly Swede has spent a fortune setting up this charming spot in honour of his new Venezuelan wife.
Bringing a new style of cooking to the front, the menu varies by the day and depending on what the cooks can get hold of at the local markets.
Best of all, the place does what it says on the tin…offers some of the best jazz to be had in the town, in particular at weekends, starting on Friday nights.
And jazz buffs will love the array of original posters and album covers, including Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew.
Just up the road you will find the excellent chiringuito Palm Beach, one of the best on the coast for quality.
Set up by talented former Dutch broker Erwin Vanderdonck, it has a range of tasty dishes including prawn pil pil samosas and crab spring rolls, which are melt-in-the-mouth amazing.
The perfect place for families (with some great dishes catering for kids) you sit on the sand watching the day go by while your children can dive in and out of the sea.
Another superb chiringuito, just outside the port, up on the ‘secret’ Playa del Cristo you will find chiringuito Lolailo, where a friendly team serves up the freshest fish that one would expect from a good beach restaurant.
Another long term favourite is Kokomo, where former Savoy chef Simon Taylor- Lane, gets busier as the years go on at the newer, bigger venue, up in Nueva Atalaya.
Having also trained with Marco Pierre White, he has the classic knack of creating culinary classics and, best of all, at amazing value set lunch. He and wife Sally run a tight ship and it is incredible how busy their place gets.
Up in the heart of Estepona meanwhile, there has been a quiet revolution going on with a string of new and stylish terrace restaurants opening of late.
There are dozens of good places to graze, starting from Plaza Ortiz heading west up Calle Real or Calle Caridad towards Casa de las Flores and above.
One of the nicest is easily the excellent Argentinian Sur, where well travelled owner Juan is never standing still, always trying new things in terms of decor, wines and dishes.
A classic family affair, you often find father, wife, son and daughter, not to men-tion son-in-law serving up juicy empanadas, lamb tagines and, of course, the best steaks imaginable.
If it is a good Italian you are after few places come as good as Rincon Toscana, run by Uri, who previously ran a B&B near Siena.
As well as great Italian wines, you will eat the freshest pasta and the best pizzas around.
Up on Calle Caridad don’t miss recently opened La Para, run by a fabulous gourmet Juan Trapero, from Algeciras, who has a great eye for interior decor AND tapas.
This is a superb place to chill out and watch the world and his dog go by… you might even catch the entertaining Olive Press columnist Adam Neale, who works at Terra Meridiana opposite.
There are some excellent fresh fish and grilled meats and tasty tapas A little further up in Plaza de los Flores you will love the style of Casa Dona Jeronima, which is beautifully designed with a living plant wall and stunning natural lighting inside and a great terrace right in the heart of Estepona’s best square.
Nearby, Casa del Rey has around 70 wines by the glass and some excellent pairing tips for its excellent tapas.
Nearby, you must look out for Lola’s, run by a French couple from Avignon, who have classic gallic flair and a nice mix of tapas and wines.
Meanwhile up in the port you will find some superb places including De la Mar, where Dutch owners Helene and Pim have moved into the world of dining, having previously run a pub.
With a distinct international feel, there is some excellent fresh fish and grilled meats and some tasty tapas.
Last, but not least if you find yourself up in Benavista, check out the excellent Green Bar, which is always busy and has a great menu del dia as well