THE Axarquia and the Costa Tropical are slowly developing a varied dining culture after decades of meatballs and goat stew.
Led by a string of outsiders, many of them expats, a drive towards experimentation has seen a growth of creative cuisine.
In Nerja there is a great melting pot of places to eat, with one of the best being Carabeo, whose setting could not be improved sitting on desirable Calle Carabeo overlooking the sea.
Up in the nearby village of Frigiliana you would be mad to miss the amazing Garden restaurant, which consistently produces some of the freshest, most varied (read spicy and original) food in the Axarquia.
A varied menu with plenty of original dishes it sits in a lovely back street with the best views in the entire region.
Possibly the best food in inland Axarquia is to be found at Hotel Vinuela, which has got better and better since opening 20 years ago.
Combining a great mix of local ingredients and creative Mediterranean cuisine, you will not be disappointed.
The menu is detailed and includes such joys as rabo de toro spring rolls with lettuce hearts, as well as an excellent cress salad with cured beef and foie shavings.
There is even a Moroccan tagine as a main course, while fresh fish is always on offer.
In good weather you dine outdoors overlooking the lake reminiscent of the Days of the Raj, and it is no surprise that the King is said to have eaten here.
Also close to the Vinuela lake you will find the unusual boutique hotel/restaurant Las Orquideas, with one of the best backdrops in Spain, overlooking Vinuela Lake and Maroma mountain.
Not far away in the charming village of Archez, you will find one of the most alluring new restaurants in the region.
Called Meson Mudejar, it was recently taken over by a Polish couple, who have turned it into a Vegan restaurant with rooms.
A charming spot in the extreme, you sit and take an early evening drink in one of the sleepiest town squares imaginable, alongside one of the Axarquia’s most evocative church towers, which was built in Arabic times.
The meson itself sits around a charming cobbled patio and counts on its original beams, old doors and windows and numerous other features.
The menu is varied and interesting, particularly for a carnivore like me.
I wasn’t sure what to go for but was steered to the delicious spicy onion fritters, as well as the cauliflower wings, and raw sushi rolls, which had carrots, nori seaweed, leeks and cashew nuts all rolled in courgette slices.
A light vegetable curry was splendid, while a ‘Beyond meat’ burger from California was a surprise in the extreme, it having zero meat, but plenty of flavour.
In Competa, try the highly rated El Pilon, which is very much the stand-out restaurant in the town. A popular social hive, the bar area is great for tapas, while the restaurant itself is a must try.
Close by is the wonderful Bentomiz restaurant, sitting in the same name vineyard, in Sayalonga, which has won international awards for its wines for a decade.
Mixing its wines in a fabulous food pairing, this is one hell of a place for lunch, with incredible views and stylish flourishes to boot.
Up in Comares there is a good variety of places to eat, including Atalaya, where you can also stay the night.
Finally, another excellent inland place is Cantueso, which has been serving the Periana area for over a decade.
A holiday complex, rated by the Guardian as within the Top Ten best in Europe, the restaurant is normally full at lunch and frequently busy at night.
Costa Tropical restaurants
There is a big mix of good places to eat on the Costa Tropical as well.
By far the most emblematic must be legendary Restaurante el Penon, which sits in pole position literally built on the famous rock below Salobrena town.
I’ve eaten here on various occasions over the last two decades and rarely been disappointed, not just with the excellent ambience and views, but also by the service.
Professionally run, by two local friends, it focuses on top quality fish and seafood, including lobsters, and has an excellent wine list to boot.
Next door is Restaurante La Bahia, which is anything but your usual fried fish affair, and apart from the cool jazz music, there were a number of interesting dishes.
These included the so-called ‘queda bien’, a clam and langoustine stew, which was delicious, as well as an excellent value rich and creamy fish soup at just €6.
Another place worth checking out here is Hotel Miba above the town, where they menu keeps getting better and better, since it was taken over by the new owners from Villas Colores.
Another place in Salobrena is Arais which is the creation of Francisco ‘Paco’ Izquierdo, an ambitious chap, who has not only cooked since his teens, but also makes his own rum, from a factory in the town.
Dubbing his food as ‘an adventure’ his place is certainly well out of the ordinary.
Beautifully decorated, it is split into two parts, a bustling bar area, full of creative furniture and lighting, and a stylish dining room next door.
Up in La Herradura look out wonderful beach restaurant La Sardina, which has a splendid setting and excellent staff.
The fish was incredibly fresh as was the seafood and the owner, now well into his 70s, is regularly about bossing the team.
Also look out for English chef Mark Parris at No.20, who along with business partner Laurent Hue is doing a great job.
Mark, from Kent, has considerable pedigree in the kitchen, having trained under Albert Roux at Le Gavroche in London, before doing stints at the Oxo Tower, Harvey Nichols and Souffle.
I was very impressed with the attention to detail and the lovely mix of flavours in original starters, which came (sort of) in combos.
Just up the road a great bar to hang out in and grab some tapas and a decent range of beers is Hideaway.
Finally for a charming inland spot look out for el Nacimiento, in Velez de Benaudalla.
This is one trip well worth the journey, particularly to take in the Museum of Olive Oil, en route.
Hidden up a tiny track on the edge of the village, you will find this charming spot beside a roaring stream and waterfall.
Once an olive mill, it is a great place for lunch or dinner and the menu is a good range of dishes typical from the Granada region.