PHUKET: The past year has been great for the number of innovative restaurants that have sprung up on Phuket. When it comes to the accolade of Phuketwan/Phuket Post Good Value Restaurant of the Year 2011, there can be only one winner.
After much debate, the judges have decided that it's Gitano by just a bite or two from a strong field of contenders. Doing it differently and expanding to a second restaurant are two of the reasons why Gitano got the gong.
Tucked away towards the east coast, Phuket diners took a while to warm to the first version, even though word-of-mouth - not to mention food-in-mouth - was good.
But with its second restaurant now open at Bang Tao, the Gitano concept has a clearer chance to succeed and impress all parts of Phuket.
As always, our judgements made about Phuket restaurants are made honestly, by paying for our meals.
Those who eat for free and imagine their opinions can be regarded as legitimate reviews are fooling themselves, as well as their readers.
We hope to review more restaurants in 2012 than in 2011. Our problem: we keep going back to old favorites.
It's not that we don't have the hunger, but the high-end restaurants are now priced beyond our capacity to review often enough to make a fair judgement about their worth. We did try hard in 2010.
In 2011, the prices grew beyond our reach. Value for money places are where we will be noshing in 2012.
West coast beach restaurants charging 250 baht for an American breakfast and 80 baht for a bland ''Thai'' soup are not going to win us over.
We are not going to waste our time with tourist haunts - they're haunts because there is only a ghost of a chance that you will find real Thai taste.
Our greatest hope for 2012 is that greater numbers of Phuket tourists put their taste buds to the test by exploring Phuket's real culinary options more fully.
Gitano? With its mix of Mexican and Thai, not such a bad place to start.
Uptown, Phuket City
Consistent for value, service and quality, Uptown earns its place as one of the restaurants that defines low-cost Phuket dining and makes it a unique experience. Uptown sets the standard for what fast food everywhere should always be about: local taste at low prices.
Sea.Fire.Salt., Anantara, Mai Khao
Anantara sets new standards in resort innovation on Phuket. Most of its ideas are winners. This restaurant is one of the few within Phuket resorts that deserves to be celebrated and emulated. Dining here makes the trip to Mai Khao for a big night out worthwhile.
Two we couldn't separate this year . . .
Natural Restaurant, Phuket City
If you had two hours on Phuket, where to eat? Somewhere by the beach, if you are hungry for a sea view. But if you want good Thai food in a radically different environment, pull up a chair at the Natural Restaurant in Phuket City. Wrapped around a couple of trees by a couple who couldn't bear to cut them down, Thammachart (Natural) provides leafy glades among the branches, each one stuffed with a mixture of old television sets, sewing machine treadles, hanging orchids and undergrowth. Tarzan and Jane would love it. Hard to find but worth every bend and bite.
White Sand Beach Restaurant and Bungalow, Greater Phuket
This restaurant was one of the first to reopen in Khao Lak after the 2004 tsunami. Today visitors can sprawl on chairs in the open or under salas on a broad stretch of white Andaman sand. Sunsets do happen elsewhere, but seldom are they seen across sand this brilliant and a sea so blue it sometimes seems to glow. The food is Thai. Need we say more? You'll pay a whole lot less than at the five-star boutique resort next door. Some afternoons and evenings are so beautiful it may even be worth the 90-minute drive from Phuket.
Kan Eang 2, Chalong
Of the Kan Eang twins in Chalong, Kan Eang 2 is the one preferred by us, and by many locals. Kan Eang@Pier is better-known, and in a more easily found location. But we rather like the secret twin, the one that doesn't try so hard to please everybody, the one where you can actually step from your chair onto the sand. Both value and service are better, too.
Dibuk Restaurant, Phuket City
We have been consistently impressed with Dibuk. The place has the slightly faded air of the colonial past that Phuket never had. At night, a great idea for dinner is to order the French starters and mix and share the way you would share Thai food. The house wine is fine and the specials board usually contains some interesting ideas. One day we spotted Filet de Crocodile. Plenty of broccoli with that, please.