It all may seem a little strange to the foreign visitor. While there are plenty of Japanese, Korean, Italian and other international restaurants, there are very few restaurants serving Cebuano cuisine in Cebu. The few that exist are usually referred to as serving native cuisine.
There are four restaurants that are classy but not too formal. There's the Golden Cowry (which has two branches, on Salinas Drive and in SM City), the Lighthouse (in the Gaisano Country Mall and on General Maxillom Street), and Barrio Fiesta, in SM City. Chika-an sa Cebu, meanwhile, is often mentioned in guide books but perhaps they have become too complacent for the food and service are both awful.
The decor of the Lighthouse is a bit too tacky for my tastes; plastic trees abound. Of those mentioned, I recommend the original Golden Cowry, on Salinas Drive. Banana leaves serve as plates and a girl with a large wooden tub meanders between the tables doling out rice. Nice.
Fancier than the Golden Cowry - you'd better be properly dressed - is Patio Isabel, a Spanish-Cebuano restaurant tucked away along the Old Banilad Road. Judging from strident ads touting a reasonably priced lunchtime buffet, the old girl has been struggling to make ends meet, and one can only hope that she'll be around for a while yet, since this is the only Cebuano fine dining establishment in existence apart from Laguna Garden Cafe, a stylish establishment right across Citibank in the Cebu Busines Park. The Laguna Garden Cafe has a less formal sister branch, confusingly called Cafe Laguna and confusingly located within spitting distance, inside the Ayala Center.
In Mactan, there's Sutukil, aka Shoot-To-Kill. This is actually an assortment of restaurants all located next to each other, near the Mactan Shrine. The Sutukil restaurants are indistinguishable; all will prepare seafood displayed by fishmongers outside their establishments. Sutukil is short for sugba, tinula, kinilaw - these are all styles of cooking. Pick your fish, squid, or prawns, and tell them how you want it done. Say sugba if you want it grilled, tinula if you prefer a soup, or kinilaw if you want it fresh, in Cebuano-style sashimi. They can also sautee your selection in butter, European style, or toss it around in a wok with chilli, Chinese style. Open-air and relatively inexpensive, Sutukil is a favorite with locals, and, especially if you have a table overlooking the mangroves by the waterside, and the weather is nice, the dining experience can be wonderfully relaxing and pleasant. Sutukil is what the Cebuano lifestyle is all about.
Also in Mactan is the Lami-ah. This place is solely for tourists; it's one of those cheesy tourist traps with pseudo-tribal decor and a stage for native dances. After a sorry performance, the dancers will solicit the participation of the guests, whether they are half-way through their kinilaw or not. Needless to say, it's overpriced. But I have to admit, the food really is excellent (Lami-ah means "delicious" in Cebuano.)
An interesting place to sample Cebuano fare while enjoying a pleasant evening is Mr A, perched on a hill high up in the mountain barangay of Busay. One gets a view of the city and the ambience is terrific, at least until someone starts belting out "Dancing Queen" or some other horrid song (Mr A have a few karaoke rooms). It's fun when it starts to rain; guests scurry inside and waiters fervently run about with empty glasses and half-finished dishes.
Now, the places mentioned thus far serve mostly fiesta food, expensive dishes that are rarely eaten by Cebuanos on a day-to-day basis. Oh, they'll seem quite cheap to you, but 350 pesos (US $7) is what Cebuanos spend on food in a week, not for a single dish. The best place to try the "real" Cebuano food is in a carenderia, an eatery by the roadside catering to the ordinary Cebuano workforce. Carenderias are all over the place, and easily recognizable by a row of pots. Most of them do not have a sign; the pots is what you look for when seeking out a carenderia. It will be a little daunting at first. There is no clear entrance, no menu, no price list, and nobody who looks like a waiter. Here's how it works. You stand in front of the pots, and open them one by one. Yes! You actually pick up the lid of the pot and raise it until you see what's inside. Then you put the lid back on and open the next one, and continue doing so until you've found something you like. Cebuano customers will inquire about the price of something as they lift the lid, but the most you will pay per dish is 30 pesos, so you probably won't have to worry about the price.