If you're in the mood for tapas, most places are in the old town with quite a few of them around Calle del Perral. Tapas (literally, "tops") were once a mere piece of bread laid over the glass to deter flies from exploring the drink.
The custom of serving a little food alongside a drink at no charge eventually spread. Few places nowadays offer free tapas (Granada is one exception), but you can easily cover your lunch or dinner with a selection of two to five selections normally priced at one to two euros each. It's not untypical to wander from bar to bar over a couple of hours to complete a single meal.
Most tapas dishes are also available as half or full portions (raciones) and common recipes are often based on fish, shellfish, and pork derivatives (cured ham, chorizo, black pudding, etc.). Other options include dishes based on potatoes, eggs, mushrooms, bell peppers, aubergines, and the list goes on.
Many of the bars double up as full-fledged restaurants with waiter service, so all or some of the tables may be reserved for this purpose while tapas tend to be enjoyed sitting at the bar.
Before moving on to standard restaurants, it should be said that another important tradition in all of coastal Spain is that of the chiringito, as the typical beachfront bar-restaurant with extended opening hours is known. These venues tend to have simple and affordable menus, although some of them achieve fame for the quality of their food, especially with regard to seafood and, of course, paella.
Three of the fifty or so chiringitos in Marbella are La Pesquera at Playa Marbellamar, Charli Bar & Restaurant at Playa del Arenal, and Los Sardinales at Playa de los Alicates.
For more formal lunch and dinners, Marbella offers the greatest variety on the Costa del Sol and you can count on finding a restaurant to your liking for any occasion. Here we briefly describe a few good places, but there are many, many more possibilities to be found in comprehensive listings.
Probably the most famous among the luxury restaurants is El Portalón (tel. 952 827 880), which is next to the Marbella Club hotel. This is a good place to come for more formal Spanish meat specialties, but you'll also find international dishes and a large selection of Spanish wines.
For Italian food, Villa Tiberio is one possibility in the same general area. This is a converted mansion with beautiful gardens decorated with Roman-style statues. The menu is reputed to be particularly innovative and there is an extensive and truly international wine list, a welcome contrast to many restaurants in Spain.
The Marbella Club Hotel itself features several restaurants onsite, with live music at selected times. The gourmet option is simply known as The Grill (tel. 952 822 211), and it features a seasonal menu of dishes in various European traditions. As in many other Costa del Sol restaurants, dining is possible both indoors and outdoors.
For Japanese food including sushi, you can head to Sushi des Artistes. There is also a newer restaurant under the same ownership in the Puerto Banús area called Naruto Tokyo (tel. 952 811 827) specialising in ramen noodles and "Japanese tapas".
At Plaza de los Naranjos, the historic square in the centre, Ciboca (tel. 952 773 743) is a celebrated restaurant where you can enjoy your meal on the square itself. The building is 500 years old and adorned with flowering vines. The menu should meet your expectations if you are hoping for local flavour, as it includes many fish specialities and a list of fine Spanish wines.
Last but not least, if you are going out for a romantic meal, try La Comedia (tel. 952 776 478) at Plaza de la Victoria, a nice small place with a menu inspired by various European traditions. Here you can sit on a balcony overlooking the square and enjoy the aroma and site of the orange trees, only rivalled by those of the nearby Plaza de los Naranjos.