A consensus treatment strategy for esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC) patients who recur after definitive radiochemotherapy/radiotherapy has not been established. This study compared the outcomes in ESCC patients who underwent salvage surgery, salvage chemoradiation (CRT) or best supportive care (BSC) for local recurrence. Ninety-five patients with clinical stage I to III ESCC who had completely responded to the initial definitive radiochemotherapy or radiotherapy alone and developed local recurrence were enrolled in this study. Fifty-one of them received salvage esophagectomy, and R0 resection was performed in 41 patients, 36 underwent salvage CRT, and the remaining eight patients received BSC only. The 5-year overall survival was 4.6% for the 87 patients receiving salvage surgery or CRT, while all patients in the BSC group died within 12.0 months, the difference was statistically significant (P = 0.018). The 1-, 3-, 5-year survival rates in the salvage surgery and salvage CRT groups were 45.1%, 20.0%, 6.9% and 51.7%, 12.2%, 3.1%, respectively, there was no difference of overall survival between the two groups (P = 0.697). Patients also presented with lymph node relapse had inferior survival compared to those with isolated local tumor recurrence after salvage therapy. In the salvage surgery group, infections occurred in eight patients, and three developed anastomotic leakage. In the salvage CRT group, grade 2–4 esophagitis and radiation pneumonitis was observed in 19 and 3 patients, respectively. Seven patients (19.4%) developed esophagotracheal fistula or esophageal perforation. This study of salvage CRT versus salvage surgery for recurrent ESCC after definitive radiochemotherapy or radiotherapy alone did not demonstrate a statistically significant survival difference, but the frequency of complications including esophagotracheal fistula and esophageal perforation following salvage CRT was high.