This is the first study investigating the plant–herbivore interaction between Sarpa salpa, which has overgrazed seagrass transplants in Portugal, and the seagrasses Cymodocea nodosa, Zostera marina and Zostera noltii, which have been considered for restoration. When offered the choice between the three seagrasses in outdoor tanks, adult S. salpa clearly preferred Z. noltii. Testing the seagrasses separately, mean ± s.d. feeding rates ranged from 21 ± 11 g seagrass fresh mass kg−1 fish mass day−1 for Z. marina to 32 ± 9 g seagrass fresh mass kg−1 fish mass day−1 for C. nodosa and 40 ± 11 g seagrass fresh mass kg−1 fish mass day−1 for Z. noltii (temperature = 16° C). Food-processing rate in S. salpa did not differ between seagrasses, and there was no evidence of a regulation of processing rate according to food intake. Seagrasses differed substantially in nitrogen content and C:N, with C. nodosa containing the highest nitrogen content and lowest C:N (2·5 ± 0·1% and 14·0 ± 1·0), followed by Z. noltii (2·1 ± 0·1% and 17·0 ± 1·0) and Z. marina (1·4 ± 0·1% and 26·0 ± 2·0). Food-processing rate in S. salpa and the nutritional value of the seagrasses were not correlated with the observed feeding preference and rate. The study suggests that C. nodosa and Z. marina are less at risk of overgrazing by S. salpa and might thus be preferable to Z. noltii for seagrass restoration in areas with noticeable abundances of this fish.