Restoring species-rich tropical forests is an important activity because it helps mitigate land deforestation and degradation. However, scientific understanding of the ecological processes responsible for forest restoration is poor. We review the literature to synthesize the current state of understanding of tropical forest restoration from a biogeochemical point of view. Aboveground biomass and soil carbon accumulation of restored tropical forests are a function of age, climate, and past land use. Restored forests in wet life zones accumulate more biomass than those in moist or dry life zones. Forests restored on degraded sites accumulate less aboveground biomass than forests restored on pastures or agricultural land. Rates of aboveground biomass accumulation in restored forests are lower than during natural succession, particularly during the first decades of forest establishment. Rates of litterfall, biomass production, soil carbon accumulation, and nutrient accumulation peak during the first few decades of restored forest establishment and decline in mature stages. Changes in species composition and canopy closure influence the rate of primary productivity of older restored stands. Species composition also influences the rate and concentration of nutrient return to the forest floor. The ratio of primary productivity to biomass is high in young restored forests and low in mature stands irrespective of climate. The ratio is low when past land use has little effect on biomass accumulation, and high when past land uses depresses biomass accumulation. This effect is due to a high rate of litterfall in restored forests, which helps restore soil by circulating more nutrients and biomass per unit biomass accumulated in the stand. The degree of site degradation and propagule availability dictates the establishment and growth of tree species. Reestablishment of forest conditions and the enrichment of sites by plant and animal species invasions lead to faster rates of succession, aboveground primary productivity, and biomass accumulation in restored forests. Our review demonstrates that nutrient cycling pathways and nutrient use efficiency are critical for interpreting the suitability of tree species to different conditions in forest stands undergoing restoration.