The Labridae is one of the most structurally and functionally diversified fish families on coral and rocky reefs around the world, providing a compelling system for examination of evolutionary patterns of functional change. Labrid fishes have evolved a diverse array of skull forms for feeding on prey ranging from molluscs, crustaceans, plankton, detritus, algae, coral and other fishes. The species richness and diversity of feeding ecology in the Labridae make this group a marine analogue to the cichlid fishes. Despite the importance of labrids to coastal reef ecology, we lack evolutionary analysis of feeding biomechanics among labrids. Here, we combine a molecular phylogeny of the Labridae with the biomechanics of skull function to reveal a broad pattern of repeated convergence in labrid feeding systems. Mechanically fast jaw systems have evolved independently at least 14 times from ancestors with forceful jaws. A repeated phylogenetic pattern of functional divergence in local regions of the labrid tree produces an emergent family-wide pattern of global convergence in jaw function. Divergence of close relatives, convergence among higher clades and several unusual ‘breakthroughs’ in skull function characterize the evolution of functional complexity in one of the most diverse groups of reef fishes.