Unlike culinary destinations like Mexico and Peru, Costa Rica’s food scene is considered a bit…bland. Visitors expect gallo pinto—the country’s quintessential beans-and-rice dish—as well as meat, fish, plantains, and little else. But all this is quickly changing as a new wave of ambitious eateries introduce global cuisines and reimagine traditional recipes. Costa Rica’s largest city and capital, San José, is now ground zero for experimentation. Lately, the city boasts a booming new restaurant row and entire gastronomic district helmed at Calle 33 in Barrio Escalante. The government even got in on the act two years ago, with a new decree to position Costa Rica as a destination of agricultural and food tourism. So foodies, take note: It’s all paying off. Here’s why this Central American city is edging its way onto the culinary map, and the best spots to seek out for to your next great meal.
Find Your Way to Paseo Gastronómico La Luz, aka, “Eat Street”
On and around Calle 33 in trendy Barrio Escalante is where you’ll find some of the best examples of San José’s gastronomic expansion. This hip restaurant row is crammed with cafes, restaurants, bars, and breweries, many of which offer up flavors and globally-inspired food unheard of in Costa Rica until recently. Try Eastern Mediterranean food at popular Sofia Mediterraneo, Italian at L’ancora da Ciro & Tony, and Spanish bites at Olio. You’ll also find plenty of craft beers available that offer an alternative to the mass-produced local beer, Imperial. Try Perro Vida, Treintaycinco, and the Costa Rica Craft Brewing Co. to taste a few fresh suds boldly coming into their own.
Head To Al Mercat For Haute Cuisine with Traditional Tico Ingredients at Heart
One of the most notable foodie destinations in San José’s gastronomic district of Barrio Escalante is Al Mercat, (a name meaning to market). The restaurant is all about farm-to-table cooking—it even has a private farm, Finca Al Mercat, which visitors can tour—and emphasizes locally-grown and sometimes little-known ingredients. Chef José Pablo González, a graduate of the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, is known for his liberal use of citrus and spice as well as anything-but-boring twists on traditional Tico staples. “For us, it’s a priority to always use Costa Rican produce so we can show people and professional chefs all the diversity and possibilities we have in our country,” says González. “I’m always inspired by our vast countryside and the abundance of fresh produce available at farmers markets every week all over Costa Rica. We find the best produce in Barrio Escalante, at our private farm, and at many other urban and rural places.”
And what does the chef recommend you eat at Al Mercat? “Get the sweet potato gnocchi in a Caribbean sauce, with grilled heart of palm, avocado, and roasted peanuts. This dish focuses on Caribbean flavors, exploring panameño peppers, heart of palm and the silky texture of the sweet potato. It’s a unique and delicious combination.” Don’t wait—Al Mercat’s menu changes seasonally.
Eat a Michelin-Starred Chef’s Dynamic Take on Costa Rican Fare at Park Café
Park Café may not have a Michelin star of its own (Michelin guides don’t yet cover Costa Rica, anyway) but this restaurant’s legendary chef has already earned two. British-born Richard Neat worked under noted chefs Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc, and Joël Robuchon, earned two Michelin stars as head chef at London’s Pied à Terre, and has been called one of the greatest chefs of his generation. In the late 90s he stepped away from his star chef lifestyle to travel, eventually opening up Park Café in 2006 with his girlfriend Louise France. France owns the mansion and antique shop that shares space with the intimate restaurant, and browsing the goods on display is the perfect after-meal activity.
And the food? Neat may be living a more relaxed pura vida lifestyle than he did in fast-paced London, but this expat hasn’t hung up his knives—his food is regularly touted as some of the city’s best. Dishes are served Spanish-tapas style using local ingredients creatively, and always impeccably plated.
Seek Out Costa Rican Specialties With A French-Fusion Twist at Chic Restaurant Kalú
Well-known Costa Rican chef Camille Ratton heads the excellent Costa Rican-French-fusion restaurant Kalú as well as Cafeoteca, a coffee shop within the restaurant that only serves specialty, single-state Costa Rican coffee. Another proud restauranteur in Barrio Escalante, Ratton is both committed to and inspired by Costa Rica’s evolving food scene. “We are working on putting the Costa Rican food scene on the world map, and working with a group of chefs and foodies so we can be a gastronomic destination, but I believe there is a lot of growing to do,” she says. “Lately I’ve been more in touch with local and non-traditional ingredients as the ‘Pujagua’ corn, a purple corn that almost disappeared from our kitchens many years ago. And we’re trying to discover local wonders, and help local growers. We work exclusively with Grade A+ 76% cocoa chocolate from Upala [in northern Costa Rica] that is sent directly for us every week for our desserts. I also work almost exclusively with small local farms for our cheeses, our herbs, and our fresh ingredients.”
Ratton is strongly influenced by France—”my second nation,” she calls it—and always has a classic tarte tatin on the menu as well as a some newer flavor profiles like coffee-cured salmon or a rosemary creme brulée.
Try Restaurante Grano de Oro, Where Costa Rican Ingredients and European Techniques Meet
Helmed by French chef Francis Canal, Restaurante Grano de Oro does Costa Rican fusion right. The carefully curated yet constantly changing menu merges Costa Rican tropical ingredients and French Mediterranean cuisine and cooking styles. Think house-cured local beef tenderloin served with a demi-glace béarnaise sauce, for instance. The restaurant also has an award-winning wine cellar and pairing program.
Wander Into Centro Gastronómico Sabores for a Taste of What’s New & Next
Sabores originally launched as a culinary magazine in 2003 and a cooking show quickly followed. Then in 2012, the Centro Gastronómico Sabores opened as a TV production set, learning center, and restaurant. The multi-space spot is particularly credited with helping to elevate the country’s tropical flavors by reintroducing endemic ingredients and incorporating more diverse spices and techniques. Exactly what’s cooking from day to day varies, but it’s always exciting—and consider, your plate may be prepared by Costa Rica’s next up-and-coming culinary star.
Main image: Restaurant Kalú’s delectable rabbit terrine. Photo courtesy Restaurant Kalú