Twenty-years-ago San José was a barren wasteland when it came to restaurants offering fine dining and International cuisine.
There were a few scattered around town, but because of their scarcity often reserved for that special occasion. Inside the Hotel Bergerac in Los Yoses, Jeane Claude Fromont, the much revered chef of theL’Ile de France (now in Escazú, 2289-7533), would concoct French haute cuisine to satisfy the palate of any gourmet.
A short distance up the road, Le Chandelier’s (2225-3980) chef Claude Dubuis’ traditional French cuisine was considered by many patrons to be the best in the country. Located in a splendid old mansion, the restaurant remains popular today for corporate events and romantic candlelight dinners. The small, intimateLa Bastille (2255-4994) on Paseo Colon has been around for mor than five decades and is still serving excellent, classic, French cuisine and now the Swiss Owner/chef has added to the menu some specialties from his country.
There were a few Italian eateries around town including San José’s longest standing restaurant the Balcón de Europa, which opened in 1909. Chef Franco Piatti offered home-style cuisine from central Italy in a friendly, family atmosphere. However, after his death the restaurant on Calle 9 struggled to survive, but lost the charm that Piatti instilled in it and is now closed.
Fast food outlets were few and far between, and the city’s mainstays were mom & pop sodas and the counters in the Mercado Central, which was founded in 1880. These inexpensive, squeaky clean, family-run eateries offered satisfying meals for a few colons, and, even today, one can sate one’s hunger for ¢2,000 to 2500 ($4-5). The lunchtime order of the day is thecasado, that means “married” and is the perfect marriage of typical fare; a combination of white rice, black beans, fried ripe plantain, picadillo, a finely chopped mixture of cooked vegetables, a small shredded cabbage salad and a choice of meat, chicken or fish. Patrons also get a fresh fruit drink and a small portion of flan or plain cake.
Times have certainly changed, and today chefs from all over the world, including excellent trained Costa Ricans, ply their trade in restaurants and hotels throughout the country. Downtown San José has an eclectic choice of restaurants, which offer international cuisine for every type of occasion and pocketbook.
In the heart of the city located in front of the Teatro Nacional, the Gran Hotel Costa Rica opened its doors in 1930 and has been declared an architectural, historic landmark. The Terrace Restaurant 1930 (2221-4011) overlooks the Plaza de la Cultura and is a renowned meeting place. It’s a wonderful spot for people watching as you enjoy breakfast, sip on a drink, partake in a light meal, or an al fresco dinner.
The hotel just changed hands, so there may be some news to report soon..
The national theater dates back to 1897 and the Café Britt Coffee Shop (2221-1329) offers a tempting array of coffees, pastries and light fare. It still maintains a neoclassical atmosphere reminiscent of a chic French café with high ceilings and windows, marble floors and tables, plus rotating art shows featuring local artists. It’s also a great meeting place before a performance or any time during the day.
In total contrast to the above, Restaurante Nuestra Tierra (2258-6500) south of the Plaza de la Democracia on Avenida 2, serves Costa Rican fare in a rustic ambience with wooden chairs and tables, plus a décor that creates the atmosphere of a humble campesino kitchen in bygone days. Open 24/7 the food is typical and tasty.
A short walk from San José’s new Chinatown the ever popular Tin Jo (2221-7605) offers a wonderful selection of Asian foods from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Japan and China, plus an excellent selection of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices. In one of the restaurant’s many rooms, “candlelight Wednesday nights” with tables set for two offers a wonderful way to celebrate a special romantic occasion.
Next door, Don Wang (2223-5925) is a favorite with dim sum lovers who flock there for a Sunday morning feast. They also offer a good choice of Cantonese cooking and some spicy Szechwan fare.
For carnivores, La Esquina de Buenos Aires (2223-1909) in the heart of downtown is a small Argentinean steakhouse with an authentic atmosphere and grilled meaty specialties from the old country. Tongue, tripe, sweetbreads and blood sausage are an added addition to the different cuts of steak. Never fear they do serve very good homemade pasta for non-meat eaters.
In a renovated mansion in the heart of the city, the Del Mar (2257-7800) offers a large selection of international and local cuisine that will satisfy cravings and hunger pains 24/7. After a night on the town, or in the Hotel Del Rey casino, you can munch on one of their excellent hamburgers or tuck into breakfast, which is always available for early birds and late risers.
The historic neighborhood of Barrio Amón lies just northeast of downtown within easy walking distance of the city center. Coffee barons’ homes built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been restored and now house some of San José’s best boutique hotels, trendy restaurants and bars. The very popular Café Mundo(2222-6190) with its patio seating, verandah and various rooms, maintains its charm and popularity with families, tourists, the lunchtime and late night crowds. The menu offers a huge variety of choices, but the pizzas and pastas are a great favorite. Also in Barrio Amón, Restaurante Kalu (2221-2081) with its covered patio and delightful ambience serves salads, sandwiches and main courses with flare and imagination. The desserts are to die for, and well worth a visit for them alone.
Heading west from downtown towards the Parque la Sabana and the district bordering Rohrmoser and Pavas, there are a few gems not to be missed. On a quiet residential street a short a walk from Paseo Colon, El Grano De Oro (2255-3322) is a first class and pricey choice, but worth every penny. This restored Victorian home dates back to1910 and offers fine dining in a lush inner courtyard, surrounded by old world elegance. Traditional European cuisine is highlighted with local, tropical ingredients resulting in some unique flavors to tempt the taste buds. The signature dessert El Grano de Oro Pie is a decadent finale to any meal.
Park Café (2290-6324) just a block away from the north side of La Sabana is a gastronomic haven offering gourmands of Costa Rica world class cuisine created by chef Richard Neat. His sensational masterpieces garnered his restaurant in London 2 Michelin stars, in Cannes 1-star, and in Marrakech, Conde Naste’s inclusion in the World’s Best 65 restaurants. Seating for 25 diners is in an enchanting garden among an eclectic display of antiques from Asia and the British Isles. Lovers of fine cuisine rave about Neat’s exquisite, stunningly presented, fusion inspired culinary delights. At this writing, the cafe appears to be closed temporarily, accoridng to its Web site.
Another Sabana Norte treasure for lovers of Italian cuisine is the casual, but elegant little L’Olivo (2232-9440) located in the Apartotel Cristina. The excellent homemade pasta and other regional Italian specialties, plus an admirable selection of wines, make this charming, friendly restaurant a great favorite with residents and tourists alike.
Aficionados of Middle Eastern food need to make a date to sample the truly authentic, Lebanese menu offered atSash (2232-1010) in Pavas. The décor adds to the enjoyment of the outstanding traditional dishes including the Lebanese mesa vegetarian, which is exceptional. Typical Middle Eastern lounging areas with low tables and subdued lighting are intimate and perfect for a romantic occasion. There is also a more formal dining area where belly dancers perform for groups and parties. This great little restaurant with friendly, helpful service is an excellent choice for any occasion.