Eating and drinking in Costa Rica
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Costa Rican food – called comida típica (“native” or “local” food) by Ticos – is best described as unpretentious. Simple it may be, but tasty nonetheless, especially when it comes to the interesting regional variations found along the Caribbean coast, with its Creole-influenced cooking, and in Guanacaste, where there are vestiges of the ancient indigenous peoples’ use of maize. For more on the cuisine of these areas, see the relevant chapters in the Guide.
Típico dishes you’ll find all over Costa Rica include rice and some kind of meat or fish, often served as part of a special plate with coleslaw salad, in which case it’s called a casado (literally, “married person”). The ubiquitous gallo pinto (“painted rooster”), often described as the national dish of Costa Rica, is a breakfast combination of red and white beans with rice, sometimes served with huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs). The heavy concentration on starch and protein reveals the rural origins of Costa Rican food: gallo pinto is food for people who are going out to work it off.
Of the dishes found on menus all over the country, particularly recommended are ceviche (raw fish “marinated” in lime juice with coriander and peppers), pargo (red snapper), corvina (sea bass) and any of the ice creams and desserts, though these can be too sickly for many tastes. The fresh fruit is especially good, either eaten by itself or drunk in refrescos (see Coffee in Costa Rica). Papayas, pineapple and bananas are all cheap and plentiful, along with some less familiar fruits like mamones chinos (a kind of lychee), anona (custard fruit), pejibaye (peach-palm fruit) and marañón, whose seed is the cashew nut. Look out, too, for fresh strawberries around Volcán Poás and sweet, fleshy guanábana along the Caribbean coast.
Eating out in Costa Rica will cost more than you might think, and has become even more expensive over the past few years. Main dishes start at around $10 in San Jose, and can be double that in popular coastal towns. Then there are those sneaky extra charges: the service charge (10%) and the sales tax (13%), which bring the meal to a total of 23% more than the menu price. Add this all up, and dinner for two can easily come to $30 for a single course and a couple of beers. Tipping is not necessary, however. Costa Rica’s best restaurants are on the outskirts of San José, and in popular tourist destinations such as Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio and around La Fortuna, where demand has created some excellent gourmet options.
The cheapest places to dine in Costa Rica – and where most workers eat lunch, their main meal – are the ubiquitous sodas, halfway between the North American diner and the British greasy café. Sodas offer filling set platos del día (daily specials) and casados for about $8; most do not add sales tax. You usually have to go to the cash register to get your bill. Sodas also often have takeaway windows where you can pick up snacks such as the delicious little fingers of fried dough and sugar called churros. Many sodas are vegetarian, and in general vegetarians do quite well in Costa Rica. Most menus will have a vegetable option, and asking for dishes to be served without meat is perfectly acceptable.
Because Costa Ricans start the day early, they are less likely to hang about late in restaurants in the evening, and establishments are usually empty or closed by 10pm. Non-smoking sections are uncommon, to say the least, except in the most expensive establishments, but in general Ticos don’t smoke much in restaurants.
Costa Rica is famous for its coffee, and it’s usual to end a meal with a small cup, traditionally served in a pitcher with heated milk on the side. Most of the best blends are exported, so premium coffee is generally only served in high-end restaurants and sold in shops.
Always popular are refrescos, cool drinks made with milk (leche) or water (agua), fruit and ice, all whipped up in a blender. You can buy them at stalls or in cartons, though the latter tend to be sugary. You’ll find herb teas throughout the country; those served in the Caribbean province of Limón are especially good. In Guanacaste, you can sample the distinctive corn-based drinks horchata and pinolillo, made with milk and sugar and with a grainy consistency.
Costa Rica has several local brands of lager, a godsend in the steamy tropics. Most popular is Imperial, with its characteristic eagle logo, but Bavaria Gold is the best of the bunch, with a cleaner taste and more complex flavour; they also produce a decent dark beer. Of the local low-alcohol beers, Bavaria Light is the best tasting.
Wine, once a rare commodity, has become far more common in mid- and top-range restaurants, where you’ll often find good Chilean and Argentinian varieties on offer, as well as (for a premium) Spanish brands. Spirits tend to be associated with serious drinking, usually by men in bars, and are rarely consumed by local women in public. There is an indigenous hard-liquor drink, guaro, of which Cacique is the most popular brand; it’s a bit rough, but good with lime sodas or in a cocktail. For an after-dinner tipple, try Café Rica, a creamy liqueur made with the local coffee.
Costa Rica has a variety of places to drink, from shady macho domains to pretty beachside bars, with some particularly cosmopolitan nightspots in San José. The capital is also the place to find the country’s last remaining boca bars, atmospheric places that serve bocas (tasty little tapas-like snacks) with drinks; though historically these were free, nowadays even in the most traditional places you’ll probably have to pay for them (for more on San José’s boca bars). In even the smallest town with any foreign population – either expat or tourist – you’ll notice a sharp split between the places frequented by locals and those that cater to foreigners. Gringo grottoes abound, especially in beach towns, and tend to have a wide bar stock, at least compared to the limited guaro-and-beer menu of the local bars. In many places, especially port cities like Limón, Puntarenas and Golfito, there is the usual contingent of rough-and-ready bars where testosterone-fuelled men go to drink gallons and fight; it’s usually pretty obvious which ones they are – they advertise their seediness with a giant Imperial placard parked right in front of the door so you can’t see what’s going on inside.
Most bars typically open in the morning, any time between 8.30 and 11am, and close at around 11pm or midnight. Sunday night is usually dead: many bars don’t open at all and others close early, around 10pm. Though Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest, the best nights to go out are often week nights (particularly Thursdays), when you can enjoy live music, happy hours and other specials. Karaoke is incredibly popular, and if you spend much time in bars, you’ll soon pick out the well-loved Tico classics. The drinking age in Costa Rica is 18, and many bars will only admit those with ID (cédula); a photocopy of your passport page is acceptable.
There are two types of coffee available in Costa Rica: export quality (grano d’oro, literally the “golden bean”), typically packaged by either Café Britt or Café Rey and served in good hotels and restaurants; and the lower-grade blend, usually sold for the home market. Costa Rica’s export-grade coffee is known the world over for its mellowness and smoothness. The stuff produced for the domestic market, however, is another matter entirely; some of it is even pre-sweetened, so if you ask for it with sugar (con azúcar), you’ll get a saccharine shock.
All coffee in Costa Rica is Arabica; it’s illegal to grow anything else. Among the best brews you’ll find are La Carpintera, a smooth, rich, hard bean grown on Cerro de la Carpintera in the Valle Central, and Zurqui, the oldest cultivated bean in the country, grown for 150 years on the flanks of Volcán Barva. Strong, but with a silky, gentle taste, Café el Gran Vito, grown by Italian immigrants near San Vito in the extreme south of the country, is an unusual grade of export bean, harder to find than those grown in the Valle Central.
Several small coffee producers run tours of their plantations, allowing you to see the coffee-cultivating process up close and to try their home-grown roasts on site. For places that offer coffee tours in the Valle Central, home to five of the country‘s eight regional varieties, For more information, see Anyone for coffee?; for places around Monteverde.