In Costa Rica, bocas (appetizers) are the tasty little snacks traditionally served free in bars. Boca bars are a largely urban tradition, and although you find them in other parts of the country, the really famous ones are all in San José. Because of mounting costs, however, and the erosion of local traditions, few places serve bocas gratis any more. Several bars have a boca menu, among them El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte near Los Yoses, but the authentic boca bars are concentrated in suburban working- or lower-middle-class residential neighbourhoods. They have a distinctive convivial atmosphere – friends and family spending the evening together – and are very busy most nights. Saturday is the hardest night to get a table; get there before 7.30pm. You’ll be handed a menu of free bocas – one beer gets you one boca, so keep drinking and you can keep eating. The catch is that the beer costs about twice as much as elsewhere ($2 as opposed to $1) but even so, the little plates of food are generous enough to make this a bargain way to eat out. You’ll do better if you speak Spanish, but you can get by with point-and-nod. Typical bocas include deep-fried plantains with black-bean paste, small plates of rice and meat, shish kebabs, tacos or empanadas; nothing fancy, but the perfect accompaniment to a cold beer.
One of the most authentic and well-known boca bar is the working-class, long-established Bar México in Barrio México – it’s a pretty rough neighbourhood, so go by taxi. Alternatively, you’ll find a varied clientele – but conspicuously few foreigners – at Los Perales and El Sesteo (both Mon–Sat 7pm–midnight) in the eastern suburb of Curridabat. They’re about 100m from each other on the same street – hard to find on your own, but taxi drivers will know them.