For a Central American city of its size, San José has a surprising variety of restaurants – Italian, Thai and even macrobiotic – along with simple places that offer dishes beginning and ending with rice (rice-and-shrimp, rice-and-chicken, rice-and-meat). For excellent típico cooking, try the upmarket restaurants specializing in grills or barbecues (churrascos).
Many of the city’s best restaurants are in the relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan neighbourhoods of San Pedro, along Paseo Colón, and in Escazú. Wherever you choose, eating out in San José can set your budget back on its haunches. Prices are generally steep, and the 23 percent tax on restaurant food (which includes a 10 percent “service charge”) make it even pricier to eat out. The cheapest places are in the centre, especially the snack bars and sodas, where the restaurant tax doesn’t apply. Sadly, however, the best of these are disappearing at an alarming rate because of competition from fast-food outlets. The sodas that remain generally open early, close late and are cheap and cheerful. A plato del día lunch in a soda will rarely set you back more than $5. They also have empanadas and sandwiches to take out – combine these with a stop at one of the fruit stalls on any street corner and you’ve got a quick, cheap lunch. The pieces of papaya and pineapple sold in neatly packaged plastic bags have been washed and peeled by the vendors and should be safe, but if in doubt, wash again. Snacks sold at the Mercado Central are as tasty as anywhere, and there’s a good cluster of sodas hidden away in the Galería shopping arcade, Av 2, C 5/7.
Fast-food outlets in San José are proliferating so rapidly that at times it can look like a veritable jungle of Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and KFCs, not to mention McDonald’s. Cafés also abound; some, like Giacomín, have old-world European aspirations; others, such as Spoon, are resolutely Costa Rican, with Josefinos piling in to order birthday cakes or grab a coffee. Most cafés serve exclusively export Costa Rican coffee which has a mild, soft flavour: for more on coffee. As is the case with shops and restaurants, some of the best cafés are in the shopping malls outside San José. Bakeries (pastelería, repostería) on every corner sell cakes, breads and pastries, most of them heavy with white refined flour. Worthwhile bakery chains include Musmanni, Spoon, Schmidt and Giacomín. The city’s fantastic ice cream is another source of woe to dieters. Pops is the best of the major chains, with particularly good fruit flavours.