For travelers, dining in a foreign country can be a challenge, but for many – especially die-hard “foodies” – sampling the local cuisine is often an important part of the vacation experience. Dining in Costa Rica can be quite varied, basically because the country has traditionally been such a melting pot of cultures. That means you’ll find quite a variety of cuisine in restaurants located throughout the country, including traditional fare (called “tipico”), Chinese, African, and many others.
Dining in Costa Rica isn’t terribly different from dining in the rest of North America. Unlike Europeans, who tend to eat dinner late, Ticos – as native Costa Ricans are called – eat lunch between about 11 am and 2 pm and dinner between 6 and 8 pm, much like Americans and Canadians. Small diner-type restaurants – called sodas, which serve local food, generally stay open from about 11 am until 11 pm. There are some restaurants that remain open 24 hours a day, but those tend to be popular chain restaurants that you might find elsewhere in North America.
The city of San Jose is where you’ll find the most restaurants as well as the biggest variety. The capital city has everything from coffee shops to deli-type establishments where you can buy a quick sandwich to five-star restaurants that serve fine cuisine and the atmosphere to go with it. Other large cities have fewer choices and in the remote coastal and inland areas, it’s often difficult to find a restaurant.
Dining on Local Foods
Eating meals in Costa Rica needn’t be too adventurous as you can always find common food like pizza and burgers, if that’s your preference. However, there are some wonderful local foods that should be sampled while visiting the country, even in small quantities if you’re not too daring.
The staple of nearly every traditional Costa Rican meal is rice and beans, but not necessarily the kind you’d associate with other Central America countries, like Mexico – where the food is much spicier. You’ll even find rice and beans on the breakfast menu – look for gallo pinto – where you can have them with eggs, meat, or seafood. At lunch and dinner, rice and beans is again served with meat and often a cabbage salad and some fried plantains, all combined to form a dish known as a cosado. The ingredients of the cosado vary according to what the soda has on hand that day.
Ticos love their meat and Costa Rica is full of cattle ranches, providing plenty of good beef to supply the country’s restaurants. One of the most popular uses for beef is in a meal called Olle de Carne, which is similar to a hearty beef vegetable soup and usually contains potatoes, squash, corn, plantains, and yucca. Chicken is widely served as well and diners can find such favorites as Arroz con Pollo – chicken with rice and local vegetables.
Of course, with two coasts, dining in Costa Rica should include a sampling of the fine local seafood. Sea bass – called corvina – is a very widely-served fish as is tuna, mahi-mahi (sometimes called dorado), and red snapper. Shell fish isn’t as popular as much of it is exported out of the country and what’s left tends to be overpriced.
The fruit and vegetables in Costa Rica are top-notch as well. Some tropical fruits will be foreign to many visitors and should be enjoyed in moderation so as to avoid stomach problems. Expect to find mangoes, pineapples, various melons, passion fruit, star fruit, and plenty of bananas. Juices served in restaurants are usually fresh-squeezed and very tasty. Vegetables aren’t quite as plentiful and varied. One of the most popular salad items served on most menus is the palmito or heart of palm. Usually boiled and chopped, it’s generally mixed with other salad greens. Cabbage is also a common side dish as are tomatoes.
Desserts are pretty simple. As in Mexico, the custard-like dish known as flan is served often at restaurants and in the home, as are pound cakes, often accompanied by pieces of tropical fruit.
As far as beverages are concerned, most independent restaurants as well as those in hotels or resorts offer bottled water to their customers, even though the water supply in Costa Rica is generally considered to be safe. It’s best, however, not to take any chances. Diners can order sparkling water or the regular, non-bubbly kind.
Alcohol is served at many restaurants. Beer is quite popular, especially German varieties, but North Americans will find some Canadian and American brews there as well. South American wines are much more popular than those from the U.S. or Europe. Guaro, the national liquor of Costa Rica, is used in a number of different alcoholic concoctions, usually mixed with a soft drink like Coca-Cola or with tonic water for a very sweet flavored drink.
Finding a Good Restaurant in Costa Rica
Again, where you eat in Costa Rica might be determined by just how adventurous you are when it comes to dining.
Most of the country’s upscale resorts and hotels have very good restaurants, often the highest-rated in Costa Rica. Here you’ll find some local foods but also lots of steaks and chicken. Prices tend to be high at most of these establishments.
As is true for any destination, the best places for dining in Costa Rica are the sodas that come highly recommended by the locals. Ask any Tico where to dine and he’ll probably lead you to a small café in an out-of-the-way place that you might never consider had it not been recommended by a knowledgeable local. Often, the prices are quite low, the selection wide, and the food always fresh. You usually won’t find these places on internet restaurant guides and they’re often not indicated on any tourist maps. But if you give them a chance, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised with the outcome and will walk away knowing that you sampled the best in local cuisine.