Dining in Costa Rica While Keeping an Eye on Expenses
While the country isn’t renowned for its own cuisine (there are some really great exceptions), you will find a multitude of international restaurants in addition to well-known restaurant chains (if you yearn for a taste of home, but then, why bother coming to Costa Rica in the first place). In our estimate during our visit last year, my wife and I had three of the very best meals we have ever eaten.
One was lunch at an Argentinean-themed establishment, one a seafood meal at a restaurant run by an American ex-pat and one, admittedly, at a Costa Rican-style outdoor restaurant catering to the tourist trade. We had the meals in three different areas of the country. The costs of these three incredible meals were not “cheap” by our standards, but less than what we would have expected to pay in the States for the same quality. In the two weeks we were in country, we ate out lunches and dinners probably 15 times. We never had a bad meal.
The rest of our meals were prepared by my adventurous wife in our little casita while we were in the Central Valley. During our entire vacation, breakfasts were usually made in our casita or hotel room from items purchased at a local market or the farmers’ market, feria, on usually held on Fridays. These forays to local markets were a great way for us to save up money for stops at more of the expensive dining destinations during our travels and also learn about local fruits, veggies, meats, prepared foods and condiments as well as practice our Spanish.
Most of the restaurants and markets we frequented took credit cards. An important dining phrase, “La cuenta, por favor,” “the check, please,” for as in most European countries, here they won’t hurry you out door for the next seating. Take your time, enjoy your meal and your company. The waiter will wait until you ask for the check. (Hey, do you think that’s why we call them waiters?) After your meal and you get the bill, don’t feel compelled to add a tip, as a 10% tip is usually added to the check at the end. (Costa Ricans typically don’t tip additionally.) Guilt often compels gringos to add a bit more (usually, no more than two or three percent depending on the service). If you do augment the built-in tip, pay the tip in colones at the table to help guarantee that the wait staff and/or kitchen crew get the tip and it doesn’t wind up in the pockets of the proprietor and management.
Between the towns of Escazu and Santa Ana, located next to each other and just outside of San Jose, one will find a number of the Central Valley’s finest restaurants. There is just about every kind of ethnic and themed-style of cuisine you would find in any average North American city plus a few more with a definite South American bent such as Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Brazilian and Argentinean restaurants. Escazu is called the Beverly Hills of Costa Rica and an area were many ex-pats congregate and live. You can find many choices and many of the comforts of home including a number of those restaurant brands you are familiar with in North America, but don’t expect too many bargains while dining in the area.
However, we were taken to a really wonderful oriental restaurant recently that specializes in Far Eastern cuisine with an emphasis on Sushi using sauces with a Costa Rican flair. The taste of everything we had was wonderful, the presentation superb and the price was quite reasonable. I am normally not inclined to give an individual plug, but they are a bit off the beaten path and I really want them to succeed. If you go to Escazu for dinner, give the Banzai Restaurant a try. It’s quite close to the giant MultiPlaza shopping mall (more on this landmark in a later blog). Maybe it will come up in your GPS, you can call for directions or ask a cabby to take you there.
There is another great culinary institution in Costa Rica called a “soda.” I don’t know for certain how they got the name ‘soda,’ but I’d like to think it is because they don’t sell alcoholic beverages, just sodas, and local carbonated and non-carbonated fruit drinks. Sodas are essentially mom and pop diners. Many offer the Costa Rican version of fresh fruit smoothies with or without milk called a “batido.” Most offer a choice of entrees including beef, chicken, fish, pork and usually some vegetarian fare. Many sodas serve their own interpretation of the casado, which means marriage. In this case a marriage of traditional Costa Rican rice and beans plus other flavors with the addition of an entrée, veggie, fruit and/or salad. Think of your soda experience as the Costa Rican version of a French prix fix meal on the cheap.
Look for the word “SODA” displayed prominently and you will have identified one. Many are some former part of a home–a covered patio-style place, a converted garage or family room or an addition specifically meant to be a SODA. Some are diner-type affairs located in a community feria or market. Some are located in a store front. We’ve even seen sodas occupying a thatched hut. Some sodas serve you at your table, some at a counter, while others offer a buffet-style selection and seat yourself dining.
Sodas can be found in virtually any town or hamlet of any size and are often even located in remote locations along the road well outside of the nearest point of civilization. You need to take colones—they don’t take credit cards or foreign currency. Not all sodas serve great food, but many do, you always get a good portion, it is very Costa Rican and a very inexpensive way to have lunch or even dinner. Per person, depending on what you order and what drink you have to accompany your meal, you are looking at from about $2.50 to $5.00 per person all inclusive. We check out a new soda, at least, once a week.
Sodas will be a great place to test your Spanish language skills as in many Sodas your English will not be understood. Not to fear, try your best Spanish or take a chance and point to something on the menu. Most folks are quite friendly—they won’t hurt you and they’ll probably appreciate your attempts to speak in their language and the fact that you are patronizing their establishment.
There are a multitude of communities with their own distinct personalities and often with multiple microclimates within reach of the downtown square. In between the upscale restaurants catering to tourists and the well-to-do Ticos and the soda, are many local restaurants in the smaller communities and barrios serving ethnic foods and local Costa Rican specialties. The prices at these restaurants is also somewhere in between the high end and low end. They usually serve wine, beer, sodas and local fruit drink specialties and most take credit cards.
My next blog entry will cover bits and pieces (more about driving, native fruits and vegetables, some about the sights here, weather and getting ready to end your first Costa Rican exploration vacation).
The author of this blog, Ticonuevo, is a US expat who moved to Costa Rica and used the services of GoDutch Realty to purchase a property in Costa Rica. In his blogs, Ticonuevo describes his own experiences of taking the step of moving to Costa Rica and getting a new life started.