Chilean gastronomy is coming into its own, but for now it's safe to say that you will not return from your trip raving about the country's cuisine. This is not to say that the food is mediocre; it's just that despite the bounty of wonderful ingredients at hand such as shellfish and fish, vegetables, and exotic fruits, Chilean food lacks creativity. Most restaurants rely on the same timeworn recipes; meat and fish are grilled, fried, or sautéed and served with rice or fries -- not very memorable.
The exception to this is Chile's cocina de autor (nouvelle and fusion cuisine) found mostly in Santiago, restaurants in tourist-oriented destinations, and most major hotels that employ talented chefs and a long list of high-caliber wines. When ordering lunch, ask whether the restaurant has a menú del día or menú ejecutivo, a fixed-price lunch for $6 to $11 (£4-£7.30) that typically includes an appetizer, main course, beverage or wine, coffee, and dessert. The lunch menú is normally a cheaper and fresher alternative to anything listed on the carta (menu).
What beef is to Argentina, seafood is to Chile, and Chileans eat it all, from sole to sea urchin to conger eel. What's odd, however, is that Chileans dine on seafood in restaurants but rarely at home, which is why you'll see a larger selection of seafood at any given restaurant than you will in the local grocery store.
Chilean waiters operate at a languid pace, and foreign diners might have trouble adjusting to this. Waiters for the most part in Chile are not service-oriented, and often you'll find yourself craning your neck trying to catch the attention of a waiter who is busy chatting or hiding out in the kitchen. Also, waiters in Chile do not automatically bring the check -- you'll have to request it. It is customary to tip 10%, which you may do in cash or by adding the tip onto the credit card slip before the card is run through.
The cost to dine in Chile is on the rise, with main courses ranging between $9 and $15 (£6-£10); cocktails retail for around $7 (£4.70), but then again barmen here make them doubly strong. In cities such as Santiago, dining categories are rated by the cost of a main course: Expensive is more than $15 (£10), Moderate is $10 to $15 (£6.70-£10), and Inexpensive is less than $10 (£6.70).
Dining Customs -- Every hotel, with the exception of dirt-cheap hostels, serves breakfast free with the room price, which may be a skimpy continental breakfast with coffee, juice, and a roll, or a full "American" breakfast with eggs. Few restaurants serve breakfast outside of major hotels. In Chile, lunch is served between 1 and 3pm, and it is considered the main meal of the day and taken very seriously. Businesses may close during the lunch hour, and it is difficult to reach anyone by phone during this time.
Americans need some adjusting to get used to the country's dinner hours. Dinner is typically very late; in small towns, you'll be hard-pressed to find an eatery that opens before 8pm. Most restaurants close before midnight, but on weekends they'll stay open until 2 or 3am. Even in private homes, families eat dinner around 9:30 or 10pm. This giant hunger gap between lunch and dinner has given rise to the Chilean tradition of onces -- literally "elevenses," or afternoon tea. At home, a Chilean might have a cup of tea with a roll and jam, but you'll find salones de té throughout the country that serve complete onces that can include rich, sugary cakes, toasted cheese sandwiches, juice, ice cream, and more. Many Chileans have a light sandwich during this time and call it an early dinner.
Appetizers -- Entradas are seafood appetizers, such as razor clams or ceviche, that are ordered before meals. Bar appetizers are known as picoteos, hearty platters with meat and cheese and other goodies.
Sandwiches & Snacks -- Chileans cling to the traditional heavy lunch, but many also lunch or snack on quick meals such as sandwiches or empanadas, those tasty fried or baked turnovers filled with shellfish, cheese, or a meat and onion mixture known as pino. Sandwiches are hefty and often require a knife and fork. A grilled ham and cheese is known as a barros jarpa, and a meat and melted cheese is known as a barros luco. Then there's the completo, a hot dog topped with mustard, mayonnaise, and sauerkraut, or the italiano, a hot dog with globs of mayonnaise, mashed avocado, and chopped tomato, an impossibly messy Chilean favorite. Cheap cafes, known as fuentes de soda or schoperías (from the word schop, or draft beer), serve fast snacks and sandwiches. One of the most common and inexpensive dishes is cazuela, a hearty soup made with either a chicken leg or hunk of beef, and potato, corn, rice, and green beans -- cazuela is comfort food when you're sick or have stayed out too late the night before.
Meat -- Although Chilean meat consumption is no match for the carnivores of Argentina, they do consume a lot of it. Chile also loves its lamb, especially in the Lake District and Patagonia regions where lamb is butterflied and tied to a spit and slowly roasted over a wood fire. Beef is the focal point for the social Chilean asado, or barbecue, that commonly begins with an appetizer of choripan, or savory sausage served in a roll. The tenderest cuts of steak are the lomo and the filete. Costillar de cerdo, or pork ribs, served with spicy mashed potatoes, is a classic Chilean dish. Chicken can be found on most menus but is considered an "inferior" meat here. You'll either love or hate pastel de choclo, a casserole of ground beef and chicken, topped with a sugary sweet corn crust baked golden brown.
Seafood -- Fruits of the sea are this country's specialty, and the Chileans' love for the variety of weird and wonderful shellfish seems limitless. Machas (razor clams), the delicious but hard-to-get loco (a meaty, thick abalone), choros or choritos (mussels), ostras (oysters), ostiones (scallops), or the outstanding centolla (king crab) are familiar. Less familiar are picorocos (barnacles), the much-loved erizo (sea urchin), and the exotic piure, an iodine-rich, alien-looking red blob that attaches itself to rocks and is served in soups. The most common fish you'll see on the menu are salmon, the buttery congrio (conger eel), merluza (hake), corvina (sea bass), and increasingly, mero (grouper), lenguado (sole), and atún (yellowfin tuna). Popular Chilean-style seafood dishes are paila marina (shellfish stew), ceviche (fish cubes and onion "cooked" in lemon juice), chupes (a creamy casserole made with crab or abalone), or caldillo (a fish stew).
Sustainable Seafood -- Much confusion and controversy surrounds the famed "Chilean sea bass," served less and less frequently in North American restaurants because over-fishing has brought the fish to the brink of extinction. Its real name is a lot less glamorous: Patagonian toothfish. Sea bass is really corvina; you'll want to avoid Patagonian toothfish if you're trying to eat sustainably.
Vegetables -- Chile's Central Valley is the breadbasket of this slender country, producing the majority of the country's fruits and vegetables. In the southern regions that are prone to cold weather and heavy rainfall, vegetables are grown in greenhouses -- in fact, it seems that every rural household has one in its backyard. In Patagonia, vegetables and fruit are very difficult to come by, and what you get is of secondary quality and very expensive. Most restaurants do not serve vegetables as a side dish; however, you can order just about any kind of vegetable in a salad, including beets, corn, green beans, and so on. The avocado, called palta, is ubiquitous, well loved, and cheap, as are the tomato and onion, both of which are combined to form an ensalada chilena. Vegetarian meals are gaining a foothold in Chile, especially in Santiago, but in rural restaurants you'll need to satisfy yourself with french fries and a salad.
Fruits -- Chile harvests a rich, flavorful assortment of fruits in its central valley and citrus groves in the desert north, exporting a good percentage of its crops to North America and beyond. Apples, oranges, and bananas are common, but you'll want to sample exotic fruits such as the chirimoya (custard apple), tuna (cactus fruit), pepino dulce (a sweet pepper that tastes somewhat like melon), or membrillo (quince).
Desserts -- Chileans often order dessert after lunch and then again after dinner, even if it's just chopped fresh fruit or fruit from a can. Desserts to look out for are the gooey, sugary suspiro limeño, which originates from Peru. German immigration left its mark on Chile with dense cakes called küchen, a specialty throughout the Lake District. Nothing is more Chilean, really, than mote con huesillo, a dessert popular during the summer and in rural areas, which combines dried peaches soaked in a light syrup and served over barley grain. Mil hojas is a cake layered with a "thousand" flakey dough layers; and lucuma, a butterscotch-flavored fruit, is delicious in cakes and ice cream.
Chileans guzzle bebidas (soft drinks) such as Coca-Cola, Sprite, or the country's own fantasy flavors, the nuclear-red Biltz and lemon-yellow Pap -- you'll just need to try them because their taste defies description. Fruit juice is very popular, sold either in boxes at the supermarket or served fresh in restaurants, cafes, and roadway stalls. These fresh juices are delightful and are usually made of frambuesa (raspberry), naranja (orange), or durazno (peach).
If you love coffee, you're in for a disappointment. High-end restaurants serve espresso drinks or brewed coffee, but even high-tab eateries occasionally try to get away with serving a packet of Nescafe and a cup of boiling water. Ask if a restaurant serves real café-café, or if they have an espresso machine.
The water in Chile is generally safe to drink except for San Pedro de Atacama, though travelers with sensitive stomachs and pregnant women should drink bottled water wherever possible. You'll find bottled water sold everywhere either as agua mineral sin gas (still water), or agua mineral con gas (sparkling water).
Beer, Wine & Liquor -- Start your meal the way Chileans do with a pisco sour, considered to be the national drink of Chile and made of the grape brandy pisco, fresh-squeezed lemon, sugar, and sometimes an egg white and a dash of bitters. Chileans and Peruvians are divided on who invented the pisco sour, but the drink was popularized in this country. Stick to a maximum of two -- these babies are potent!
Chile has garnered worldwide recognition for its fine wines, the bulk of which are exported to outside markets. However, you will be able to get your hands on fine boutique wines not available or easily found in the U.S., so visit a vinoteca (wine store) and see what's on offer. Moderate-quality wines are lower in price by U.S. standards, but expect to pay premium for reserve and icon wines.
Chile's lager beers are (listed from lightest to strongest): Cristal, Becker, Austral, and Escudo, and the dark beer Morenita. The Peruvian beer Paceña is catching on, as is the Brazilian beer Brahma. Chilean brewers have been toying with microbrews, but they're not yet the sensation they are in the U.S. -- the best is Kunstman, followed by Capital. Otherwise, you'll find Corona, Budweiser, Heineken, and Guinness in most shops and restaurants.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.