Although Costa Rican cooking can be fairly simple and plain, creative chefs have livened up the dining scene in San José and at most of the major tourist destinations.
Outside of the capital and the major tourist destinations, your options get very limited very fast. In fact, many destinations are so isolated that you have no choice but to eat in the hotel’s restaurant. At remote jungle lodges, the food is usually served buffet- or family-style and can range from bland to inspired (depending on who’s doing the cooking), and turnover is high.
If you see a restaurant billing itself as a mirador, it means it has a view. If you are driving around the country, don’t miss an opportunity to dine with a view at some little roadside restaurant. The food might not be all that great, but the view and scenery will be Instagrammable.
At even the more expensive restaurants, it’s hard to spend more than $60 per person unless you really splurge on drinks. It gets even cheaper outside the city and high-end hotels. However, if you really want to save money, traditional Costa Rican food, or comida típica, is always the cheapest nourishment available. It’s primarily served in sodas, Costa Rica’s equivalent of diners. At a soda, you’ll have lots of choices: rice and beans with steak, rice and beans with fish, rice and beans with chicken, or, for vegetarians, rice and beans with salad. Additionally, there’s usually a list of fresh juices available.
By the way, get used to seeing restaurants proudly advertise their food in English as “typical” (or in the case of one restaurant in La Fortuna, with a big starburst on the front of its menu, “100% Typical!”). The word típico in Spanish means traditional or regional, and is a point of pride, but the translation “typical” (meaning ordinary or lackluster) doesn’t do it justice.
Restaurant listings throughout this web guide are separated into three price categories, based on the average cost of a meal per person, including tax and service charge: Expensive, more than $40 (roughly C27,000); Moderate, $15 to $40 (C10,000–C27,000); and Inexpensive, less than $15 (C10,00). (Note that individual items in the listings—entrees, for instance—do not include the sales or service taxes.) Keep in mind that an additional 13% sales tax applies, as well as a 10% service charge. Ticos rarely tip, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. If the service was particularly attentive, leave a little extra. And because bars rarely include a service charge, remember to tip your bartender.
Meals & Dining Customs
Rice and beans are the base of every Costa Rican meal—all three of them. At breakfast, they’re called gallo pinto and come with everything from eggs to steak to seafood. At lunch or dinner, rice and beans are an integral part of the traditional casado (which means “married,” and is derived from the days when a worker who brought one of these varied meals to work was thought to have a “married man’s lunch”). A casado usually consists of rice and beans, a cabbage and tomato salad, fried plantains, and chicken, fish, or beef. On the Caribbean coast, rice and beans are called “rice ’n’ beans” and are cooked in coconut milk.
Dining hours in Costa Rica are flexible but generally follow North American customs. Some downtown restaurants in San José, and busy highway eateries, are open 24 hours; however, expensive restaurants tend to be open for lunch between 11am and 3pm and for dinner between 6 and 10pm.
Appetizers — Known as bocas in Costa Rica, appetizers are served with drinks in most bars. Sometimes the bocas are free, but if not, they’re usually inexpensive. Popular bocas include gallos (tortillas piled with meat, chicken, cheese, or beans), ceviche (a marinated seafood salad), tamales (stuffed cornmeal patties wrapped and steamed inside banana leaves), patacones (fried plantain chips), and fried yuca.
Sandwiches & Snacks — Ticos love to snack, and a large variety of tasty little sandwiches and snacks are available on the street, at snack bars, and in sodas. Arreglados are little meat-filled sandwiches, as are tortas, which are served on little rolls with a bit of salad tucked into them. Tacos, tamales, gallos (see above), and empanadas (turnovers) also are quite common.
Meat — Costa Rica is beef country, having long ago converted much of its rainforest to pastures for raising beef cattle. Consequently, beef is cheap and plentiful, although it might be a bit tougher—and cut and served thinner—than you are used to. One typical local dish is called olla de carne, a bowl of beef broth with large chunks of meat, local tubers, and corn. Spit-roasted chicken is also very popular here and is meltingly tender. Lamb is very sparsely used in Costa Rican cooking, although finer restaurants often have a lamb dish or two on the menu.
Without a doubt, Costa Rica’s most popular and famous boca is a bowl of chifrijo. The name is a phonetic abbreviation of its two most important ingredients: chicharrones (fried pork bellies) and frijoles (beans). A proper bowl of chifrijo will also have rice, pico de gallo (a tomato-based salsa), and a few slices of avocado, accompanied by some tortilla chips to scoop it all up.
The creation was the brainchild of Miguel Cordero, who began serving it in his family bar in Tibas in the early 1980s. The dish quickly spread like wildfire and can now be found in restaurants and bars around the country. Cordero had the foresight to trademark his dish, and in 2014 he began taking legal action against competitors for trademark infringement. Thanks to Cordero’s trademark claims, restaurant and bar owners have had to scramble. In most cases, you can still usually find chifrijo on the menu, only it might be called frichijo, or hochifri, or some other variation on the theme.
Seafood — Costa Rica has two coasts, and, as you’d expect, plenty of seafood is available everywhere in the country. Corvina (sea bass) is the most commonly served fish and is prepared in many ways, including as ceviche. You should also come across pargo (red snapper), dorado (mahi-mahi), tilapia and tuna on some menus. Trucha (trout) is also farm raised in some higher altitude regions. Also look out for shellfish such as camarón (shrimp), piangua (black clams) and mejillones (mussels), especially in the Punta Arenas area.
Vegetables — In tourist restaurants you’ll find vegetables surprisingly lacking in the meals you’re served in Costa Rica—usually nothing more than a little pile of shredded cabbage topped with a slice or two of tomato. You are better off in the sodas where the country’s vast agricultural bounty finds an outlet. For a more satisfying and filling salad, order palmito (hearts of palm salad). The heart (actually one stem of a multi-stemmed palm) is boiled and then chopped into circular pieces and served with other fresh vegetables, with salad dressing on top. If you want something more than this, you’ll have to order a side dish such as picadillo, a stew or purée of vegetables, sometimes with a bit of meat in it.
Fruits — Plátanos (plantains) are giant relatives of bananas that are cooked and served with countless casados every day. Green plantains have a very starchy flavor and consistency, but they become as sweet as candy as they ripen, and especially when fried. Costa Rica has a wealth of delicious tropical fruits, including mangoes (the season begins in May), papayas, pineapples, melons, and bananas. Other fruits include marañón, which is the fruit of the cashew tree and has orange or yellow glossy skin; caimito, the star apple; granadilla or maracuyá (passion fruit); mamón chino, which Asian travelers will immediately recognize as rambutan; and carambola (starfruit).
Throughout Costa Rica, keep your eye out for roadside stands selling fresh, green coconuts, or pipas. Green coconuts have very little meat, but are filled with copious amounts of a slightly sweet, clear liquid that is extremely refreshing. According to local legend, this liquid is pure enough to be used as plasma in an emergency situation. Armed with a machete, the pipa seller will grab a cold one, cut out the top, stick in a straw, and ask you for about C500 (less than US$1).
One more fruit worth mentioning is the pejibaye, a peach palm fruit that looks like a miniature orange coconut and is used more like a vegetable. Boiled pejibayes are frequently sold from carts on the streets of San José. When cut in half, a pejibaye reveals a large seed surrounded by soft, fibrous flesh. You can eat it plain, but it’s usually topped with a dollop of mayonnaise.
Desserts —Queque seco (“dry cake”) is pound cake. Tres leches cake, on the other hand, is so moist that you almost need to eat it with a spoon. Flan is a typical custard dessert. It often comes as either flan de caramelo (caramel) or flan de coco (coconut). Numerous other sweets are available, many of which are made with condensed milk and raw sugar. Cajetas are popular handmade candies, made from sugar and various mixes of evaporated, condensed, and powdered milk. They are sold in differing-size bits and chunks at most pulperías (small stores) and streetside food stands.
Frescos, refrescos, and jugos naturales are popular drinks in Costa Rica. They are usually made with fresh fruit and milk or water. Among the more common fruits used are mangoes, papayas, blackberries, and pineapples. You’ll also come across maracuyá (passion fruit) and carambola (star fruit). Some of the more unusual frescos are horchata (made with rice flour and a lot of cinnamon) and chan (made with the seed of a plant found mostly in Guanacaste—definitely an acquired taste). The former is wonderful; the latter requires an open mind (it’s reputed to be good for the digestive system). Order un fresco con leche sin hielo (a fresco with milk but without ice) if you want to avoid untreated water.
Costa Rica is a coffee mecca, but some coffee drinkers might be disappointed here. Most of the best coffee has traditionally been targeted for export, and Ticos tend to prefer theirs weak and sugary. Better hotels and restaurants, catering to foreign tastes, now serve up superior blends. If you want black coffee, ask for café negro; if you want it with milk, order café con leche.
For something different in the morning, ask for agua dulce, a warm drink made from melted sugar cane and served either with milk or lemon, or straight, or chicha, a slightly alcoholic drink made from fermented fruits.
Water — Although water in most of Costa Rica is safe to drink, bottled water is readily available and is a good option if you’re worried about an upset stomach. Agua mineral, or simply soda, is sparkling water in Costa Rica. If you like your water without bubbles, just ask for a botella de agua.
Beer, Wine & Liquor — The German presence in Costa Rica over the years has produced several decent beers, which are fairly inexpensive. Most Costa Rican beers are light pilsners. Almost all mass-produced beers are either produced or imported by one single company, Florida Ice & Farm. The most popular brands are Imperial, Pilsen, and Bavaria.
Costa Rica has seen an amazing boom in craft beers and places to drink them in recent years, and Costa Rica’s Craft Brewing Company ([tel] 2249-0919) has led the way. Their Libertas Golden Ale and Segua Red Ale are available at more and more restaurants and bars around the country, and can be purchased at larger supermarkets. The brewery offers tours and has a small brewpub at its main facility in Ciudad Colón, a western suburb of San José. Other brews and breweries to look for include the lambics and wild ales of Cervecería Calle Cimarrona, Ambar by Cervecera del Centro; Majadera Pale Ale and Japiendin Tropical Ale from Treinta y Cinco; and Witch’s Rock Pale Ale and Gato Malo Dark Ale from Tamarindo’s Volcano Brewing Company.
You can find imported wines at reasonable prices in the better restaurants throughout the country. You can usually save money by ordering a Chilean or Argentine wine over a Californian or European bottle.
Costa Rica distills a wide variety of liquors, and you’ll save money by ordering these over imported brands. The national liquor is guaro, a simple cane liquor that’s often combined with a soft drink or tonic. When drinking it straight, it’s customary to follow a shot with a bite into a fresh lime covered in salt. If you want to try guaro, stick to the Cacique brand. And don’t miss a chance to try a chile guaro, which is like a very spicy Bloody Mary in a shot glass.
Several brands and styles of coffee-based liqueurs are produced in Costa Rica. Café Rica is similar to Kahlúa, and you can find several types of coffee cream liqueurs. Café Britt produces its own line of coffee liqueurs, which are quite good and available in most supermarkets, liquor stores, and tourist shops.
Costa Ricans also drink a lot of rum. The premier Costa Rican rum is Centenario.
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.