Santiago's gastronomic scene has undergone a culinary revolution during the past decade or so, with an influx of ethnic restaurants and trendy eateries serving fusion-style, creative cuisine commonly known as cocina de autor. The culinary scene is now fertile enough to persuade the city's most talented chefs to stay rather than flee to Europe or the U.S. High-end, haute-cuisine restaurants are predominately springing up in the eastern edge of Santiago's swanky Vitacura neighborhood north of Las Condes and closer to the Hyatt Hotel. While it's gratifying to see young Chileans these days study to become "chefs" rather than "cooks," when compared with other world class cities, Santiago continues to fall short when it comes to producing consistent and tasty midrange meals. If you strike out on your own, don't expect the Parisian security of walking into an unassuming bistro and reveling in innovative dishes conjured using the finest ingredients. Beyond the clique of elitist establishments, meals in Santiago are generally devoid of flair, spice, and culinary wizardry.
Downtown, civic center area eateries cater principally to office workers, meaning they're open for lunch only and closed on weekends (there are several exceptions, listed later). The Lastarría neighborhood, on the east side of Cerro Santa Lucía, has a much more cosmopolitan feel with patio seating and all day drinking and dining. For lunch in the downtown area, cheap meals can be found at picadas, or diners, that line the pedestrian walkways Ahumada and Huerfanos; they offer a fixed-price lunch called a menú del día, menú ejecutivo, or coloación for about $6 to $10 (£4-£2.50) that includes an appetizer, main course, beverage, coffee, and dessert. Autoservicios, or self-service restaurants, also abound, and most restaurants advertise their prices on sandwich boards or on signs posted near the front door.
In the peculiar Chilean fashion of concentrating similar businesses in one neighborhood (Av. 10 de Julio, for example, is lined for blocks with auto mechanics), restaurant "clusters" have been popping up like mushrooms around the city. Bellavista is perhaps the best neighborhood to see this phenomenon, with its mind-boggling number of hip restaurants, from Chilean to Cuban to Mediterranean to Asian. Both Avenida El Bosque Norte and its sister street, Avenida Isidora Goyenechea, are lined with a mélange of upscale eateries and American chain restaurants, and now the Avenida Italia area in Providencia and the Lastarría/Parque Forestal areas are forging ahead as the new dining hot spots. A few of the local favorites from these neighborhoods are reviewed, but you could really just stroll the streets until something strikes your fancy. All major hotels have outstanding -- though pricey -- restaurants open to the public. Highlights are the Hyatt's Senso and Matsuri restaurants, the Ritz-Carlton's Adra restaurant, and the Sheraton's El Cid restaurant. Chile is to seafood what Argentina is to beef, yet Chileans consider seafood a delicacy and rarely eat it at home. "Dining out" to Chileans often means dining on seafood, one reason why you'll find such a bountiful selection in Santiago restaurants.
Santiago is not a cafe society; however, there are a couple of recommendations. Café Tavelli (tel. 2/333-8481) has two branches, and both are plum spots for people-watching. The branch at the corner of Tenderini and Agustinas in downtown occupies the northeastern corner of the Municipal Theater building; this is where you come to see executives, politicians, and society ladies. Lofty ceilings give the cafe a sense of grandeur, but the outdoor tables are where to watch the city street action. There is another bustling Café Tavelli on Andres de Fuenzalida 36 in Providencia, with a more artsy and middle-class crowd. For rich desserts, ice cream, and other sweet delights, try the chain Coppelia (tel. 2/232-1090) in Providencia, with locations at Manuel Montt 2517, Av. Providencia 2211, and Av. Ricardo Lyon 161. In general, the best bet for cafes is in the Lastarría/Parque Forestal area.
Downtown -- Restaurants in the Lastarría Street/Plaza Mulato Gil de Castro micro-neighborhood offer evening dining if you are staying downtown and would rather not wander too far. Lastarría, also known as Parque Forestal, is a burgeoning artsy, cafe-oriented neighborhood that has undergone a revival in the past few years, and it is undoubtedly the most charming neighborhood in Santiago. A few cafes to check out in this area are Emporio La Rosa (corner of Monjitas and Merced; tel. 2/638-9257; Mon-Wed 8am-9pm and Thurs-Sun 9am-10pm), for tasty homemade ice cream, sandwiches, and outdoor seating; La Pérgola de la Plaza (Plaza Mulatto Gil de Castro; tel. 2/639-3604; Mon-Fri 11am-midnight, Sat 11am-2am, Sun 11am-4pm), a pretty little cafe with a good fixed-price lunch menu and outdoor seating; and "R" (Plaza Mulatto Gil de Castro; tel. 2/664-9844; Mon-Sat 12:30-4:30pm and 7:30pm-1:30am), a cozy spot for wine and conversation, although the ambience is far better than the food. Mosqueto Café (corner of Villavicencio and Lastarría; tel. 2/639-1627; daily 8:30am-10pm), serves coffee, cakes, and sandwiches in a gorgeous, meticulously restored antique building that also houses the cultural center and crafts shop El Observatorio. Tip: "R" and Emporio La Rosa are two of the best places in Santiago to sit outdoors and watch an eclectic group of locals meander by. You can park your rental car in the garage at Merced 317.
Providencia -- Ask a cab driver or hotel clerk where to dine or drink in Providencia, and oftentimes their knee-jerk reaction is Avenida Suecia (at Av. Providencia). Don't listen to them. Apart from a few reasonably quiet bars, the 3-block radius is like a frat house gone wild on weekends, and reports of violent crime fueled by alcohol are on the rise in this oddball neighborhood. Most call it gringolandia, for its resemblance to the United States and its handful of restaurants serving typical American food.
Las Condes/El Bosque Norte -- El Bosque Norte and Isidora Goyenechea streets are two gastronomic gauntlets that connect at Avenida Vitacura; occasionally you'll hear the area referred to as El Golf, for the Metro stop nearby. Virtually every business on these two streets is a restaurant, food shop, or cafe. American chain restaurants are concentrated here, such as T.G.I. Friday's, with the usual fattening menu, at Isidora Goyenechea 3275 (tel. 2/234-4468); New York Bagel, Roger de Flor 2894 (tel. 2/246-3060); or Starbucks, Isidora Goyenechea 2940 (no phone).
Vitacura -- The apex of Santiago's burgeoning gourmet scene is here in Vitacura, a neighborhood known for its art galleries, Rodeo Drive-style shopping, expensive homes, and prime real estate bordering the Mapocho River. In fact, the restaurant complex BordeRio (Av. Monseñor Escrivá de Balaguer 6400; tel. 2/218-0100; www.borderio.cl) means just that, "bordering the river." BordeRio is a cluster of nine upscale restaurants housed in a modern, Spanish-influenced complex built of white stucco and terra-cotta tile. Certainly there are a few fine restaurants here, but my take is that it feels prefabricated, like a shopping mall. In the absence of an efficient public transport option, it is worth having a taxi drop you off so that you may wander around until you find a place to suit your mood -- with the exception of Fridays and Saturdays, the place rarely seems full.
BordeRio has everything from Italian to Japanese to steakhouse fare. My pick is Zanzibar (tel. 2/218-0118). With sparkling chandeliers and mosaic pillars, it feels like walking into a palace in Marrakech; but the best thing about this restaurant is the rooftop Moroccan lounge, where you can savor a soft breeze and the Andean view. It's best for an early evening cocktail and appetizers -- make a reservation and prepare yourself for slow service. The owners of Zanzibar also own a BordeRio nightspot, Lamu Lounge.