Dining options around Costa Rica run the spectrum from elegant and formal to beachy and casual. San José and popular tourist centers offer a wide variety of cuisine types. Farther off the beaten track, expect hearty, filling local cuisine. Increasingly common as you move away from San José are the thatched conical roofs of the round, open rancho restaurants that serve a combination of traditional staples with simple international fare. Every town has as least one soda—that's Costa Rican Spanish for a small, family-run restaurant.
Meals and Mealtimes
In San José and surrounding cities, sodas are usually open daily 7 am to early evening, though some close Sunday. Other restaurants are usually open 11 am to 9 pm. In rural areas restaurants are usually closed Sunday, except around resorts. In resort areas some restaurants may be open late. Normal dining hours in Costa Rica are noon to 3 and 6 to 9. Desayuno (breakfast) is served at most sodas and hotels. The traditional breakfast is gallo pinto, eggs, plantains, and fried cheese; hotel breakfasts vary widely and generally offer fruit and lighter international options in addition to the local stick-to-your-ribs plate. Almuerzo (lunch) is the biggest meal of the day for Costa Ricans, and savvy travelers know that lunch specials are the biggest bargain of the day, too. Cena (dinner or supper) runs the gamut of just about anything you choose.
Except for those in hotels, many restaurants close between Christmas and New Year's Day and during Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday). Call before heading out. Even if you keep your base in San José, consider venturing to the Central Valley towns for a meal or two.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed in this guide are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Credit cards are not accepted at many restaurants in rural areas. Always ask before you order to find out if your credit card will be accepted. Visa and MasterCard are the most commonly accepted cards; American Express and Diners Club are less widely accepted. The Discover card is increasingly accepted. Remember that 23% is added to all menu prices: 13% for tax and 10% for service. Legally, restaurant menus are required to show after-tax, after-tip prices; in practice, many do not. Because a gratuity (propina) is included, there's no need to tip, but if your service is good, it's nice to add a little money to the obligatory 10%.
Reservations and Dress
Costa Ricans generally dress more formally than North Americans. For dinner at an upscale restaurant, long pants and closed-toe shoes are standard for men except for beach locations, and women tend to wear dressy clothes that show off their figures, with high heels. Shorts, flip-flops, and tank tops are not acceptable, except at inexpensive restaurants in beach towns.
Vegetarians sticking to lower-budget establishments won't go hungry, but may develop a love-hate relationship with rice, beans, and fried cheese. A simple sin carne (no meat) request is often interpreted as "no beef," and you may get a plate of pork, chicken, or fish, so don't be afraid to sound high-maintenance. Specify solo vegetales (only vegetables), and for good measure, nada de cerdo, pollo o pescado (no pork, chicken, or fish). More-cosmopolitan restaurants are more conscious of vegetarians—upscale Asian restaurants often offer a vegetarian section on the menu. If your kids balk at the choices on the menu, ask for plain grilled chicken, fish, or beef: "Pollo/pescado/carne sencillo para niños" ("Grilled chicken/fish/meat for children"). Most restaurants are willing to accommodate with options and portion size.
Wines, Beer, Spirits, and Beverages
The ubiquitous sodas generally don't have liquor licenses, but getting a drink in any other eatery isn't usually a problem. Don't let Holy Thursday and Good Friday catch you off guard; both are legally dry days. Bars close, and coolers and alcohol shelves in restaurants and stores are sealed off with plastic and police tape. In general, restaurant prices for imported alcohol—which includes just about everything except local beer, rum, and guaro, the local sugarcane firewater—may be more than what you'd like to pay.
Water is generally safe to drink (especially around San José), but quality can vary; to be safe, drink bottled water.
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