Costa Rica boasts an off the grid farm where internationally renowned guest chefs create signature dishes based on the day’s organic harvest, luxury resort seafood platters piled with langosta and camarones, and a modern menuless Mediterranean cafe that’s truly family style because you’ll eat what is put in front of you (and like it).
However, none of those are the best. The best restaurants in Costa Rica are not nouvelle cuisine world eateries where reservations are a year in advance, photos of artistically arranged appetizers are not retweeted a thousand times, and Michelin stars and culinary awards do not adorn the walls… in fact the best restaurants in Costa Rica don’t even have walls.
This isn’t a yip, yelp or advisor style non biased survey with consumer ratings. There are dozens of places to get those for whatever they are worth.
We’ve eaten in more than 500 restaurants in nearly 30 years of traveling around Costa Rica and our very opinionated choices for Champion are…
Donde Alba Restaurant near Caspirola between San Ignacio de Acosta and Parrita (9.676456, -84.27854 on route 301) campesino food, stewed chicken casado and almuerzo en hoja are among the specialties.
Soda La Ceiba (aka Las Carnitas) near the village of north of Bijagua (10.80789, -85.01322 on route 6) – what we would call fiesta food with tamales (traditional Christmas treat) and Carnitas (grilled meat often found at patronales)
There’s a “soda” on every corner in Costa Rica but for more authenticity get away from the corners, out of town on a “recorrido por el campo” tour of the countryside. In the cities menus have drifted towards fast food – pollo frito and hamburguesas with coke to drink. The best will seem to be in the middle of nowhere but still have dozens of cars, trucks and bicycles out front nearly blocking the narrow road.
Sodas are the original home of the fruta natural and the only opportunity around to try a real fresh from the tree ‘fresco like “limon dulce” a species of sweet lemon the size of a grapefruit. The Sodas and Juice Bars in town serve smoothies made from bulk processed concentrated fruit pulp but in rural agricultural areas they’ll use whatever is ripe out back.
Resorts can be great but not escaping the buffet or “chef inspired” specialty restaurants at your All Inclusive Resort to try some real Costa Rican food would be culinary criminal negligence. It’s understandably difficult to skip meals you’ve paid for in advance, but Sodas are quite inexpensive – typically under ten bucks a person.
If you’re wondering about the Michelin stars mentioned in the intro there are zero in Costa Rica and always will be, but there are hundreds of excellent purveyors of international cuisines across Costa Rica. A small sampling of our favorites – reservations are strongly recommended, even in low season.
- Amancio makes the best pizza in Costa Rica at his namesake restaurant in downtown Jacó and puts on a traditional Italian dalla forma show melting Parmesan into a perfect sauce using fresh cooked handmade pasta swirled artfully in a depression in a giant table side cheese wheel. Closed Wednesdays
- Gingerbread is a surprise on the side of route 142 seemingly in the middle of nowhere between La Fortuna and Tilaran on the north side of Lake Arenal. The chalkboard menu offers Mediterranean, California fresh and north African influenced dishes depending on availability of ingredients but often including the best Ahi Tuna salad I’ve ever tasted, chicken schnitzel, pork pad Thai, ossobuco and other creations of the chef and sometimes Rugby halfback Eyal. Closed Sunday & Monday
- El Hicaco has everything you want in a seafood restaurant. Directly on Jacó beach where the sound of the waves reaches every open air table, a decent wine cellar, and of course excellently selected and prepared fresh ocean fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Arrive early for drinks – every table has a perfect sunset view. Open every day
- La Pecora Nera Ristorante south of Puerto Viejo across from Playa Cocles serves fresh Caribbean seafood in the style of the Italian Mediterranean coast. An excellent wine “cellar” (above ground temperature controlled – the best A/C you’ll find on the coast but only for the vino…the restaurant is open air).
- Platillos Volador is Emi and David’s tiny (I think they squeezed in a third table recently) culinary masterpiece in Nuevo Arenal. The best pizza in Costa Rica (I know there can’t be two but I’m not choosing) plus chalkboard specials like tortellini soup, penne a la vodka and white lasagna. There’s some mystery whether the literal translation of the name “flying small plates” refers to the speed that things fly out of the kitchen, the chance that Emi might target David with a bit of crockery for a smart remark or the alien’s flying saucers that are integral to the decor.
- Rancho Margot is an amazing food experience. The self contained farm and ranch practices sustainability at the highest level. The gardens, orchards, and animal pastures produce everything using methane digestors for fuel, a hydro turbine for electricity, composts as fertilizer and more. It would be impossible for the food to be any fresher and the preparation world class. In addition to the staff Juan invites internationally trained chefs to visit and create. I’m not sure the restaurant is normally open to the public. The owner Juan Sostheim has welcomed us to his table since we were some of the first to visit his project almost 15 years ago. Make a reservation to spend a few nights and take a full tour of the operation just to be sure…the farm is the table.
- El Sapo restaurant at Senda Hotel in Monteverde promises “high quality, hyper-local, sustainably sourced and honest cuisine, creatively prepared and served in a stylish setting” which was brash enough to make me roll my eyes when I read it but I ended up rolling my eyes in ecstasy when I tasted each dish from this newcomer. House baked bread, fish, meats and the original sauces and chutneys are each amazing (there were six of us and I tasted every plate). If you’re lucky enough to also be staying at Senda the included breakfast served in the El Sapo Restaurant (sorry hotel guests only) is the best in Costa Rica.
- Taj Mahal has been serving traditional Indian cuisine in the upscale suburbs of San José as long as we can remember. Imported herbs, spices and traditional flavors are combined with the fresh local tropical ingredients common to Costa Rica and the sub-continent. Make sure your hotel room has a refrigerator for the leftovers because the portions are generous and the menu hard to resist.
Many ingredients for traditional “haute cuisine” aren’t readily or consistently available in Costa Rica. Instead chefs explore the creative possibilities of local ingredients and sometimes discover unique new tropical twists on some old favorites.