TODAY COSTA RICA – Over the past few years, the city of San José has created an exciting new “restaurant row” close to Downtown. It stretches along six blocks of Calle 33 in the trendy Barrio Escalante district, midway between the National Theater and the San Pedro Mall. Our Tico friends call this restaurant row: Paseo Gastronomico la Luz.
It remains almost completely undiscovered by the millions of tourists who visit Costa Rica annually, and it is virtually unknown to the thousands of North Americans who are living here. But the Ticos are flocking to it.
We recently met with Jeanyna Soborio, owner of Keidas Lounge, an attractive tapas bar in the center of the restaurant district. She told us, “We wanted to create a dining alternative to Escazu. Paseo Gastronomico is a clean and safe street with a wide variety of restaurants and lounges that has become a popular destination for residents from this part of the Valley.”
“Popular” is an understatement. Paseo Gastronomico has become the go-to place for after-work cocktails, dinner-dates, casual dining, and just for a fun place to hang out.
After 7 p.m., Calle 33 is glowing from the lights of nearly 20 restaurants, cocktail lounges, bakeries and coffee shops. On a busy night, the street is jammed with cars trying to find a place to park, the bars are filled with laughter and conversation, and local couples are strolling from one venue to the next.
If you venture to Paseo Gastronomico on a Friday or Saturday night, you will find many of the restaurants packed with happy patrons. Without a reservation, you may have to join a line outside the more sought-after restaurants to get a table.
Perhaps the two most popular restaurants on Paseo Gastronomico are Sofia Mediterráneo and Restaurante Olio. We have mentioned Sofia Mediterráneo in a recent story about international restaurants in Downtown San José. It specializes in eastern Mediterranean food and it boasts the largest selection of lamb dishes in Costa Rica. (Their lamb is raised on their own ranches in Guanacaste.)
Restaurante Olio features what it calls international fare. It is located in an artfully renovated 100-year-old brick warehouse building that sits just inches from the railroad tracks. It draws a hip young crowd to its bar and restaurant with its large selection of Spanish style tapas and its up-scale dishes. Part of the fun of dining at Olio is feeling the shaking and the roar of San José‘s commuter trains as they rumble by.
One of the reasons for Paseo Gastronomico’s popularity is that the street has become an epicenter for Costa Rica’s flourishing artisanal beer scene. Over the past decade, Costa Ricans have become enamored with locally brewed craft beers. While you can find some of Costa Rica micro-brews at many of the restaurants on the street, there are two restaurants that have dedicated themselves to highlighting Costa Rica’s artisanal beers: The Costa Rica Beer Factory and Wilk Craft Beer and Grub. These two restaurants are only a block from each other, and between the two venues, you will find literally hundreds of examples of this country’s fascinating craft beers.
One of the ways you can tell that the Paseo Gastronomico restaurant row is doing well, is that the number of restaurants is growing. Two new places have been getting great reviews: Puro Perú and Isolina.
As it’s name implies, Puro Perú is a pure Peruvian restaurant. In fact, Puro Perú‘s promotional material states that its dishes are definitely not part of a fusion fad, but that they are strictly from Perú. The restaurant is the creation of Peruvian native, Luis Salas. In a recent meeting with Mr. Salas, we learned that he and his family take great care to provide traditional dishes from his native land with authentic ingredients.
If you think that the only food that comes from Perú is potatoes, you are in for a big surprise. The wide ranging cuisine of this South American country reflects the tremendous variations in its micro-climates; from the tropical coastal areas to the frigid slopes of the Andes Mountains. You will find excellent steaks and some amazing seafood dishes. And you can start your meal off with the 1920’s classic Peruvian cocktail, the pisco sour, or perhaps try a bottle of Cusqueña beer.
At the other end of the restaurant row is Isolina. We talked with Fernando Crespo, one of the founders of Isolina. He told us that the building was once the house of his great-grandmother, Anita Escalante, a member of the family that settled this part of San José.
Mr. Crespo told us that their chef creates dishes with fresh local ingredients, but uses French techniques. What will definitely get your attention when you arrive at Isolina, is that the restaurant features a large walk-in temperature controlled wine room. Mr. Crespo says that when patrons arrive, they are shown to their table, they are asked to look over the menu, and then they are invited into the wine room. Here, the staff will guide them and encourage them into selecting a wine that will best go with their dinner choices.
The Paseo Gastronomico restaurant district is becoming so popular that it is spilling beyond its original boundaries of Calle 33. A block away, on Calle 31, is the new version of Kalu. Originally in Barrio Amon, Kalu is noted for its fresh and natural dishes and for its gourmet coffee shop, Cafe Oteca, which many believe to be the best place to get a cup of freshly brewed coffee in all of San José.
On Avenida 1, around the corner from Calle 33, is Uncle Charly Restorante (that is the way they spell it). Uncle Charly, is notable since it is the creation of the renowned chef, Marco Caldi. He was the owner/chef of the celebrated Italian restaurant, Il Ritorno in the Los Yoses district. After an absence from the San José restaurant scene, this marks Mr. Caldi’s return. And it appears that he is already getting excellent reviews.
While you can find good restaurants all over San José, Paseo Gastronomico La Luz is, indeed, becoming the go-to place for a night out. This exciting new restaurant row is finding its niche with the growing affluence of Costa Rica’s hi-tech workers and with its expanding upper-middle class white-collar workers. The patrons tend to be twenty to forty something, affluent, educated and, judging by the menus and the wine lists, sophisticated diners.
And its location seems to be a big plus. Paseo Gastronomico La Luz is just east of Downtown San José, in the quiet and charming neighborhood of Barrio Escalante, which has a growing number of schools and professional office buildings.
It is about midway between Downtown San José and the University district of San Pedro. It is a quick cab ride from the National Theater, which marks the center of Downtown. If you wish to find Paseo Gastronomico La Luz by car or taxi from Downtown San José, take Avenida 2 east, toward San Pedro. Find Calle 33. The “restaurant row” begins 200 meters to the north of Avenida 2.
No compensation has been asked for, nor received, for this article.
Michael Miller is the author of the first and only guide book that focuses on Downtown San José, Costa Rica, titled: The Real San José. Paperback copies of The Real San José are available at retail locations in Downtown. An electronic version is available at Amazon/Kindle. You can find it by clicking HERE.
(If you have been a faithful reader of Q Costa Rica, you know that we have written a number of times in the past, about Paseo Gastronomico La Luz, Downtown San José’s “restaurant row.” Here we provide an updated look at this prosperous and growing street.)
You can see additional stories that Michael has written about Downtown San José at his website: TheRealSanJose.com