Dining options around Costa Rica run the spectrum from elegant and formal to beachy and casual. San José and popular tourist centers, especially Manuel Antonio, 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 at least one soda—that’s Costa Rican Spanish for a small, family-run restaurant frequented by locals. Don't expect anything as fancy as a menu. A board usually lists specials of the day. The lunchtime casado (literally, "married")—a "marriage" of chicken, pork, or beef with rice, beans, cabbage salad, and natural fruit drink—sets you back about $3. No one will bring you a bill; just pay the cashier when you're finished. Having a meal at your local soda always provides a good opportunity to practice your Spanish.
Meals and Mealtimes
In San José and surrounding cities, most sodas are open daily 7 am to early evening, though some close Sunday. Other restaurants are usually open 11 am to 9 pm, and in resort areas some restaurants may stay open later. 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, which includes eggs, plantains, and fried cheese; hotel breakfasts vary widely and generally offer 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 often a great bargain. Cena (dinner or supper) runs the gamut.
Except for those in hotels, many restaurants close between Christmas and New Year's Day and during Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday). Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed in this guide are open daily for lunch and dinner. Credit cards are not accepted at many rural restaurants. 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 25% is added to all menu prices: 15% for tax and 10% for tip. Legally, menus are required to show after-tax, after-tip prices in colones; in practice, many tourist-oriented places 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 in beach locations, and women tend to wear high heels and dressy clothes that show off their figures. 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," so 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 vegetarian options.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
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. 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.