When we think of the best food destinations in the world, Santiago isn’t a city that immediately springs to mind. Chile is mostly known for its fish, empanadas and of course wine, but many of its other culinary treasures are still waiting to be unearthed. Santiago might not be a magnet for diehard foodies just yet, but its gastronomic potential is undeniably growing. The city’s restaurants are steadily populating Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants List and the premiere of MasterChef Chile a few years ago has sharpened people’s food knowledge – and their palettes.
The narrowest country in the world is framed by the Andes, one of the world’s longest mountain ranges, to the east and the Pacific Ocean, home to a myriad sea life, to the west. The north is home to the arid but pristine Atacama desert, the world’s highest, and vegetated Patagonia is in the south. It is this unique climate and landscape that makes Chile an ideal place for growing a huge variety of fruits and vegetables. It’s got some of the best beef in the world (second only to adjacent Argentina) and its wine credentials are top-notch. The variety of seafood products (not just fish but also shellfish, molluscs and seaweed) is simply staggering. There is also an increasing number of biodynamic farmers and winemakers who are growing their crops without the use of pesticides, fertilisers or artificial chemicals, resulting in fresh, healthy, delicious produce.
Chileans love to eat – so much so that they have four meals a day! They start with a ‘light’ breakfast (desayuno) of bread, smashed avocado (which they surprisingly don’t salt), cheese, jam and very sweet tea or coffee (Chileans have a real sweet-tooth). Lunch (almuerzo) is a big meal consisting of 3–4 courses (including soup, main, salad and dessert). Then there’s once, late afternoon/evening tea (eaten between 5pm and 7pm), which typically consists of breakfast foods like pastries, sandwiches, avocado, scrambled eggs, jam, and tea and coffee. Dinner (cena) is eaten between 8pm and midnight, and involves knocking down a couple of glasses of wine.
As Chile’s bustling capital, Santiago is home to some of the country’s best restaurants, cafés and markets. The capital is also where you can delve into the fine-dining scene – something not possible in many parts of the country. Whether visiting for a day, week or month, there’s no shortage of places to embrace the Chilean tradition of feasting, drinking and chattering away no matter the time of day. I enjoyed every morsel, every drop and every vignette of effervescent conversation.
First stop: coffee. Chile is not known for its strong coffee culture and many people are content with drinking Nescafe at home. But out and about, the coffee of choice is a cortado, literally translating to ‘short’. It’s basically an espresso with a dash of milk. You can get it in most cafés or restaurant – but the quality does vary. There’s also been a recent burgeoning of pop-up coffee trucks serving cortados and other variations of espressos with or without milk. Stop by Plaza de Bolsillo Morandé, an inner-city oasis brimming with food trucks, for coffee from the Porta Café. Sip it while you marvel at a mural by Alejandro ‘Mono’ González, known for his socially conscious art.
The best coffee I tasted is at 3841 Coffee Roasters on José Victorino Lastarria. In this cosy space, tattooed bearded hipsters cut hair in one part and serve perfect espresso made using Ethiopian beans roasted in-house in the other. The two young owners learned their craft in Brisbane and Australia is known for its obsessive coffee culture. This is not a café per se, more of a takeaway joint to drop in on foot or bike (there’s a handy window for those on two wheels) and get your caffeine fix as you explore the colourful bohemian Lastarria neighbourhood.
Another peculiarity of coffee drinking custom in Santiago is its infamous cafés con piernas. At these ‘cafe with legs’, your coffee is served by scantily dressed waitresses. These were established in the 1950s to try spruce the coffee drinking culture (basically as incentives for workers to take a break), but although the 1950s are long gone, this out-dated tradition has for some reason stuck. We didn’t visit a cafés con pierna but we did observe flaxen-haired women in tight, red velvet dresses serve drinks to people of all ages at an outdoor café in the city centre. No one seemed bothered by or enamoured with them.
To get a good (touch and) feel for the produce of Chile, visit a few of Santiago’s markets. The Mercado Central, housed in a 19th-century neoclassical building, is the city’s main market. Appreciate the beauty of the building – particularly the intricate domed towers on the pyramidal roof – before passing through the wrought-iron gates to the famous fish market. The city conjugates here for seafood lunches and there is an overwhelming number of restaurants to choose from. Avoid the brazen, touristy spots in the middle and head to one of the smaller, homelier restaurants or stalls on the market’s edges.
Delicacies include pastel de jaiba, a crab stew made using only cheese, milk, bread and crab – it’s the ultimate comfort food. For something lighter, try a fish stew like the tomato- and potato-based caldillo de congrio. Known for its hangover curing properties and being poet Pablo Neruda’s favourite, its base is a fresh, flavourful broth made from boiling conger eel heads with garlic, coriander, carrots and pepper. True seafood aficionados should go for the locos, a type of Chilean abalone. These edible sea snails are named after a word derived from the Mapuche language, which translates to ‘crazy’. Why the abalone is christened this is a mystery, but the flavour is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
For a sensory overload, don’t miss the nearby Mercado Vega. Stalls and stalls of kaleidoscopic arrays of fruits, vegetables, meats and dry goods paint a picture of Chile’s culinary riches. Everything is cheap and some vendors want you to buy in bulk so they might not sell you a single apple to snack on. Don’t take it personally – just move onto the next stall. Many stalls are run by vendors from neighbouring countries such as Peru and Colombia. Buy some yucas (cassava root) to take home (we hand cut ours and served with fried fish) or cactus to make a sauce. There are also stalls selling great coffee and if you need sustenance, order a pizza slice from the hilariously named Livin’ la Pizza Loca. For a healthy pick-me up, grab a delicious juice from one of the vendors at the Abastos Tirso del Molina part of the market. Try one made from cherimoya (a type of custard apple dating back to Inca times), lucuma (a subtropical fruit which has a creamy, citrusy flavour with hints of maple syrup), or maracuya (a milder and sweeter passion fruit). Remember to say ‘sin azucar’ if you don’t want any added sugar.
Once it hits past midday, it’s not too early to get stuck into the world-famous Chilean wine. Chile has a viticultural history dating to the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadors brought Vitis vinifera vines into the region. The most common grape is the Carménère, which was originally planted in the Médoc region of Bordeaux. These days, it’s almost extinct in France and Chile boasts the world’s largest planted area of this grape in the world. Wine producers are getting more and more experimental with it too and blending it with other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a delicious, deep, lingering red, somewhere between a Pinot Noir and Merlot in strength, which makes it easy drinking but still full-bodied.
An absolute must-visit for wine lovers is Bocanáriz in Lastarria. There are almost 400 wines on offer, with knowledgeable sommeliers on hand to help you choose. Although primarily a wine bar, Bocanáriz also has a robust menu. The idea is for the food to enhance the taste of the wine, not the other way around. The dishes are categorised by notes such as iodized, citrusy, light, creamy, herbaceous, sweet and sour, spicy, smoked and aged. There are also themed flights of wine, including one dedicated to Carménère, another to ‘wild’ wines, iconic wines, ‘extreme’ wines (from vineyards located in locations characterised by inhospitable climates and landscapes), and more. We declined (with difficulty) a flight and had a glass of Koyle Carménère from the Colchagua valley. The fit-out is slick but cosy and getting a table on a weekend nights is no meat feat. Stop by in the late afternoon for a pre-dinner drink.
Something I had no idea about before visiting Chile is the country’s obsession with sandwiches. Called sánguches, these aren’t your standard ham and cheese toasties. They come loaded with ingredients and enjoyed at any time of day – for breakfast, lunch and especially as a pre-dinner snack. We got introduced to the Chilean tradition of once when our hosts served us a spread of ham, cheese, avocado and bread rolls to self-build sandwiches at 6pm. Thinking this was a quick and simple dinner, we loaded on these only to discover that dinner (cena) doesn’t get eaten until later.
One of the most exciting parts of sandwich construction and eating is getting to choose the bread. Chilean cuisine has many different types of bread, the most common – and perhaps tastiest – of which is the marraqueta, a bread roll similar in taste to a French baguette. Chileans buy it bulk and carry it hot from the bakery in those old-school reusable cotton mesh bags. It’s enjoyed at any time of day and with any meal, including as the first course to every Chilean asado (barbecue), when these are stuffed with a sausage (choripan). Frica (a round, flat, light roll) and pan amasado (a round roll baked in a brick oven) are other good choices.
We came head-to-head with Santiago’s sandwich culture on our first night when we stopped for a ‘snack’ and a pisco sour at El Mitico. At this laid-back pub-type restaurant in Provedencia, the humble sandwich gets a reworking into 12 different types. There are seven Peruvian sandwiches and five Chilean offerings – the most popular of which is the Chacarera, which is packed with tomatoes, green beans, green chilli, mayo and parsley pesto. Also delicious is the Con cabra, which has goat’s cheese, avocado, caramelised onion, shoestring fries and coriander mayonnaise. Each sandwich comes with your meat of choice – slices of roast beef, suckling pig, chicken or fried fish. As a bonus, the pisco sour was surprisingly strong and well balanced. (On a side note, we didn’t find a great place for empanadas in Santiago and we had some awesome, home-baked ones at our relatives’. But in the country in general, the best empanada I had was deep-fried and stuffed with cheese and shrimp at an unassuming stall, aptly named Delicious Fried Empanadas, on the outskirts of the coastal town, Con Con.)
Santiago’s fine-dining scene is still young but it’s imaginative and brave. All the action happens in the upscale Vitacura district. The area itself is a bit soulless but it’s full of fancy rooftop bars with stunning 360-views of the city and pioneering restaurants. Catch a taxi there to avoid the climb.
Our dinner at Boragó was a highlight of the entire trip. Chef Rodolfo Guzmán’s contemporary, innovative spin on Chilean cuisine earns him every bit of his fourth place on Latin America’s Best Restaurant List (Boragó is 42nd on the World’s 50 Best). A foraging Svengali, Guzmán’s ambition is to introduce little-known wild Chilean ingredients to the world. He scours the salt flats of the Atacama for native herbs and plucks sea asparagus from the rocks dotting the shoreline of the Pacific. The name too pays homage to foraging – boragó translates to starflower, of the flowering herb family Boraginaceae.
Guzmán worked at Mugaritz (number 9 on the World’s 50 Best List) in the Basque country before returning to his native Chile and opening Boragó in 2006. It struggled in its early years (Chileans haven’t fully caught on to the fine-dining scene and cooking meals at home has always been the norm, so Guzmán’s visionary dishes fell on dead mouths), but it’s now packed every weekend.
Rather than borrowing from European cooking conventions, Guzmán’s menu is a firm nod to the local traditions and ingredients, whether these are indigenous seafood, the ancient culinary culture of the Mapuche people or vegetables from bio-dynamically unique farms from all over the country.
We had the 16-course degustation that lasted almost four hours and brought more than one tear to my eyes. Even the house-baked bread to start was exceptional. It was served with the favourite Chilean condiment, pebre, a mix of chilli, coriander and red pepper paste, which Guzmán makes extra special by adding toasted flour.
Other highlights included the chupe of mushrooms from Quintay (a coastal town near Valparaíso), which was an incredible, earthy mushroom puree topped with spinach endemic to Chile. Seafood wise, we had jibia (local cuttlefish) served under red plum leaves flavoured with murra, a popular berry that is mostly used for juicing (it tastes like a hybrid between a grape and a blackberry). The Cojinova, a local fish, was served filleted under bitter plants withered in burnt butter and cochayuyo (a seaweed indigenous to Chile and New Zealand). Carnivores will appreciate the lamb cooked à la inverse served with vine leaves, grapes and herbs. But really, there wasn’t a bad dish. The plating too celebrates the treasures of Chile’s wild beauty. The very last course, the Cold Glacier, was a potent mint bomb that completely refreshed the mouth. It was almost like the slate was wiped clean and you could do the 16 courses all over again.
If you want to try noveau Chilean cuisine but are feeling slightly intimidated by 16 courses, try lunch or a six- or nine-course dinner menu at the much more casual 99 in Provedencia (it won’t break the bank either). Here, ex-Boragó chef Kurt Schmidt (who’s also a Noma and Azurmendi alumni) breaks out on his own to serve wonderfully executed dishes that likewise celebrate the intense flavours of Chilean ingredients. He’s joined by Gusta Saez, crowned the best pastry chef in Latin America in 2016, at an eatery that’s being dubbed the leader of ‘Chilean bistronomy’ movement.
The fit-out is stripped-back but classy, with tables carved from roughly chopped timber with streaks of turquoise paint, recycled furnishings and beautiful wooden plates. We had lunch on the terrace that opens out onto bustling Providencia, indulging in some people watching while enjoying amazing food.
Typical dishes include ‘fungal textures’, mushroom varieties in raw, cooked, powder and puree forms; lamb tongue on a cauliflower puree with prunes and caramel; and carrot sorbet with coconut foam and caramelised peanuts. For lunch, the food and the vibe are a lot more casual. We had creamy tomato soup garnished with shavings of dehydrated tomato, an Asian-style bao with pancetta, oven-roasted sea bass with a medley of Chilean potatoes, a delicious bean ‘stew’ with cameos by mushrooms and broccoli, and two desserts, including a chocolate cheesecake served with a lemon reduction.
The drinks list showcases independent Chilean producers making natural and biodynamic wines, which is all part of the restaurant’s overall commitment to sustainability. I had a beautiful Pinot with the savoury courses and a German-style Riesling with dessert. It married so well with the mouth-watering strawberry shortcake (our second dessert!!). I couldn’t tell you the names of the wines unfortunately as the friendly waiter recommended something from the opened bottles and I happily accepted.
Like Indian in London or Mexican in LA, Peruvian cuisine is widespread and very popular in Santiago. Known as the original ‘fusion’ food, Peruvian cuisine has incorporated influences from every continent and fused them with ingredients that date back to the Incas. It’s not only about ceviche – there’s an abundance of other fish dishes and a huge assortment of potatoes, corn and chillies, to name a few. The flavours are also a lot more potent than some of the more nuanced flavours found in Chilean cuisine.
Peruvian restaurants are a dime a dozen in Santiago – from fancy (and pricey) white tablecloth options to downtown eateries favoured by Peruvian immigrants. Like with everything, some are great while others not so much. For reliability and taste, it’s hard to go past Mistura Del Perú. With three locations (in Santa Isabel, Infante and Pedro de Valdivia) and prices that won’t make your jaw drop, it’s a great way to sample exciting Peruvian food.
The menu is vast and, be warned, the servings are massive. Start with some ceviche – we had the mixed, which comes loaded with cuts of fresh local fish, octopus, squid and prawn, and dressed with red onion, red pepper and seaweed. There is also a great selection of tiraditos, a dish of sashimi, similar to crudo and carpaccio, served in a spicy sauce. We had the tuna, which came lightly scorched and drizzled with a pumpkin and chilli reduction and then topped with mini crumbed calamari. For some bulk, go a rice dish (the ‘green’ rice, which is rice flavoured with coriander and mixed with shrimp and mussels was perfectly al dente and delicious). The grilled ocean trout had a pleasant charred flavour and was very juicy. The vegetables it came with were crisp and the asparagus was knockout.
Just like there are a plethora of Peruvian restaurants, Chile’s fish and seafood culture lends itself perfectly to Japanese cuisine. We couldn’t get into Osaka (number 43 on Latin America’s Best Restaurant List) where popular Peru-born chef Ciro Watanabe serves Nikkei fusion dishes so we tried Hanzo, a restaurant of the same ilk in Vitacura.
The vibe is sophisticated – minimalist fit-out, low lighting, down-tempo tunes – it could very well be in New York instead of Santiago. The menu is long, with every Japanese and Peruvian delicacy you could want. There’s nigiri, sashimi, maki rolls, salads, soups, hot plates, rice – the choice is overwhelming. We had ceviche, which sees thick cubes of fish and avocado enlivened with nori (seaweed) and chulpe corn, and dressed with soy and leche de tigre (Peruvian citrus-based marinade used for curing seafood). The spicy tuna gunkan sushi – aka battleship rolls – was likewise delicious, but we particularly enjoyed the potato croquettes, which are made with two types of Peruvian potatoes, drizzled with a mild yellow salsa and topped with a creamy mass of octopus and shrimp. The carpaccio beef, dressed with sesame oil and citrusy ponzu sauce, and garnished with avocado, tiny fries and crunchy quinoa croquettes – a true showcase of Japanese and Peruvian fusion – didn’t taste as flavoursome as it sounds. The drinks list is also disappointing, with wines from just one vineyard. Nevertheless, it was a great meal to conclude our odyssey of Santiago’s gastronomic delights.
Plaza de Bolsillo Morandé 83, Santiago, Chile
3841 Coffee Roasters
José Victorino Lastarria 228, Santiago, Región Metropolitana, Chile
San Pablo 967, Santiago, Chile
Mercado La Vega
Calle Davila Baeza, La Vega Central, Santiago, Chile
José Victorino Lastarria 276, Santiago, Región Metropolitana, Chile
Av. Nueva Providencia 2020, Providencia, Región Metropolitana, Chile
Delicious Fried Empanadas (Empanadas Fritas Las Deliciosas)
Av. Borgoño 25370, Con Con, Concón, Región de Valparaíso, Chile
Av. Nueva Costanera 3467, Vitacura, Santiago
+56 2 2953 8893
Andrés de Fuenzalida 99, Providencia, Santiago, Chile
+56 2 2335 3327
Mistura Del Perú
Santa Isabel 0496, Providencia, Santiago, Chile
Av. Pedro de Valdivia 3580, Ñuñoa, Santiago, Chile
José Manuel Infante 1502, Providencia, Santiago, Chile
Av San Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer 5970,
Vitacura, Región Metropolitana, Chile
Victoria Khroundina is a Russian-born, Australian-raised writer and editor. She has lived in London and Istanbul before resettling in Melbourne. She travels as much as possible, writing and editing for different publications. She has also been a contributing author to the National Geographic publications ‘Walking Cities: Istanbul’. You can find her work at victoriakhroundina.com