Santiago is vibrant culinary capital with colourful markets, hole-in-the-wall ‘picadas’ (informal local restaurants), an abundance of sophisticated bistros and fine dining options, with a new breed of local chefs celebrating traditional Chilean dishes while adding a modern spin.
Long gone are the days when Chilean cuisine used to lack the identity of their neighbours in Peru or Argentina. Chile’s capital is now balancing a wave of fine dining restaurants with a new obsession for seasonal and local produce unique to the country. Dishes tend to be very natural, without the heavy sauces or spices used in other countries in the region. Much of the country’s cuisine originated in the countryside, so there are plenty of stews, soups, and other hearty dishes ideal for the winter months. With 3,000 miles of coastline, fish and seafood is terrific here. Meat forms part of many traditional favourites, whether that is the asado (Chilean barbecue) or as the main ingredient in soups or sandwiches. Given the vast array and superb quality of Chile’s fruit and vegetables, it is no wonder that vegetarian and vegan cuisine has taken off in such a big way in Santiago over the past few years. Happily, there are now hundreds of great places in the city that cater for non-meat eaters.
1. Empanada de pino: Chile’s take on the Latin American pastry turnover is filled with ground beef, onion, and spices. Empanadas also come in a variety of savoury ingredients and can be baked or fried.
2. Cazuela: The classic Chilean broth with potato, squash, rice and a generous chunk of chicken or beef.
3. Pastel de choclo: An earthenware bowl filled to the brim with ground beef, chicken, olives, a boiled egg, and topped with mashed corn.
4. Machas a la parmesana: Razor clams topped with cheese, white wine, and cream, and quickly grilled.
5. Caldillo de congrio: A hearty fish stew with kingklip, potato, onion, and tomato in a rich stock of white wine and cream.
6. Centolla: The delicate flavours of the Antarctic spider crab make it one of Chile’s culinary highlights.
7. Plateada: Brisket. Chileans cook it for hours and it is delicious. Try it with puré picante, mashed potato mixed with spicy chili sauce, and the chilena tomato, onion, and cilantro salad.
8. Sandwiches: Chileans love sandwiches, and a visit to a local Dominó restaurant is the ideal place to sample their huge beef or pork sandwiches topped with mayo, mashed avocado, and tomato.
9. Avocado: Chileans were eating ‘avo on toast’ decades before it became fashionable. Chilean avocado is a delicious and healthy staple for any time of day.
10. Fruit: From cherries, blueberries, grapes, and stone fruit, to apples, kiwifruit, prickly pears, and citrus, Chile offers a bounty of quality, delicious fruits whatever the season.
Locals dine much later than in Europe and North America. Restaurants do not open for lunch before 1.00pm. Dinner begins at around 8.00pm, although the locals will normally show up well after 9.00pm. Most restaurants close between lunch and dinner, and many are closed on Sunday night. The more informal spots – especially the bar/restaurant kind – are more flexible, serving continuously from 12.00pm to 1.00am.
People tend to dress smartly for dinner in the more high-end restaurants, but no dress code applies in more informal places.
A 10% gratuity is standard in Chile. Some restaurants may include it automatically, so be sure to look at the check. Should service be particularly good, you might wish to be more generous, bearing in mind that anything above 20% is uncommon.
Chile is one of the biggest producers of wine in the world, with over 300 wineries in 20 different areas from north to south, from the coast to the Andes. Wines are of high-quality, varied, and offer great value for money, with a good bottle costing US$10 at a local store, normally costing double that in restaurants. Central Chile's Mediterranean-like climate is perfect full-bodies reds and crisp, fruity whites alike. Certain varieties perform particularly well in the Chilean terroir such as Carménère, a smooth red once considered a lost variety after being wiped out in Europe, but now thriving in Chile.
Despite being a big producer of wines, Chile is a nation of beer drinkers. This increasingly dynamic market is split between industrial producers and craft beer, with more than 400 micro-breweries appearing over the past ten years. Polar and Austral are the best mass-market beers, but even Cristal and Escudo (the best-selling beers in the country) are very good. Over the years, the craft beer scene has shifted from the heavy German style beers of Kunstmann or Kross to more hoppy, American-style IPAs, saisons, and fruit beers. Look out for Coda, Spoh, Granizo, Tübinger, and Tamango.
Perhaps the most emblematic drink is the pisco sour, a heady mix of grape brandy, lemon juice, and simple syrup. It is the perfect aperitif, so start your meal the way Chileans do. Chileans and Peruvians are divided on who invented the pisco sour, but the drink was certainly popularized in this country. Beware. They have a kick! The quality of Chilean sipping piscos is amazing, with new premium brands on the market creating a buzz (literally!). Among the best are Kappa and Waqar. Vaina is another traditional local elixir. It is a mixture of port, red vermouth, creme de cacao, and egg yolk, making a deliciously sweet and creamy drink.