It’ s no secret that my absolute favorite thing to do in Costa Rica is EAT – especially in local restaurants. Living in Costa Rica expanded my culinary tastes beyond belief (can you believe I never really ate vegetables before living there?!?!?). Since there is literally a restaurant on every corner, it’s easy to find amazing food. Although the dollar has stayed relatively strong in Costa Rica (about 500 colones to the dollar), we have found that eating out in Costa Rica restaurants can get expensive if we aren’t careful about what we order. (All bets are off in our favorite La Fortuna restaurants) So here are some money-saving tips for visiting Costa Rican restaurants -and don’t forget to check out our Costa Rica Travel Planning Guide too!
- Know the terminology. You will often find three different types of plates on Costa Rican restaurant menus: boca, plato medio and plato entero. A boca is a small plate of food for one person. For example, a boca de chicarrón may contain 1/4 cup of salad, 4 large pork nuggets and 2 pieces of yucca. It’s not uncommon for a hungry person to eat two bocas, and they are a great inexpensive way to try lots of different dishes. The plato medio is just a half portion of an entree, and a plato entero is the full portion. 9 times out of 10, the plato medio and plato entero are about the same size (it’s hilarious to witness two people who have ordered the same dish -one medio and one entero, and then comment for the entire meal about how the plato entero was a rip-off. This happens a lot with the arroz con pollo.)
- Ask for a menu in Spanish. There are two reasons for this: one is that the English translations, while often hilarious, are many times completely unintelligible (chicken gordon? Yep, they meant chicken Cordon Bleu). You might as well wade through the descriptions with your Spanish dictionary. The second reason is that many restaurants have “tourist menus” with extremely inflated pricing. The local menu will have the correct pricing, and the price gouging will generally stop once you ask for the regular menu.
- Order tap water. After 15 years in Costa Rica, traveling all over, I have never, and I mean never, had problems with the tap water and neither have my kids – that’s because Costa Rica has invested a lot of money in it’s infrastructure, making the water safe. Bottled water in a restaurant is extremely expensive because locals don’t order it. So skip it, and ask for a vaso de agua del tubo (con hielo) – a glass of tap water (with ice). (Clarify this, however, because if you order “agua” as a tourist, you will often be brought bottled water).
- Remember there are no drink refills. It’s common for the drink order to be taken, drinks brought, and then a bit later, the food order taken and then the food brought. The batidos are the best… like this batido de sandía! (As a side note, many Costa Ricans don’t drink liquids while eating a meal – just before or after!) Either ask for your drinks to come with the meal, or… see tip #3.
- Check the menu for “I.V.I.” (impuestos de venta incluidos). This means that the tax and tip are already included in the price listed (tip is a flat 10% gratuity in Costa Rica, regardless of service.) I.V.I. is generally 18% in Costa Rica, and if this charge isn’t included in the price on the menu, you are looking at an 18% additional charge. A plate of food that costs 3,500 colones (roughly $7) without IVI listed will actually set you back about 4,200 (roughly $8.40).
- Avoid the specials. I know to do this, and I have still be scammed by a charming waiter who sells me a phenomenal special that then costs $40. (I kid you not!) If you are looking to save money, avoid the daily special, or make sure that you have clarified the price well in advance of ordering.
- Pay cash. Costa Rican small businesses and restaurants have begun to pass their credit card bank fees (as high as 8%) on to their customers, and cash is king in Costa Rica. If you have cash, you will avoid this fee, and maybe even get a discount! (This is especially true at Costa Rican beach resturants)
Traveling to Costa Rica with young children? Check out more tips from our friends at Mom Endeavors here! Do you have any additional tips for eating out in Costa Rica?