Chile may not come with the international accolades that its neighbour, Peru, has amassed in recent years, but good food here is a ritual that is honoured everywhere; from the tiny picadas (small local restaurants with great flavours) to the culinary stars of Santiago and Valparaiso, via an endless selection of countryside truck stops. Ingredients are super fresh, with a mind-boggling variety of seafood (clams, sea bass, salmon, scallops, albacore, abalone, hake, prawns and picoroco, to name a few) straight out of 2,647 miles of coastline. Avocado lovers will also have a treat, with different varieties often being used in salads, soups, vienesa toppings or, in one particular case, eaten whole with their thin flesh (check out Avocados From Chile for recipes and advice).
Local cuisine is Spanish-influenced with familiar international nuances — such as the influence of sweet tooth German immigrants who introduced, next to all the mariscos, the tortillas and the empanadas, a variety of kuchen (cakes). No matter the origin, they all indulge in the freshness and unique taste of the local ingredients.
Last but not least, among the Pais, the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s the always controversial Pisco Sour (grape brandy), struggling to pinpoint its place of birth between Chile and Peru. The battle of origin is ongoing, the Chilean version, however, often involves a more elaborate wood ageing process that gives it a distinct darker shade.
Chilean restaurants are yet to be awarded their first Michelin stars, but adventurous, hearty, delicious food here is a commonplace. Ring the bell of an old-fashioned stucco house in Club Hípico street, in downtown Santiago, to enter Ana María Restaurant, where you will try an array of quintessential Chilean classics (oysters, duck, Merengue Lúcuma cake and more). Artists, businessmen and other local crowd meet at the Bar Liguria (there are several in the capital’s Providencia area), in a warm, boho-inspired interior packed with delectable flavors and local charm. It’s pricey to get a taste, but you will rejoice at the presence of an on-site sommelier that will talk you through the expansive list of wines.
Chile’s cultural capital and emerging all-round hot-spot, Valparaiso aims equally high with the intimately elegant Pasta e Vino, an Italian trattoria with pumpkin gnocchi, duck ravioli and Tagliatelle Negro Fruittes del Mar to die for — its menu, along with its limited opening hours make it all the more wise to book ahead. On the diametrically opposite end, Marmohni (Calle Ecuador 175) is a little-known picada in the back streets of Pucón — and, should you decide to go on the discovery journey, you’re in for a delightful and inexpensive surprise.
The way to this country’s heart is no doubt through savouring a completo. Hot dogs, or vienesas, are by far Chile’s favourite snacks, where the juicy sausage and the crusty bun are only the beginning. The completo’s chopped tomatoes, mayo, and mashed avocado combo are the basic recipe in an infinite list of condiments and toppings (onions, eggs, green beans etc.) that typically cover the vienesas. You can try them in little fuentes de soda (literally translated as ‘fountains of soda’ or, more freely, fast foods and street canteens), in good company with stylish Santiaguinos on their lunch break — or partying after hours. The Dominó Fuente de Soda chain has been gracing Santiago with commanding vienesa tastes, like the Dinámica or the Rodeo, since 1952. For a more innovative approach, Hogs is known for its gourmet experimentations with salsa.
You will rarely find fresher (or cheaper) ingredients than in one of the cult truck stops on and off the Ruta 5 (part of the Panamerican highway), your quickest route to the Chilean Southern tip. Less than an hour south of the capital, Juan y Medio has been generously serving local dishes (slow-cooked cazuelas, ribs grilled on a wooden fire, or massive beef and guacamole sandwiches) since 1946. Alternatively, there is an endless number of makeshift shacks and handmade signs on nearly every twist and turn of the countryside roads and dirt tracks, that will treat you to aromatic cheese and honey, raspberries and almonds, homemade kuchen and empanadas from the nearby farms. It doesn’t get any better than that.