Dining by the Pacific with a continental flair
In January and February, when summertime comes to the southern hemisphere, vacationers converge on Viña del Mar from around the world. This seaside city in central Chile, on the Pacific coast of South America, offers sunny beaches, elegant hotels, and a grand old casino. Viña is also a magnet for cruise passangers calling at nearby Valparaiso and an attractive year-round destination for visitors from Santiago, Chile’s capital city, who are drawn by shopping, nightlife, and great restaurants.
Restaurant options in Viña include many Chilean and international favorites such as seafood, grilled meats, big sandwiches, pizza, and sushi. Eateries serving Argentine and Peruvian favorites are also popular. However, many visitors and even locals may not realize that Viña is one of the best cities in South America for European cuisine. Diners can enjoy dishes from all over the European continent, with a variety of atmospheres and price levels. Here are a few favorites:
Le Bistrot Merci
Located at Quinta 11, near Plaza Vergara (tel. +56-32-268-0276), Merci serves up casual French favorites including savory quiches and beef bourguignon. Vegetarians will have options as well, which may include veggie lasagna, risotto, or Greek-style moussaka. Live music occasionally punctuates the proceedings, and some outdoor seating is available.
A Viña institution for more than 60 years, Chez Gerald (on the seafront at Avenida Perú 496; +56-32-269-7627) offers a menu of international standards in an elegant white-tablecloth setting with ocean views. Savory crepes, confit of duck, and classic onion soup lend the menu a French connection. Cocktail options include the obligatory pisco sour and the intriguing avocado sour, which makes spirited use of Chile’s favorite ingredient. The large dining room often hosts weddings and dinner dances, which draw an older crowd.
Ristorante San Marco
Another long-standing culinary landmark in Viña, San Marco (on busy Avenida San Martín at number 597; +56-32-297-5304) is a reliable destination for Italian favorites. The deep menu of meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish dishes invites pairings from the list of Chilean wines. Pastas such as tortellini and gnocchi are made in-house. Those who save room for dessert can finish the evening with a classic tiramisu.
For a modern Italian experience, check out the contemporary furnishings and sleek bar at Fellini (3 Norte 88, corner of 6 Poniente, near the casino; +56-32-297-5742.) Besides universal choices such as carbonara and puttanesca, the pasta menu offers imaginative creations like ravioli stuffed with lamb, goat cheese, and sundried tomato. The steaks at Fellini also earn rave reviews. Finish the evening with a coffee-and-amaretto to encourage digestion and conversation.
Describing its menu as “international with a central European accent”, “The Austrian” (located near the casino at 3 Norte 105; +56-32-268-3692) has been serving Viña del Mar for more than 15 years. The menu doesn’t skip the standards, like classic wiener schnitzel, or goulash of beef stewed with onions & paprika. Meaty dishes like pork leg and venison, accompanied by hearty spaetzle or rösti, evoke a feast in an alpine hunting lodge. The menu even takes a step into the exotic with a dish of ostrich in pepper sauce.
As a bonus, after dinner at El Austriaco, cross the estuary to Café Vienés (Viana 5, by the Miramar metro station). There is nothing particularly Viennese about this casual bar with tiled floors & wooden tables, but it’s a friendly place to chat with friends and order a pisco sour or choose from a selection of international beers.
With a variety of main dishes, multi-course set menus, and individual small-plate tapas & pintxos, Txipirón (located a block from the seafront at 6 Norte 96; +56-32-211-4305) is a flexible Spanish option for appetites of any size. The menu of Iberian favorites includes a variety of classic paellas, including a vegetarian version. Tapas range from piquant little stuffed olives and garlicky shrimp through elaborate preparations of fish, meats, and assortments for sharing. The Spanish-style octopus is a particular highlight. There are a few outdoor tables, while the interior is showcases diverse antiques and artworks.
Saving the best for last, La Ciboulette (near the estuary at 1 Norte 191; +56-32-269-0084) stands out as a true destination restaurant, worth a trip from Santiago all by itself. Quietly operated in a modest location by a multilingual mother-son team (she runs the kitchen; he patrols the cozy dining room with attentive dignity), La Ciboulette turns out consistently creative Franco-Belgian dishes using a mix of Chilean and imported ingredients. The menu, presented tableside on a chalkboard, changes nightly; recurring favorites include endives gratinées, confit de canard, and a masterpiece dish of pork in a subtle smoky-sweet sauce made with merkén (Chilean paprika) and rosa mosqueta (rose hips.) For dessert, crème brûlée is transformed from a cliché to a revelation by the addition of lúcuma, a rich local fruit. Be sure to make a reservation; the tables fill quickly, especially at weekends.
If you go
When visiting Viña del Mar, be sure to phone or email your desired restaurant in advance, especially on weekends between December and March.
The typical time for an evening meal in Chile is after 9:00.
The standard restaurant tip in Chile is a fixed 10%. Frequently, the staff will ask your permission to calculate and add this amount to your bill.
The trip from Santiago takes about 90 minutes by car. The trip by coach bus is only slightly longer, and quite convenient: Frequent departures connect the clean, modern terminals in Viña and Santiago, on buses with air conditioning and sometimes even WiFi; prices start around 5000 Chilean pesos (about US$7.50) each way. Due to traffic, trips take longer on summer and holiday weekends. From the cruise port at Valparaiso, the trip takes about 15 minutes by taxi or metro.
Lodging in Viña del Mar ranges from luxury hotels like the Sheraton Miramar, to modest independent properties which you can find in an internet search. Home-sharing websites offer further options.
Between meals, other things to do in Viña del Mar include visiting the city’s famous beaches; gambling and shows in the historic seaside casino; nightlife in the many clubs with live music and dancing; and shopping in galleries and street markets. Also be sure to snap some photos at the famous “clock of flowers” and the fairytale Wulff castle overlooking the Pacific.