San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

New Café at Hotel Balmoral a Good Place to Take a Load Off in Downtown San José

Billed on the menu as “Your green and peaceful oasis in the midst of the regenerating urban and historical heart of downtown San José,” the new El Patio del Balmoral Bar Restaurant Café definitely delivers on the urban oasis. Attached to the refurbished Balmoral Hotel on Avenida Central, the café space is an airy, fresh, sky-lit atrium, lushly landscaped with huge potted palms and calathea and sculptural rock gardens. A sophisticated designer’s hand is evident in the darkbrown woven wicker chairs, slate floors and cane and wood-beam ceilings, and in the coordinated orange accents on the cheerfully patterned banquette seat covers and servers’ aprons.

The slightly raised areas at the front of the restaurant are open to the pedestrian main street, drawing in passersby and providing great people-watching perches.

Unfortunately, this is also the official smoking area, but if you get a table close to the front, the smoke blows out onto the street, contributing to the less-than-fresh air downtown.

Avenida Central may not be the Champs-Elysées, but it is a refreshing experience nonetheless to sit in stylish comfort and watch the world go by without breathing in diesel fumes.

The clientele is a mix of downtown business people, university-age students and happy tourists. There’s a small bar area to one side, separated by an etched-glass partition, where you can belly up to the mosaictiled bar and keep yourself company with the flat-screen TV overhead.

A designer’s hand is also obvious in the descriptive menu, which offers a wide range of café and fast-food choices, an assortment of interesting salads and some more sophisticated, ambitious main dishes with trendy touches.

The standard fast-food fare is quite acceptable. My sister-in-law visiting from Canada ordered the hamburger (¢1,750/ $3.40) and was surprised by how enormous, and  tasty, it was, though the accompanying fries were of the limp, commercially frozen variety. My brother’s personal-size pizza (seven choices at an average price of ¢2,000/ $3.80) tasted fresh but was fairly bland and needed some spicing up. I opted for the Sopa Azteca (¢2,100/$4) and received a huge bowl of thick, peppery, tomato-based soup. The flavor was quite good and the portion was huge, but the cheese topping was a puckered square of melted processed cheese with a dollop of guacamole, and the accompanying tortilla chips were from the supermarket.

After a second visit, I can report that someone has forgotten to tell the kitchen and wait staff what’s on the menu. A lunch special Salad Niçoise (¢2,900/$5.60, including a fresh fruit drink) promised fresh tuna and avocado on mixed greens accompanied by focaccia bread. The salad was generous, with grilled fresh tuna in an avocado half, spicily dressed and artistically presented –except for the triangles of toasted, storebought white bread. When I returned the toast, untouched, the waiter apologized, not for the absence of focaccia, but for the “mistake” on the menu.

Another waiter assured me that the Chesnut (sic) Pie (¢1,100/$2.10) really was made with chestnuts. It turned out to be walnuts, and quite tasty, too, topped with ice cream and a caramel sauce. But it still wasn’t what the menu promised.

Some of the misunderstandings, of course, come from bad (and often amusing) menu translations. I thought briefly about ordering the heavily Padded (sic) Croissant, the uplifting Rise (sic) and Shrimps, or the truly inspirational Whole Grail Fettuccini, but the Medallones de Tilapia (¢4,100/$7.90), translated as “lockets” of tilapia, appealed to the jewelry lover in me. I received a plate of tiny, rolled fillets of tilapia wrapped around a strange-tasting seafood stuffing, smothered with a gluey white sauce flecked with a few flattened, sad-looking capers. The ubiquitous mound of bland white rice did nothing to brighten up the white plate or the palate. But a side of tasty, fresh, hand-cut chayote and carrot sticks did. A kids’ menu (¢1,250-1,450/$2.40-2.80) offers the usual spaghetti and chicken fingers and a ham and cheese sandwich, plus the main menu has 11 pasta choices to keep kids happy. There’s also a good selection of desserts (¢750-1,200/$1.40-2.30), including a crispy peach tart, a strawberry cheesecake or mousse, and a caramel or orange flan.

The final grade on the food: a B- on the casual-fare standards, and a Needs More Work (and better communication skills) on the more ambitious dishes. Fine dining is not the strong suit here; stick to the simple dishes.

Service is spotty and slow, so don’t be in a hurry. On my first lunchtime visit, a succession of four different waiters served us. But they were good-natured and trying hard. I had just sprained my ankle (the hazards of pot-holed pavements) on the way in, and a sympathetic hostess brought me a big plastic bag of ice.

This is a great place to sit and relax in a beautiful indoor garden, perhaps with a glass of wine – a Chilean or Argentine red or white will set you back only ¢750 ($1.40). It’s also a convivial place to meet up with friends and share, for instance, a two-liter pitcher of draft beer for ¢3,700 ($7.10). Or stop in for cake and coffee, or catch a quick bite before or after a performance at the National Theater, just a block away.A final word to the wise city traveler: the high-ceilinged, marble and stainless-steel bathrooms are the cleanest, freshest, swankiest pit stops in town.

El Patio del Balmoral Café, Bar, Restaurant

Location: Ground floor of the Hotel Balmoral, Av. Central, between Ca. 7 and 9, a block east of the Plaza de la Cultura.

Hours: Open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; until 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday.

Phone: 221-1700.

A hearty breakfast buffet ($7) is served from 6 to 10 a.m. Lunch specials from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tax and service are included in menu prices. Place to Take a Load Off in Downtown

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