San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Mary’s Restaurant Book Captures Old Malpaís

Mary’s Restaurant, an affordable pizza and fish spot with gourmet styling, has published a fusion recipe book and photo tribute to its hometown of Malpaís, on the southern tip of the NicoyaPeninsula.

Written by Mary’s co-owner and chef Alex Barnet, with pictures by his friend, photographer Matt Wignall, the book tries to capture the history of Mary’s and the quiet Pacific coast beach hamlet that has embraced the restaurant as a town center. The gourmet recipes, ranging from mojitos and mousses to pizza and peanut sauce for grilled tuna, fuse the town’s history with culinary delight.

“It came together with a lot of photographs (Wignall) was taking,” said Barnet, 35, originally from the U.S. city of Los Angeles.

“We decided it would be a good idea to publish the story with the photos.”

The pictures in the book range from shots of the Núñez girls, Tica twins Mary Luz and Ruth Mary, and their younger sister, Yalili, to pictures of food and Barnet in the kitchen. Local mainstays such as Malpaís’ early pioneers are also depicted, along with images of the cuisine and the surrounding natural wonders.

“The book is beautiful,” said co-owner and waitress Mary Luz Núñez. “The pictures of the girls that work in the restaurant … It is a useful book but also a very original one.”

The community to the north, Santa Teresa, has become one of the surfing hot spots in this famously tidal country, but Malpaís, though it has changed, has maintained a more low-key vibe.

Like the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve to the south, the village has managed to keep much of its nature in situ. Fishing is key to the canton, and the menu at Mary’s reflects this.

“Malpaís was a little fishing village, so obviously the main ingredient is fish,” Barnet said. “Every single fish that we sell, I fillet.”

Barnet and Núñez’s transformation of the restaurant has impacted the community.

From the local fishermen to whom Barnet rides on his bicycle to purchase fresh snapper, tuna and lobster every day, to the extended Núñez family and various local kids who work in the restaurant, Malpaís flows around the gravity of the central restaurant.

“I make it accessible for the locals,” Barnet said. “It’s not really expensive. There are a lot of kids who have grown up eating my food or working at the restaurant. All the employees are family or neighbors. It’s kind of the town hangout.”

Like Malpaís, Mary’s Restaurant has changed from a small community town center into a hot spot for tourists in the past 15 years.

“The process has gone through various stages,” Núñez said. “We started with something really small, four tables, but it got bigger and bigger.”

The restaurant was once a local pulpería, a traditional Tico store, operated by the Núñez Tenorio family, that served as part grocery and part supply shop. Formerly called Mary Mar, the store was the center of town activity. That all changed with the arrival of Barnet, whom Núñez eventually married.

“I came to Malpaís in November 1994,” Barnet said. “It was just a tiny little town … We turned (Mary’s) into a restaurant as tourism grew. We seat close to 100 people now. We struck on a formula that works.”

Barnet’s family came to Malpaís from the United States in 1993 and bought land. He and his father, Murray, built the two houses they now live in with their bare hands, based on a design by his mother, Marian.

Electricity arrived shortly after the Barnets.

“Land prices have gone through the roof,” Barnet said. “Tourism has gradually grown … We all have electricity, cell phones, supermarkets, hardware stores, Internet. It has changed a lot. It’s a double-edged sword for sure.”

But as long as Barnet and Núñez have any say in the focus of the city, something will be done to keep the old Malpaís alive.

“Maybe unintentionally, I just try to keep things the way they are,” Barnet said. “With Mary’s, it’s kind of a golden opportunity. (We are an) old-school, mom-and-pop restaurant.”

Amid the tourists, the old community still thrives. You can find it working the tables in the restaurant, or with the older, intrepid Tenorio clan sitting around playing pool at the restaurant most nights.

The recipe book can be purchased for about $20 at Mary’s Restaurant in Malpaís (2640-0153) or at

7th Street

Books in downtown San José.


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