San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Eateries Spring Up In the East

Temptations are everywhere in San José’s suddenly bustling east-side restaurant scene.

A green glowing worm beckoned passersby into the bar Más T’kila. Diners at Peruvian restaurant Chancay and sushi eatery Matsuri sat on a patio underneath hanging ambient lights. Dozens of television screens illuminated the inside of Chi-chi’s.

And at Hooters, nobody could miss the scantily-clad women in their short orange shorts and white tank tops.

A new and bustling restaurant scene has taken hold in the pocket between San José’s Rotonda de la Hispanidad, where Mall San Pedro is located, and the Rotonda de la Bandera just north. Millions of dollars have been invested in the sector as new businesses look to target customers in the eastern parts of the city who would rather not to trek across the capital for fine dining.

Ever since a branch of BAC San José bank opened next to the Rotonda de La Bandera four years ago, investment in the area has risen sharply. New commercial office buildings and corporate offices that have opened in the last year include the headquarters for the government’s highway council, Conavi, and the investment firm Desyfin.

The Rotonda de la Bandera is a hub for people who live in the traditional eastern bedroom communities of San Pedro, Sabanilla, Guadalupe, Moravia, Zapote, and Curridabat as well as people who work in downtown San José. In addition, the University of Costa Rica and most leading private universities are located in San Pedro.

Two weeks ago, Hooters opened its second location across from the University of Costa Rica Law School. The bar and restaurant, which required a $2.5 investment, hired approximately 65 employees for the San Pedro location, including 35 of the famed Hooter girls. Hooters opened its first location five years ago in Plaza Itzkaztú in Escazú, and plans are underway to open a third location in Heredia, said Verónica Caballero, general manager o Hooters, Costa Rica.

“We have seen a high potential for growth in this area and our nearby neighbors are very pleased with the impact Hooters has made, not having to travel to the other side of the capital to go to the place they love,” Caballero said in an e-mail.

Roberto Dent invested $7 million to build the elegant commercial center Antares with his construction company, Facoli. The neighborhood where the complex is located, Barrio Dent, is named after his family.

“We looked for new options – the west is almost fully developed,” said José Luis Fonseca, general manager of Antares. “Now we are focusing a little more on the northeast of San José.”

Plans to build Antares were announced in September 2009. Alexander Muñoz, manager of the Chancay chain of Peruvian restaurants, related that the chain’s owners jumped when they found an opening at the site after searching for an appropriate location on the east side of town. Opening in May, it was one of the first restaurants to occupy one of Antares’ 20 business locales.

Between Hooters, Antares, and the some 50 other eateries sprinkled around, the area has sealed its reputation as a rival to the fine dining scene on the west side of San José.

This month, Antares will see the opening of a store of the fast-food chain Rosti Pollos and of the casual dining chain Spoon, San Marco – an Italian pizzeria, the Italian ice cream shop La Bella Vita, and a French grill. Antares also will host a kiosk for American Airlines and a children’s toy store called Educational Toys.

Like Chancay, many of the new restaurants are chains that looked to expand to a new market. Chancay, Hooters, Mas T’kila and Chi-chi’s already have locations in the western San José. Matsuri has a another restaurant further east in Curridabat.

“The east is expanding,” Muñoz said. “There are beautiful places in the east to talk, to share dinner with the family, to have a formal dinner, whatever dinner you like. And we have various choices: night clubs, bars, ice cream parlors, cafés and fine dining.”

Smaller restaurants on the stretch hope the added draw of Antares and Hooters will boost business for all enterprises in the area.

A new coffee and pastry shop, Aroma de Café, serves as a contrast to Antares’ nightlife appeal. The café provides an option to those looking for a midday snack. Aromas owner, Flor de María Flores, said the location is ideal because of its proximity to all the office buildings that have sprung up around the Bandera roundabout.

Alexander Rojas, co-owner of the Mexican eatery La Botana, estimated that he invested $200,000 into building his restaurant on the east side of the Rotonda 11 years ago. La Botana was built next to Friday’s, a large casual dining restaurant that’s been in the area for decades. Rojas said he was told he wouldn’t survive a year in that location, and feels his restaurant’s survival is proof that competition will be an asset to the area.

Rojas told the owners of the sushi restaurant Hanabi, a business that must now compete with Matsuri, not to worry.

“I told them ‘Don’t be afraid,’” Rojas said. “With the opening of these gastronomical places, it’s going to be something good for us. They’re going to change the whole area.”

The more upscale restaurants across the street won’t be able to compete with the prices of the smaller eateries, he said. Still, adjustments must be made. To pump up La Botana’s late night scene, Rojas is adding 2-for-1 drink specials and live music on Saturdays. He has also expanded the restaurant’s bocas offerings and its menu.

On Wednesday night, the parking garages at Antares were full, and cars lined the adjacent side street. In the middle of the week, the place was packed. Guests at Chichis watched soccer highlights and Major League Baseball games on large television screens. The 800 square meter Mas T’kila bar above Chichi’s sounded equally boisterous. Translucent signs and sleek contemporary design allows Antares to stand out to anyone passing by the Rotonda.

The formal restaurants appeared less crowded, and the majority of the diners enjoyed the view from the area’s outdoor seating area enjoying the impeccable weather. The clatter of vehicles driving by the plaza clashed with the gentle babble of running water in the fountain enclosing the deck area.

Pablo Valverde and Ricardo Soto, both 22, walked out of Antares satisfied with the new arrivals to the area. They drove from Uruca to check out the locale. Unlike western San José, Valverde appreciated the proximity of so many assorted establishments.

The walking distance between restaurants benefitted them on a night when people clustered into the area’s sports bars. “Everything is very full,” Valverde said. “We already went to Hooters and there was no space. So we came to Chi-chi’s.”

With business off to a fast start, the word is out about the east’s new food district. Rojas already has given the area a nickname that reflects the growth. Zona Rosa is a term in Latin America for the most active areas of a city. He published a note in the daily La Nacion’s calendar section last week promoting this idea.

The message read: “La Botana is located in the new Zona Rosa — the gastronomical heart of the capital’s east side.”

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