San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bad service, good management at first Costa Rican Chili’s

I’ve worked at three Chili’s restaurants across the United States, and despite seeing first-hand what goes into the food preparation, I’ve remained an ardent patron of the distinctive, southwest-inspired fare. So when I heard a Chili’s franchise was opening up in Multiplaza Escazú west of San José, I did a little dance.

On the way to the restaurant, stuck in traffic, I dreamed about what I would order. Definitely Presidente Margarita. Definitely a Mombo Combo, or whatever they were calling it these days. And then my absolute favorite: the Chicken Crispers, with extra honey mustard sauce. It was way too much food, but that’s what to-go bags are for.

Chili's Margarita

The Presidente Margarita.
Lindsay Fendt

Approaching the modern-looking space in Multiplaza Escazú, I was thrown off by how different this Chili’s was from those I remembered. The ones where I had worked were full of tacky trinkets and Texas kitsch (the chain is based in Dallas), but there was none of that here. Instead, the interior was modern looking, with neon lights, slick tile and even personal televisions at certain tables. There was one similarity, though – about 20 people were on the waitlist.

My dining companion and I put our name down and headed to the bar, where we ordered a Presidente Margarita to share. The bartender served us up two margaritas in those familiar blue-tipped martini glasses, but our shaker (which normally has the rest of the margarita) never arrived. When we finally got the bartender’s attention to ask about this, he said he had given us all of the drink in our two glasses. Okay. But I distinctly remember getting three drinks out of those shakers.

As we looked over the shiny menu, I took note of the old favorites – the Mushroom Swiss Burger, the Monterey Chicken, the fajitas, obviously – and some things I had never seen. Poppers, for one. Also, a couple of traditional Costa Rican favorites, like lomito (a Costa Rican beef cut) and patacones (fried plantains). Entrees cost slightly more than in the States – from $10-$20. Drinks were also pricier (around $14 for a good margarita).

We placed our order for our appetizer and entrees at the bar, and the Mombo Combo – now called the Triple Play – was supposed to come with these mysterious poppers, but luckily, the restaurant was out of them. We doubled up on Southwestern Eggrolls, and those arrived exactly how I remembered: supple and piping hot. The boneless buffalo wings were also delicious.

We got moved to a real table after finishing the appetizer, we ordered more drinks from our new waiter. Then we waited. And waited. And waited.

I watched in mild annoyance as Ticos in Chili’s uniforms moved nonchalantly about the restaurant, not bothering to glance our way. This would not have happened in North Carolina or Massachusetts or Florida; it’s simply not the Chili’s way. Providing efficient and attentive service (not to mention upselling) are vital parts of the business model, and the only way anybody makes decent money. Ticos didn’t seem to understand the concept of turning tables.

After more than an hour of waiting for our food, we began discussing whether we should walk out. That’s when the server came back and we explained the situation. Confused, he had a powwow with the bartender and figured out that our order had been lost.

Chilis Eggrolls

The Southwestern Eggrolls.
Lindsay Fendt

I had never before seen anybody offer free food for an inconvenience in Costa Rica, but when the manager approached, I knew that’s what we would get. He was sincere, kind and apologetic, just as the managers in the States had been (with the customers, anyway). His English was perfect. He could not have been more professional, and we all adored him.

Ten minutes later, the food came out, and we again spiraled into disappointment. The Chicken Crispers weren’t what I remembered – they seemed to have been fried in a different, less fluffy batter. My dining partner’s Enchilada Pasta was dry and tasted like nachos – nothing on the old Southwestern Pasta I once served. We ordered a Chocolate Fudge Brownie for dessert, which is normally hot with cold vanilla ice cream. The brownie came out tepid.

We finished the meal and sat for 20 minutes, waiting to request the check. When nobody came, we began stacking our plates. Then we stood up, and again, discussed walking out.

Finally, hero manager came onto the floor and observed what was going on. He rushed to our table and scooped our plates up. “Let me get that for you,” he said. Then he made a beeline for our waiter, and stood very close to him, whispering instructions. The check soon materialized, along with more apologies. Our entrees and dessert were all free, but it wasn’t quite enough.

I left the restaurant feeling like I had walked into my childhood home, and somebody else had moved in. It wasn’t Chili’s as I knew it. I heard a week later that a second Chili’s would open in Plaza Lincoln in Moravia, and I hesitated for a moment about whether I would go there sometime. Then I thought about how new the chain is to Costa Rica, and how well the manager had taken care of us. If more people like him were on board, I knew there was still hope.

The restaurant is open Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m.

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