The Peruvian version of a barbecue get-together is called a pachamanca; it's basically cooking meat and veggies over coals or hot stones in a hole in the ground. On weekends in the countryside, mostly in the mountains, you'll see families gathered around smoky subterranean grills, cooking up pork or beef and potatoes and vegetables. (You can also get pachamanca-style dishes in some traditional restaurants.)
Savoring a Pisco Sour
Peru's national drink is the pisco sour, a delicious concoction made from the white-grape brandy called pisco. Made frothy when mixed with egg whites, lemon juice, sugar, and bitters, it's cold and complex -- the closest thing to a Peruvian margarita. Try one with ceviche or a robust Andean meal -- or just knock 'em back late at night at a gringo-filled bar.
Going Native with Jungle Cuisine
Peru's vast Amazon is full of exotic critters and plants, so it's logical that it would produce its own unique cuisine. Some of what restaurateurs deal in is endangered animals, though, so I don't advise satisfying your curiosity to try sea-turtle soup or caiman, even if the locals do it. Local jungle dishes that you don't have to feel bad about trying include patarashca, a steamed river fish wrapped in banana leaves; juanes, a kind of rice tamale; timbuche, a thick soup made with local fish; paiche, an Amazon-size local fish; and chonta, a hearts of palm salad. If you don't make it to the jungle, another way of going native (in the highlands and along the coast) is to eat cuy, or guinea pig.
One of the classic dishes of Peruvian coastal cooking is ceviche -- raw fish and shellfish marinated in lime or lemon juice and hot chili peppers, and served with raw onion, sweet potato, and toasted corn. It's wonderfully refreshing and spicy. The best place to try one? A seaside cevichería, specializing in umpteen varieties of deliciously fresh ceviche.
Relaxing at a Quinta
There are elegant restaurants in Lima, Cusco, Arequipa, and Iquitos, but there's nothing quite like an informal quinta -- an open-air restaurant specializing in Andean home-cooking. It's an Andean tradition perhaps best explored in the crisp air of Cusco, which has a trio of quintas that are especially popular with locals on weekends. Look for informal garden or courtyard settings, large portions of Peruvian cooking, and reasonable prices. Most quintas are open only for lunch, so plan on it as your main meal of the day. Not only will you eat well, but it's also a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.
An ancient Andean tradition is the brewing of chicha, beer made from fermented maize. You can find it at a few traditional restaurants, but for an authentic Andean experience, the best place to get it is at a simple bar or home that flies the chicha flag -- a long pole with a red flag or, often, balloon -- which is the local way of advertising that there's home-brewed chicha available inside. Served warm, in monstrous tumblers for a few pennies, it's not to many foreigners' liking, but it's one of the best ways to go native. Chicha morada, a refreshment made from blue corn, is something altogether different: It's sweet and nonalcoholic, and it actually tastes good (especially with ceviche).
Self-Medicating with Mate de Coca
Coca-leaf tea, a perfectly legal local drink that has been a tradition in the Andes for centuries, is a great way to deal with the high altitude of the mountains, which can make your head spin and your body reel. As soon as you hit Cusco or Puno, head straight for the mate de coca -- most hotels have it at the ready for their guests. And if that doesn't work, strap on the oxygen tank (many hotels supply that for their guests, too).
Touring Ica's Bodegas
Peru, one of the great winemaking countries of the world? Probably not, but the southern desert coast does have a thriving wine industry. The most famous product is pisco, but the many traditional bodegas (wineries) throughout the Ica countryside also make regular table wines. A few bodegas give tours and tastings. Ica hosts a hopping Wine Festival in March, which is a good time to tour the region if you're into wine and general merriment. Harvest time, late February through April, is the other time to visit, when you can see people crushing grapes the old-fashioned way -- with their feet.
The Best Restaurants
Astrid y Gastón, Lima (tel. 01/242-4422)
Still one of the coolest restaurants in the country is this stylish modern place serving a creative and sophisticated brand of Creole-Mediterranean fare. Behind a nondescript facade in the Miraflores district is the restaurant that catapulted Gastón Acurio to stardom, and it's still probably his best.
La Mar Cebichería, Lima (tel. 01/421-3365)
A designer and celebrity-chef take on the neighborhood cevichería at this hottest restaurant in Lima. It's only open for lunch, though, and doesn't take reservations, so it's a bit of a challenge to get a seat at the stylish hot spot. The focus is on moderately priced, delicious ceviche, and traditional Limeño fare served up with hip twists.
Chala, Lima (tel. 01/252-8515)
A chic but laid-back lounge and restaurant -- perfect for the artsy Barranco neighborhood, this spot serves "costa fusion," adapting Peruvian coastal and Limeño dishes with Mediterranean touches. The place to be is out on the deck, under the tall trees. You won't believe you're in Lima.
Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, Lima (tel. 01/445-4042)
One of the best places for dining in the capital has the most unique location: within the compound of an over 1,500-year-old adobe pyramid. The restaurant is both hip and relaxed, with a covered terrace looking out over the low pyramid and illuminated excavation walkways. The creative Peruvian menu offers new twists on classic comida criolla (Creole cooking).
Cicciolina, Cusco (tel. 084/239-510)
Cusco's newly creative restaurant scene is still spearheaded by this warm and consistently great upstairs spot, which serves stylish novo Andino cuisine. You might think you've landed in a chic Tuscan country eatery, but the menu is eclectic, with a soft spot for unusual spices. The hopping bar is a smart haunt for predinner drinks and a terrific selection of tapas, though the sexy, hushed dining room is one of the sleekest in Cusco.
Chi Cha, Cusco (tel. 084/240-520)
Gastón Acurio's talented hands have either transformed modern Peruvian cooking or simply displayed a knack for promoting its delectable diversity, beginning in Lima and expanding outward. Whatever you think, his new minichain of restaurants, which combine some of the chef's standard dishes with his take on regional cuisine, have been automatic hits. His versions of Cusco highlander cuisine in a sophisticated, secluded space, is a fine addition to the city's formerly ho-hum dining scene.
Limo, Cusco (tel. 084/240-668)
Though it overlooks the gorgeous Plaza de Armas, the travelers' hub in Cusco, this brilliant new restaurant is anything but a tourist trap. If fact, it's one of my favorite new restaurants in Peru. Stylish but welcoming and fun, it brings great sushi and tiraditos to Cusco; and it's a bargain, given the chic surroundings, attention to detail, splendid cocktails and the city's best views.
MAP Café, Cusco (tel. 084/242-476)
Cusco's most surprisingly modern restaurant is tucked into the colonial patio of the city's great pre-Columbian art museum. It quietly makes a dramatic statement with its minimalist design: a glass and steel box. The Novo Andino dishes are every bit as elegant and cleanly presented. With a super wine list and the opportunity to stroll through the museum after dinner, it makes a perfect, sophisticated date spot, but keep in mind that it's Cusco's most expensive restaurant.
Jack's Café Bar, Cusco (tel. 084/806-960)
The first place many gringos hit when they arrive in Cusco, and one that they understandably return to time and time again, is this amiable, casual and bustling cafe on the way up the hill to the San Blas district. It's anything but fancy, but it is a great spot for any meal, a terrific deal, and perfect for bonding with fellow travelers over a few drinks.
El Huacatay, Urubamba (Sacred Valley; tel. 084/201-790)
Most visitors to the Sacred Valley eat either at nondescript cafes or hotel restaurants. This new place is a welcome addition, a chef-owned restaurant that's elegant and relaxed, serving very nice versions of Andean standards. It's perfect for a long, lingering lunch in the garden or a more elegant dinner by candlelight in the small dining room. Refreshingly, it's a favorite of both gringos and (upscale) locals.
Indio Feliz, Aguas Calientes (tel. 084/211-090)
The town at the bottom of Machu Picchu is a little scrappy, so this Peruvian-French restaurant really stands out. In an attractive and popular two-level dining room, it offers a great-value three-course menu. If by chance you just completed the 4-day Inca Trail trek, treat yourself to a meal here.
Chi Cha, Arequipa (tel. 054/287-360)
Famed Lima chef Gastón Acurio takes on equally celebrated Arequipeño cuisine in a sprawling and handsome colonial manor house in the heart of historic Arequipa. This incarnation of Chi Cha seems even more felicitous than the Cusco version, a result both of the emblematic building and the spicy and unique local dishes that inspired Acurio.
Sol de Mayo, Arequipa (tel. 054/254-148)
This is the best place in town for traditional Arequipeño cooking, which has quite a reputation in Peru. The setting, around a courtyard garden where strolling musicians play, is delightful. It's a perfect place to sink your teeth into local Peruvian specialties and is a great place to splurge.
La Trattoria del Monasterio, Arequipa (tel. 054/204-062)
A stylishly reserved restaurant carved out of the city's most distinguished walls, belonging to the Santa Catalina monastery, this laid-back Italian spot is a real find. With a menu designed by Peru's hottest chef, a nice wine list, a trio of quiet dining rooms, and accessible prices, it's a welcome change from noisier and more solicitous restaurants populating Arequipa's highly trafficked restaurant rows.
Zig Zag, Arequipa (tel. 054/206-020)
This chic and inviting restaurant has a unique specialty: stone-grilled ostrich. Healthier than other meats, ostrich is really good, as is another popular dish served here: alpaca (which is also healthier than red meat). In this two-level space with sillar walls and vaulted ceilings, the grilled meat is not the only thing that makes this a memorable dining experience.
Club Colonial, Huanchaco (tel. 044/761-639)
An unexpectedly chic and stylish restaurant in the low-key beach resort of Huanchaco, this Belgian-French place has the kind of ambience you'd look to find in Barranco in Lima, not the north coast. The candlelit dining room is like a cool expatriate's house, and the menu is a tantalizing mix of Peruvian and Franco-Belgian items. Whether you order meat or fresh fish, or even a Belgian standard, you're in for a treat.
Fiesta Restaurant Gourmet, Chiclayo (tel. 074/201-970)
Chiclayo might not be widely known as a dining capital, but cognoscenti are aware that its northern Peruvian cuisine can hold its own against any regional cooking in the country. And Fiesta, which has been promoting it for a couple of decades now, is its top ambassador. This handsome restaurant, full of regulars and good cheer, is a superb place to get in on the secret.
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