Staying the Main Course
A recent survey by the National Restaurant Association in the United States found nearly one in six restaurants have closed since March 2020. Costa Rica is no stranger to the phenomenon of restaurant numbers fluctuating with seasonal ups and downs in the hospitality economy. This is so much the case that when the snowbirds return in December each year, one of their first questions is which dining spots have survived.
The reality of eateries coming and going is especially notable in a town the size of Atenas, where traffic during the high season, from December to April, determines solvency. Two local restaurants have beat the odds in contrast to other now-closed restaurants.
El Fogon is a nostalgic throwback to the farm kitchen where Abuela cooked on an old fashioned stove. Just as the smell of bacon can happily rouse someone from a deep sleep, food prepared over an open flame picks up the woody aromatic flavor, a concept upon which El Fogon (“the stove” in English) is founded.
Members of the Chavez family grew up watching their grandmother and mother prepare traditional dishes on an antique stove, much like the one that sits in the center of El Fogon. In 2017, brothers, Edwin and Freiman Chavez, along with Edwin’s wife, Marie José, started their family venture, calling it El Fogon Campesino.
Separated from the open air dining is a traditional kitchen, requiring stacks of wood. The homey fragrance greets diners as they are welcomed at the door by Edwin, Marie José or 14-year-old Daniela. Two-year-old Samuel occasionally wanders through to throw kisses to patrons.
After attending culinary school in San José, Chef Freiman applied his art at the Four Seasons Hotel in Guanacaste and in the United States. The chef is constantly changing the menu to appeal to both gringo and Tico palates. He jokes that the Costa Ricans are pickier than the extranjeros who are accustomed to a variety of dishes.
Breakfast, which attracts various groups on the weekend, offers pancakes, avocado toast, a breakfast sandwich and yogurt, plated with local fruit. Dinner is a heartier offering of hamburgers, stews or fish.
As to the restaurant’s success, Freiman says, “We like people. We please our customers who know us. We treat them like family, and of course the food is really, really good.”
Big Apple-Atenas fusion
Bringing a little bit of New York to Atenas is Park Place Restaurant.
Eight years ago, Andy Gonzales found himself dissatisfied with his degree in physical therapy. He began to save his hard-earned wages as a 7-days-a-week landscaping and maintenance worker in New York City for some future venture. Meanwhile, he fell in love with the town of Atenas while visiting a relative there.
Gonzales considered investing in a taco place that faced the central park that is the hub of Atenas, but the price was exorbitant. When the owners of the property eventually approached him with a better deal, he saw it as a sign from God.
A deep and abiding faith led Andy to take a leap and invest his life’s savings in a take-out restaurant. That idea was quickly amended when he realized that Ticos prefer to eat as they live — leisurely. The same is true of gringos, despite their faster pace. The result is a sit-down restaurant that pays homage to the two locales that have molded Andy.
His uncle Carlos Zuñiga, an architect, assembled a standout place that features the greenery of Costa Rica in a jungle-like ceiling. Industrial tables are scattered among NYC street signs. A disco ball reflects a throw-back to Saturday Night Fever.
Lacking a culinary background, Gonzales enlisted his cousin Nathaniel Valerio as the chef. Each menu item differs from others around town. Offerings include a tie-dye pizza with vodka salsa and pesto swirled through a white sauce, a meatball parmesan sandwich and a popular rice bowl.
Park Place staff meet monthly to toss out ideas, none ever rejected. Andy considers his employees family, much like he does his customers. No diner is a stranger after the first visit. On weekdays, expats, tourists, Canadians and Europeans frequent Park Place. The weekends attract families with children, leading Andy, who is single, to “dream of when my own children can eat here.”
Andy has worked hard to stay motivated during a difficult year when the future was uncertain. He attributes his success to faith, dedication and creativity.
“Faith is the big one. Some days sales are way down and I put it in God’s hands. The next day sales are up.”