By Matt Villano, on October 1, 2015

Lima cuisine then and now

Guinea pigs.

It’s hard for me not to think about guinea pigs when I ponder food in Lima, Peru.  Down there, guinea pigs are the heart of a culturally significant dish known as “cuy.” My wife and I lived in the Peruvian city for four months back in 2005, and I had the, er, “privilege” of experiencing a meal of cuy while we were there. The experience marked a high point in my travel culinary life. (Translation: Up to that point, it was the craziest thing I’d eaten, ever.) It also gave me great fodder for a fun essay.

In the 10 years since our time as expats in Lima, the city has come a long way from cuy. Today, Lima sports an incredible food scene—one that has exploded over the last decade, and is now considered one of the best in the world.

Lima’s food is unpredictable. It’s diverse. And it’s cosmopolitan; you are just as likely to find sushi or Chinese food (they call it “Chifa”) as you are to find choclo and other traditional Peruvian dishes.

Here’s a look at how food in Lima has evolved since our time there 10 years ago this fall.

The Gastón Acurio complex

Back in 2005, if you asked 100 random Peruvians in Lima about Gastón Acurio, maybe 10 percent of them would have been able to tell you Acurio was the closest thing the city had to a celebrity chef. At the time, the curly-haired chef had achieved fame for his Miraflores restaurant, Astrid & Gastón—arguably one of the best restaurants in town.

Critics of that place said it was too formal or too stuffy, so Acurio opened a swanky “cebichería” (that is, a place that serves ceviche, such as the amazing scallop dish pictured above) named La Mar. I actually spent a good chunk of my 30th birthday at this restaurant; I’m not sure I have ever eaten as much raw fish as I did that night.

Opening La Mar launched Acurio into the stratosphere; since then, he has opened outposts of the same restaurants in cities all over the world (including my home city of San Francisco, as well as Miami and, most recently, Buenos Aires), and has embarked on a new Chifa concept that he has replicated elsewhere, too.

The guy was even rumored to be running for president of Peru (though these rumors turned out to be false).


Plaza de Armas


The pisco revolution

Another big change in Lima over the last 10 years: the significance of pisco. For Limeños (that’s the fancy word for people from Lima), the white brandy made from muscat grapes has always been a staple—a hair-of-the-dog liquor that was as much a part of history as it was of local culture.

Starting around 2005, however, a funny thing happened—pisco became cool.

We saw it ourselves when we lived there: swanky bars were opening and mixing drink after drink with pisco. These cocktails weren’t only the traditional pisco sours, but instead included all sorts of fun and colorful concoctions—libations to quench the thirst of a growing population of, well, South American hipsters.

Heck, even the old-fogy pisco halls, such as Antigua Taberna Queirolo, have become happening hot spots.

Today, this population has effectively sparked a revolution. Across “in” neighborhoods such as Barranco and San Isidro, cocktail bars now serve up a mix of pisco drinks and attitude, offering nightly dancing, dim lighting, and the sorts of features you’d find in a New York City nightclub.

Take Victoria Bar in Barranco. As recently as five years ago, this place was nothing more than a fancy mansion. Today, it has been redesigned into a thumping club that specializes in pisco sours.

Viewfinder Tip: Visit a huaca, an ancient temple, while in Lima. These archaeological sites appear all over the city, sometimes right next to modern buildings.

The newcomers

Finally, Lima has welcomed a handful of culinary luminaries into the ranks in recent years. This is a significant departure; when we were there in 2005, food mostly was seen as a commodity. Today, however, a number of up-and-coming chefs have opened restaurants that have received international critical acclaim.

For example, Virgilio Martinez’s newish eatery, Central, was ranked number four this year on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (sponsored by San Pellegrino), and he has become a culinary legend in his hometown. Foodies love Martinez for the whimsy he brings to his cooking; a recent dish of hand-harvested sea scallops served with banana and passion fruit marinade drew major recognition from The New York Times and local publications alike.

Another example is Rafael Osterling, a chef with ties to Colombia. Osterling’s eponymous restaurant, Rafael, is in Miraflores and is a popular spot for celebrities visiting the city.

In all, there are probably a dozen star chefs worthy of a mention in an article about modern Lima food, and that’s precisely the point. The food scene in Lima today is almost nothing like it was 10 years ago. And as former Lima residents, my wife and I can assure you, this is excellent news for travelers. Just be sure to bring an appetite.

What are your favorite international food cities?