I always enjoy La Criollita (Avenida 7, Calles 7/9, tel. 506/2256-6511, 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 7–11 a.m. Sat.), a clean and atmospheric favorite of the business crowd. It serves full American breakfasts ($5) plus Tico breakfasts ($4), as well as soups, salads, sandwiches, tempting entrées such as garlic shrimp ($8) and roast chicken ($5), plus natural juices. You can choose an airy, skylit indoor setting with contemporary decor, or a shaded patio.
One of the best coffee shops in town is the Café Teatro (tel. 506/2221-1329, ext. 250, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat.) inside the foyer of Teatro Nacional . A lovely neoclassical Parisian ambience is complemented by tempting sandwiches, snacks, and desserts. Across the plaza, the Café Teando (tel. 506/2221-4000, 24 hours) in the foyer of the Gran Hotel competes with hip contemporary decor.
The Café del Correo (tel. 506/2257-3670, 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Sat.), in the post office overlooking Avenida Central, is another little gem. Soft lighting and jazz provide a romantic background for enjoying lattes, espressos, mochas, and pastries such as cheesecakes and strawberry tarts.
The artsy Argentinian-run Café de la Posada (Avenida 2, Calle 17, tel. 506/2258-1027, 9 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 9 a.m.–11 p.m. Fri.–Sun.) appeals to a bohemian crowd. It offers jazz and classical music and serves espressos and cappuccinos, plus quiches, omelettes, sandwiches (all from $1.50), Argentinian empanadas, and tempting desserts.
The bohemian Café Mundo (Avenida 9, Calle 15, tel. 506/2222-6190, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 5 p.m.–midnight Sat.) is popular with businessfolk. This handsome remake of a colonial mansion has open patios, several indoor rooms, and theme spaces. Its eclectic menu spans pastas, pizzas, surf and turf (from $8), desserts such as tiramisu, plus cappuccino ($2). At press time it was closed for a kitchen remodel with plans to reopen.
Spoon (tel. 905/007-7666, www.spooncr.com ) has burgeoned over the past decade from a small takeout bakery into a chain with outlets throughout the city, including Avenida Central, Calle 5/7 (tel. 506/2255-2480) and Mall Pedro in Los Yoses (tel. 506/2283-4538). In addition to desserts, Spoon serves sandwiches, salads, lasagna, soups, empanadas (pastries stuffed with chicken and other meats), and lapices, the Costa Rican equivalent of submarine sandwiches, all at bargain prices.
I also like the Trigo Miel (Calle 3, Avenidas Central/1, tel. 506/2221-8995, www.trigomiel.com , 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun.) chain for set lunches, sandwiches, and desserts. It has outlets at Avenida 9 and Calle 21, and Avenida Central, Calles 29 (tel. 506/2253-7157).
Musmanni (tel. 506/2296-5750, www.musmanni.net ) is a national pastelería chain selling pastries and fresh breads.
The Mercado Central  (Avenidas Central/1 and Calles 6/8) has dozens of inexpensive sodas, as does Mercado La Coca Cola (Avenidas 1/3, Calles 16/18), at the Coca-Cola bus station.
Manolo’s (Avenida Central, Calles Central/2, tel. 506/2221-2041) is a lively 24-hour bistro with a menu that runs from salads to filet mignon. Try the churros, greasy Mexican doughnuts, best enjoyed at the patio open to the pedestrian street. Upstairs you can fill up on sandwiches, seafood, meat dishes, and other fare; the 3rd story is a bit more elegant and double the price. It has a daily special for $2.50.
Another of my favorites is Mama’s Place (Avenida 1, Calles Central/2, tel. 506/2223-2270, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat.), a mom-and-pop restaurant run by an Italian couple and serving huge portions heavy on the spaghetti. It serves casados ($6), espresso, and cappuccino.
My favorite Asian restaurant is Tin Jo (Calle 11, Avenidas 6/8, tel. 506/2221-7605, www.tinjo.com , 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5:30–10 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5:30–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat., and 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.). The decor is quaintly colonial Costa Rican, but the food is distinctly Asian: tasty Mandarin and Szechuan specialties, plus Thai, Indian, Indonesian, and Japanese food at moderate prices. It even has sushi, satay ($4), samosas ($3), curries ($9), and a pretty good Pad Thai ($9).
Next door, Don Wang (tel. 506/2223-6484, 10:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. and 5:30–10:30 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., until 11 p.m. Fri., 10:30 a.m.–11 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.) serves generous, reasonably priced portions, although the quality isn’t up to par with Tin Jo. It offers Taiwanese dishes and dim sum. Seafood dishes are a particular bargain ($4–6); it also has platos fuertes (set meals) for $3.
The Centro Comercial El Pueblo, in Barrio Tournón, has several restaurants known for traditional Costa Rican fare. La Cocina de Leña (tel. 506/2555-1360, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–11:30 p.m. Fri.–Sat., entrées $10) is touted as one of the best (although food and service don’t always live up to expectations). Here, you’ll dine by candlelight, surrounded by the warm ambience of a cozy rural farmhouse. Dishes include creole chicken; olla de carne soup; and square tamales made with white cornmeal, mashed potatoes, and beef, pork, or chicken, wrapped tightly in a plantain leaf.
The open-air Lukas (tel. 506/2257-7124, www.lukascr.com ), also in El Pueblo, is a steakhouse with a pleasing aesthetic that stays open until dawn. It serves an executive lunch (noon–3 p.m.) plus such dishes as mixed tacos and picadillos (small chopped-vegetable platter), fried pork, mixed meats, and grilled corvina in garlic butter prepared al dente over a large grill.
Budget hounds should head to La Casona Típica (Avenida 2, Calle 10, tel. 506/2248-0701, 6 a.m.–10 p.m. daily), done up like a traditional farmhouse. It serves great casados (from $4) and traditional Costa Rican fare.
The 24-hour Café 1930 (tel. 506/2221-4000), the terrace café fronting the Gran Hotel, serves simple but filling Costa Rican fare—arroz con pollo (rice with chicken, $4) plus an excellent buffet (until 10 a.m.) and more—at a reasonable price. The hustle and bustle of the plazuela out front provides good theater. A pianist entertains.
The elegant La Bastille (Paseo Colón, Calle 22, tel. 506/2255-4994, noon–2 p.m. and 6–10 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 6–10 p.m. Sat., $6–30) is the oldest French restaurant in San José. Chef Hans Pulfer produces superb French cuisine.
The Balcón de Europa (Calle 9, Avenidas Central/1, tel. 506/2221-4841, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.–Fri., below $10) is a revered culinary shrine where the late chef Franco Piatti was a local institution who presented moderately priced cuisine from central Italy in an appropriately warm, welcoming setting with wood-paneled walls festooned with historic photos and framed proverbs. New chef Jean Pierre has tilted the menu toward French-Italian.
Since Bakéa closed, San José has been craving a truly world-class restaurant. So it’s appropriate that Kalú (Calle 7, Avenida 11, tel. 506/2221-2081, www.kalu.co.cr , 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Mon., 11:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Tues.–Sat.) opened in 2010 cater-corner to the erstwhile Bakéa, and courtesy of the same owner, Chef Camille Ratton. This avant-garde restaurant doubles as a lounge-bar and gallery. It’s the kind of place you look forward to hanging out with friends on the open-air deck or chilling in leather sofas in the lounge. And the food? Fantastic! The eclectic menu spans salads, burgers, paninis, and pizzas, plus an incredible gnocchi malbec ($15). Soups range from cream of ayote ($6) and ceviche ($10.50) to chicken mole ($8). Superb desserts include cheesecake and a fabulous cherry tart.
I recommend Restaurant El Oasis (Avenida 7, Calles 3/5, tel. 506/2255-0448, 4–11 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 3–10 p.m. Sun., $5–20), in the Hotel Santo Tomás, a real charmer with a colonial tiled bar, elegant place settings, ceiling fans, and a courtyard garden with waterfall. It serves shrimp cocktails, salads, filet mignon, sea bass with garlic and white wine, pastas, and desserts such as banana flambé.
The atmospheric Goya (Avenida 1, Calles 5/7, tel. 506/2221-3887, 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Fri., noon–9 p.m. Sat.) provides generous bocas as well as excellent Spanish cuisine, including a splendid paella plus rabbit in wine, at moderate prices (entrées begin at about $6). It has live entertainment nightly.
One of my favorite gems is La Esquina de Buenos Aires (Calle 11, Avenida 6, tel. 506/2223-1909, www.laesquinadebuenosaires.com , 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 6–10:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 12:30–11 p.m. Sat., noon–10 p.m. Sun., $5–20), a genuine Argentinian restaurant with tremendous atmosphere. The wide-ranging menu of gourmet dishes is supported by a vast wine list heavy with malbecs. The onion soup is excellent, and I enjoyed a filet of sole in blue cheese with boiled potatoes ($9).
Meat eaters will salivate at Fogo Brasil (Avenida de las Américas, Calles 40/42, tel. 506/2248-2526, www.fogobrasilcr.com , 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. daily, $6–25), a classy Brazilian steakhouse where waiters dressed as Argentinian gauchos serve charcoal-roasted meats. It also has a pasta bar and excellent buffet and the wide-ranging menu even has sushi. And the caipirinhas are great! It offers free hotel shuttles.