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The Flavors of Lima

A tour of the Peruvian city's meteoric rise into the culinary spotlight.

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IF THE BEST way into the soul of a city is through its food, I arrived in Lima ready to plumb its depths, which is to say, ready to really eat. What I knew of Peruvian food was drawn from a short business trip years prior. During that time I’d experienced (all too briefly, between meetings) the freshest ceviche, an unforgettable lomo saltado (a kind of Peruvian-Chinese take on steak frites with rice), and even a serving of cuy (or guinea pig, a national delicacy) which, I have to be honest, I did not care for.

This time I was here with an open schedule and far bigger gustatory ambitions. Not even the effects of a crowded red-eye (row 38, middle seat) could dampen my spirits as I rode in a taxi from Jorge Chávez International Airport to the picturesque seaside neighborhood of Miraflores. It was 6:30 a.m., and during the drive, I watched the city’s morning bustle under a gray fog that looked — and felt, blowing through my open fingers as they dangled out of the window — a lot like that of San Francisco, the city I’d just left. At that hour on a slightly humid winter morning, the city even smelled like San Francisco, a mingling of metal and moisture: industry, humanity, and the sea. I took a big salty breath of that air and wondered when they started serving ceviche.

After checking into the Miraflores Park, a Belmond Hotel, perched on a strip of grassy park right beside the ocean, I downed an espresso in the lobby and walked deeper into the neighborhood of Miraflores to Neira Café Lab in pursuit of greater caffeination.

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Peru is one of the largest producers and exporters of coffee. Still, its own per-capita consumption remains pretty low, a stat Harryson Neira set out to change when he opened Neira Café Lab over five years ago. Inspired by the coffee his grandmother roasted in a wood-fired clay pot in the Western Andes, Neira began working with the country’s coffee producers, eventually supplying some of Lima’s best restaurants with his beans.

I stumbled over simple Spanish that morning, but fortunately the barista was fluent in the international language of latte art; mine was served with a pretty tulip-shaped flourish in a purple mug. I enjoyed it with a panini “mixto,” Cuban-style ham and cheese, and sat happily, people- and pastry-watching. (The cafe’s offerings, especially the canelés, were beautiful.) The latte was so good I ordered another to go.

The day took me all over Miraflores. It also took me backward and forward in time, from Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Incan, adobe-and-clay pyramid, to Larcomar, a multilevel mall built into a cliffside: two very different takes on architectural drama. I walked the boardwalk with its well-heeled joggers. The sun peeked out briefly.

At night, hungry again, I headed to Rafael. It was a good thing I left the hotel well in advance of my dinner reservation. As it turned out, a former member of the boy band One Direction was also a guest at the hotel, and its entrance was teeming with teenage girls — hundreds of them, leaning on the security gates, screaming the lyrics to songs I didn’t know. I dutifully captured a half minute of iPhone video to WhatsApp home before setting out for the restaurant on foot.

Rafael is chic, dimly lit, and perfect. It’s the kind of place I would like to be invited to go on a date and where I observed many in progress. One young couple, both drinking Negronis, were consigned to flirting mostly with their eyes as they stumbled through a conversation half in English, half in Spanish. I eavesdropped on this first date during the bread course — fresh, warm sourdough served with a small dish of whipped goat cheese dip, a spiced cherry jam, very thinly sliced ham, and butter. I ordered ceviche (at last) and it was extraordinary and blessedly traditional: fresh flounder, clams, and creamy scallops, a medallion of sweet potato with a smoky flavor, large-kernel Cusco corn, and thinly julienned red pepper — just the right amount of heat — all bathed in the biting tang of citrus juice. For the main course, I had prawns with corn ravioli in a velvety white truffle butter sauce. Although I didn’t order dessert, the waiter brought a small plate with three coffee-chocolate truffles, which were deliciously cold, almost pudding-like rings, an earthy jolt to the palate.

I awoke early the following morning (the most devoted among the teenaged throngs still clamored at the gates) in preparation for an experience I treated with almost religious solemnity: a visit to Central to talk to chefs Virgilio Martínez and Pía León and, of course, to eat. The restaurant, which makes the annual World's 50 Best list practically as a matter of course, is now just one jewel in the diadem of the couple’s culinary empire. Upstairs from Central is Kjolle, León’s restaurant. The couple’s other venture, Mil, a restaurant and research center for Indigenous foodways, stands 11,500 feet above sea level, among the ancient ruins of Moray. All are designed to further the couple’s mission of cooking exceptional, innovative dishes using ingredients native to their country.

A meal at Central is like a symphony: carefully orchestrated, breathtaking, memorable, and yet difficult to describe. Each dish in the 14-course meal corresponds to a stratum of the sea. One begins underwater, with the first dishes featuring fish and sea vegetables in blue and green tones, before continuing on to land. The food is beautiful — courses served in small hand-thrown ceramic bowls sprinkled with local flowers, dots of foam, or in one instance, a shiny fuchsia strip of the “mother” from a house-made vinegar. The meal culminates in a crescendo of cacao in every conceivable preparation: hot drink, kombucha, truffle, cookie. Each mouthful is a surprise and a confirmation of the ingredient’s essence.

Less grand but no less charming is La Panetteria in Barranco, which I visited the following day, as the clouds finally parted and the sun gleamed. La Panetteria looks like a quaint coffee shop but boasts a vast menu of fresh sandwiches, salads, and baked goods. I ate a green salad with avocado and strawberries (another California moment), drank strong coffee, and enjoyed the smell of baking bread. Pleasing ambience and a friendly, inquisitive server made this a welcome place to perch and observe the foot traffic outside.

Later, I had lunch at Chifa Hou Wha. The chifa — an eatery devoted to that perfect union of flavors called Peruvian-Chinese cuisine — is a tradition born of migration. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants came to Peru in the nineteenth century to labor in the sugar and cotton industries. Over the subsequent century, the enclave grew, and now Lima is filled with chifas. Hou Wha is among the best: fresh, traditional, and deeply satisfying.


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After lunch, I stopped at Mérito, a restaurant and coffee shop with an unassuming facade belying the well-honed beauty of both the food and decor within. There, I watched a cook adorn trays of almond cookies with chocolate, and drank more espresso.

At Osso, a steak restaurant and butcher shop, I was given a tour of the walk-in, where the chef dry-ages sides of beef and experiments with charcuterie. He salted and cooked a piece of sirloin for me as we lamented global supply-chain problems. I ate it with my fingers, plain, standing in the kitchen, and it was among the best pieces of meat I’ve ever had. Although Osso caters largely to workers from nearby office buildings, it has an old-school red-banquette vibe. When I asked about its future, the manager said they had big plans. He could tell me what they were, but then he’d have to kill me. “Your English is pretty good, but your mafia English is excellent,” I retorted. We laughed and bantered about “The Godfather.”

El Pan de la Chola, one of my last food stops in Lima, was also one of the best. It offers a casual breakfast menu of stunning but simple food — from farm-fresh eggs, Peruvian potatoes, and roasted tomatoes to chia pudding with fresh fruit. For lunch, there are salads and sandwiches. At night, it’s pizza and wine.

The coffee alone is worth a trip to El Pan de la Chola, but the star of the show is el pan, the bread. Founder Jonathan Day trained as an engineer and professional theater actor. Traveling for work, he fell in love with bread. When he returned to Lima after five years living in the U.K., missing many of the things he’d enjoyed there, Day began baking sourdough loaves. Then he opened a bakery and eventually, alongside his family, a restaurant down the street.

The bright, open space is made of raw concrete and wood. It feels modern and industrial but still in harmony with nature, and positioned to maximize the warm sunlight that pours in the windows. We chatted about the challenges of introducing sourdough to Limeños (at first, some returned it to the bakery, thinking it was off). I then realized that Day, who has worked with some of the world’s foremost bread experts, is the reason I’ve eaten such good bread in this city. The gorgeous loaves I’d seen in the pastry case at both La Panetteria and Mérito, and the Bay Area–rivaling sourdough I’d eaten at Rafael — it all started with Day.

At his recommendation, my last stop was Isolina, a traditional taverna serving ceviche and hearty meat dishes, like beef loin with fried potatoes, stewed tomatoes, and white rice. The mood there was lively: Boisterous families laughed and jockeyed for the serving spoons. My dessert was a criminally wide slice of crema volteada, a creamy Peruvian flan, which sat regally in a chilled caramel sauce. All of this goes down easiest, I’m told, with a frosty pisco sour, another national treasure.

Setting off for home later that night, I felt wistful about leaving Lima — its coffee, ceviche, and candy-colored houses, the sweeping view from the rooftop of Miraflores Park, even the teenage girls whose perseverance I’d come to admire. In my notebook was a list of restaurants I hadn’t gotten around to visiting. But I knew I’d experienced some of the best, here or anywhere. And this time I know I’ll be back.

The Best Restaurants and Cafes in Lima

Departures Senior Editor Nina Renata Aron shares her favorite eats in the culinary capital of Peru.

  • Neira Café Lab

    My latte was served with a pretty tulip-shaped flourish in a purple mug. I enjoyed it with a panini “mixto,” Cuban-style ham and cheese, and sat happily, people- and pastry-watching. The cafe’s offerings, especially the canelés, were beautiful. The latte was so good I ordered another to go.

  • Central

    A meal at Central is like a symphony: carefully orchestrated, breathtaking, memorable, and yet difficult to describe. Each dish in the 14-course meal corresponds to a stratum of the sea. One begins underwater, with the first dishes featuring fish and sea vegetables in blue and green tones, before continuing on to land.

  • Chifa Hou Wha

    The chifa — an eatery devoted to that perfect union of flavors called Peruvian-Chinese cuisine — is a tradition born of migration. Now, Lima is filled with chifas. Hou Wha is among the best: fresh, traditional, and deeply satisfying.

  • Osso

    At Osso, a steak restaurant and butcher shop, I was given a tour of the walk-in, where the chef dry-ages sides of beef and experiments with charcuterie. Although Osso caters largely to workers from nearby office buildings, it has an old-school red-banquette vibe.

  • Isolina

    My last stop was Isolina, a traditional taverna serving ceviche and hearty meat dishes, like beef loin with fried potatoes, stewed tomatoes, and white rice. The mood there was lively: Boisterous families laughed and jockeyed for the serving spoons.

  • Rafael

    Rafael is chic, dimly lit, and perfect. It’s the kind of place I would like to be invited to go on a date and where I observed many in progress. I ordered ceviche (at last) and it was extraordinary and blessedly traditional.

  • La Panetteria in Barranco

    La Panetteria looks like a quaint coffee shop but boasts a vast menu of fresh sandwiches, salads, and baked goods. Pleasing ambience and a friendly, inquisitive server made this a welcome place to perch and observe the foot traffic outside.

  • Mérito

    I stopped at Mérito, a restaurant and coffee shop with an unassuming facade belying the well-honed beauty of both the food and decor within. There, I watched a cook adorn trays of almond cookies with chocolate, and drank more espresso.

  • El Pan de la Chola

    El Pan de la Chola, one of my last food stops in Lima, was also one of the best. It offers a casual breakfast menu of stunning but simple food — from farm-fresh eggs, Peruvian potatoes, and roasted tomatoes to chia pudding with fresh fruit. For lunch, there are salads and sandwiches. At night, it’s pizza and wine.

  • Neira Café Lab

    My latte was served with a pretty tulip-shaped flourish in a purple mug. I enjoyed it with a panini “mixto,” Cuban-style ham and cheese, and sat happily, people- and pastry-watching. The cafe’s offerings, especially the canelés, were beautiful. The latte was so good I ordered another to go.

  • Rafael

    Rafael is chic, dimly lit, and perfect. It’s the kind of place I would like to be invited to go on a date and where I observed many in progress. I ordered ceviche (at last) and it was extraordinary and blessedly traditional.

  • Central

    A meal at Central is like a symphony: carefully orchestrated, breathtaking, memorable, and yet difficult to describe. Each dish in the 14-course meal corresponds to a stratum of the sea. One begins underwater, with the first dishes featuring fish and sea vegetables in blue and green tones, before continuing on to land.

  • La Panetteria in Barranco

    La Panetteria looks like a quaint coffee shop but boasts a vast menu of fresh sandwiches, salads, and baked goods. Pleasing ambience and a friendly, inquisitive server made this a welcome place to perch and observe the foot traffic outside.

  • Chifa Hou Wha

    The chifa — an eatery devoted to that perfect union of flavors called Peruvian-Chinese cuisine — is a tradition born of migration. Now, Lima is filled with chifas. Hou Wha is among the best: fresh, traditional, and deeply satisfying.

  • Mérito

    I stopped at Mérito, a restaurant and coffee shop with an unassuming facade belying the well-honed beauty of both the food and decor within. There, I watched a cook adorn trays of almond cookies with chocolate, and drank more espresso.

  • Osso

    At Osso, a steak restaurant and butcher shop, I was given a tour of the walk-in, where the chef dry-ages sides of beef and experiments with charcuterie. Although Osso caters largely to workers from nearby office buildings, it has an old-school red-banquette vibe.

  • El Pan de la Chola

    El Pan de la Chola, one of my last food stops in Lima, was also one of the best. It offers a casual breakfast menu of stunning but simple food — from farm-fresh eggs, Peruvian potatoes, and roasted tomatoes to chia pudding with fresh fruit. For lunch, there are salads and sandwiches. At night, it’s pizza and wine.

  • Isolina

    My last stop was Isolina, a traditional taverna serving ceviche and hearty meat dishes, like beef loin with fried potatoes, stewed tomatoes, and white rice. The mood there was lively: Boisterous families laughed and jockeyed for the serving spoons.


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Our Contributors

Nina Renata Aron Writer

Nina Renata Aron is a writer and editor based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.

Skye Parrott

Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.

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