Think of Colombia, think of balmy evenings dancing to salsa, fuelled by shots of aguardiente and arepas. But there’s plenty more than the anise-based spirit and cornmeal cakes to sample in the South American country.
Chefs have stepped up their game to put gastronomy on the map, with sommeliers and bartenders following suit. Not just appreciating local ingredients and distilling spirits, they also seek out wines from around the world to accompany fine-dining experiences.
Their endeavours have paid off. Diverse establishments rank on World’s 50 Best lists; while Madrid Fusión also hosted a local edition of the food conference.
If you want to sample Colombia’s food and drink renaissance, head to the cities of Bogotá, Cartagena de Indias or Barranquilla. Here’s Decanter’s guide to the must-visit eateries and bars in each city…
Colombia’s carnival capital is a port city fitting snugly between Cartagena and Santa Marta. Barranquilla is bursting with cultural fusion and has an up-and-coming food scene whose flavours bridge the Middle East, the Caribbean and Europe. Work it all off by dancing at a salsateca.
The preferred Barranquilla watering hole of Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez, the legendary La Cueva today includes a restaurant, bar and cultural centre. Top chef Charlie Otero oversees the kitchen, recreating traditional Barranquillero dishes such as lip-smacking chicharrón del carajo (fried pork belly) and aguají de camarones (chilled prawn, grapefruit and corozo berry soup), enjoyed to a nine-strong salsa band. For dessert, order ‘El Gabo’s’ favourite, ñame cremoso (creamed yam) with fresh cheese, alongside an Alvarito C cocktail, made with single malt whisky, rosemary syrup and lemon juice by head bartender Jairo Miranda.
Carrera 43 #59-03
This 2020 opening ticks all the hipster boxes. Upcycling a 1960s home; a chef turning his hand to distilling; the use of unusual Colombian ingredients such as bachaco (leaf-cutter) ants. Fortunately Los Hijos de Sancho lives up to expectations. Chef José Barbosa deals in mouth-watering comfort food with Middle Eastern winks. Order crunchy burrata with roasted aubergine and naan, the pastrami sandwich with plantain ash butter, and smoked rib empanadas with tamarind barbecue sauce. The wine list focuses on bottles from Argentina and Chile, but also try the refreshing Esthercita cocktail, created with Barbosa’s own Selva craft gin, hibiscus and ginger.
Carrera 51 #76-96
Open since 2021, Manuel restaurant is heading up the gastro game in Barranquilla. This stylish establishment with a prominent bar is located in the elegant El Prado district. Here dynamic young chef Manuel Mendoza sources ingredients – many agro ecological – from Colombia’s vast selection of 314 different ecosystems. He then gives them an international spin. Think greater amberjack (fish) tataki in ponzu and olive oil, or pork belly on a frijol diablito (ricebean) cream. The wine list, run by sommelier Huver Alvear, includes Burgundy, Mosel and Rioja, as well as South American vintages. Try Tenúe, a rum-based cocktail made with coconut fat, rosso, orange bitters and calamansi limes.
Carrera 55 #74-125
Bogotá is currently basking in the food-and-drink limelight. The city is driving Colombian cuisine forward with a plethora of 50 Best restaurants. They rub shoulders with stylish bistros, innovative cocktail bars such as Huerta, and specialty coffee shops like San Alberto and Devoción. Drink plenty of water here, as the 2,640m elevation can be dehydrating.
Álvaro Clavijo’s El Chato has long been a Latin America’s 50 Best darling, thanks to nailing casual fine dining with farm-to-table flair. The Noma-trained chef works closely with farmers to cultivate under-appreciated products for his seasonal à la carte and tasting menus. All ingredients are strictly Colombian. Located across two floors in the Chapinero Alto district, El Chato’s star dishes include bone marrow with tucupí (wild manioc salsa) and snails; cured white trout with watercress in filo pastry; and paletero (underblade beef) with hormiga culona (big-ass ant) béarnaise sauce. Sommelier Camilo Viracacha’s short yet sweet wine list includes Chianti Colli Senesi, Côtes du Rhône and Brazil’s Serra Gaucha sparkling wine.
Calle 65 #4-76
Lunch at this well-illuminated spot is a Bogotá must. The eponymous chef delights diners with a fusion of stirling Colombian, Mediterranean and seafood dishes, paired with top-notch service. Start with Sasson’s version of arepa de huevo, a Colombian corn cake staple, before moving onto his classic pepper fillet steak or prawn, clam and chorizo fideuà (similar to paella), to share. The efficient kitchen team also prepares robata (Japanese grill) sides such as artichoke with gherkin mayo. As for the wine list, 135 labels spanning New World terroir – including Oregon, Uco Valley and Colchagua Valley – rub shoulders with Ribera del Duero and Douro.
Carrera 9 #75-70
Reopening in 2021 in stylish purpose-built premises, two restaurants now operate under LEO’s roof. Both are a must. Artist and chef Leonor Espinosa’s relentless pursuit in cooking with ingredients that are cultivated by small, often Afro-Colombian, farmers led to a Basque Culinary World Prize in 2017. Highlights of the 13-course tasting menu at La Sala de Leo might include stingray with lemon ants, crown conch with coconut and dried prawns and, for chocoholics, a dreamy cacao selection.
Upstairs in La Sala de Laura (pictured), her daughter, sommelier Laura Hernández leads an eponymous cocktail bar. Many drinks use Territorio, the line of Colombian spirits that she conceived, which – using LEO’s biocultural philosophy – blows open the liquids world. The Territorio range brings to life uncharted territories such as Foggy Andean Forest and Páramo (tundra). Order Territorio No 6 Andean Foothills, with Coquí vanilla (from an Afro-indigenous village on Colombia’s Pacific Coast), wild red vermouth and an aromatic herb pipe for a shaman-like experience. As per her mother’s menu, the umbrella wine list curated by Hernández seeks out small producers. Choices include Itata Cinsault and Columbia Valley Syrah.
Calle 65bis #4-23
Cartagena de Indias
Steamy temperatures, an impeccable 16th-century old town and sandy beaches just a short, James Bond-esque speedboat ride away ensure Cartagena’s eternal popularity. The Caribbean city has also upped its food and drink game, housing two 50 Best-ranked establishments.
The three pumping floors – including a buzzing terrace atop a 1910-built casa republicana – might suggest party central. However Alquímico has also honed a serious side. Owner and bartender Jean Trinh – a Parisian transplant – ensures every cocktail uses ingredients cultivated at his Antioquia farm. His sustainable approach was recognised by the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2020. Try La Mansion’s signature cocktails that break with tradition: the gin-based Té Caribeño embraces dehydrated coconut and green tea-infused white rum, spearmint and lime. El Balcón on the first floor, meanwhile, creates playful twists on classics: goldenberry and lemongrass make the Gimlet cut. Finally Magia Salvaje’s list on the rooftop is bursting with tropical Tiki flavours. Need a quick bite? The Celele team (see below) created the food menu here.
Calle del Colegio, #34-24
Chefs Jaime Rodríguez and Sebastián Pinzón exhaustively scoured Colombia’s Caribbean coast to map ingredients such as ají topito chilli pepper and orejero seeds. They then used their gastronomic database to open an exclusively Caribbean establishment. Located in trendy Getsemaní, Celele is another Latin America’s 50 Best restaurant. It revives traditional recipes such as sabana del caribe (usually a protein-based soup), while opening a new window into Caribbean cuisine – think prawn tartare with pickled green mango and coconut mayo – that ventures beyond deep-fried food. The wine list focuses on Spanish and Argentinian bottles, but do sample the cocktails too. Patillazo is made from viche, a traditional Colombian sugar cane spirit.
Calle del Espíritu Santo, Carrera 10c #29-200
El Gobernador lies behind the towering wooden front doors of the luxurious Bastión hotel in the Ciudad Vieja. This stately restaurant opens for both lunch and dinner, with elegant dishes taking their lead from the Caribbean. Executive chef Viviana Lievano’s creations include cassava tacos with crab salad and coconut milk; seabass with a Gruyére crust; and lobster with hearts of palm au gratin. Pair them with sparkling wines: Champagne, Prosecco and Cava are on the wine list. There’s also a solid rum and agave selection. Bastión guests would do well to book a day pass for Makani, the hotel’s swanky beach club on Tierra Bomba island, to enjoy shrimp patacones, smoked crab with plantain chips and tropical cocktails.
Calle del Sargento Mayor #6-87