Think of Colombia, think of balmy evenings dancing to salsa, fueled by kicks of aguardiente and arepas. But there’s more than anise-based liquor and cornmeal cakes to enjoy in this South American country.
Chefs have stepped up their game to put fine dining on the menu, with sommeliers and bartenders following suit. In addition to appreciating local ingredients and distilling spirits, they also seek out wines from around the world to accompany fine dining experiences.
Their efforts paid off. Various establishments rank on lists of the world’s top 50; while Madrid Fusion also hosted a local edition of the food conference.
If you want a taste of the Colombian food and drink renaissance, head to the cities of Bogotá, Cartagena de Indias or Barranquilla. Here’s Decanter’s guide to the must-visit restaurants and bars in each city…
Colombia’s carnival capital is a port city perfectly located between Cartagena and Santa Marta. Barranquilla is brimming with cultural fusion and has a rising foodie scene whose flavors bridge the Middle East, Caribbean and Europe. Work it while dancing in a salsateca.
A favorite Barranquilla watering hole of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez, the legendary La Cueva now includes a restaurant, bar and cultural center. Master chef Charlie Otero oversees the kitchen, recreating traditional Barranquillero dishes such as lip smacking chicharron del carajo (fried pork belly) and aguají de camarones (chilled shrimp, grapefruit and corozo berry soup), enjoyed by a nine-person salsa party. For dessert, order the favorite ‘El Gabo’s’, cremoso name (yam cream) with fresh cheese, served with an Alvarito C cocktail, made with single malt whiskeyrosemary syrup and lemon juice by head bartender Jairo Miranda.
Carrera 43 #59-03
This 2020 opening ticks all the hipster boxes. Recycling of a 1960s house; a chef dedicated to distillation; the use of unusual Colombian ingredients such as bachaco ants (leaf cutters). Fortunately, Los Hijos de Sancho lives up to expectations. Chef José Barbosa offers tantalizing comfort food with a nod to the Middle East. Order a crispy burrata with roasted eggplant and naan, the pastrami sandwich with plantain ash butter, and smoked rib empanadas with tamarind barbecue sauce. The wine list favors bottles of Argentina and Chilebut also try the refreshing Esthercita cocktail, created with Selva de Barbosa craftsmanship Ginhibiscus and ginger.
Carrera 51 #76-96
Open since 2021, Restaurant Manuel is leading the foodie game in Barranquilla. This stylish establishment with a top-notch bar is located in the elegant neighborhood of El Prado. Here, dynamic young chef Manuel Mendoza sources ingredients – many of them agro-ecological – from Colombia’s vast selection of 314 different ecosystems. He then gave them an international twist. Think of a large amberjack (fish) tataki in ponzu and olive oil, or pork belly on a Frijol Diablito (rice) cream. The wine list, led by sommelier Huver Alvear, includes Burgundy, Moselle and La 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 in the gastronomy spotlight. The city drives Colombian cuisine forward with a plethora of top 50 restaurants. They rub shoulders with stylish bistros, innovative cocktail bars such as Huertaand specialty coffees like St. Alberto and Devotion. Drink plenty of water here, as the 2,640m elevation can be dehydrating.
Álvaro Clavijo’s El Chato has long been one of Latin America’s top 50 darlings, thanks to its casual fine dining with a farm-to-table twist. The Noma-trained chef works closely with farmers to grow underappreciated produce for his seasonal à la carte and tasting menus. All ingredients are strictly Colombian. Spread over two floors in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood, El Chato’s star dishes include bone marrow with tucupi (wild cassava salsa) and snails; dried white trout with watercress in filo pastry; and palette (beef underblade) with hormiga culona (big ass ant) béarnaise sauce. Sommelier Camilo Viracacha’s short but sweet wine list includes Chianti Colli Senesi, Cotes du Rhone and BrazilSerra Gaucha sparkling wine.
Street 65 #4-76
Lunch in this well-lit place is a must in Bogotá. The eponymous chef delights diners with a fusion of Colombian, Mediterranean and seafood dishes paired with top-notch service. Start with Sasson’s version of arepa of huevoa Colombian corn cake staple, before moving on to its classic Pepper Fillet Steak or its Prawns, Clams and Chorizo loyalty (similar to paella), to share. The efficient kitchen team also prepares robata (Japanese grill) sides such as artichoke with pickle mayonnaise. On the wine list side, 135 labels from the New World region – including Oregon, Uco Valley and the Colchagua Valley – rub shoulders Ribera del Duero and Douro.
Carrera 9 #75-70
Reopening in 2021 in stylish purpose-built premises, two restaurants now operate under the LEO roof. Both are essential. Artist and chef Leonor Espinosa’s relentless pursuit of cooking with ingredients grown by small, often Afro-Colombian, farmers led to a Basque World Culinary Award in 2017. Highlights from the 13-course tasting menu at Sala de Leo could include stingray with lemon ants, coconut conch and dried prawns and, for chocolate addicts, a selection of dreamy cocoa.
Upstairs at La Sala de Laura (photo), his daughter, sommelier Laura Hernández runs an eponymous cocktail bar. Many drinks use Territorio, the line of Colombian spirits she designed, which – using LEO’s biocultural philosophy – opens up the world of liquids. The Territorio range brings to life unexplored territories such as Foggy Andean Forest and Páramo (tundra). Order Territorio No 6 Andean Foothills, with Coquí vanilla (from an Afro-indigenous village on the Pacific coast of Colombia), wild red vermouth and an aromatic herb pipe for a shamanic experience. According to his mother’s menu, the umbrella wine list Hernández curates is looking for small producers. Choices include Itata Cinsault and the Columbia Valley Shiraz.
Street 65bis #4-23
Cartagena de Indias
Searing temperatures, a spotless 16th-century old town, and sandy beaches just a James Bond-style speedboat ride ensure Cartagena’s everlasting popularity. The Caribbean city has also upped its dining game, home to two top 50 establishments.
The three pumping floors – including a bustling terrace atop a building built in 1910 casa republicana – might suggest the center of the party. However, Alquímico also developed a serious side. Owner and bartender Jean Trinh — a Parisian transplant — makes sure every cocktail uses ingredients grown on his Antioquia farm. Its sustainable approach has been recognized by the World’s 50 Best Bars 2020. Try La Mansion’s signature cocktails that break with tradition: the gin-based Té Caribeño embraces dehydrated coconut and infused green tea White Rum, spearmint and lime. El Balcón on the first floor, meanwhile, revisits the classics in a playful way: golden berry and lemongrass make the Gimlet cut. Finally, the list of Magia Salvaje on the roof is full of tropical Tiki flavors. 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 have extensively traveled the Caribbean coast of Colombia to map ingredients such as aji topito chilli and orejero seeds. They then used their gastronomic database to open a Caribbean-only establishment. Located in the trendy neighborhood of Getsemaní, Celele is another top 50 restaurant in Latin America. It revives traditional recipes such as Sabana del Caribe (usually a protein-based soup), while also opening a new window on Caribbean cuisine – think shrimp tartare with pickled green mango and coconut mayonnaise – that ventures beyond fried foods. The wine list focuses on Spanish and Argentinian bottles, but sample the cocktails as well. Patillazo is made from viche, a traditional Colombian sugar cane alcohol.
Calle del Espiritu Santo, Carrera 10c #29-200
El Gobernador sits behind the imposing wooden front doors of the luxurious Bastión de la Ciudad Vieja hotel. This majestic restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, with elegant dishes inspired by the Caribbean. Executive chef Viviana Lievano’s creations include cassava tacos with crab salad and coconut milk; bar in a Gruyère crust; and lobster with hearts of palm gratin. Accompany them with sparkling wines: Champagne, Prosecco and It’s okay are on the wine list. There is also a solid Rum and selection of agaves. Bastión guests would do well to book a day pass to Makani, the hotel’s swanky beach club on the island of Tierra Bomba, to sample prawn patacones, smoked crab with plantain and tropical cocktails.
Calle del Sargento Mayor #6-87