Top 5 Restaurants in Cusco
Just a few years ago, Cusco's restaurant scene could be summed up in terms of panpipes and pizza. Since then, Peru's arrival on the gastronomic world stage has seen a lot of expertise, enthusiasm and creativity go into opening new restaurants that offer locals and visitors alike a huge range of options celebrating Peruvian food and its many influences.
Cusco is a beautiful town and it is also compact and walkable, making it a wonderful place to go for a stroll in the evening and browse different menus, from a no-frills chicharroneria (the place to go for deep-fried pork) to fine dining at the hotels and museums on the Plazoleta Nazarenas, where some of the country's best chefs offer their take on 'new-Andean' cuisine.
Peruvian food is about the diversity of its native ingredients - from the Pacific Ocean, the Andes and the Amazon - and its remarkable international influences, too. People have been adapting dishes introduced by European, African, Chinese and Japanese immigrants over the last several hundred years, and there is seemingly no end to the popularity and scope of fusion food. Quinoa tabouleh, trout tiradito (a local take on sashimi), Peking-style guinea pig, and alpaca carpaccio are just a few examples to be found on a menu in Cusco.
After several trips to Cusco in recent years, the first thing I want to do when I visit the city now is try out a new restaurant or revisit an old favourite. In no particular order, here are five of my favourites:
Gaston Acurio - the original ambassador for Peruvian food - opened his first restaurant in Cusco in 2010. Reflecting Gaston's passion for native ingredients, Chicha is named after a maize-based drink that precedes the Incas and is still an everyday favourite now. Set in the spacious, high-ceilinged second floor of a colonial mansion, Chicha is smart but informal and is a great place to try kapchi, chairo or pachamanca - all dishes originating in the Andes. Gaston is also very much into fusion, so there are plenty more familiar names to choose from too, all with a Peruvian touch. Don't forget to try a cocktail here - they are excellent.
Green's Organic has not disappointed me yet: it has a great menu and the food and drinks are always fresh, colourful, and beautifully presented. They source their ingredients from the nearby Sacred Valley of the Incas, the agricultural heartland that helped sustain the Inca Empire, and as many of these as possible are organic (anything that isn't is listed as such on the menu). A great place for a soup, salad or a more substantial main dish, Green's is another place that showcases the versatility of Peruvian ingredients. Just off the main square, Green's is simply furnished and casual, making it an ideal option for lunch. The portions can be very large so don't be shy about asking to share a plate.
Pachapapa is set in a rustic courtyard up the hill from the main square in the picturesque artisans' neighbourhood of San Blas. It specialises in hearty Andean food such as casseroles, stews, and trout or guinea pig baked in a traditional wood-fired oven. It is also a great place to try some of the multi-coloured native potatoes, of which Peru famously has several thousand varieties. My favourite dish here is the huatia de lomo, a slow-cooked beef marinated in Andean herbs. Large parties can book a pachamanca, which is traditionally cooked underground using hot stones.
Pizza is so ubiquitous in Cusco it could almost be described as traditional food by now and, if you are in search of a pizza, this is my favourite place to get it. The clay oven in the corner is a big selling point, if only because it warms the whole restaurant - something that is always welcome in Cusco. There is a wide variety of ingredients to choose from (some a bit unusual), and pastas, soups and salads are also on the menu. This is a relaxed, busy, friendly place, great for a casual meal and some very reasonably priced wine.
Widely considered one of the best in town, Cicciolina is a warm and atmospheric tapas restaurant and wine bar located on the second floor of a wonderfully creaky colonial house. My favourite time to go is in the morning, when Cicciolina's downstairs bakery is open and the bar serves delicious breakfasts. A lovely excuse for a leisurely morning - get a table in the sunshine next to an open window and watch the world go by in the street below.