Every village, however small, has a place to eat and a shop. Whether these are open or not is another issue. In smaller villages businesses tend to close around 20.00, or 21.00 if there are no customers, and restaurants may not have formal opening hours. It is wise to eat early. On the other hand, in larger towns restaurants might not open until 20.00. Lunch is generally available from 13.00 to 15.00. In Coyhaique and Puerto Aysén it is possible to find somewhere to eat all day and up to midnight. Coyhaique is the only place with all-night restaurants.
Tips are occasionally included on the bill in a restaurant; if not, they are not expected, and rounding up the amount is appreciated and sufficient. Chilean fare can become rather repetitive particularly along the Carretera Austral, where culinary creativity seems scarce. Expect to find merluza (hake), congrio (eel), mariscos (shellfish), puye (small, whitebait-like fish), a meat dish, perhaps cazuela (meat or fish stew), chips, potatoes, a basic salad, deep-fried bread and a range of nondescript puddings. Meat described as mechada is shredded, and milanesa in thin slices, coated in breadcrumbs; a lo pobre contains salad, a fried egg and chips.
Curanto is a particular delicacy originating in Chiloé, and is certainly worth trying. It generally contains two plates – one of shellfish and fish, and one of meat, a sausage, potatoes and a potato dumpling, all cooked together in the same pot. Strictly speaking a proper curanto should be cooked in a hole in the ground covered with leaves and mud, but this is generally only available on the island of Chiloé. The best place to try curanto along the Carretera Austral is Cocinería Altamar in Chaitén.
Although limited, there are some variations from Chilean cuisine: Coyhaique has sushi, Italian food and some excellent high-end restaurants. The German settlers of the region in the early 20th century secured an ongoing supply of cakes and savoury snacks (kuchen), as well as decent bread. Lamb (cordero), where available, is excellent; (vaca, or ternero) beef is abundant but rarely cooked to the standard found in Argentina.
Seafood is common and vegetarians, even vegans, may actually find this region to be more compatible with their food tastes than Argentina. A number of restaurants offer a vegetarian option.
Many restaurants offer a menú del día (set menu with limited choice), which are generally very good value and popular among the locals. Many cabins, and some hostels or hotels, offer self-catering barbecue facilities (parrilla/asado), and often these are included in a separate outhouse, called a quincho. Ideal for groups, this is basically a building available for rent with tables, plates, cutlery, etc, where guests can prepare their own food, usually lamb or steak, bought privately or arranged through the hotel/hostel.
Wine is available in mid-range restaurants but tends to be overpriced and offers limited variety; a finer range is available in upper-end restaurants, albeit at a price. Local beers are more abundant and cheaper. Chileans debate with Peruvians as to the true inventor of Pisco, but it is fair to say that almost anywhere along the Carretera Austral it is possible to find a decent Pisco sour, including flavoured with local berries and fruits. The water is generally fine to drink straight from the tap.
Standard beers available across Chile include Cristal and Escudo, or the now semi-national beers from medium-sized breweries like Kunstmann and Austral. However, a growing passion in the region is the production of fine craft beer (cerveza artesanal). What better way to utilise the abundant pure water of southern Chile than to make great beer? Most restaurants and bars will have at least one regional beer (usually bottled, sometimes on tap).
For more information about food and drink in South America, check out Ben Box’s cookbook: