Spurred in part by its world-class restaurant scene, the Peruvian capital has undergone a transformation from stopover to tourism hotspot
Author Chris Wilson Photography Jessica Sample
DAY THREE | You have another long day of eating and imbibing ahead, so you refrain from overindulging in the butifarras, empanadas, pies, éclairs and tarts at La Espiga de Oro bakery down the block from Hotel B. Feeling unusually healthful, you swing by Las Delicias, a gem of a juice bar in Miraflores, and sample a fresh-squeezed guanábana and lucúma combo, one of dozens of fruity mixtures available.
Bursting with vigor (and, yes, empanadas) you visit the oceanside El Parque del Amor, where couples come to sit on cuddle-friendly benches and take in the view. Lacking a co-canoodler of your own, you read the whimsical love poems displayed beside the seats with furious concentration before focusing intently on a large sculpture of a smooching couple made by Victor Delfín (he whose garden you previously enjoyed).
Having lingered in the Park of Love for as long as is reasonable, you drive to Mercado Surquillo No. 1, a traditional Peruvian market cluttered with swinging sides of beef, whole pigs, exotic fruits and teetering plastic bags filled with coca leaves and dried hot peppers. As you zigzag among the stalls, your appetite starts to assert itself again.
Fittingly, your next stop is Chez Wong, a local institution set in the home of Chinese-Peruvian chef Javier Wong. Pulling up to the reservation-only, eight-table eatery tucked away in gritty La Victoria, you buzz an unmarked door and are led inside. There is no menu. Wong, in trademark flat cap and shades, serves everyone the same two-course meal: a Pacific flounder and octopus ceviche and a fish saltado, or stir-fry.
“Ceviche is the perfection of something simple,” Wong says. You consider this bit of wisdom while inhaling a mound of his fresh and flavorful signature dish.
The stir-fry consists of more flounder thrown into a sizzling wok with red bell pepper, bok choy and mushrooms in a pisco-spiked brown sauce. The dish may look like gloppy Chinese takeout, but it’s astoundingly good. Wong, meanwhile, puffs a cigarette in his tiny kitchen as flames shoot from the pan, but no one seems to mind. It is, after all, his house.
Next, head to Bar Inglés, at the grand Country Club Hotel in San Isidro, where bartender Roberto Meléndez is renowned for mixing outrageously good Pisco Sours—he has been serving Peru’s beloved national cocktail here since 1998. A frothy blend of pisco, lime juice, simple syrup and egg whites, the recipe for the Meléndez version was passed down to him by his bartender father, who served it to John Wayne at Lima’s fabled Hotel Maury in the 1950s. “It’s my responsibility,” Meléndez says, “to maintain the drink’s reputation.”
A Pisco Sour or three later (who’s counting?), you clear your head at Parque El Olívar in San Isidro, a rambling grove of more than 1,500 gnarled olive trees, many of which are over a century old. It’s a calm, enchanting spot, and you spend a happy hour wandering around enjoying the sensation of having not a single thought in your head.
From here, you prepare to indulge in one of Lima’s more decadent dining experiences: the 24-course tasting dinner at Astrid & Gastón, in Miraflores. This four-hour feast is the keynote experience at Michelin-starred chef Gastón Acurio’s flagship restaurant. The crystal chandeliers and moleskin-bound menu/historical narrative quickly set the tone. You’re even given a CD of schmaltzy music that you can play later to evoke memories of your meal.
Moments after you are seated, a miniature steamer trunk is opened before you, revealing an array of edible morsels that include salted fish with mascarpone and a ham-and-fruit puff. Next comes alpaca tortellini, a guinea pig terrine, scallops in coral broth and Parmesan, yellow potato gnocchi, quail with corn … it goes on like this, over and over, each dish paired with a very good wine, making for one of the more pleasurable evenings you’ve spent.
Despite the risk of descending into a food-induced coma, you pluck up the energy for a final stop at El Sargento Pimienta, a barnlike club in Barranco where you can catch live shows by scruffy rock bands and jostle with mobs of Cusqueña-beer-swilling Limeños. The guys onstage, you are told, are a local outfit named Libido. They are loud.
Later, at the hotel, you find that an art-show party next door has spilled into the bar. Oh, go on, you think, why not? The bartender pours you a house special, a bracing G&T served in a small fishbowl, as a Spanish version of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” lulls you into a pleasing stupor.
That was fun, but you’re happy to be up in your room, burying your head in a fat pillow. You think of Morrissey, the alt-pop idol who came to Lima last year and, in typical style, described the city as “my heart’s lighthouse.” Hmm, you think, and then you are gone.
Writer Chris Wilson hasn’t had a Pisco Sour since he left Peru, but he’s still seeing those dancing wooden-headed skeletons.