Uruguayan cuisine is typical for temperate countries, high on butter, fat, and grains, low on spice. It has an important Italian influence due to the strong Italian inmigration. If you are from the Mediterranean or Mexico, you will find it bland, but if you come from the Northern Europe, Russia or the US, you won’t have trouble getting used to it.
Restaurants and some other services give discounts if you pay with a foreign credit card. (The discount, which was established by the government to encourage tourism, is technically a reduction in value-added tax.)
There are many public markets where you can get a hundred varieties of meat. Vegetarians can order ravioli just about anywhere, but check to make sure the sauce doesn’t contain meat.
Empanadas (hand-sized meat or cheese pies) make an excellent portable, inexpensive, and delicious snack or lunch. You can find them easily at many corner bakeries.
Uruguay has traditionally been a ranching country, with cattle outnumbering people more than two-to-one, and therefore features excellent (and affordable) steaks. One dish that should not be missed is chivito, a heart-attack-on-a-platter sandwich (some guidebooks call it a “cholesterol bomb”) that is made of a combination of grilled tenderloin steak, tomato, lettuce, onion, eggs (hard-boiled and then sliced), ham, bacon, mozzarella cheese and mayonnaise and fries. There are two versions of chivito. Al pan means it’s served “on bread”, this is the classic variant and it looks like a hamburger served on a plate. If it is served al plato it is like a hamburger minus the bread and often with more vegetables.
Asado is a typical Uruguayan barbeque, consisting of a variety of grilled meats (beef short ribs, sausage, blood sausage and sweetbreads and other offal) over wood coals. Almost all Uruguayans know how to make it and its variations appear on most restaurant menus. For a traditional experience, try it at the “Mercado del Puerto” market, in Montevideo’s port area. As many of the European immigrants to the area around Rio de la Plata a century ago came from Italy, Italian dishes have a special place in the local cuisine, often with a local twist. The Central European schnitzel’s local relative Milanesa is made with beef instead of pork and is also available as a sandwich.
Bizcochos are popular pastries that can be bought at local bakeries among with other local confectioneries and sandwiches such as the sandwich olímpico, which can also be found at most supermarkets.
Tortas fritas (a sort of fried pancake), pasteles and garrapiñada (sugar-roasted peanuts) among with hamburgers and choripanes are commonly sold on the street.
Uruguay, with its long shoreline, also enjoys an excellent variety of seafood and fish. The flavor of the most commonly offered fish, brotola, may be familiar to people from North America, where it is called hake.
For desserts, dulce de leche, a kind of caramel made with sweetened milk, is found in all manner of confections, from ice cream to alfajores (dulce de leche-filled cookie sandwiches), Ricardito and chajá (available in all supermarkets).
Mate (MAH-teh), a tea-like infusion made from the yerba mate plant and drunk hot through a straw, is the unofficial national drink of Uruguay. It’s widely drunk on the streets, but can hardly be ordered in restaurants; as young and old go around with their own cup and thermos bottle on the street, there would likely be no-one ordering it in a café or restaurant if they offered it. You may have to buy a package at a supermarket and make your own. The drinking gourds are widely available and range from economical to super-deluxe silver and horn. Mate is a social drink. If you are with a group of Uruguayans they will probably offer you some, do be mindful, it will be hot and may taste somewhat bitter. If you try some it will make everybody happy.
Uruguay is also acquiring a reputation for its fine wines, especially those made from the Tannat grape. The “VCP” label (Vino de Calidad Preferente) identifies qualify wines, in contrast to table wines (vinos de mesa).
Alcohol is relatively inexpensive. Beer often come in large, 1l bottles that can go for as low as U$50. The two domestic brands found everywhere are Pilsen and Patricia, with Zillertal being a distant third. There are a number of craft brewery brands as well. Import beer is available at large supermarkets and pubs, but not at regular restaurants.
A bottled mix of wines called medio y medio can be found at most stores.
The most common strong alcohol beverage is surprisingly whisky, even many famous brands such as Johnnie Walker being manufactured in Uruguay under license. A 1l bottle of the cheapest brands can be bought for U$250 in a supermarket.
Even cheaper strong alcohols are the locally distilled grappas and cañas that can be bought at most supermarkets and also can be tasted in many pizzerias where they also sell grappa con limón, the same liquor flavoured with lemon.
Nightlife goes late in Uruguay. Nightclubs often waive the cover charge for “early” arrivals until midnight, and it’s not uncommon for a concert or a night of partying to end around dawn.