A Family Dinner Unlike Any Other, Just Outside Bogotá
Colombia’s Andrés Carne de Res is a world-class culinary destination — a kid-friendly paradise by day that turns into an all-night dance party after-hours.
During the last few bedtimes on our trip to Colombia this July, my wife and sons (Marcel, 8, and Naeem, 2) would stretch out on two twin beds pushed together in my uncle and aunt’s apartment in Bogotá and watch videos of all the things we’d done over three weeks, exploring the capital city and the Magdalena River valley to the west: sitting on the plump hand sculpture in front of the Fernando Botero museum; sipping coffee atop Monserrate, the highest peak in already chilly Bogotá; horseback riding and cooking a sancocho over wood fire with cattle farmers in Tolima; picking fruit from exotic trees in another aunt’s backyard in Mariquita; and touring a ghost town that had been inundated by lava flows during the catastrophic eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in 1985. But we had to scroll quickly: Baby Naeem wanted to get to the videos of “the bunnies.” Over and over again, until he finally conked out, he chuckled in the light of the phone screen, watching a colony of people in bunny costumes perform a Spanish-language London Bridge under a disco ball at a restaurant unlike any other called Andrés Carne de Res.
We’d spent the day at the salt mines in Zipaquirá, a colonial town 45 minutes north of Bogotá that’s popular with tourists and weekending “Rolos” (Bogotanos) alike. Over decades, miners had carved an immense network of caves, and before each one they’d built small oratories where they’d pray before a perilous day’s work. Eventually, they carved out a full-scale cathedral underground.
We all crammed into the Renault hatchback and headed back toward Bogotá. My uncle suggested stopping at Andrés Carne de Res for lunch, but he seriously undersold it, saying simply “Tiene de todo” (it has everything). Had I been able to make eye contact in the rearview mirror with my wife, who was buried under our kids in the backseat, I would have conspired to head back to the apartment and rest instead — the kids were whiny and exhausted — but I had to keep my eyes on the road. I was maneuvering like Frogger through a parade of staggered cargo trucks that were decorated with streamers and glittering alters, blaring music from onboard PA systems, and switching lanes in unison every few beats in a smog-engulfed, synchronized dance (it happened to be July 19, the day of the Virgen de Carmen, patron saint of truck drivers).
Though Chia, a town roughly equidistant between Bogotá and Zipaquirá, is supposed to have a nice historic downtown, we didn’t see that. Instead my uncle guided me past a half-dozen auto body shops on back streets until we arrived at Andrés Carne de Res, a place — we soon learned — where every hunger pang, bored gripe, and off-hand request was catered to, almost before they occurred to us. It was the kind of unreasonable hospitality and attentiveness that you might expect from a three-star Michelin restaurant, one geared exclusively toward families.
We were ushered into a big dirt parking lot, the kind you might find at a county fair. The six of us piled out of the car and followed the sound of laughter and Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World” to an antique ticket booth, where a cast of Alice in Wonderland characters like the Mad Hatter and some giant rabbits, along with some other random steam punks and circus hippies, greeted us. One woman walked us past a carousel and a bonfire, through a courtyard that looked like a Colombian village square, to a table under hazy sunlight, filtered by a ceiling of opaque windows. Right after sitting down, a waitress slid pillowy, cheesy, and sweet arepas de choclo onto the table.
Then I opened the menu. Across 30 pages, there are sections for patacones (plantain fritters) arepas, potato dishes, and yuca dishes. They are famous for the Arepas de Choclo and the Lomo en Trapo, a salt-encrusted beef tenderloin, wrapped in cloth and cooked directly on coals, but I ordered the churrasco — only because I didn’t see people unwrapping their spectacular lomo yet.
Before Marcel could ask his usual escalating sequence of questions — “How long till the food comes? What should I do? Can I play Minecraft on your phone?” — another waitress came to inform us that the circus was about to begin. Aunt Marta whisked the kids off while Zoraida, Miguel, and I gulped delicious fresh fruit juices — lulo, guanabana, and limonada de coco — from yellow and blue ceramic bowls. The playlist drifted through a multicultural list of dreamy three-count waltzes from the likes of Agustin Lara and Tom Waits, and my wife and I watched a young couple spin in each other’s arms in another open-air courtyard beside us. Then we watched Marta and Naeem, who were now dancing with the bunnies under the disco ball, until the food arrived.
Back at the table, Naeem swatted away my wife’s hand as she tried to feed him a chicken finger — the menu includes all the major kid-friendly food groups (chicken fingers, hot dogs, pizza, pasta) — and then my wife and I switched seats so I could try. As he squirmed and turned his head, my aggravation started to build, until a woman dressed as a magician approached the table, cut up one of the pieces of chicken, and whispered into his ear. He grinned and started pinching his chicken bits and shoving them into his chubby mouth. I exhaled and smeared a dollop of chimichurri over my own nicely charred steak and settled in. Delicious.
Recognized as one of Latin America’s finest restaurants, Andres Carne de Rest serves mostly traditional Colombian food. The churrasco, a variety of empanadas, the arepas de choclo, chicharrones, and fried yuca, were all platonic ideals of each form. I only wish I could have also had the ajiaco, the lomo, the mojarra frita, and a two dozen other dishes.
Naeem, after finishing his food, clearly needed a diaper change, so Zoraida took him to the bathroom. Minutes later, I watched her return with a big smile, not the usual long face that toddler sh*t inspires. She exclaimed, “They have a whole dedicated changing room! There were concierges in there passing me wipes!” Neither of us had ever experienced such a thing. We sat in stunned silence for a moment and then she leaned into me and joked, “Can we renew our vows here?” A half-hour later, an actual notary in a glittering top hat, “Gregorio el Notario,” arrived with a horn section, read a set of vows with the speed and fluency of an auctioneer, donned us with sashes, and pronounced us husband and wife.
It is confounding that they can provide such personal attention to so many people. About 100 cooks and 250 waitstaff serve 10,000 people (and watch their dogs) on any given weekend, across 2.76 square miles that house everything from a rock-climbing wall and a mini soccer field to bouncy houses and multiple dance floors. Many other sections we didn’t even glimpse — we only experienced the daytime action. At night, revelers are bussed in from Bogotá to party until the early morning. It’s a level of production that would make the Imagineers at Disney blush.
I can’t tell you how they perform this pagan magic, but the magician is Andres Jaramillo. He founded the place with his romantic partner Maria Stella in 1982, built a few tables by hand, set up a grill, and painted a red sign that said Andres Carne de Res — Restaurante Atipico (“an atypical restaurant”), and that’s what it became.
It is an atypical restaurant and the most popular destination for anyone looking to celebrate an engagement, a promotion, a birthday, or an unremarkable Thursday. For decades, the place has artfully integrated all the antiques, musicians, friends, paintings, religious iconography, dishes, and performers that Jaramillo has loved and collected, and so the place is filled with soul. This pure expression of Jaramillo, Stella, and their enchanted vision of their beloved Colombia, has expanded into other full-service locations in Medellin, Bogotá, Cartagena, and Santa Marta. I suspect the Chia location is the most lived-in, but from one parent to another, I’m simply writing this to urge you: If you are traveling through Colombia with kids, stop at any of the four full-service locations for lunch. You’ll be talking about it forever.
Traveling to Bogotá
I’ve traveled to Colombia six or seven times, always to visit family in Bogotá and the Magdalena River region to its west. The last time I went was 20 years ago, long before becoming a dad. Here are a few other family-friendly destinations within those areas that made this trip especially rich.
Zipaquirá, 45 minutes north of the city: Tour the salt mines, oratories, and the cathedral deep underground. Taste the salt on the cavern walls, and then visit the nearby town center. Zipaquirá, formerly called Chicaquicha, was an important economic center for the indigenous Zipa before colonization. It’s worth visiting the colonial central plaza. Kids can take a donkey ride; you can admire the architecture and stroll over the wavy yellow brick. Also, of course, stop at Andres Carne de Res in Chía, another former Zipa town, on your way back to Bogotá.
Monserrate, downtown Bogotá: On the eastern edge of downtown, you can ride a funicular 10,000 feet above sea level to the top of Bogotá’s tallest mountain, Monserrate. Wear a sweater; Bogotá is chilly enough a few thousand feet down the hill. Tour a mountaintop cathedral, look at the neighboring mountain (and marvel at the fact that someone recently walked between the two on a slack line), enjoy hot chocolate, churros, or chicken-flavored potato chips at the snack bar, or eat at one of three full-service restaurants. We went to Casa San Isidrio, an excellent, rustic, white-tablecloth French restaurant with spectacular views, but you can get more traditional Colombian food elsewhere. A bowl of steamy ajiaco (Bogotá’s most famous chicken and vegetable soup) up there would be wonderful.
Botero Museum: Visit the large museum of Colombia’s most famous contemporary artist. Sadly, he passed away last month.
Plaza Bolivar: Watch street performers, buy crafts, and pick up a sheath of corn kernels to feed the pigeons in Plaza Bolivar. My aunts and uncles warned us a thousand times to keep our phones in our pockets there, for the record. Apparently, there is a real problem with cellphone theft, but as long as you don’t “dar papaya” (show what you have), you’ll be fine.
Candelaria: Some of Bogotá’s most charming old streets are in the neighborhood of Candelaria. Walking through there, on your way to Plaza Bolivar, I recommend the restaurant Madre, an industrial-chic restaurant with tropical accents hidden in the back of a jewelry mall. They have Colombian and Italian fare, including pizza, which satisfied our kids.
Around the Magdalena River
If you travel west, descending through a cordillera (sub-range) of the Andes for four hours (stopping halfway at one of many roadside grills with a view), you’ll arrive at a much, much hotter region, the Magdalena River Valley. The Magdalena River, for hundreds of years following colonization, was the most important commercial trade route, connecting the country's interior with the Caribbean and all of the cargo that arrived there from Europe and the Americas. The colonial towns along the river are gorgeous, fascinating, and more tourist-friendly than ever. Visit several, but here are two:
Honda: My father’s family is from here. The old houses are painted different pastel colors now, with little hummingbirds by the doorways. Many of them are now bed-and-breakfasts. Stroll the old cobblestone streets downtown, watch the net fishermen, walk across some of the city's 40 bridges, including the oldest iron bridge in Latin America, Puente Navarro, and shop for exotic fruits at the central Plaza de Mercado.
Ambalema: This is a former tobacco processing town that now survives on the rice industry. Eat by the river and take a guided boat trip on one of the colorful, long wooden boats. Walk through the streets of ancient houses made from cob, and look out for signs on the doors for a snack. We stopped in someone’s sitting room for coffee and obleas (a thin wafer sandwich with Colombia’s most famous caramel, arequipe).