Eliot Campos Ballard is the kind of guy who only wears jeans and T-shirts. Short and a bit round, he’s always smiling and slapping shoulders, greeting customers, often with a drink in hand and more in the manner of a New York City bistro owner than a San José restaurateur.
It makes sense. He was born in Brooklyn and spent many of his formative years there, where his Costa Rican father worked in restaurants owned by Greeks and Jews.
Hospitality is a family tradition.
On almost any given night, Campos can be found at his student bar and pizza place, Caccio’s, in San Pedro, east of San José, manning the entrance, hovering by the bar or checking up on the kitchen.
Caccio’s is always packed.
But tonight, Campos isn’t at Caccio’s. He’s at Trocadéro, his new restaurant on the east side of San José. He’s sitting at the custommade bar, nursing an Old Parr on the rocks and talking about his vision.
“I’m not looking for one big thing,” he says, and gestures as if forming a ball in the air. “I’m looking for a bunch of little things.”
Which is a decent description of Trocadéro. Part bar, part lounge, part restaurant, part private Costa Rican art museum, Trocadéro hits a sweet spot in a neighborhood where options are scarce.
Campos opened Trocadéro in March. The building is a cream-colored, sandstone marvel with big windows and a tile roof. Located a block south of La Primavera gas station in Barrio La California, the building used to be home to an ancient Italian restaurant that closed down two years ago.
With business at Caccio’s booming, Campos bought the building looking to open restaurant on the east side of San José, where he noticed a lack of options for upper-middle-class diners.
Trocadéro aims for that market: a combination of bohemians and young professionals, the kind of people who can spend $6.50 on veal carpaccio and recognize the Fabio Herrera paintings hanging on the walls, and who will, after dinner, retire to the bar or the lounge to continue the evening.
“Classy” is the operative word. Take the bar, for example. Through the main door, past the dining room and around the corner, sits the HillaryBar, so named for the three electric-colored portraits of the smiling junior senator from New York and would-be U.S. presidential candidate. Think Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, but with Hillary Clinton.
The room is finished in dark wood paneling, and the bar is made of dark wood as well.
Above it hang soft, square lamps; behind it is custom-made cabinetry heavy with bottles; and in the background of everything plays something Campos describes as “electronic bossa nova.”
It all has the feeling of a gently hip Irish pub, which is weird, yet strangely soothing. Nor is it accidental. Campos says he made a trip to his native city of New York to check out the Irish pubs and get some ideas, many of which have ended up in the Hillary Bar.
And the name?
“I’ve got my fingers crossed that she wins” the presidency, Campos says with a chuckle. But even without that, the place is catching on, with people pulling Campos aside and asking if they can reserve “El Hillary” for private parties.
In the near future, Campos says, he wants to put together a house jazz combo, which he says he will dub the “Hillary Bang.”
Past the bar, there is also a lounge, one of those low-sofa, small-table affairs where young people can sip drinks and share a fondue (¢4,100-¢5,600/$7.90-11). Other menu options that fit well with the lounge are the three dips with focaccia (eggplant caviar, hummus and white-bean dip, ¢3,850/$7.40) or perhaps one of the house pizzas, which are square, made with fine ingredients and sized for two (¢3,300-4,800/$6.30-9.20).
Campos says he wanted to put emphasis on sharing in his menu, and passing on into Trocadéro’s main event – the dining room – it shows. In addition to the pizza and the fondue, all the appetizers and even two of the beef dishes – the sirloin strip steaks (¢10,200/$20) and the center cut tenderloin (¢9,000/$17) – are meant to be shared.
The dinner menu is a flamboyant, international mix of French, Italian and New Yorker, with prices ranging from ¢2,650 ($5) for a Magoo’s half-pound hamburger to ¢9,800 ($19) for lobster thermidor.
The fresh pasta – including meat strombolli (¢2,700/$5.20) and ravioli (¢3,400/ $6.50) – is handmade by Campos’ wife, Natasha Trejos. Another interesting section of the menu features “mile-long sword kebabs,” one of which includes frankfurter, bacon, pepperoni, pickle and pineapple (¢3,450/$6.60).
This reviewer, however, had to give the grilled New York strip steak (¢4,700/$9) a shot. It came sizzling on the plate, with a few vegetables and a cup of garlic mashed potatoes on the side.
Perfectly seasoned and bursting with flavor, the steak quickly disappeared. Campos stopped by the table and informed us with a twinkle in his eye that the beef comes from a Costa Rican exporter who sells high-quality steaks in the United States.
Then he was off, back tending to his restaurant.
Location: 100 meters south of La Primavera gas station, Calle 21, Barrio La California.
Hours: Open every day except Sunday, from noon to 3 p.m. for lunch and from 6 p.m. onward for dinner.
Menu prices don’t include 10% service and 13% tax.