High up in the Andes mountains, Colombia’s capital city is cool year-round. Residents walk the streets in jackets or raincoats, perpetually seeking shelter from the crisp, often drizzly nights. As Bogotá’s foodscape has blossomed over the last decade, so have its options for nighttime refuge — an overwhelming number of hotspots now blanket the city.
One, though, stands out as the welcoming embodiment of Bogotá’s invigorated food scene: Salvo Patria, part neighborhood coffee shop and community hub, part boundary-pushing restaurant and bar that’s continually experimenting with traditional recipes, native ingredients, and modernist techniques to propel Colombian cuisine into a new era.
On any given night you’ll find the converted townhouse swarmed with young Bogotanos at smashed-together tables, smiling through the deafening chatter. From the outside, the restaurant is a relic of what the buzzy Chapinero Alto area of Bogotá used to look like, with large brick and stone houses modeled on a variety of English architectural styles. Inside, the design is modern, with echoes of the family home it once was, like the original living room’s wood-burning fireplace. The kitchen is open to the dining room, allowing the aromas of grilled fish, roasted lamb, and fresh coffee to fill the air.
The scene was very different in 2011, when founder Juan Manuel Ortiz debuted the first version of Salvo Patria in Chapinero Alto, burrowed in the foothills along the eastern edge of Bogotá. It was essentially a cafe, with a simple food menu — sandwiches, salads, and a few fish and beef options — and a wide variety of coffee preparations (a recent Colombian obsession) like Chemex, siphon, French press, V60, and espresso. The relaxed spot was designed to be a meeting place for people who wanted to drop by for a quick cup or to linger over laptops.
The name Ortiz chose — Salvo Patria — was a nod to the game of hide-and-seek: In Colombia, when the last person hiding reaches base, they shout: “¡Salvo patria!” (“I save the homeland!”) and free the rest of the players. The reference was playful, but hinted at Ortiz’s larger and very serious mission to rekindle Colombians’ connection to their land and its food.
Despite the country’s rich history and natural resources, many Colombians have long seen their own cuisine as the delicious but humble stuff of home cooking; fine restaurants, the logic went, were for French, Italian, and Japanese food. Ortiz is part of a relatively recent movement of chefs and restaurateurs working to change that by looking inward, researching Colombia’s indigenous ingredients and ancient recipes, to celebrate and preserve its culinary culture.
One early regular was local chef Alejandro Gutiérrez. He and Ortiz soon struck up a friendship over conversations about the disappointing quality of the coffee in Colombia. “We were both frustrated about the fact that a coffee-growing country like Colombia has such terrible coffee,” says Gutiérrez. “Seventy percent of our coffee is imported, and most of what you find is espresso.”
Eventually the two decided to team up on a new, more ambitious version of Salvo Patria. Gutiérrez, who was already cooking at two of Bogotá’s most popular restaurants, Tábula and Donostia, could lead the operation’s culinary side. Ortiz, then, could focus on the coffee and managing the business. They wanted a new location, though, and while they looked for the ideal space they concentrated on nailing down what would become the restaurant’s core philosophy, which today Gutiérrez explains by drawing a triangle in my notebook.
“It’s about balance,” he says, as he points to his sketch. “The restaurant, its purveyors, and its customers are all connected. Each exists on equal footing, respecting one another and offering constant feedback.”
By the time they found the restaurant’s current space in 2013, Chapinero Alto had gone from a quiet area on the outskirts of Bogotá to one of the city’s buzziest nightlife centers. A customer helped them snag one of the area’s original homes, sandwiched between the modern orange-brick buildings that now engulf the neighborhood. They opened the place up, removing any doors and walls separating the dining, kitchen, and work spaces, and debuted the new Salvo Patria to the world that December.
“Maybe we were the pioneers of the Colombian neighborhood bistro,” says Gutiérrez, who, over the last five years, has helped grow Salvo Patria into a beloved embodiment of Colombia’s culinary renaissance. “We see ourselves as cooking global cuisine, not just Colombian.” But the menu speaks for itself, showcasing Colombia’s quintessential flavors in a rotating lineup of novel, unexpected preparations. One night you might find the traditional pastel de choclo (a creamy, sweet corn pudding, popular in central Colombia) and hogao (a ubiquitous sauce made from tomatoes, scallion, and garlic) accompanying a tendril of perfectly grilled octopus. Roasted lamb neck practically melts as it emerges from the wood-burning oven, and comes with a side of peto — a simple staple of corn boiled in milk and sugar.
Not every classic is tweaked, however. The milhoja, Colombia’s version of a napoleon with layers of puff pastry and arequipe — what Colombians call dulce de leche — remains true to the dessert’s familiar recipe; the only modification is in the quality of the locally sourced ingredients. Served with a side of ice cream, it’s arguably the most famous dessert in Bogotá.
But Salvo Patria’s charms extend beyond the food. There is an intimacy about the place that comes from its tight quarters, sure, but also its waitstaff, which regales diners with the elaborate origin stories of nearly every ingredient — a fairly new trend for Bogotá’s diners. The servers’ elaborate recitation of the nightly specials becomes part of the evening’s entertainment.
You’ll learn, for example, that the roasted cauliflower comes from the nearby town of Guasca. The trout it’s served alongside once swam through the Fonce River in Colombia’s northeastern Santander region. That guayaba dessert? The fruit, your server explains, was grown nearby and purchased at the Paloquemao marketplace; the bocadillos came from Vélez, the town in Santander where they were invented; and the cacao was harvested from the Nariño region in southern Colombia. Pair it all with wine or maybe a cocktail made with gin and lulada, a mix of locally grown lulo pulp and lemonade.
At the end of the meal, as you sip your siphon-brewed coffee made with beans from the mountains in Nariño or Tolima, a little gift comes with the bill: a tiny plastic toy animal. Like the restaurant’s name, it’s a wink at a childhood tradition — the cheap knick-knacks in the grab bags at a birthday party — and it’s meant to remind you that the party is for everyone. As Gutiérrez says, “This is about making everyone feel part of the same thing.” That tiny lion is Salvo Patria’s way of saying: You’re one of us.