City Guide: Quito

Ecuador’s capital may be better known for its coffee than its cocktails, but the scene is hotting up. JAQ BAYLES reports from the city

Quito may be the city where hemispheres collide, but Ecuador’s capital is itself of two distinct halves.

The cultural epicentre that is the Old Town, flanked by soaring mountains and watched over by a benevolent Virgin Mary who is revered for her miracle performing, is a maze of cobbled hills teeming with museums, galleries, coffee stores and vendors of hot corn comestibles.

Restaurants abound, but the Old Town is pretty much a cocktail bar-free zone. So if it’s miracles of a mixology nature you’re after, you need to head to the flatlands of the rather less inspiring New Town. 

While backpackers on a budget beat a path to the pubs and clubs around trendy Plaza Foch, where meal deals and two-for-one Margaritas are the order of the day, those with dollars to burn stride further afield to the Pradera, where the city’s economic centre is based. It’s anything but picturesque, yet here is where the high-end activity takes place.

Quito may not boast a comprehensive A-Z of cocktail bars, but it does have at least one letter of the alphabet covered, thanks to Restaurant Group Z, owned by entrepreneur Jan Niedrau and comprising Zao, Z(inc), Zuni, Zeafood and Zazu, where we kick off our list (above right).

Z(inc), Av. Paul Rivet, Quito EC170135

The air in Quito may be thin at an elevation of some 3,000m, but the atmosphere is high octane at gastro-bar Z(inc). Literally around the corner from sister restaurant Zazu in the popular La Floresta district, Z(inc) is alone among the establishments listed here in being far more bar than restaurant. 

All industrial chic with exposed brick, dark metals and treated timbers, this buzzy nightspot is the haunt of well-heeled locals and tourists alike, lapping up the signature serve of G&T with basil and grapefruit. 

For the peckish there’s an impressive sharing snack menu running from sizzling sliders to tempura prawns. 

Unusually for a Quito bar, this stylish hotspot ratchets the decadence up a notch with a smoking terrace where at least the music is filtered. 

Zazu, Mariano Aguilera 331 & La Pradera, Quito

The A-lister of the Z group is Zazu, as modestly positioned as it is unpretentiously adorned. You need to know what you’re looking for to find what is widely acclaimed as one of Quito’s finest restaurants and its setting in an unglamorous side street, opposite a locals’ café, is unexpected for such a sophisticated venue.

Opened in 2005, Zazu caters to the international traveller and is feted for its beautifully presented dishes in modern, stylish surroundings which extend to the cocktail area. Here the smiling, smartly dressed bar staff will mix you up signature serves such as the Eczotia (gin, toronja, piña, mango and arasha) or Pisco Martini (vodka, pisco, gin and albahaca). The place also boasts an 8m high glass-ceilinged wine cellar housing 2,000 bottles.

Funky, laid-back lounge music and muted lighting accompany the drinks and slick lines and minimalist chic will leave even the most timorous of travellers feeling relaxed before they head to the airport.

Sur, Catalina de Aldaz, Quito 170135

A little south of the Zs in the alphabet, but slightly north on the map, Sur is synonymous with steak and attracts families, friends and single diners alike with its impressive plates of grilled cuts. Even more mixed than the grills is the back bar, where dozens of bottles jostle behind ’tenders racking up rows and rows of house serves to take the edge off patrons’ meat sweats. Sure to deliver on volume, if not necessarily sophistication, is the house serve of Beergarita – a bottle of craft beer upended into a goldfish bowl of Grand Marnier, lime juice, sweet & sour and ice. Just what the butcher ordered… 

If it lacks a little restraint on the drinks side, Sur makes up for it with enthusiasm and consistency – this is mostly a high-volume batch serving bar after all, catering to large parties in its opulent downstairs dining room and smaller get-togethers in the main bar. There’s plenty of theatre to witness both at the bar and on the open grill.

Nubori, Catalina de Aldaz, Quito 170135

Just across the road from Sur, Nubori is a slightly-at-odds mix of sushi restaurant and sports/cocktail bar. When we visited it was all but empty aside from the gaggle of meeters, greeters, waiters and ’tenders hovering beneath the giant TV screen broadcasting a football match – but, to be fair, it was a Sunday. It certainly garners its share of plaudits for its food – pretty and cosmopolitan-looking sushi plates are its USP - and the bar is a light, airy and modern triumph of interior design.