Andrea Cooper is Director of Operations for Inside Panama’s city office. She is a lousy cook and eats out frequently! One of her secrets for discovering great new restaurants is the local Spanish-language website, www.degustapanama.com, where fellow diners publish reviews and rank restaurants based on service, presentation, quality of food and price. If you don’t speak Spanish, read on, and stay tuned for the next installment of the Panama City Dining Guide for more recommendations!
When clients ask me why I have chosen to make Panama City my home for the last seven years, my number one reason is always the local restaurant scene. There are literally hundreds of dining establishments featuring cuisine from many different regions of the world, with prices well below similar establishments in North American cities.
While there are far too many great restaurants to mention in a single article, I have comprised the following “best of” list in hopes of inspiring you to try a few of my personal favorites when you are in the big city:
Best Fine Dining
Recently renovated, the fine dining restaurant at The Bristol Hotel in Panama City’s financial district has long been a favorite among Panama’s elite. Executive Chef Cuquita Arias, who trained in New York and Paris, is the local equivalent of Martha Stewart (having authored many cookbooks and even starred in her own television show, which was broadcast throughout Latin America for many years). Her “gourmet Panamanian cuisine” features only the freshest local ingredients and the quality is always consistent, even though the menu changes frequently. I highly recommend you partake in a pre-dinner drink at the bar (where there are great wines sold by the glass for a reasonable price) before dinner.
Another fine dining favorite since 2005, particularly with local businessmen and the affluent ex-pat crowd, La Posta is a charming gourmet restaurant housed in a beautifully-restored home in the Calle Uruguay restaurant district. La Posta’s founder, David Henesy, is a former child actor from New York who has over 30 years of hospitality experience. La Posta has an amazing wine list and a delicious menu. Not to be missed: yellow fin tuna tartare, carpaccio de res with toasted pistachios and parmesan, corvina al mojo con yuca (sea bass in a rich lime sauce), chuleton de cerdo chiricano (generally considered the best pork chop in Panama) and the balcarce dessert (rich chocolate and caramel drizzled over wafers–hard to describe, but heavenly!).
Reservations (which are essential for lunch or dinner) can be made online or by calling +507 269 1076
This is one of the newest restaurants on the fine dining scene and it does not disappoint. Located at the entrance to Casco Viejo (the historic old town in Panama City), just down the street from the presidential palace, Grapes is a small establishment housed in a lovingly restored building that dates from 1660. The menu is described as “international gourmet” and there is a wide selection of meat, seafood and pasta dishes. My significant other claims that the lamb chops were the best he’s had in Panama–and maybe ever! Be warned that this is probably the most expensive restaurant in Panama City today: dinner for four with two bottles of nice Chilean wine was a cool $320 plus tip.
Reservations are essential and must be made well in advance: +507 212 1882
While the aforementioned Salsipuedes restaurant at the Bristol Hotel has an exquisite Sunday brunch for the exquisite price tag of $50 per person, the lobby cafe at the charming boutique hotel Las Clementinas in Casco Viejo offers an equally amazing, three-course, prix-fixe brunch for $29, including two mimosas or Bloody Marys and unlimited coffee or tea.
Reservations are essential: +507 228 7617 (there are only eight or so tables!)
Located on the edge of the Calle Uruguay entertainment district, Jaleo has a lovely outdoor terrace (a rarity in the city), as well as an air-conditioned bar and in-cava dining room. The menu features traditional Spanish tapas, as well as heartier main courses. My personal favorites include the tortilla española, entraña (skirt steak), and mushroom risotto. All of the fish dishes feature the freshest filets I have come across in the city, especially the mero (grouper) and corvina (sea bass, not the endangered kind!) The sangria–either the traditional red or a refreshing white with tropical fruit–is the best in town. Reservations are usually not required, but it is best to do so particularly if you want a table outside in the evening, as these fill up quickly.
Telephone +507 393 7072
Sushi Bar, Radisson Decapolis Hotel
I was a frequent business traveler to Panama for many years before I moved here in 2006, and the sushi bar in the lobby of the Radisson Decapolis Hotel was one of my favorites back then. Fast forward seven years and I still cannot find anything in Panama City that comes even close to the quality of the sushi at this hotel. The menu is extremely simple, featuring a few standard appetizers (edamame, miso soup, seaweed salad) and an extensive selection of very creative maki rolls and sashimi. I recommend the caesar salad roll with tempura prawn (sounds strange but must be tried before passing final judgment), the lobster roll and the tuna sashimi (freshest in town). Note that the hotel enforces a strict dress code in its restaurants, so no muscle shirts, shorts or flip flops. No reservations required.
Panama City has a huge population of Lebanese descent, and this type of cuisine is a favorite among locals and expats alike. Habibis is a rather simple, open-air establishment on a prime corner in the Calle Uruguay restaurant district, and it looks more like a sports bar than a Lebanese restaurant at first glance! My significant other and I recently shared the Mezzah appetizer platter for one (which was more than sufficient for two as a starter), a bargain at $13 for hummus, baba ghannouj, sambusek, kibbe and tabouleh salad. I had delicious jumbo prawns in curry sauce as a main course, definitely a nice surprise since the last good Indian restaurant in town closed down years ago. With shawarmas and pizzas around $8 a piece, this is likely the most affordable dining option in Calle Uruguay, which explains its longevity in this highly competitive restaurant district. There is plenty of seating, so reservations are not required.
Telephone: +507 264 3647
I adore Peruvian cuisine: fresh seafood and just the right amount of picante to make it interesting but not unbearably spicy. Segundo Muelle is very hard to find on an obscure side street not far from Multiplaza Mall in San Francisco, but well worth the frustration of getting lost on your first visit. The decor is elegant but not stuffy, and the servers are among some of the most attentive in town. If this is your first experience with Peruvian cuisine, I recommend the piqueo de ceviches (a trio of shrimp, sea bass and octopus ceviches), the causa de cangrejo (think Peruvian potato salad) and the tiradito de atun nikkei (thinly shaved raw tuna marinated in citrus sauce). The tuna sashimi is of extremely high quality and a bargain at $8 for a huge portion! This place is consistently packed at any hour, so reservations are essential.
Telephone: +507 391 9234
Last but not least is Market, home of the best burger in Panama, in my humble opinion. The secret? Chefs make their own burgers using chopped Angus beef. Market was the first place in town to feature sliders on their menu, and they are still the best. You can choose to top your six mini-burgers with caramelized onion and cheddar cheese or blue cheese. (Ask your waiter for three of each if you want to try both toppings.) As a main course, the Executive Burger with avocado, cheese, bacon and salted onion is consistently good, and it comes with a basket of fries done to a perfect level of crispness, a rarity in Panama. The owner is former New Yorker David Henesy (see “La Posta” above), and he has created a lively bistro-like setting with a menu that will certainly appeal to homesick expats! Besides its famous burgers, Market offers prime steaks and typical U.S. “comfort food” dishes, such as Atlanta fried chicken and gravy, bacon mac and cheese and Philly cheese steak sandwiches. The dessert menu was recently overhauled, and I highly recommend the red velvet cake and key lime pie. The restaurant recently moved to Calle 48 near the intersection with Calle Uruguay in the city’s restaurant district. Prices are reasonable and the place is usually packed, so prepare to wait at the well-stocked bar if you do not have reservations.