Like any port city worth its salt, Panama City has a gastronomic scene influenced by a melting pot of immigrants from around the world, and by its regional neighbors Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. Foodies will be overjoyed by what's on offer in this metropolitan city: Chinese food ranked by gourmets as the some of the best on this side of the Pacific, fine European cuisine, Middle Eastern eateries, Argentine steakhouses, English-style pubs, and, of course, Panamanian restaurants influenced by Afro-Caribbeans, indigenous groups, and Spanish descendants. Panamanian food is tasty, but a lot of it is fried -- especially breakfast items like empanadas, hojaldras (fried bread), and tortillas. Most main courses are accompanied by a rice-beans-plantain combo that can become repetitive. In other words, if you're planning to visit other destinations in Panama, I say sample the rich variety of international and fusion-style restaurants here and savor Panamanian fare later.
Restaurant reviews here are divided by their individual neighborhood. The El Cangrejo district represents the area northwest of Vía España. The Financial District southeast of Vía España is included with the area "Bella Vista," which is south of Vía España and also referred to as Calle Uruguay (or Calle 48 Este, just to make it more confusing). Bella Vista is essentially a compact barrio of restaurants, shops, and bars.
Don't overlook hotel restaurants. The Hotel Deville's trendy Ten Bistro serves contemporary, French-influenced food where each main course costs -- you guessed it -- $10 (£5). Monsoon, the Sheraton Panama's Asian restaurant, has been honored with international culinary awards. Monsoon offers a sushi night on Tuesday, and shellfish specials on Friday. The Decapolis Radisson's Fusion restaurant and its hip sushi lounge is the trendiest see-and-be-seen venue in town for dining. Fusion has a reasonably priced menu and often features a fixed-price buffet lunch for $15 (£7.50). The Hotel Executive serves breakfast 24 hours a day. See below for a review of the Bristol Panama's restaurant, Las Barandas; it offers the best Panamanian food in the city and is overseen by Panama's most famous chef.
For cheap Panamanian food you can't beat the 24-hour chain Niko's Café, which, in addition to basic sandwiches, serves 100 snacks and items, such as a tamale or fried egg, for less than 90¢ (45p) each. Niko's can be found at Vía España and Calle Gerardo Ortega (Calle 51B Este, near the Continental Hotel), at the Albrook Bus Terminal, or on Calle 50 (Nicanor Obarrio). There are many hole-in-the-walls and cafeterias that serve what's called comida corriente, or the cheap daily special that might include a beverage. Costa Azul, by the Marriot, specializes in seafood and Panamanian dishes, and is popular with business folks on their lunch breaks. American fast-food chains, such as Dunkin' Donuts, Bennigan's, McDonald's, T.G.I. Friday's, and Subway, are everywhere. Fast-food chains are clustered next to the Veneto Hotel and the Multicentro Mall. Note: All Panamanian restaurants and bars recently became smoke-free, so smokers will have to take it outside.
Grocery & Specialty Stores -- The supermarket chain El Rey is Panama's largest, and most branches are open 24 hours a day. You can find national products plus a large selection of imported brands from the U.S. The most convenient location is on Vía España, near El Panama Hotel; there is another in the Albrook area, on Avenida Omar Torrijos on the way to Gamboa. Another option is the Super 99 supermarket with many locations scattered all over the city, some open 24-hours a day. For more upscale shopping, head to the Riva-Smith grocery store in Bella Vista. Riva-Smith carries many organic and alternative products, though it's a bit more expensive than El Rey or Super 99. The premier wine store Felipe Motta, in Marbella on Calle 53 (tel. 302-5555), is the most complete in Central America, and their prices are reasonable. For organic groceries and health products, try Orgánica in Marbella, at the Plaza Paitilla mall on Ramón H. Jurado (tel. 215-2400) or Super Gourmet (tel. 212-3487) behind the Canal Museum in the Casco Viejo neighborhood (Avenida A and 6th street), which offers many organic and healthy choices as a well as a deli serving up tasty sandwiches and lunch options.
Culinary Tours -- If you're a foodie, contact Melissa DeLeon at the Panama Gourmet for culinary tours in Panama City (tel. 225-3511; www.panama-gourmet.com). Though now the new chef at the Valle Escondido Living Community and Hotel in Boquete, Melissa can still organize specialty cooking and market tours with advance notice. Melissa is a food writer, chef, and caterer, and offers tours designed by local chefs, with bilingual guides and visits to markets and restaurants. Panama Gourmet also offers cooking courses.
A Perfect Ice Cream Stop -- To combat the heat and humidity in Casco Viejo, head to Granclement (tel. 228-0737; www.granclement.com) a French owned and French-style gourmet ice cream and sorbet shop. Though a bit pricey, it serves the best ice cream in Panama City and is the perfect place to take a break while sightseeing.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.