Panama is one of those countries that offers an incredible amount of variety and beauty, in a relatively small and easily navigable space.
There are accessible, jaw droppingly beautiful islands in every direction. There are stretches of jungle that go on for ages, so thick and dense that your eyes get lost in a sea of green. There is also a city, one rich with history and stories, that is split into a flurry of modern skyscrapers on one end and Casco Viejo on the other, which itself offers quaint streets, quirky bars and stunning architecture.
Panama exceeded my expectations, hands down. I love cities that are on the way to being “found out” but are not quite there yet. I love places with an effortless, tropical vibe. I love countries with residents that live off of locally sourced food, like fish, rice and plantains and sip coconut juice right from the coconuts themselves. I knew that I’d like it here; I just didn’t realize how much.
I spent eight days and eight nights in this Central American gem in Panama City, the San Blas Islands and Bocas del Toro. Below are some stand outs, focused on food. There are also incredible bar and lodging options here, some of which were unique and extremely memorable. You’ll have to head there yourself to see what I mean.
Here are my recommendations for the best food in Panama City!
Manolo Caracol is interesting, buzzy and creative. While not a place I’d go running back to, it served as a nice entree into the developing Panamanian dining scene.
It also has a $45 seafood-centric tasting menu with dishes like corn cake with shrimp and mint, and yellowfin with coconut rice and sweet potato; not an offering you’ll easily find in other cities.
When you’re wandering the streets in 90 degree weather with what feels like 100% humidity, French ice creams and sorbets are always a welcome retrieve. Lavender, pistachio, cinnamon are all at your disposal here; get some scoops, get it to go, and keep on exploring those magical streets of Casco Viejo.
Apparently, as we learned, there are three different places in Panama City named Fish Market. The reason for this we were not so sure as it did nothing but confuse us, but somehow each option, though very different, were all deserved of a visit.
The first Fish Market we visited were the stands in front of the larger market of Mercado de Mariscos. No frills, no fuss, literally plastic tables set up on the street. My friend and I ordered the ceviche de pescado for $1.50 that was brought to us in a white styrofoam cup, the grilled fish seabass fillet and a Panama beer. We loved it.
The second Fish Market was not a fish market at all, but a Mexican gone Mediterranean joint set up in some open space off of the main road in Casco Viejo. There were food trucks used for cooking and a simple chalkboard menu posted alongside it. Fish tacos and insanely delicious french fries doused in tzatziki sauce were our food items of choice.
The third Fish Market was inside and upstairs in the Mercado de Mariscos, overlooking the frenzied fish buying stalls below. Here you’ll find red checked tablecloth, a menu stocked with with ceviches (regular and Peruvian style), yuca fries, rices, fillets, lobsters, octopus and everything else you can think of that would fit into this genre. A fun, casual experience, yet again.
Tasting menus are pretty popular in Panama City. The Panamanians seem to have a passion for their history, their culture, as well as their food, and they want you to be able to taste as much of it as you can.
Though the tasting menu here was still only a reasonable $55, Maito was actually the highest end dinner we had the whole week.
We were able to choose three starters, three entrees, and two desserts for this price, including some beet carpaccio, sea bass ceviche in a pineapple base, and tuna with wasabi and edamame.
Las Clementinas Bistro
Las Clementinas seemed to be the go-to, casual weekend brunch spot for hip, Panama City locals. The walls are adorned in old photographs and what look like newspaper cutouts from over the decades, the floor is tiled in a gray and white geometric art deco design, and the chairs are woven in a bright green and white.
Sunday’s do an official prix-fix brunch menu, Saturday’s and all other days of the week do a lunch that still provides eggs, toasts, and the like.
El Ultimo Refuge
If you’ve ever had an image about what a tropical, beach town restaurant might look like, this is it. Ultimo Refuge is located in Bocas Town, the main area on Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro. There’s an American transport playing covers you’re likely to know on his guitar, fairy lights strew about the ceiling and beams, and palmtrees placed throughout.
The setting is welcoming and casual, and the food is good.
You’ll find on the menu things like local fish with a light sauce and rice, ceviches, tartares and coconut soups. This place won’t rock your world but if you need a decent dinner and want to experience that island vibe we all know and love, Ultimo Refuge will hit the spot.
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