Panama’s restaurant scene is rapidly changing and the best restaurants in Panama City, the capital, vary from year to year. I frequently take restaurants off my “top three” list because they aren’t consistent, or because new and better options bump them down, or simply because they’ve shut down.
Today, the best restaurants in Panama City aren’t necessarily the fanciest (and the most pretentious tend to have impressive “barks” but may fail to deliver when it comes time to bite).
Best restaurants in Panama City: Exotic
New Southeast Asian restaurant Sukhi is on my list of favorites for several reasons. Most importantly, because of its consistency. The servers at this family-run eatery are pleasant and helpful, the curries are authentic, and the chef is conscientious…and that’s every time you go. The chef goes to great lengths to procure the best and most authentic ingredients, and everyone is happy to answer inquiries or chat with guests.
I’m vegetarian, and tried to order a green Thai curry. I was told the chef would be happy to make it for me with veggies instead of meat, but that the curry base itself contained fish sauce. However, the yellow Thai curry is 100% vegetarian. Most establishments in Panama are not as meticulous, failing to inform vegetarians that the risotto is made with a chicken stock or that the beans are flavored with pork. (And if you have food allergies, you must be very careful…if the waiter seems at all incompetent or clueless, ask to speak to the maitre d’ or to the chef).
Sukhi’s tangerine and white color scheme is pleasantly bright, but the tall chairs and tables (and a few steps to the entrance) make it unfeasible for many—for example, anyone using a wheelchair would find it quite impossible to eat here. I’m a big fan, despite the slightly uncomfortable seating, and will continue to go back.
Next on my list is one of Panama City’s top restaurants. It’s an exciting and inviting option because chef Ruben Ortega-Vieto is the closest thing to a Locavore on the gourmet dining scene.
The name of the place is Luna, which means “moon.” In Panama, the moon is associated with moodiness and unpredictability, but chef Ruben’s menu is consistently fab. Oh, and if you’re picky about service, this is where to go for doting waiters…and oozing ambiance. You’ll pay a pretty penny by Panama standards but you’re likely to feel you got your money’s worth…in spades.
The chef has been known to use cobia (often called black salmon) from Isla Grande, goat cheese from new local farms, and exotic tropical fruit. At a recent dinner, the chicharron in a sweet soy glaze was a star. He used a fine pork belly (Panama is known for its excellent pork) to create a dish that was crispy; local street food elevated to new and dizzying heights. My advice, listen to your waiter’s recommendations and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
Elegant restaurants in Panama City
For my third pick I steal a tip from local foodie Sandy Dientes. Her reviews have never led me astray (find her blog, mostly in Spanish, here).
Sandy’s list of nice restaurants in Panama City highlights Puerta de Tierra, a muy elegante steakhouse that comes highly recommended. The loft-style décor is so lovely, I am happy to accompany my meat-loving friends to this cozy resto in the colonial Casco Viejo sector.
Sandy says it’s the only place where she has loved absolutely everything she’s tried…from the free yucca fries (so much better than boring old bread rolls) to the vinegary grilled octopus platter with soy and cilantro crèmes.
Beef lovers: try the Double LF Deluxe Panama Burger. Quips Sandy: “unless you’re a total beast, order the regular instead of the double.” It’s 16 ounces of Black Angus, with major trimmings: bacon, emmental, grilled portabellas, and avocado. (Ask for the onion tempura to complete the wowie-zowie effect.)
Reservations recommended at Luna and Puerta de Tierra.
Find these restaurants and more here (including maps and contact information).