Panama has become the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America. Being able to provide you with a vibrant city life or as a gateway to tropical escapes. Acting as the center of trade and immigration, this cocktail of cultures has given the country a laid back vibe, but plethora of culinary options.
Having so many cultures mixed together makes the food that much better. You can find almost any type of dish from Chinese, Arabian, Hindu, Vegetarian you name it! But there’s always a certain dish that people tend to always gravitate towards when they come to Panama and that is the Panamanian fare.
The flavors of the Panamanian kitchen are out of this world. I’m sure that once you get a taste of it, you’ll want to keep coming back for more. So if you're looking to eat like a local while you're here in Panama then go no further because I've put together my list of the top spots.
La Tapa del Coco
La Tapa del Coco was created by Isaac Villaverde who was born in a neighborhood called, Río Abajo. La Tapa del Coco is seen as a cultural movement that looks to exalt and unite the Afro-Panamanian community. This restaurant is located in Calle 68 Este, San Francisco and operates everyday 11AM-10PM except Sundays which closes at 8PM. Located, basically, in the heart of the city. So if you get the feeling to walk off the food you ate, it is surrounded by many other places that are worth the visit. La Tapa del Coco has a great warm, cozy vibe that allows it to be the perfect place for your family dinner or a romantic night out. They offer delicious food that appeals to both sight and taste, with a price range of about $5-20.
El Mercado de Mariscos / Seafood Market
The seafood market is located at the end of the Cinta Costera, very close to Casco Antiguo and Avenida Central (Central Avenue). Welcome to the jungle where fresh catches or the chopped off non-usable parts smell may be overwhelming, but the ceviche is great. This dynamic market offers you excellent seafood such as sea bass, tuna, snapper, octopus, shrimp, clams, squid etc.
The site has two main restaurant areas, one located in the same market building on the top floor or you hit the outdoor vendors where you'll cat called to get their ceviche, fried fish and national beers. The fish smell can be a little intrusive but after a few minutes you get used to it. The Market hours vary depending on your reason for going. If you are going to buy seafood, the hours are from 5AM-4PM and it is advised to go as early as possible to ensure you buy the seafood in its freshest state. Nothing worse than going, wanting to get a big fish and walking out with the smallest one!
The inside restaurant is open from 11:30AM-7PM and the outdoor vendors close at 10PM. The vibe here on those Saturday nights is amazing. You hear the music coming from all sides and people walking making their way to Casco Antiguo. This is a great place to eat since it is in between Cinta Costera and Casco Antiguo so it provides a great variety of things to do. You can stop by the market and grab some food, eat then take a walk on the beautiful Cinta Costera full of people exercising, playing, hanging out and just basically having a good time enjoying the day. Or if you’re more on the party side, you can stop by the Fish Market and get some food and beers, which runs for around $1 each, to warm up before heading into the heart of Panama’s nightlife, Casco Antiguo. In the Seafood Market the prices are very friendly so you can see the menu vary from $1-20 for a very good meal since the fish is fresh from the source.
Fonda Lo Que Hay
Fonda Lo Que Hay has a very chill and friendly vibe and very good, tasty food to accompany it! The staff makes you feel at home and make sure you have a good time. The restaurant has an industrial design style with an open plan kitchen giving it a unique look so be prepared to see people taking some pictures.
A fonda is the general name for any local basic restaurant that typicalls offers a dish or two of the day. For many, they'll have a massive menu offering everything under the sun, but don't be surpurised when you order the fettucine alfredo and the chef responds that they don't have it. So, the typical question when you walk in is not to ask for the menu, but simply ask what they have for the day. When translated, this restaurant name is "the restaurant with what there is."
This restaurant is located in Calle 12 Este in the middle of the sidewalks of Casco Antiguo. If you come here on the weekend, you can stop here to fill up before heading back out into the night. This Panamanian cuisine provides food for thousands of Panamanians and tourists alike that visit the Casco Antiguo town center. The menu is written on a chalkboard hanging on the wall so it can vary depending on the day but there is always usually 8-9 dishes to choose from all having that Panamanian flavor to it. Prices can vary from $5-30 for a delicious meal. This is the place to go for a quick meal if you find yourself venturing through Casco.The working hours are Tuesday-Saturday from 12PM-3PM & 6:30PM-10PM and it’s usually pretty busy on the weekends since it’s in the smack center of one of Panama’s best nightlife scenes.
Walking through the stone streets of Casco Antiguo, right in front of the Ministry of Government, we can find a picturesque orange facade where a “Diablico” (historical character), will always be willing to receive and welcome you. That is the prelude to enter the best native restaurant in Panama, where you will enjoy the most exquisite typical dishes and folk dances live, in a pleasant atmosphere with careful attention. As soon as you walk in, the hosts make you feel right at home.Here you can dive into an authentic taste of the Panamanian folklore since the decoration of the restaurant, even the waiter uniforms, are designed to represent the culture.
This restaurant offers shows that vary from folkloric bands to folkloric dances like the famous “Baile del Diablico.” The shows are really something to be seen. If you don’t know much about the culture, it is a perfect spot to stop by to eat and learn more about the Panamanian culture. For more information about the shows, you can visit the restaurant website for schedules. Prices here ranged from $10-$30 for a delicious meal in this loving and enticing environment. It is open everyday from 11AM-11:30PM.
Over the past couple of years, the popularity and number of food trucks has increased greatly. This is now a very popular way of eating in Panama. There are certain lots where it is a food court of food trucks with 5 or more food trucks and tables to sit with music and drinks to accompany the evening. A popular lot like this is the Urbano 67 Food Truck Park located in Calle 67 Este, San Francisco. Don’t be fooled by its appearance. This spot on the weekend gets filled up with a group of friends looking to have fun and overall a great time. Seeing as how they offer you many board and trivia games to play. They even have a projector screen hooked to a Nintendo Switch to play Mario Kart! What's better than beer, games and food with friends?
There are too many food trucks to list but some of the most popular once are: Esa Flaca Rica, Concolon Street food Cafe and The Smoke Truck. Prices here vary from truck to truck but usually can run around $5-$20. If you’re on a tight budget, you can also hit up a fonda which is basically a small street restaurant. Some have tables where you can sit and eat but some just give you your food and offer no seating place. These are popular among the working class in Panama since it’s quick, cheap and pretty good. There are many fondas throughout Panama so you’ll have to experiment and see which one you feel serves you best. Fondas are much more economical so you can see prices vary from $1-$10 for a good, decent meal.
Panama offers so many options to have a decent and inexpensive meal in very appealing restaurants. The most appealing and picturesque ones are in Casco Antiguo which is also the heart of Panama’s nightlife. Traveling to Panama as a vacation destination is a must for those that love the tropics.