Ah, Casco Viejo, Panama.
The longer I travel the more I realize just how important great food is to my experience. I know not everyone feels this way–some people would be perfectly content eating hostel pancakes and home-cooked spaghetti every day while traveling–but for me, great food and restaurants are major players and even game changers when it comes to how well I connect with a city.
Never mind the fact that during my stay in Casco Viejo I was recovering from illness, I had my heart broken for the first time in years, and I got a serious bed bug infestation in the hostel that left me emotionally scarred for life–this charming neighborhood of Panama City will hold a special place in my heart for years to come because it somehow knew that the real way to my heart was through my greedy stomach.
I really believe that good food has superpowers. Under the weather? Let a delicious meal nourish your body back to health. Traumatized by blood sucking insects? Allow great food to suppress those terrifying flashbacks. Broken-hearted? Dine like a queen (or king) and instantly start to feel your heart mend.
Okay, so maybe there’s no science to support this just yet, but I’d gladly volunteer to participate in those trials.
In any case, Panama’s old town is brimming with delectable dining options. The following are my top recommendations for where to eat in Casco Viejo. Buen provecho!
UNIDO Coffee Roasters – The first place I happily stumbled into as I searched for a coffee and a pastry upon arrival to Panama City was this quaint little coffee shop serving beans sourced directly from local growers in Panama. In fact, 10% of all sales are put right back into social and environmental projects in Panama’s coffee growing regions to directly support local suppliers. I found myself back here on multiple occasions for their delicious (dare I say gourmet?) Americanos, their pain au chocolat, their social conscience, and their excellent WiFi.
Tántalo Kitchen – I love a place with ambiance as well as good food, and Tantalo’s got it. The restaurant often hosts art exhibits in addition to the already-edgy decor, so there’s plenty to please the eyes as well as the stomach. Items border on pricey for the budget-conscious traveler ($6-10 per plate) but their lunch menu offers many items at half price. My chicken and pesto sandwich accompanied by patacones (fried plantains) was the perfect comfort meal. I would have loved to come back at night and check out their rooftop bar as well.
Casa Sucre Coffeehouse – On the hunt for a breakfast a little more sophisticated than self-prepared pancakes one morning, I stumbled into Casa Sucre and I’m so glad I did. As soon as I noticed a traditional Panamanian breakfast tamale on the menu I knew I had to try it. This place is probably more cafe than restaurant which made it a perfect place for me to come for a good WiFi connection and a coffee to get some work done with few distractions.
Forever Yogurt – What better way to beat the Panama heat than with a heaping pile of frozen yogurt? This place caught my eye with their sparkly pink walls and lured me in with their extensive selection of yogurt toppings (read: candy). When I finally dragged Mak to this place we felt like kids in a candy store. Adults in a candy store. Whatever. You first select a yogurt flavor (I went with cake batter), fill your cup with as much as you’d like, then go wild with the toppings. The prices are by weight though so its easy to get carried away and end up with a $10 cup of yogurt. My philosophy was light on the yogurt, heavy on the toppings, but not too much of any one thing. The verdict? Perfection. A $6 cup of perfection.
La Rana Dorada – “The Golden Frog,” a brewery and pizza restaurant, sat conveniently right around the corner from our hostel. Before choosing one of their locally brewed beers, samples are provided so you know exactly which one will suit your fancy. Their staples include a pale ale, a lager, a wheat ale and a porter. They had one special variety on rotation during our visit, a coffee-flavored stout that nearly brought tears to my eyes. The pizza was pretty excellent, too, and the salad I ordered was so delicious (goat cheese, man) I was back the very next night to order the same.
Ego y Narciso – Ok, so this is one restaurant I didn’t actually visit myself. But it seems to pop up on everyone else’s lists of great Casco Viejo restaurants so I thought I’d give it a shout. If you like ceviche, Ego y Narciso is known for some of the best in Panama City. The food is Peruvian/International and their signature dishes are steak and risotto. Definitely not a budget-friendly option but if you have a chance to splurge, this might just be the place to do so.
Food can make or break a city for me. How does the quality of food available impact your travels?