“So you can eat a really good dinner here for five dollars?” said a woman to me the other day. I didn’t quite know how to respond, but her earnest face told me she wasn’t joking. She and her husband were on a fact finding mission from Wisconsin and they had done a lot of research over the internet about the cost-of-living in Panama, including typical costs of eating in restaurants.
“Well, I guess you could if you ate at one of the little fondas along the road and didn’t have anything too substantial,” I replied, trying to imagine this woman eating among the locals. A blank stare looked back at me. “I mean, dining out here, like anywhere else, depends on what type of restaurant you go to, what you order and if liquor is included,” I replied trying to be pleasant but truthful.
A Whole Roasted Chicken and Sides—$5.00?
“I read that you can get a whole roasted chicken with a bunch of sides for five dollars,” she responded trying to shore up her statement. “I can show you,” she continued, as she whipped out her smartphone. “They said it would feed two.”
It wasn’t that her statement totally caught me off-guard. I’ve heard all of this before. When Panama was just beginning to be internationally recognized as one of the best places on the planet for retirement, people rushed to write articles and blogs about the inexpensive lifestyle. I know how people get the misinformation so I am always careful to gently explain that things have changed. I suggest they might want to check the date on the report and read everything, carefully looking for what might be too good to be true. Five dollar dinners for two included.
Without going into other costs associated with living in Panama as opposed to other countries, let’s just discuss dining out. I’ll get to other costs later.
Assessing Your Eating Out Needs
First, I caution people to consider how they currently spend their restaurant food dollars, what kinds of restaurants they enjoy and how much of the total bill is liquor. If they are big fast-food diners I make sure they understand we have McDonald’s, Subway and KFC within a single block of the main Coronado entrance, not to mention Don Lee, a local westernized Chinese fast food restaurant as well as Leonardo’s, which offers Italian and pizza options among others.
Fried Foods, Rice And Beans
Most of the local people eat rice, beans and fried green plantations at least once a day and if that is what you enjoy, then you can eat out inexpensively. A lot of Panamanian food is fried and you can get meals that are typical indigenous foods for very cheap. But I find that most of the individuals I work with like to eat out much the same way they eat out in their home countries. The good news is that we have plenty of options.
I put restaurants into categories. There are the ones which are serious about their food, the wine list and the ambiance. They are more expensive and are usually associated with a resort or hotel. There are plenty of them up and down the PanAmerican Highway along the Pacific Ocean. For example, JW Marriott, Sheraton and the Wyndham Grand have great restaurants but get your credit card out! They cater to the all-inclusive crowd and while you can go in on a per-meal basis, it’s expensive. In that same category, I put a few restaurants which are associated with resorts, but are open to the public and are a little more reasonable.
Don’t Look For a Cloth Napkin
Then there are the ones that are less expensive, more local and won’t offer you a cloth napkin. English is often times iffy but you can easily get by even if you don’t speak Spanish; and, the food is generally very good. And then you have the small fondas and road-side restaurants that mainly attract local customers. These restaurants might be just a thatched hut with an open fire in the back, a service station with a buffet or an open air place with plastic chairs and regional dishes.
If You Like Wine You Are In Luck
When considering price, you always need to factor in the liquor aspect. When I’m eating in the States or Canada, the wine cost often outstrips food cost. If you like to have wine with your meal like I do, you are in luck in Panama. We get wines from South America and they generally cost about 25% to 50% of what you would spend in the United States. Most restaurants will let you bring in a bottle and the corkage fee is nothing or maybe $5.00 or $10.00. You need to swear off US wine though, as they tend to be very expensive with a lot of added taxation without really being better than those from South America, Europe or New Zealand.
Beer Less Expensive Than Cola
Then there is the beer. I often joke with my friends and suggest they drink beer all day since I can buy the local beers in the grocery for 50 cents a can, where Diet Coke and other soft drinks will run anywhere from 75 to 85 cents a can. Two of the national brands, Balboa and Atlas, are on offer everywhere. Neither is particularly good, but they are fabulous when it’s hot and they are ice cold.
All of the restaurants meet the fishing boats that pull up six days a week (closed on Monday) to the local fish co-op in Nueva Gorgona about 10 minutes from Coronado. The boats go out at night and then arrive in waves at the co-op during the early morning hours offering what they have just caught. Consequently, the fish on the menu at every kind of restaurant in the Coronado area is exceptionally fresh. The most common is corvina or sea bass. Ceviche is abundant and it would be hard to go wrong with either the freshness or the price. A cup will cost you, on average, $2.00.
Two Pounds of Langoustines For $12
I enjoy going to the fish co-op myself and last week scored two pounds of langoustines for $12 but that was on offer only after the restaurants had taken everything they wanted. It really depends on the day because they only offer what they caught that night, but $2.00 will get you a pound of something very fresh.
I love almost all the restaurants in and around Coronado, but of course I have some of my favorites. For example, within walking distance of my home is Luna Rossa which is somewhere between the more expensive resort restaurants and the local open air concepts. Luna Rossa is owned and managed by an Italian family and they offer an extensive array of Italian dishes. From the homemade mozzarella and tomato Caprese salad to spaghetti Bolognese and all types of pizza; thin crust and delicious. They are more expensive than the smaller restaurants located along the highway, but less expensive than restaurants located in the resorts. To match their middle of the road attitude, they also have both regular indoor dining as well as an outdoor thatched roof option! Their wine list is good and they will happily bring you an ice bucket if you bring in your own bottle. Like most restaurants in Panama, they serve their red wine chilled. Considering the heat, it’s not as bad as you might initially think.
French, Italian, Asian, Spanish, Fresh It’s All Here
When I’m not with my children and I want a grown-up dinner I always consider Terrazas del Mar located in the Vista Mar Resort in San Carlos about 15 minutes up the PanAmerican Highway. Chef Pascal Finet is French and the food offerings reflect his distinguished palate. The other night it was lamb with fresh vegetables and it would be hard to find better. The specials are always worthy of consideration, but the tab is going to be everything you would pay in the US or Canada, with the exception that the wine will be considerably less.
Chef Sacha Woodward is blowing it out at Bluewater Bistro in the Bahia Resort in Nueva Gorgona. Originally from Leeds, England, he offers a slimmed down menu, but one that capitalizes on local ingredients. His pork chops are legendary and the corvina is regularly on the menu. Last time there, I had some kind of corvina marinated in lime and other citrus, served in a pastry cup. It was fabulous. The restaurant sits right on the beach so the sunsets are stunning. If you are just looking for a burger and beer, they have that in the sports bar located adjacent to the more upscale restaurant. The wine is adequate and the service always good.
Located outside the gates of Coronado, but right in town is LaTeca, a Spanish tapas concept restaurant which serves fabulous paella, steaks and a great hamburger. They specialize in Kentucky bourbon as well as sangria and a full bar of cocktails and wine. Carlos Nino and his wait staff will provide you with a cloth napkin even while keeping prices reasonable—especially on Tuesday nights when they have an all-night happy hour.
Looks Like A Strip Club—Tastes Great
When someone seems a little adventurous, I tell them to drive to Santa Clara and look for what appears to be a strip club. XOKO is one of the best locally inspired restaurants in the area. It is rarely crowded and the menu is always changing. In fact, they write the day’s offerings on a big chalkboard and it normally includes things such as red snapper with grilled vegetables, mussels in garlic sauce and various types of paella. XOKO makes up for its outside appearance with less expensive prices, absolutely delicious plates and a nice inexpensive wine list.
There are any number of local, inexpensive restaurants along Avenue Roberto Eisermann but you still are going to spend more than $5.00. You’ll find family run, wood-fired pizza places and three-stool bars with inexpensive beer. Look for Pantay which is open-air, serving lots of local dishes and Don Chacho, which has a kitchen that spit roasts everything from chicken to ribs.
Not So Much For Breakfast
Breakfast offerings are harder to come by with the exception of Cafe Coronado which is located on the second level of the Riba Smith complex and provides indoor and outdoor dining with a typical American breakfast of omelets and fried potatoes. They also have a pretty good selection of sandwiches for lunch. A hardy tuna sandwich will run you $6.00. Papa fritas (french fries) will cost you a dollar more.
Eating Well With A Club Membership
When you own property in a building in Coronado built by Empresas Bern such as Coronado Golf, Coronado Bay or Punta Vela, you have access to get a membership in the Coronado Golf & Beach Resort where some of the best food in the area is served. Segundo Piso Restaurant and Bar is only open on weekends, but it is worth the wait! It’s an upscale restaurant, with live music and a full bar with top-shelf offerings. Since it’s part of the club, the costs are lower. The additional good news is that the club also has La Terraza, a coffee shop with lunch and breakfast options and the pool bar which offers club sandwiches, burgers, Cobb salads and a great shrimp cocktail.
Restaurant food in Panama is less expensive than North American or European restaurants, but how much less is all about how you eat. Prices are always changing, but for the sake of comparison I checked with one of my favorite restaurants in Panama City, Tantalo.
Comparing The Prices For Real
As of 2015 Tantalo offers a breakfast sandwich with crispy bacon, ham, four cheeses, ripe tomatoes, balsamic dressing, grilled onions and a fried egg on a white or whole wheat roll for $5.00. A bagel with cream cheese will run you $3.00; add smoked salmon, sun dried tomatoes, capers and a drizzle of truffle oil for $4.95 more. Sea bass cakes with vegetables will run you $8.00 for lunch and that includes tea and a choice of salad. A dinner of fish and chips with fries will cost $8.50. JW Marriott’s offerings are lunch salads from $12-$14, a duck breast for $28 and a beef filet for $35. The JW Marriott is located in the strip of resorts in Playa Blanca, but Tantalo, is situated on the water in Casco Viejo and has a magnificent roof-top bar with views of Panama City.
It really is up to you, but be realistic about $5.00 for a whole chicken with several sides that serves two!
One of the perks of living inside the gates of Coronado is that you have several restaurants from which to choose, without having to drive on the highway. I, like many of my clients, don’t like driving on the highway after dark (not here, not anywhere), so living in Coronado is ideal.