The restaurant at the Panamonte Inn and Spa (off Avenida Central, north of town center, tel. 720-1327 or 720-1324, www.panamonte.com, 6–10 a.m., noon–3 p.m., and 6–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri.; 7:30–11 a.m., noon–3 p.m., and 6–9 p.m. Sat.–Sun., US$8–12) is the fanciest in town, with tablecloths, fresh flowers, candles, fine china, and lots of fascinating antiques. It’s got an almost dollhouse charm, and the waitresses serve guests in frilly old-country uniforms. When everything comes together, this is the best restaurant in Boquete.
However, it suffers from the usual Boquete problem of inconsistency, which has been a problem recently since its celebrated chef, Charlie Collins, has been focusing his attentions on a new cooking school. The food tends toward continental cuisine. There are also vegetarian options and a budget menu of burgers and sandwiches. The soups can be delicious—try the spicy pumpkin soup if it’s available—and this is a good place to sample the highland trout. Save room for dessert, as it tends to be done well. The rum cake is excellent, as is the Chocolate Decadence, and I’ve heard good things about the key lime and apple pies.
Machu Picchu (tel. 720-1502, noon–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat., noon–9 p.m. Sun.) is the sister of the popular Machu Picchu in Panama City, and some reckon this is actually the better of the two. I’ve enjoyed the seafood here. Tip: At least one regular recommends sticking with the chef’s specialties. The teak furniture, blue tablecloths, and Peruvian music on the stereo contribute to the pleasant atmosphere, as does the friendly service. Save room for dessert: The lemon pie is tasty. The restaurant is at the south end of downtown, one block east of Avenida Central and half a block south of Calle 5 Sur.
Bistro Boquete (Avenida Central, tel. 720-1017, 6 a.m.–10 or 11 p.m. daily) is a popular gringo hangout and one of Boquete’s better dining options. An airy, high-ceilinged place with large windows that open right onto Avenida Central, it offers a wide selection of bar-food items such as chicken wings, quesadillas, and burgers, as well as a few fancier dishes. The curry chicken salad is tasty. Prices range from about US$3 for burgers up to US$10–12 for filet mignon and such.
Ristorante y Pizzeria Il Pianista (tel. 720-2728, noon–10 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) is just insanely cute. It’s a stone-walled little place with a handful of tables that look out on a gushing waterfall just a few feet beyond the windows. The waterfall is lighted at night. This is easily the best place in Boquete for Italian food, and one of the best restaurants, period. The (Italian) chef makes his own pastas and uses the best and freshest ingredients he can find, and it shows. Offerings include pizzas, calzones, and bruschettas, all served by the chef’s friendly bocatoreña wife.
The restaurant is about four kilometers north of downtown on the Palo Alto road. Head toward the Boquete Garden Inn and continue straight for another 1.6 kilometers. The restaurant is on the right, on the ground floor of the owners’ house. Parking is a bit tricky, and the restaurant is near a somewhat sketchy coffee workers’ barracks. If you drive, lock the doors and don’t leave valuables in the car.
Madre Tierra (cell 6604-9028, www.randchocaldera.com, lunch noon–3 P.M., and dinner from 6:30 P.M. Thurs.–Mon.) is at Rancho de Caldera, an appealing inn a 25-minute drive from Boquete. It’s worth making the drive, or gathering a group to share the US$25 cab ride, for a meal at this place.
For one thing, the food is outstanding. The chef, Craig Miller, insists he plans to stick around, which is probably a good thing for the famous names in Panama City’s fancy restaurants, as he would immediately outshine most of them. Whenever possible he uses local ingredients, and he combines them in innovative ways.
The menu changes constantly, but keep an eye out for the watermelon salad with kalamata olives, feta, red onion, mint, and harissa dressing, as well as for the Thai pulled pork sandwich with green papaya slaw and some of the best fries I’ve ever had.
For another, the setting is gorgeous: It’s a simple but attractive place that opens onto a pool deck and has a view of the surrounding mountains.
Finally, there are good deals to be had. For US$15, diners not staying at the ranch can have lunch and all-day access to the pool. This makes it a reasonable indulgence even for those on tight budgets, particularly if they’re willing to take a bus from Boquete to Caldera and hoof it for the last two kilometers up to the ranch.
No alcohol or soft drinks are served. Instead, Craig makes innovative drinks such as a Thai Citrus Sparkler (fresh orange and lime juice, honey, a pinch of cayenne and sparkling water), or the fresh Basil and Lime Fizz.
In the evenings, a fixed-price menu for US$23 is served at 6:30 P.M.. Reservations are required. These are themed (e.g., Mexican, Indian, Italian, Thai, etc.) and change nightly.
When I ate at Madre Tierra, all the other guests were speaking French—the word is starting to get out. It’s well worth making a special trip, or stopping there on the way to or from the Caldera hot springs.
Heading south from Boquete, make a left at the Caldera turnoff and continue straight towards Caldera for 10 kilometers. You’ll pass the Montañas de Caldera gated community along the way; continue straight past it. As you reach Caldera proper you’ll see a church and soccer field on the left. Look for the sign for Rancho de Caldera. Turn left here and head uphill for two kilometers. The last 700 meters is on a one-lane track, so drive carefully.
If you have an irresistible craving for pizza and don’t want to go all the way up to Ristorante y Pizzeria Il Pianista, Pizzeria La Volcánica (12:30–10 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) serves the best in Boquete proper, which isn’t saying much. (Avoid Ristorante Salvatore, on the outskirts of town; both the pizza and service are bad.) Fairly tasty but greasy pizzas with thin cracker crusts range in size from chica to gigante. A chica will feed two moderately hungry adultsand starts at US$4.25. You can also get sandwiches, or half a roast chicken for US$5.50. It’s one block before the park on the main road.
Restaurante El Sabrosón (Avenida Central, tel. 720-2147, 6:30 A.M.–10 P.M. Mon.–Fri., 6:30 A.M.–midnight Sat.–Sun., under US$4) is a popular place with low-budget diners. It’s on the east side of Avenida Central at the north end of town, just down from where the road forks at the church. Its steam-table offerings include the usual, plus some Chinese dishes. It’s best known for its fresh trout, which the cook will prepare however you like. It’s good.
Nelvi’s (cell 6578-6528, 7:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. daily, under US$2) is a newer comida corriente (fast food) place that has quickly become a favorite among locals looking for cheap decent food. It’s my hole-in-the-wall of choice in Boquete. It’s behind Los Establos Plaza on the road to Valle Escondido. Daily offerings may include various preparations of chicken, pork, spaghetti, mystery meat, and, happily enough, salads. The fried chicken is decent; the rice with guandu (a legume) is not. A full meal here runs less than US$2. (Pay after you eat.) They’ll pack food to go if you like. A second, much-more attractive branch recently opened in Alto Boquete (cell 6414-1393, 7 A.M.–7 P.M. daily).
The Coffee House Restaurant (tel. 720- 2285, www.fincalerida.com, 7 a.m.–8 p.m., US$6–8) is on the grounds of Finca Lérida. It’s a rather unadorned place serving salads, sandwiches, and other simple fare. The spectacular view of the Boquete valley is the draw here, so even those not staying at the finca (country house) should consider making their way up for breakfast or lunch. Call ahead of time to make sure it’s open.
Sugar and Spice (Avenida Central, 8 A.M.–6 A.M. Thurs.–Tues.) offers good fresh bread, cakes, and cookies. It’s on the right side of town as you drive into town, a block and a half past the Texaco station.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition