Restaurants and Cafés
Dining options are slowly getting better in David. But there’s still only one place where you might describe the food as “cuisine” without snickering. The best you can hope for at most places is to fill up with cheap, inoffensive fare. There are also lots of gringo and local fast-food outlets. Most are located along Calle Miguel A. Brenes, which is quite a hike from downtown. Closer to Parque Cervantes, in central David, most dining options are in the hotels.
The casinos serve a full lunch, including drink, for about US$3.30. These are popular with budget travelers. The Fiesta Casino, across the street from the Gran Hotel Nacional, is centrally located.
The best place to eat in David is, bizarrely enough, at the airport. Bernard’s (tel. 6674-5913, 6 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., under US$10) is a simple but attractive international café, the latest creation of Bernard Bahary, an Iranian expat who for many years was the chef/owner of one of the best restaurants in Bocas. He’s gambling that David’s airport is really going to take off as an international hub.
The menu is eclectic, ranging from Thai and Middle Eastern cuisine to pasta, burgers, Panamanian food, and daily specials. The prices are a bargain for the quality of the food offered. Breakfast with a bottomless cup of coffee or tea is served all day. Breakfast offerings are equally wide-ranging, from waffles with fresh fruit to a hearty Panamanian country breakfast. Everything I’ve ever had at one of Bernard’s restaurants has been excellent.
Bernard himself is reason enough to stop by—he’s an interesting and sophisticated character, with the emphasis on “character.” Because the restaurant has to close when the airport does, it’s not a place for dinner (unless you dine before 5 p.m.). Call ahead of time if possible, as the restaurant’s actual opening hours seem to depend on Bernard’s mercurial moods.
Restaurante El Palacio Oriental (Calle E Norte and Avenida Central, tel. 777-2410, 10 A.M.–11 P.M. daily, US$2.50–6) is a longtime favorite for Chinese food, served in a bustling atmosphere. The menu is huge.
The no-frills Restaurante 24 Horas (Avenida 2 Este between Calle Central and Calle A Norte, tel. 774-0412, open 24 hours daily), formerly Churrasco’s Place, is around the corner from the Hotel Castilla. It’s popular for its cheap, simple criolla (local) food. You can stuff yourself silly with tasty but greasy food for around US$2. Prices top out around US$6. This is a good place to have arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). It’s also an authentic place to sample traditional Panamanian breakfast fare, including hojaldres (a sort of fried bread) and tortillas de maiz (thick fried corn tortillas). This is a good place to mingle with the locals, but it’s not particularly clean and you’ll have to put up with desultory service.
There are three dining options at the Gran Hotel Nacional (Calle Central between Avenida Central and Avenida 9 de Enero/1 Este, tel. 775-2221 or 775-2222). The cafeteria (6:30 a.m.–11 p.m. daily, under US$10) offers pizza, pasta, and fancier than usual meats and fish. On Monday–Saturday noon–2 p.m., the cafeteria offers a great deal: an all-you-can-eat buffet of pretty good food and a glass of wine for US$7.50. The buffet includes several salads, a variety of meat and fish dishes, some veggies, and several desserts. On Sunday noon–2:30 p.m., there’s a popular brunch buffet with a glass of champagne for US$8.50. The hotel’s pizzeria is open 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. daily. At night there’s a pleasant open-air barbecue (5–11 p.m. daily, around US$15) under a rancho by the pool, with a variety of grilled meats. Save room for the delicious strawberry ice cream.
The restaurant at the Hotel Castilla (Calle A Norte between Avenida 2 Este and Avenida 3 Este/Bolívar, tel. 774-5236 or 774-5260, 7 A.M.–10 P.M. Mon.–Sat., 7 A.M.–3 P.M. Sun., US$5–10) is pleasant enough and the food is decent. It’s worth eating here just for the fascinating “English” translations of the dishes. You can feast on such mysterious delicacies as “beef steak in the horse,” “rice with sailor,” or “filet of fish in the white lady.” Yum. Breakfasts are big and plentiful, but the coffee is awful.
El Rincón Libanes (Calle Miguel A Brenes, Calle F Sur, and Avenida 9 de Enero/Avenida 1 Este, tel. 774-2700, 11 a.m.–midnight daily) offers a reasonable approximation of Lebanese food in a pleasant and lovingly decorated, air-conditioned setting. It’s not uncommon to see a table of Middle Eastern immigrants discussing business and sucking on hookahs at the table next to you. Full Lebanese meals go for around US$8, and a variety of pita-bread sandwiches are available for about US$5. My main gripe about this place is that the breads are reheated in the microwave, which turns them into leather as they cool.
Lots of cheap rotisserie chicken and snack places come and go along this same busy corridor, near El Rincón Libanes. A popular option is Restaurante y Deli Pollo (tel. 777-4108, noon–midnight daily), which offers a roasted half-chicken with patacones or yuca for US$4.30.
Jackelita (Calle E Norte between Avenida 1 Oeste and Avenida Central, tel. 774-6574, 7:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.–Fri., 4–10:30 p.m. Sat.) is a simple open-air drive-in near Restaurante El Palacio Oriental that’s locally famous for its homemade ice cream, yogurt, and juices. They’re all made with fresh fruit, including zarzamora (blackberry), guanábana (usually called “soursop” in English, if that helps), piña (pineapple), mango, fresa (strawberry), and both pipa and coco (fresh and dry coconut). The yogurt isn’t on the menu, oddly enough, but the place has got tons of it.
This is a great place on a hot day (i.e., every day). Try the yogurt de fresa—it’s delicious. It also carries duros, a kind of fruit popsicle in a cup I have fond memories of from my childhood in Panama. Jackelita also makes cheap breakfasts and fast food, including burgers and chicken. Nearly everything on the menu is less than US$2.
Ristorante e Pizzeria Tamburrelli (Avenida 3 de Noviembre/4 Este and Calle E Sur, tel. 774-4951, 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 11:30 a.m.–midnight Fri.–Sat.) is a popular Italian fast-food place with an air-conditioned interior and a few outside tables overlooking a busy street. The food is comparable to that at a U.S. pizza-chain outlet. The pizza isn’t great—it’s greasy and somewhat sweet—but it’s tasty enough for the price if you need gringo comfort food. Pastas, seafood, meats, and desserts are also available. Prices are around US$4 for an individual-size pizza, around US$6 for pasta. This place delivers locally.
An outlet of the Mexican chain Mrs. Mendoza (Interamericana, tel. 730-4999, 11 A.M.–11:30 P.M. daily) is on the Interamericana, a short drive west of the David Mall. It’s a fast-food joint, but it has tastier Mexican food than most of the other places around here, plus it has free Wi-Fi. A taco or burrito platter is around US$6–7, but if you like chips you’d better order extra because they’re pretty stingy with them. The brave can try the “Chicago-style burrito,” whatever the heck that is. The mind reels. They deliver locally.
The Hare Krishna-run Refresquería Bolo Bolo (Avenida Central between Calle C Sur and Calle D Sur, tel. 730-4568, noon–9 P.M. Tues.–Sat., US$5) is a vegetarian place offering veggie burgers, falafel, fruit salad, shakes, smoothies, and so on at reasonable prices. Nothing about the veggie burger and fries I had here looked homemade, but they were tasty nonetheless and the buns, salad, and cooking oil were all fresh. Smoothies are also good. This is a pleasant, clean, air-conditioned little café, and a welcome addition to David. The only real problem with this place is the monotonous devotional music the owners insist on playing on the stereo. It becomes unbelievably irritating after the first minute.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition