Like the accommodations, dining options are improving in Santa Catalina. It’s still a good place to come with a cooler and supplies, if possible, especially since the nearest grocery store of any size is back in Soná, about 70 kilometers away. (A small general store and a fruit and vegetable stand are along the main road, however.)
Also, few places are open for lunch and even fewer for breakfast. Most restaurants open around 6:30 p.m. for dinner. Nearly all of them are located along the dirt road about a 10–15-minute walk from town, and there are no street lights; take a flashlight. In addition to the places listed, Oasis Surf Camp (tel. 202-1022, cell 6588-7077, www.oasissurfcamp.com) will prepare Italian dinners for nonguests whenever it has guests.
La Buena Vida (cell 6572-0664, 7 a.m.–2 p.m., US$6–7.50) is a cute open-air spot on the main road, and the food sure sounds appetizing. Breakfast is US$2.50–5 and includes fruit salad, pancakes, homemade granola, breakfast burritos, fresh-fruit smoothies, and a Greek scramble. Lunch includes salads, Mexican tacos, and sandwiches. A more exotic daily lunch special might include Thai, Indian, Mexican, or Italian fare. They can also make a “to-go” lunch for those going on excursions if the order is placed the night before. La Buena Vida has options for vegetarians, a rarity in the region.
The popular Restaurante Donde Viancka (cell 666- 6426, 3–10 P.M. daily, under US$7) is a cute little open-air place a few minutes’ walk down the dirt road leading to the surf camps. The menu changes daily depending on what’s fresh but includes seafood, pasta, and Panamanian fare. It looks out on a field rather than the ocean, but there’s a breezy upstairs balcony where groups can sit and catch a glimpse of the sea. The best thing about the restaurant is Viancka herself. Panama’s 2001 surfing champion, she’s a warm and friendly hostess who goes out of her way to make her clients happy.
Some say Pizzeria Jamming (no phone, 6:30 p.m.–whenever Tues.–Sun., US$6 for a pizza) has the best pizza in Panama. That’s hyperbole, and the competition’s not that stiff in any case, but the place does serve real Italian pizza baked in a real wood-burning brick oven by real Italians (from Florence, to be exact). It’s an open-air place near the edge of a bluff leading down to the surf break. It’s possible to climb up there from the beach, but it’s hard to find the trail in the evening and it’s a bit jungly. It’s better to go down the dirt road leading to the surf camps and follow the signs. There’s a bar scene, and one end of the pizzeria is strung with hammocks where battered surfers can recover from their battles with monster waves. It’s a cozy, relaxing spot to hang out in the evening.
Those with a meat craving should stop by the Argentinean-owned Los Pibes (no phone, 6:30 p.m.–until guests leave daily, US$6.50–8), which has great burgers. It’s a friendly, open-air place about a 15-minute walk from town, down the dirt road in the surf-camp area. To get there, head past Restaurante Donde Viancka and turn right at the sign. Another plus here is if you show up with a freshly caught fish they’ll cook it for you in their outdoor oven for free. The owners speak English, Spanish, and French.
The aptly named Dive (no phone, 4–10 P.M. daily), at the end of the main road just before the town beach, serves Mexican food, but it’s mainly known as a great local boozer. The gringo owner, Schmoo, makes regular trips to Panama City to forage for bottled beer, and as a result he’s got probably the best selection in the country. There were about 22 kinds when I visited, including a number of premium European varieties.
A nameless bakery (no phone, 5–9 a.m. and 1–9 p.m. or so daily) has just started up. It’s across the main road from La Buena Vida and offers delicious smells and warm smiles. As usual in Panama, the actual baked goods are rather bland, but they’re fresh and cheap.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition