The restaurants are among the best things about Panama City . It’s easy to find good food, pleasant surroundings, and a surprisingly wide variety of cuisine. Overall, Panama City is still waiting for a truly great restaurant, but there are quite a few good ones.
The dining scene in Panama was for many decades dominated by sophisticated restaurants catering to well-heeled locals and businesspeople on expense accounts, many of which offered a far better dining experience for considerably less money than a visitor could find back home. However, a rising middle class with a fondness for American junk food, and the recent influx of likeminded tourists, seem to be driving down the average quality of the capital’s food.
All that said, there are still plenty of solid options in every price range to keep short-term visitors happy.
Look out for the trend toward including a 10 percent service charge on the bill; it’s easy to double tip. Fortunately, the fad of placing bottled water on the table appears to be on the wane. These bottles are neither free nor necessary: Tap water in Panama is clean. If you’re offered bottled water and don’t want it, smile, shake your head, and ask for “Chagres” (pronounced “CHA-gress”) instead. It’ll probably make the wait staff chuckle. (The Río Chagres  is the source of Panama City ’s drinking water.)
For the higher-end restaurants, expect to pay about what you would for a similar place in the United States. But it’s also quite possible to stuff yourself on tasty, simple food for about US$2–3 if ambience means nothing to you. Panamanian comida corriente (literally “current food,” meaning typical dishes of the day served cafeteria style) venues are scattered around the city, as are all kinds of American fast-food franchises.
Many of the upscale restaurants are found in two general areas on either side of Vía España: El Cangrejo to the northeast of the Hotel El Panamá, and the booming nightlife area around Calle Uruguay (also known as Calle 48 Este).
Service is not as good as it once was at the better restaurants. As more restaurants pop up, there just aren’t enough trained waitstaff to go around, and the best ones get poached by rivals with bigger budgets. But at the higher end, service at least tends to be friendly.
Consistency is also a problem: A restaurant can be great one night and disappointing the next. Again, the best chefs get headhunted, and their departure—or even day off—can cause the quality of a restaurant’s fare to plummet overnight.
Make reservations at the fancier places, if only to be sure the restaurant is actually open. However, even the best restaurants can be surprisingly empty, especially in the early evening. Things tend to get busier at lunchtime, when the upscale establishments draw a schmoozing business clientele. Many restaurants are closed for lunch on Saturday and all day on Sunday or Monday.
Vegetarians may have to rely on the limited vegetarian options at meat-eaters’ restaurants. The safest bets are usually Asian or Italian places. But veggie havens are at last beginning to pop up around the city, usually in the shape of basic cafeterias serving hippie food. Some of these mystery meals can be surprisingly palatable, and even cheaper than the offerings at meat-oriented comida corriente places.