Ego y Narciso (Plaza Simón Bolívar, tel. 262-2045, noon–3 P.M. and 6 P.M.–11 P.M. Mon.–Fri., 6–11 P.M. Sat. and Sun.) is a stylish café and bar with two non-connecting dining areas as well as outdoor tables set along a corner of Plaza Simón Bolívar . It offers a small menu of pastas, meats, and fish for about US$10–15, as well as a bar menu of brochettes, salads, and such. It’s been a popular place for several years.
Some really enjoy the food here, but I’ve had mixed experiences. The safest bets are the appetizers and desserts. In any case, it’s a pleasant spot for an evening drink. Service can be sluggish, particularly if you’re seated in the more formal dining room, which is sort of an annex to the main café. The bar stays open after the kitchen closes so long as there are customers.
Manolo Caracol (Calle 3 and Avenida Central, tel. 228-4640, 228-9479, or 228-0109, www.manolocaracol.net , noon–3 P.M. and 6:30–10 P.M. Mon.–Fri., 6:30–10 P.M. Sat.) is the namesake restaurant of Manolo Maduño. Manolo promises cocina con amor (food made with love) and he delivers. There is one menu each night (if you talk to Manolo ahead of time he’ll try to accommodate vegetarians), and food starts arriving as soon as you sit down.
The menu changes with the season, but a typical offering might include seafood salad, portobello mushrooms, grilled shrimp, mussels, marinated tomatoes, red snapper, tuna, and something exotic for dessert. Price for the whole thing? US$25 (plus a 15 percent service charge). The lunch menu is US$20, plus the service charge. You definitely have to be in a receptive mood for this kind of food bombardment, but if you’re willing to surrender to the experience it offers one of the more entertaining dining options in Panama City .
Manolo’s open kitchen sits right in the dining room, under a copper smoke hood and behind mounds of fresh produce set on a counter. In front of this is a dugout canoe filled with bottles of Spanish wine (the only kind served). Modern art hangs on the walls. The only real problem with this place is the acoustics—the restaurant is a stone and concrete box, so when it’s crowded, it’s loud. Manolo himself, a Spaniard by way of Colombia, is a kinetic character likely to be the loudest person there. He presides over everything unless he’s away on a special assignment (he’s been known to cook for Mick Jagger, on his yacht when he’s in the area). He’ll likely greet you as a long-lost friend with a crushing hug, and slip you a glass of wine on the house if he sees your cup is empty—just because you’re such a terrific person.
Restaurante Las Bóvedas (Plaza de Francia, tel. 228-808 or 228-8068, 5:30 P.M.–late Mon.–Sat.) is built right into the historic stone vaults (bóvedas) of the old city’s seawall, so you’re dining in what was once a dungeon. It’s not a cheap place; expect to pay around US$20 for French-inspired main dishes. The food has always been a secondary reason to visit, though it seems to have been on an upswing lately. The second room in the place is a bar called Los Piratas. The house drink is the caipirinha, a potent Brazilian concoction. There’s live jazz in the bar on Friday and Saturday nights after about 9:30 p.m.