Thursday, May 3, 2012

Boquete Restaurants


Note:  When I mention prices, think in terms of American dollars.  Panama's currency is tied to the U.S. dollar, meaning that Americans don't have to convert currency and prices here.  Panama mints its own coins, and a one "Balboa" coin is worth exactly one dollar.  Lesser values Panamanian coins are equal to half-dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.  Paper money here is U.S. dollars only.  Panamanian coins are not accepted in the U.S.
I occasionally get lazy and eat at fasts-food restaurants in the U.S., but I definitely prefer real, fresh deli food, a proper restaurant, or home-cooked meals. There was a Subway franchise sandwich shop right next door to my former residence, an apartment complex in Sebastopol, Sonoma County, California where I lived for seven years before moving to Panama.  I bought a Subway sandwich occasionally, found them to be reasonably healthy, if not particularly tasty - and the price was reasonable for an American eatery.
When I researched expat living in Boquete, I noticed pictures on the internet of a Subway sandwich shop in the newer commercial and business plaza “Los Establos,” at the entrance to downtown Boquete.  When I arrived here in late February, I discovered that the Subway franchise, the only international fast food chain restaurant in town, had not survived.  With many middle-class retirees in the large expat community, and lots of middle class tourists plus crowds of young international budget-minded travelers and hikers, I was a bit surprised to learn that a Subway franchise could not survive here.  However, drive 25 miles south down the mountain to the hot and humid sea-level provincial capital of David, the second biggest city in Panama, and you will see many of the common American fast food outlets, and even a Price Smart store, which is part of a San Diego-based chain..

Like many expats here, I much prefer the tiny Panamanian restaurants for breakfast and lunch. They are literally all over tha place – in town and in the countryside near the many small villages in the region.  For about $2.50, one can have a simple breakfast of two eggs cooked any style, two pieces of fried bread called hojaldras (or fresh yellow corn tortillas that are made as you wait), and a cup of coffee.  A typical Panamanian lunch consisting of a couple of pieces of chicken or pork, potatoes or rice, vegetables and beans costs about $2.50.   It is fairly easy to live here on $7-10 per day for food, and even less if you prepare some of your meals from scratch with local ingredients.  You can also carpool to David and buy some of your staples in quantity at the Price Smart store in David, although much of the food there is frozen or processed.

Boquete and it's surrounding communities are home to many expat-owned restaurants that cater to tourists and fellow expats, as well as to middle-class Panamanians, but prices are usually 3-4 times higher than the humble local restaurants.  I typically eat one breakfast and one dinner per week at the local expat-owned restaurants where the food ranges from good to excellent.  I've learned to spend my money at these places only when the owner is present, because food preparation and service can sometimes drop to unacceptable levels in the owner’s absence.   I've met many fellow expats by uttering a friendly "hello" and sometimes sharing a table with strangers at Boquete restaurants.

Locally grown fresh produce - fruit and vegetables - is available in many places here in Chiriqui Province, which is the last province in Panama before you cross into Costa Rica, which lies to the northwest of Boquete.  Chirirqui Province is the largest farming region in Panama, and is sometimes referred to as the breadbasket of Central America.  There are small and large farms from sea level up to the rugged hillsides at 7,000 feet around the agricultural town of Cerro Punta, a spectacularly beautiful region of mountains, valleys.  Fruits and vegetables are sold for very low prices at numerous roadside stands throughout Chiriqui.  Boquete has a dark and dingy multi-vendor produce market downtown right across the street from the Romero supermarket, and there are several individual produce stores in the downtown area.  I’ve seen big, beautiful, ripe locally-grown pineapples sell for as low as 35 cents each, but that was on sale at Romero's.  A typical purchase for me is a big pineapple and 3-4 bananas for $1.25 at a roadside produce stand.

One last item regarding food and drink in Chiriqui Province is coffee.  It's impossible to be unaware of coffee here in Boquete – there are cafe fincas (coffee farms) all over the place, from tiny to huge, and a fair number of tasting rooms/cafes.  Only the high-quality aribica beans are grown here, and not the mega-farm, cheaper, high caffeine "robusta" variety that is frequently used by the mass-market instant coffee producers.  My limited experience is that local Panamanian coffees range from ordinary to excellent, and although the price of premium roasted beans is about the same as in the U.S., it is one of the real pleasures of living here.  One could say that my move to an expat community was a move from wine country to coffee country.

Here are some pictures of local restaurants and produce shops with short comments.  This is not intended to be a series of restaurant reviews, but simply photos of places where I like to eat. 

Jardines de Boquete.  I walked five blocks into town to to have my first breakfast with a friend I met on the boquete.ning expat in Boquete.  Jardines is a traditional small local Panamanian restaurant. 
I'm currently living five miles south of Boquete, and frequent this little nearby restaurant that is next to the Curvas Bonita gym and Ivan's Super Centro market in Alto Boquete. It's another good little Panamanian restaurant for breakfast of lunch.

Inside the El Alto.  There are five tables inside and two smaller ones outside.
Central Park Cafe is a traditional Panamanian restaurant located next to the park in the center of the downtown district, with the local craftspeople and artisans displaying their wares at the end of the street to the left.

A closer view of Central Park Cafe's outdoor seating area.  A community gathering place and great people-watching place.  I sometimes go here for mid-morning cup of coffee.

Punta de Encuentro (point of contact), also known as Olga's is one of my favorite restaurants in Boquete.  Although Olga is a Panamanian, her place is more "upscale" and attractive than the typical utilitarian local restaurant.  Prices are a bit higher, but with good food, nice decor and a dining area open to the garden, it is a very pleasant place to have breakfast or lunch.  Be aware, however, if you sit at the edge of the roof next to the garden, birds may fly down to your table and steal pieces of fruit from your plate if you step away to talk to folks at another table.  I've encountered mostly expats eating here when I make my weekly visit, and the place just seems conducive to meeting people and talking to strangers.  I came here twice during my first week in Boquete, sat at tables with other expats, and twice had my breakfast paid for by strangers that I had just met.   Olgas can get very busy on holidays and weekends, so I go there during the week. 

The entrance to Olgas.

Looking back at the entrance from inside the dining room.

Looking out at the garden and my favorite table - the round one.

Coffee, yogurt with fruit (sorry, I ate it before I remembered to take a picture) and waffles.  A familiar breakfast for many Americans like me.

Sugar and Spice, a bakery and restaurant two blocks south of downtown on the main highway.  Owned by Richard Meyer, it is a full-blown Euro-American style neighborhood bakery where I buy all of my bread.  Sometimes it's still warm -fresh out of the oven.  He doesn't make a San Francisco-style sourdough loaf with crispy crust, but his 9-grain and whole wheat loaves are my favorites.  Richard's French coconut pie is decadently delicious, and one of my favorite treats.

Service counter and inside seating at Sugar and Spice

Fresh breads at Sugar and Spice 

Richard and his staff at work behind the counter.  Richard always has time for a pleasant hello, but he is constantly working.

Sugar and Spice is another good place for breakfast, and his ham and cheese frittata with toast and coffee is only $4.   Salads - like the tuna salad above, are a good choice for lunch. 

Ana's Sweet is another tiny Panamanian restaurant in downtown Boquete, right behind Craig Jacob's Boquete Bistro.  I occasionally go there for lunch and instead of traditional local fare, have a hamburguesa con queso - a small cheeseburger.  Add a big blended fresh fruit drink and have an ice cream cone (my favorite is "naranjo y pina" - orange/pineapple) for dessert, and it  will cost you about $3.50.

Nelvis is another excellent local Panamanian restaurant behind the Los Establos commercial building/plaza.

The serving counter at Nelvis,   They have quite a few seats, both indoors and outside.  The menu is in both Spanish and English, a great help for new residents who are struggling to learn Spanish.

El Sabroson, an inexpensive Panamanian restaurant, is a cafeteria ith a much larger choice of entrees and sides than most of the local restaurants.  However, you will do better here if you can read food names in Spanish, or recognize the food and point to what you want.  It's big and busy, and the serving line moves quickly. 

Interior of El Sabroson.

Big Daddy's Grill, located on the main street, Via Boquete. Excellent local Chiriqui seafood.

The outdoor bar at Big Daddy's  They sy the best way to find a good place to rent is by getting to know the locals, and I met my current landlord on another day here at Big Daddy's bar.

Craig Jacob's Boquete Bistro is a new restaurant on the main drag near the center of Boquete.  Craig is an American chef who has opened two restaurants so far.  Prior to opening the Bistro, he established his reputation for good food at the Boquete Roadhouse or "Las Ruinas," an open air palm-thatch covered restaurant several miles south of town.  The food is excellent and moderately priced, and the customers are mostly expats, the customer base that Craig markets to regularly.  Craig is planning to open another restaurant this year that will specialize in seafood.  It will be at the north end on Via Boquete, the main street, and a block or so past the landmark catholic church. 

The interior of the Boquete Bistro is very nicely done with lots of beautiful wood.  There are inside and outside balconies for seating in addition to the main floor pictured above.

I hope to take pictures of the rugged and beautiful farming region on the other side of Volcan Baru soon and post a blog on that subject.  The pictures below and many more will be uploaded and available for viewing on my website, after I get my photo section up and running – a project that’s a bit behind schedule.

I hope this blog post wasn't too long, but I didn't even include all of the restaurants I've eaten here so far.  And there are many more restaurants that I haven't yet tried, from more tiny Panamanian ones to upscale restaurants like the more expensive eateries at the Panamonte and El Oasis Hotels, and inside the gated community of Valle Escondido.  It's not San Francisco, New York or New Orleans, but there is lots of good food, and many of choices for dining out in Boquete.


  1. Great post, David. Looking forward to your impressions on much more in the area . . .

  2. Hi David,

    Great article! My fiance and I are new here and have been keeping busy for the past week since we arrived from Panama City, so we haven't had much time to check out the local restaurants, except for Sugar & Spice and Mike's Global Grill. Your post really helped us get a better idea of places to check out! We even saw Ana's Sweet behind the Bistro and wouldn't have thought to stop in there without your recommendation.

    Thanks again, and hopefully we'll meet you sometime in town!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to do this David. Very well done and the photo's are an excellenty addition. I'm sure this will help many new-to-Boquete folks.

  4. Hi David! As a possible future Boquete resident, I'm scouring the internet for anything of interest. I must say I started reading your restaurant blog with great interest (I'm a big foodie), but found myself reading back and back, on your blog, to find out how you came to Boquete, and why.

    Having read the story of your journey I'm greatly encouraged about my own plan. We (my fiance, Les, and I) are in the stage of selling the house and facing the mountain of belongings, with all the decisions that requires. It is daunting, but like you, my research is telling me that Boquete just may be the right place.

    I'm very happy to see that you are well and happy with your new life. It sounds like there is great company in that beautiful place. I look forward to seeing for myself. Claudia