The best place to eat in the archipelago is
Restaurante Guari-Guari (cell 6525-5513 and 6627-1825, 5:30–10 p.m. Thurs.–Tues.). It’s a short US$0.50 cab ride north of town, past the Feria del Mar on the isthmus that connects Bocas town with the rest of Isla Colón . (If the cab driver doesn’t recognize the restaurant name, tell him to go to “la bomba”—the gas station. The restaurant is near it.)
The restaurant offers a single fixed-price menu each night: six courses for US$19. The food is gourmet and can include delicious takes on fare such as apple and pecan salad, carpaccio with shaved parmesan, a shot of asparagus crème, breaded prawns, and filete in red wine sauce. The restaurant is run by a friendly European couple; the chef is Spanish, and her German partner is host and waiter. It’s a nicely decorated open-air place within earshot of pounding surf. The bathrooms are spotless. It’s the place to go for a special night out.
Restaurante El Pecado (Hotel Laguna, Calle 3 tel. 757-9091, 5–10 P.M. Tues.–Sat., US$10–13) is now in its third home, which lacks the funky charm of its predecessors. But it’s on the terrace of the Hotel Laguna , so it’s still a pleasant place to sit and watch the passing scene on Calle 3.
The food is good and includes French, Thai, Mexican, Lebanese, and Panamanian dishes. The Thai soup is to die for, as is the fried camembert. Starters tend to be big and filling enough to make a meal out of. Guests can also opt for a three-course set dinner starting at around US$17. The French-Canadian owners are colorful characters and at this point practically Bocas institutions.
In the last couple of years, the restaurant has gotten on a pizza kick, but even though the plate-sized pies are thick and piled with toppings, they don’t have much flavor. Dinner is a safer bet than lunch because the owners are more likely to be on hand and in the kitchen. The sangria is delicious.
Restaurante y Bar La Casbah (near the intersection of Avenida Norte, Avenida G, and Calle 4, no phone, around 5:30–10 P.M. Tues.–Sat., US$10–13) is consistently good, and for several years now has been my top spot in town for great food in a funky atmosphere. Formerly the home of Om Café, the restaurant is shoehorned into the open-air wooden porch of a tiny, ramshackle building (which also houses a hidden, bottom-of-the-barrel hostel).
It has a friendly bohemian vibe, and it’s a popular hangout for European ex-pat residents. The owner-chef, Christopher, is an excellent cook who makes the best possible use of available ingredients. The French-influenced menu is small but changes daily.
Beef filet is especially good here—it’s tender, full of flavor, and cooked perfectly. If Christopher has fresh mushrooms, he offers his filets with a cognac and cream sauce that is absolutely delicious. His bacon shrimp rolls may sound odd, but it works and makes for a surprisingly light and fresh appetizer. He also cooks vegetables exactly right; if you don’t think you like eggplant, it’s only because you haven’t had it the way it’s prepared here. The bananas flambé is delicious, too.
Alberto’s Pizzeria (Calle 5 between Avenida E/Luis Russell and Avenida F, tel. 756-9066, 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat., US$6–8) has the best pizza on the island. Ingredients are fresh and the pizzas are lovingly made by the dedicated staff. How dedicated? The last time I ate there, Alberto, the Italian owner, had to tell a client he was out of pepperoni. But a few minutes later, he heard a plane coming in for a landing; realizing his pepperoni was on the plane, he grabbed his bike and pedaled to the airport to pick it up rather than disappoint a customer.
A pizza feeds two moderately hungry people. The only drawback of this place at lunchtime is that, even though the dining area is open-sided, it doesn’t have fans and can’t catch a breeze, so it can be blazingly hot. Fortunately, Alberto’s offers fresh lemonade and orange juice. There’s also a full bar.
El Ultimo Refugio (cell 6726-9851 or 6568-8927, 5 p.m.–late Tues.–Sat., US$8–10) is easy to miss because it’s at the far south of town, all the way down Calle 3 past the ferry pier. The pier that houses it has hosted several different restaurants over the years, all with tasty food, and this one is no exception. The eclectic menu changes daily but can include such tempting dishes as shrimp in passion fruit cream sauce, pork tenderloin with balsamic onion reduction, and chicken and shrimp Asian noodle salad. Starters include homemade chips and bean dip, hummus, and pesto crostini. Everything I’ve had here has been good. The drinks are strong and well mixed.
Restaurante Chitré  (Calle 3 near Avenida D, no phone, 6 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Sun.) is not just the best fonda in town, but it also serves some of the tastiest food, period. Meat, rice, and a soda will set you back US$3. Try the polla en salsa; it’s delicious. The place is a hole in the wall, but it has a front porch that’s good for people-watching.
Om Café (Avenida E/Luis Russell and Calle 3, cell 6624-0898, hours change but generally open for breakfast 8 A.M.–noon, lunch noon–4 P.M., and dinner 6–10 P.M. Thurs–Tues., US$6–10) is still the hippest restaurant in town. Its current location is far more spacious than its original one, allowing for a bar scene inside and dining alfresco on the 2nd-floor veranda.
The boho vibe is completed by good electronic music on the sound system. The owner is Indian-Canadian, and when she runs the kitchen expect delicious Indian home cooking. When she’s not around, quality suffers. Try the shrimp tikka, which is great.
So are the inventive cocktail concoctions, such as the “Tajmatini,” made with vodka, lychee liqueur, and cranberry juice. It’s intense. The “Bollywood” (vodka, triple sec, and passion fruit) is refreshing and not too sweet. Cocktails go for around US$5. Breakfast can be had for around US$6 and includes such unusual (for Bocas) items as bagels and yummy chana bhatura, which I haven’t had for breakfast since I lived in India.
The Pirate (Calle 3 near Avenida C, no phone, 7 A.M.–11 P.M. daily, US$13–20) is a bar/restaurant on the water next to the downtown water-taxi piers. It serves so-so food, mostly seafood, and is relatively expensive. The best deal is its “executive lunch,” a full plate of típico food for US$4.95.
A good bet for breakfast is Lili’s Café (Calle 1 and Avenida D, next to Tropical Suites, tel. 757-9889, cell 6464-0256, www.kodiakbocas.com , 8 A.M.–4 P.M. Mon.–Sat., US$5). It’s a Bocas favorite as much for Lili’s food as for her famous smile. Breakfast is served all day; note that omelets more closely resemble frittatas but are tasty nonetheless. Other offerings include sandwiches, seafood, salad, lasagna, gallo pinto (a rice-and-bean dish), and various daily specials. Be sure to try Lili’s own Killin’ Me Man hot sauce.
Starfish Coffee (Calle 3 near Avenida B, no phone, 8 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) is another good bet for breakfast, which it serves 8 a.m.–noon. Most full breakfasts are around US$5. Attention Brits: They don’t call it that, but they serve a Bocas version of a full English breakfast here, substituting chipotle for baked beans and adding an extra helping of grease. It’s quite tasty. There’s a large selection of hot and cold coffee, tea, and chocolate drinks (made with organic Bocas chocolate).
Saturday brunch includes such goodies as breakfast burritos, quiche, and an Antillean take on French toast, served with coffee/tea, juice, and a choice of a screwdriver or Bloody Mary. Lunch offerings include sandwiches served on bagels or bread for US$4.50–7. Tapas (US$3) are served during happy hour, 5–7 p.m. Drinks include wine, beer, cocktails, and smoothies. There’s a book exchange and a newsstand that carries new and used magazines to buy or borrow.
“The Sandwich Guy” (Calle 3 between Avenidas F and G, no phone, open evenings until late, US$2–4) is a beloved local fixture known both for his meticulously prepared sandwiches and for a moodiness that has earned him comparisons to the “Soup Nazi” on Seinfeld. His sandwiches, which he serves out of a caravan, are a great local favorite. They’re easily the best in the islands. The Sandwich Guy is especially famous for his chicken Milanese.
Panadería y Dulcería La Alemaña (Calle 2 near Avenida E/Luis Russell, tel. 757-9436, 7 a.m.–8 p.m. daily), across the street from Om Café, offers so-so fresh bread and tasty buns at cheap prices.
Bocas Blended is an old school bus that’s been given a paint job, converted into a smoothie stand, and plopped in the yard in front of Mondo Taitu. The young woman from New York who runs the place makes fresh-fruit smoothies (papaya, banana, melon, etc.) with your choice of milk, soy milk, or water for US$2.50–3. They’re refreshing and a rare healthy option for breakfast or a snack on the run.