If you’ve read my post “Cost of Living in Panama,” you’ll know that I think dining out is one area that can get expensive for ExPats quickly in Panama. This is because many ExPats take the easy route by avoiding cooking most meals, and eating at either trendy ExPat restaurants or fine dining establishments. While these places may be cheaper than their counterparts in places like the United States, they are still costly, and will quickly eat up a good portion of your budget. Luckily, this does not have to be the case for you if you are willing to be smart about where you dine out. Panama offers plenty of choices for affordable eating.
If you are an ExPat living in Panama, one thing that’s important to understand is that most Panamanians are living on significantly less money than you are. 85% of Panamanian workers make less than $1000 a month, and 23% make less than $400. Yet there are plenty of places that are still affordable for regular Panamanians to eat at. All you really have to do is go out and find them. In this article I’ll talk about some of the restaurants you can dine at for cheap, as well as ways to save money at restaurants that are traditionally more expensive. This guide includes places mostly located in Panama City, but the ideas and strategies included will serve you well in all parts of Panama.
Cafeteria Style Restaurants
One thing you’ll notice in Panama is an abundance of Panamanian style fast food restaurants, which are different than the type of places you would find in the United States. While Panama has it’s share of McDonalds, Taco Bell, Subways. and KFCs (for some reason, Panamanians especially seem to love KFC), those restaurants actually aren’t that cheap here. They cost at least as much as they do in the US, which is more than a better meal at a local restaurant. Panamanian Fast Food is not traditionally burgers and fries, but instead a cafeteria style restaurant where you choose what you want from a wide selection of meats, seafoods, sides, and vegetables. You can usually get a full meal at one of these restaurants for $3-$6, including a meat or fish with several sides. Here are a few places you can eat like this, but note that there are dozens of others that are comparable to these that I haven’t been to.
Niko’s Cafe is a well known Panamanian chain with several locations in Panama City and one in Colon. Most locations are open 24 hours (at least the ones I’ve been to). Niko’s has two separate sections, one for sandwiches and one for regular meals. The selection is quite diverse and the food is good. When you order your main item (meat, fish, etc), you get up to 3 sides included in that price. Most meals run about $5-6. When I last went there, I got a big piece of chicken parmesan with rice, mashed potatoes, and plantains for $5.95. Check out www.nikoscafe.com for more locations and more information. Just be aware that the menu they list on the website is their catering menu, so those are prices for orders for many people, not the individual pricing you’ll find at the restaurant.
Riba Smith Cafeteria
Despite being known as an expensive store for grocery shopping, Riba Smith actually has a very affordable cafeteria at all of it’s locations. We have one within walking distance to us, so my wife and I will often walk there when looking for a quick meal. Their selection varies throughout the day and is best around lunchtime, but they have a good variety of choices. At Riba you pay for each item you order, so you pay for each side that you choose. The end price ends up being very affordable. Last time I went, I got what really was 2 meals for under $6. If I had just gotten the chicken, rice, and plantains, which is enough for most people, it would’ve cost $3.25. I added a big piece of a very good chicken lasagna for $2.50 extra. They also usually have certain juice on sale, so I added a large grapefruit juice for $0.60. They also have a deli as well that is affordable next to the cafeteria. You can find locations at www.RibaSmith.com
I have no idea if this restaurant is a standalone or a chain, but there is one located on Transistmica near where my wife works, and it seems to always have great deals. Chances are there is a restaurant similar to this near most office buildings in Panama. This is where my wife got what I think is the steal of the cheap eating list, which was a giant club sandwich loaded with fries for $3.75
This is another cafeteria chain that you will see around a lot of places in Panama, that has cheap and quick eating. I don’t have any pictures of their food, but last time my wife and I went, we both got a main meal with a couple of sides each and a drink for less than $10 together. So it is definitely a good place to eat in the $4-5 range.
Now these cafeteria style restaurants aren’t exactly what most would consider fine dining, and may not have the greatest ambiance. But understand that ambiance is something you pay for at restaurants, and it doesn’t go into making your food any better. Eating at these restaurants you are most likely going to be using a tray to get your food and sitting in plastic chairs and eating off a basic table, but you’ll get a good meal for only a few dollars.
Eating at these type of restaurants is the main way my wife and I keep our dining out budget to a minimum in Panama, but there are ways to eat at nicer restaurants and still keep your costs down. In the next section of this article, I’ll discuss several ways you can do this.
Don’t let the title fool you. Executive lunches are budget priced lunch menus that nicer restaurants use to attract workers from the offices during their lunch breaks. You can take advantage of this by usually getting a much better deal that you would if you went for dinner or on the weekend (these menus usually only run Monday-Friday). Many restaurants have them. There’s a restaurant right by us called Sabores De Mi Tierra which is normally priced $12-$15 for entrees used to run an executive menu that was $7-$8 including a drink and desert. They must have thought that was too expensive, because now they opened a side restaurant window specifically for lunch where your meal with a drink is always $4 or less.
Tsugoi, which is a great sushi/Japanese restaurant that will usually cost you in the mid $20s per person for dinner, has an executive lunch menu priced at $7.95, which gets you three different food items and a drink. Even Os Segredos Da Carne, which is an expensive all you can eat Brazilian Steakhouse, does lunch for a relatively modest $18 (compared to $30 for dinner). You will find that a lot of nicer restaurants have a similar type deal set up for lunch. Your best bet is to find a restaurant you like and give them a call to see what sort of specials they have for lunch (this is where learning Spanish comes in handy).
Daily Deal Sites
If you come from the US, you are likely to at least have heard of sites like Groupon, where there are limited time deals offered for restaurants, travel, and local businesses. These sites exist in Panama too, and can be a good way to enjoy a meal on a budget, as the meals are often discounted at least 50%. Groupon has a Panama website that you can access at Groupon.com.pa. The selections of deals aren’t as large as they are in the US, and they are mostly travel, fitness focused. Still, every day there will usually be at least one restaurant deal on the site. There are other local deal sites that will usually have better deals on restaurants, and these include Gustazos and OftertaSimple. At the time of writing, today’s offers include $44 for 2 main courses, one appetizer, one desert, and 2 glasses of wine (normally $88) at Trump Ocean Deck (Gustazos), $20 for two burgers or sandwiches, an appetizer sampler platter, and two non-alcoholic drinks (normally $47) at Beks Deli Coffee & Bar (Gustazos), and $9 for $20 towards food and drink at Buddha Express (OfertaSimple). Most deals only last for a couple of days at most, so if you are reading this a day or more after I published, these specific deals might be gone. But they give you an idea of what you will find at these sites. Always make sure to read the terms and conditions of a deal so you know what the restrictions are and when they expire.
Budget Entrees at Nice Restaurants
Even if you are not going for lunch or don’t have a daily deal, you can still usually eat for not too expensive at a nicer restaurant in Panama if you choose some of the cheaper entrees on the menu. In Panama, much more than when I lived in the United States, I’ve noticed that there is a wide price disparity between the cheapest entree and the most expensive entree on the menu at many of the nicer restaurants. This means that if you are not too picky, and avoid costly drinks (the tap water is safe to drink in Panama), you can enjoy a nice dinner without breaking the bank. One recent example of this is a meal my wife had when she went with her mother to eat at a restaurant in Casco Viejo called Casa Blanca (this is one of our favorite restaurants). Menu prices for most items are either in the high teens, or the low-mid twenties. However, there was a great seafood paella that my wife ordered that cost $9, and left her enough for leftovers for lunch the next day. It was probably better tasting than the high 20’s imported steak entree would’ve been. I’ve also noticed this on the menu on another one of our favorite places, La Casa del Mariscos. Entrees can get into the high 20’s to mid 30’s often, but they have a few entrees on the menu that look perfectly good that cost around $12 or $13. I imagine this is similar at many other nicer restaurants as well. So you could definitely dine at a nice restaurant and keep it around $30 or less for a couple if you avoid appetizers and drinks.
The easiest way to save money on dining out in Panama is to eat like a local and enjoy Panama’s many good cafeteria style restaurants where you can often get a good meal for $6 or less. However, by enjoying Panama’s good deals during lunch times, taking advantage of daily deal sites, or just picking a cost effective item on the menu at a nice restaurant, you can still dine out without breaking the bank.