As part of an ongoing series on how to not be mistaken for a tourist in Casco Viejo, today we explore the fine world of dining. The majority of the restaurants in Casco Viejo are designed for outsiders (ie. those who don’t live in Casco Viejo). The obvious tourist move, therefore, is to fall for the trap and eat at a mediocre restaurant that charges too much. This combo probably describes around half of Casco Viejo’s diner experiences. Here’s how to avoid the ambush…
Eat specialties: Just about every restaurant in Casco Viejo does something well. At the less delicious restaurants, there’s generally some redeeming item on the menu and at the top notch restaurants, there’s more than a few. The secret to eating like a local is ordering the specialty and nothing else. Here are some specialty items you should try at their respective houses of nosh. Beef carpaccio (Puerta de Tierra), ceviche (Ciao Pescao), nachos (Tequila), passion fruit capirinha (Buzios), gorgonzola brownie (Ego), mojito (Havana Vieja), fish tacos (Bohemios), eggplant vinagretta (Mostaza), pizza Manuela (Café Per Due), eggplant lasagna (DiVino), fresh tuna salad (Diablo Rosso café).
Eat fresh: Casco Viejo is just minutes from a world-class fish market, a ridiculously big produce market, and a (not so impressive but still laudable in the fact that it exists) meat market. There is absolutely no reason you should be ordering stuff that’s not clearly from around here. For example, don’t ever fall for Angus beef. If you do so, you’re a tourist. Similarly, don’t order a dish of salted/preserved cod when the country you’re in literally means “abundance of fresh fish.”
Know your deals: Most tourists to Casco Viejo aren’t aware of the neighborhood’s secret deals that are meant to attract locals clientele. Among these deals are executive lunch specials (all less than $7 or $8), various happy hours, coupon offers via websites like OfertaSimple.com, and theme nights like “around the world pizza night” at Café Per Due where you can try a slice of like 10 different pizzas all for $6. (Ask 4Tulipanes staff for current special deals during your stay).
Sunsets: Arguable the best time of day in Casco Viejo is right around 5pm when the sun starts to set behind iconic Ancon hill and the residual gleam of light makes the neighborhood look like a movie set. It is imperative that you seize this opportunity with sunset cocktails and/or tapas. Our favorite places to enjoy the “magic hours” of 5-7 are Tequila Bar, Las Celementinas rooftop, La Vie en Rose, Las Bovedas (have a glass of wine on the terrace), La Forchetta (sit on the balcony overlooking the plaza), and Luna’s Castle Hostal (have a $1 beer overlooking the ocean).
Follow the crowd: Casco Viejo has a very distinct demographic of expats from all over the world who tend to gather together at different restaurants/bars on different nights. If you manage to find yourself one of these groups, it’s a great way to learn the neighborhood and meet new faces who call Casco Viejo home. They’re like the walking versions of this article.
As guests with Los Cuatro Tulipanes, our goal is to help you become the anti-tourist: to introduce you to locals, to integrate you with life in Casco Viejo, and to avoid expensive restaurants/bars that don’t offer anything interesting other than their outdated write-ups in Lonely Planet. Follow this guide to eat and drink like you live here: it’s imperative that you don’t just sit at Casablanca ordering Panama beers all afternoon. This is loser talk. And we will have none of it.