Reading up on Panama City prior to my trip I knew that I wanted to dine in this former dungeon–-built into a seawall along the Pacific Coast–-where prisoners once dangled from chains over rising waters, tempting hungry sea creatures who ripped into tasty morsels of flesh.
Aware that Las Bovedas was not open on Sundays, we had made 10pm dinner reservations for Wednesday, our only other night in Panama City, which happened to be our first night in Panama. Landing at 9pm, we were cutting it close. Tammy and her husband from Panoramic Panama were there to meet us and drove us the 45 minutes from the international airport into the city, stopping to drop off our luggage at their guesthouse on Cerro Ancon before dropping us off at the restaurant minutes later.
Once we entered the quaint Casco Viejo district high rises of modern steel and fast food restaurants gave way to narrow brick-lined streets, peeling pastel-colored homes with plants cascading over balconies and jazz clubs reminiscent of New Orlean's French Quarter. At the end of the peninsula was a seawall bordering the large three-story Instituto Nacional De Cultura and romantic looking Las Bovedas Restaurant.
Donna and I stepped into the weathered concrete seawall housing the restaurant, immediately sensing the history and intrigue of the dining room that resembled a castle more than a prison. Narrow walls and curved vaulted ceiling created out of bricks, stones and concrete were softened by warm polished woods and low lighting in the intimate dining area. A bar decorated with model sailboats and stacked wine bottles were the backdrop for six tables set with green linens. A lively French foursome occupied another table, the only other guests.
A waiter dressed in a white Panamanian dress shirt and slacks greeted us with a winning smile and a string of foreign words. He asked what we'd like to drink–without producing a wine list–and all we were able to communicate was our preference for rojo or blanco. His eyes twinkled as he smiled at our feeble attempt before nodding and hurrying away to produce the finest wine I've ever tasted. Later in the meal, he brought out the bottles to show us the labels, which I meant to remember. But perhaps I enjoyed the wine a little too much . . . So smooth, it calmed nerves still frayed from our plane ride. Sudden turbulence had sent us flying out of our seats, scattering food, beverages and belonging into laps, shoes, everywhere. Surround sound screaming, wailing and crying crescendoed as Donna and I clutched each other and began praying, scared and strangely quiet realizing the possibility that we might not survive.
Ritilio, our waiter, brought over the chalkboard menu. We perused the Spanish words guessing at their meanings. Sopa had to be soup, ensaladas salads. I started with Ensalada cesar and Donna with her favored calamari calamares apanados. Both were excellent.
Deciding on our entrees was a little bit more challenging. Donna was first to extract salmon from the menu and awkwardly read the description aloud. Ritilio smiled and repeated the choice, the name of the salmon entree rolling off his tongue. Without thinking, Donna clapped her hands exclaiming, "Good job! Good job!" to which I couldn't help from laughing. Of course he knows how to pronounce it, I said. "Oh, yeah. I guess he would," she said, tucking her cheek into her shoulder. "Good job!" became the catchphrase of our trip, repeated with giggles whenever anyone did anything successful, no matter how small.
The salmon was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Succulent and cooked to perfection, it didn't really need the complement of three different cream, garlic, and herb sauces, yet they added a flavorful sensation with each bite. Asparagus, collard greens, and a mound of warm tomato, corn, and squash salsa accompanied the salmon along with a basket of rolls, served with puffs of herb butter.
After dinner, Ritilio gestured us to follow him. He posed for our photos, handcuffing himself to a chained ball attached to the wall once used for prisoners. Then lifted a curtain leading to a darkened room and entered. Donna looked back at me, unsure whether or not to follow. After all, we were alone in an unfamiliar place where we didn't speak the language. But it turned out to be another narrow dining room with a curved brick ceiling where musicians played jazz a couple nights a week. It was empty now, except for a couple seated on a couch who separated from an intimate embrace when we entered. Ritilio led us up to the bar, took our photo then went behind the counter to fix us a drink. Neither of us wanted anything more. Instinctively he knew and brought us water. He led us to a tiny table in an alcove, and pointed out the window. We looked, but couldn't see anything. What did he expect us to see? It was midnight. Not a soul was roaming about. He lit a candle for us then disappeared behind the curtain.
Puzzled we sat there, watching the flame flicker against the fortress wall. The brochure Ritilio left behind told of it's original purpose. Juan Bautista Antonelly built the fortress in 1688 to safeguard gold from frequent pirate attacks. The fortress was considered Panama's primary defense when the city was rebuilt in Casco Viejo after Henry Morgan demolished the original Old Panama in 1671. Centuries later Las Bovedas was used as a military prison. In the early 1900s, prisoners were chained to the wall and tortured by sea creatures when the tide rose up to their necks. Just how many died is pure speculation.
We wondered why he had brought us in here. It was late. A tiring travel day. We needed to get back to our guesthouse. Within minutes, lights from a taxi appeared in the window, and we realized that Ritilio had been looking after us, sobering us up for our taxi ride home. What impeccable service! Intriguing atmosphere, outstanding food, and an fun friendly waiter made this dining experience extra special. A fabulous introduction to Panama!
Located on Plaza Francia in Casco Viejo. Open Monday through Saturday for dinner. Jazz on the weekends from 9pm-1am. Phone: 507-228-8068.