A plain white building on a shady corner inside Panama’s UNESCO World Heritage Casco Viejo district, Manolo Caracol restaurant is deceiving at first glance. As you’re coming down the street of this 338 year-old neighborhood, it blends in with every other building on the block. But once you pull up to the entrance you take notice of one particular wall where the image of a man’s face has been spray painted in various colors, three or four dozen times.
The face on the wall is owner Manuel Madueno himself, who is ready to treat your group to some of the best fusion favorites in town and an eccentric dining experience few will forget.
The restaurant has been around for a decade, open nightly for dinner. One element that distinguishes it from the empanada carts and hole-in-the-wall pubs around the corner is their self-proclaimed “eat it and shut up” concept. That’s right, there’s no menu.
Madueno’s wife, Josephina Hanabergh, says it just seems natural.
“Many people love that we use this system because they have no choices to make,” she says. “Forty years ago people didn’t pick and choose what they ate. They were just served and always enjoyed their meals.”
Josefina’s favorite part of their restaurant is the worldly clientele. Laura Bush and Francis Ford Coppola are a few well-known figures, who have to stopped by in the past.
On top of that, the dishes are constantly changing. Each is only featured for 15-20 days. Then, a whole new line-up is developed and introduced.
Victor Pitti, director of sales/marketing for Bristol Hotels group in Panama, frequently enjoys the restaurant and joined us there during our visit last week. He says he’s eager to see what Manolo’s got cooking.
“Many times people go to a restaurant for two or three signature dishes that keep the clientele happy but people come here for the opposite reason–they come because it’s always changing,” Victor says. “You come ready to be surprised because you know that no matter what, it’s going to be good.”
Another writer in our group, who has visited over two dozen countries, said it was her second time there and it may just be one of her favorite restaurants in the world.
Josefina hurriedly dashes across the restaurant to greet us and tell us all about the fresh, locally sourced dishes we will experience in the course of the night.
“All our food is fine and fresh,” Josefina says. “In the past 10 years, Manolo has done his research to get 100% natural ingredients from Panama.
She adds that they obviously have nothing to hide, as she points to the open kitchen, featuring a line-up of tin pales displaying a fresh selection of pineapples, papayas, melons, mushrooms, herbs and spices, and everything they’ll need to ensure a fresh and fun dinner experience.
Then, she brings out their first dish: shrimp ceviche and pixbae, the nut found in palm trees. While some plates are served family-style, this one comes out in small, individualized portions. The crunchy, tangy shrimp and soft, chewy nut leave the group wanting more.
What they don’t know is how much more are they being treated to. Josefina explains that the number of dishes depends on the line-up they are serving. Sometimes groups can find a smaller selection of heavier items or a longer line of lighter dishes.
On this particular night, dishes included: a garbanzo salad with crumbled goat cheese, spicy lobster/shrimp stew with onion croquettes, octopus bruschetta and coconut risotto, chicken-filled bollitos and sour cream, shrimp kebobs and sweet potato puree, rooster fish and the grand finale–bread pudding cubes alongside a bowl of cheesecake ice cream.
It’s safe to say no one leaves Manolo’s hungry.
For those who can tear their eyes off of their flavorful feast for a few minutes, the plain white walls are brought to life with colorful artwork for sale. A different artist is featured every month.
Groups up to 80 can buyout the restaurant, but it was hard to find one seat this past weekend, let alone an entire table. It is suggested to make reservations a few weeks in advance to guarantee a table.
“We have so many groups from across the globe that it’s hard to point any one group out,” Josefina says. “Everyone who comes through that door has something special about them. There are so many stories that come out of here but one common theme is that everyone seems to leave both full and happy.”