The bus ride back from El Valle de Antón was unfortunately more hectic than the way there. The driver sped while talking on his cell phone and I thought about complaining, but the idea of being left on the side of the Pan-American Highway was more frighting. I was relieved when we finally arrived at Albrook Bus Terminal, on the outskirts of Panama City. Albrook Bus Terminal is right next to the Albrook Mall, so I crossed the street to check out Central America’s largest mall.
Albrook Mall was gigantic (200+ stores) and safari themed, with all of the wings named after different animals and large animal sculptures at the entrances. There were also guards in safari attire, in addition to guards in bullet proof vests. As evidenced by the safari decor, the mall was family oriented and had lots of children’s rides and games throughout. There was also a large fast food court with many American chains.
I walked the length of the mall to the Koala section where I was told the best stores were located. The floors and walls of the Koala section were sparkling white and gleaming. However, the stores were extremely disappointing. Ninety-five percent of the shops were American and not particularly interesting American companies. There was Tommy Hilfiger, Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, the Gap, Converse, Crocs, etc. and while I like some of the aforementioned, I was hoping to see some upscale Panamanian stores or at least Argentinian or Spanish chains. I had a coffee at Juan Valdez and then headed to Panama City to check into my new hotel.
For my last two nights in Panama City, I choose to stay at the Executive Hotel because they had a weekend special and came NYTimes recommended. The Times mentioned that the hotel was dated and while my room’s furnishings definitely needed upgrading, I found the old-fashion lobby charming. It reminded me of a Graham Greene novel. I also loved the balcony in my room!
The Executive Hotel was in El Congrejo, but several blocks away from my first hotel, the Toscana Inn. I walked around the area and came across Beirut restaurant, which was mentioned in my guidebook and almost every Panamanian tourist site (the restaurant is so popular, it has an outpost in Albrook Mall). I was initially disappointed when I saw the outside because it looked so cheesy. I had read there is belly dancing on Saturday nights, so I asked the host if I could make a reservation for 9PM. He said he didn’t know if they would have indoor seating for one, but maybe they could find a seat for me on the patio (in the 92 degree heat and humidity, I decided this was not an option). I went back to my hotel room to change and googled the city’s other middle eastern restaurants with belly dancing (surprisingly, there are at least 3), but Beirut had the best reviews by far, so I decided to give it another try.
I returned around 9:15PM and the host found a seat for me inside, which turned out to be massive. The belly dancing had already started and talented dancers rotated through the rooms. I didn’t recognize a lot of the middle eastern dishes on the menu, so I asked the waitress to make a suggestion. She recommended the Beirut platter, which she said was appropriate for one. The platter consisted of many different little plates and was probably much more appropriate for two.
The decor was a little Disney-esque, but the food was delicious. The only downside was that the music was extremely loud and there was a strong scent of hookah drifting from the neighboring tables (I think maybe the host was doing me a favor when he tried to get me to sit outside). However, the fumes and blasting music were outweighed by the phenomenal people watching. Although I ate at several other upscale Panamanian restaurants, this was the first one where the clientele looked almost exclusively Panamanian and the diners were dressed for clubbing. The food, entertainment and fashionistas made this my most enjoyable meal in Panama City.
Stay tuned for my final day in Panama City!