I recently composed a post about the food costs differences between Panama and Costa Rica related to supermarket and farmer’s market purchases. You can see that here. This post will give you an overview of what the costs of eating out in Panama and Costa Rica looks like. This is interesting to most everyone – whether you are a Panama expat considering relocating to Costa Rica, a new expat considering either country, or simply visiting Panama or Costa Rica. So climb aboard!
For the purposes of evaluating eating out in Panama versus Costa Rica, I am going to focus on the City of Panama and the Pacific coast, where I personally had full-time homes during my eight year stint there (until nine months ago). This post does not focus on the Interior (countryside), so please keep that in mind. For Costa Rica, I will focus on the city of San Jose (the capitol) and the Pacific coast, as well, as I have personal experience in both.
Let it also be known that on average, my household eats out 4-5 times a week.
The Dining Scene in Panama
Panama has a vibrant dining scene. On that topic, I have to be honest. Since I departed the urban towers of glass and steel and completed my move to Costa Rica in January of this year (2016), I do miss the variety and the options that I enjoyed there as it related to eating out.
In Panama, a plethora of restaurants in all sizes, shapes, colors, flavors and nationalities exist, and you, my friends – whether you choose to relocate to Panama or are simply vacationing in Panama – you, are the ones that benefit! Because of the international multitudes that come and go with the Panama Canal (and those who work on it or who once came here via it), the city’s residents can find almost anything their little heart desires to munch on. And these days, that even includes Starbucks (as of 2015) and P.F.Chang. The fast food joints have always been there, and in Panama – this is funny – they even deliver to your home. (And, as such, more and more locals are beginning to emulate the looks of a Fast Food Nation, unfortunately.)
What Does it Cost to Eat Out in Panama?
Our average night out for dinner at a sit-down, trendy, nice table cloth restaurant in Panama included the following items: two cocktails, a bottle of wine, two entrees, one dessert and one aperitif. When you live in Panama as an expat, you soon find that most social engagements are planned around eating out. And, for good reason. You have a ton of choices and it’s fun to eat out in Panama.
You’ll also find that in most nice restaurants, the locals dress nice – like they’re going to church (though the prevalence of open-collared dress shirts is on the rise in the past two years). You can see more on this dress-up cultural trend in my first book about Panama here.
Back on track, our average bill for the same line-up of items (above) ran around $100-130. Of course, it can go lower, if the restaurant is very casual, and much, much higher if you are hitting the flavor-du-jour, wherever that happens to be. And of course, if you imbibe with more beverages of your choice, that will escalate the cost as well.
Not cheap but perhaps more affordable than if you were eating out in a similar restaurant in say, New York, Chicago or L.A.? Which reminds me – anyone who tells you Panama is cheap these days – is on drugs. Living in the city of Panama – in my opinion – is no longer cheap. It is affordable on some levels but it is NOT cheap.
Eating Out on Panama’s Pacific Coast
Panama’s Pacific coast – from Playa Gorgona to Coronado on to Buena Ventura – is still lacking in a wide variety of fine dining options. This ain’t Miami Beach, people, so your choices are much more limited. But, that said, you can still find lots of fish, steak, casual Mexican, barbecue, lots of local sodas, coffee and ice cream. And surprisingly, while the costs can be lower than the city, they are creeping up that direction more and more. That makes sense in many ways because from this stretch is the most popular area for full-time coastal expats, as well as tourists. The restaurant owners have figured that out and charge accordingly.
The Dining Scene in Costa Rica
What’s the scene like in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capitol city?
As much as I adore Costa Rica as a country, San Jose falls flat on its face when it comes to dining out, especially when you compare it to the busload of options you have in Panama. Sorry, San Jose, but on this topic – and it’s probably one of the only times I will say this – I miss the city of Panama!
San Jose does have some good restaurants, yes, but honestly, on our weekends and two-night stays flying in and out to go somewhere else, we’ve hit some of the top rated places (according to TripAdvisor). We consider ourselves a bit of foodies, and though we’re not crazy about it, we do like variety and we do like good food. It’s been a bit disappointing to find such a limited list. Again, my humble opinion, but there it is. Panama wins hands down for city dining versus San Jose.
What does it cost to eat out in San Jose, Costa Rica?
Again, of course, you can find fast food, and you can find a few locally run places here and there. But, all in all, for what you get, San Jose restaurants in Costa Rica are not cheap, especially when you hit the nicer ones in downtown or Santa Ana or trendy Escazu. Compared to Panama, for the same list of items outlined above – and again, at a nice place, not a mall restaurant, I have paid $150-$175 for the exact same thing. Ugh. Which means we have become a bit more careful about sharing plates and so on, when we eat out in San Jose.
The good news – at least for those vacationing in Costa Rica – is that you can pretty much go anywhere to eat out in jeans and a nice shirt. Costa Rica as a whole is much more casual than Panama, even in the city. The locals are accustomed to entertaining sunburned tourists from all parts of the globe in their shorts and their flip-flops, even when it’s not really appropriate (for the restaurant decor).
Eating Out on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast
Again, ouch! The Pacific coast of Costa Rica is where the majority of the international tourists end up at one point or another during their vacation. Places like Tamarindo, Manuel Antonio and Nosara fall into this category. Restaurant prices – especially nice ones – are high, just like the city. And, forget the resorts. We locals don’t go to the resorts to eat; it’s way too expensive. Yes, you can find some delicious local places in each of these pueblos, but even these, compared to Panama, cost 25-50% more. Keep this in mind for when you choose to live here, if you like to eat out like I do, or for when you are visiting.
Let me take a slight detour on the topic here: this is another aspect that I get tired of hearing Costa Rica expats and tourists complain about – the fact that Costa Rica is expensive. And to that I say, yes, it can be. But let’s be honest – tourists started coming here in force 30 years ago, and the prices now reflect it! In Panama, however, the bulk of their international visitors are business-related, so it tends to be more affordable in many categories including trips to the supermarket and eating out. Tourism in Panama has a long way to go, in my opinion, as Panama is not known for its customer service. 🙁 But, again, you can read about that in my second book about expat living in Panama here.
The Custom of Tipping in Panama or Costa Rica
Now, this is interesting. Those expats that live in Panama or Costa Rica tend to tip in the manner that the locals do: 10%. And for Costa Rica, it’s actually sometimes less than that. If you follow a typical Tico around, they only tip 1,000 Colones (about two dollars) for standard meal service. This is more true on the coast then in San Jose.
A Panamanian family will leave a 10% tip, however, as a general rule. More, perhaps if it was a special occasion, but not often.
Of course, the locals in both countries adore the generous Gringo on vacation who leaves more than 10%. They are happy to pocket that extra change, which is another reason why the service in Costa Rica is so attentive to Gringos (U.S. travelers). (Not so much to our French Canadian and Canadian counterparts who live or visit Costa Rica, and leave very low tips.)
My rule of thumb is 10% unless I receive outstanding service, wherever I go in either country.
Dining Out: Who’s Cheaper – Panama or Costa Rica?
The verdict is in, my fellow travelers and future expats: Panama is cheaper than Costa Rica when it comes to dining out. I recently spent a week in Bocas del Toro, Panama and was pleasantly surprised each and every time the bill came. A bonus of living close enough to Panama when I need a visa run!
Considering a move to Panama or Costa Rica?
If you haven’t already read my bestselling books about expat life in Panama, you’ll definitely want to check those out – they were both updated this year (in 2016). And if you’re evaluating the two countries and would like to get some of your specific questions answered, I am now offering half-hour and hour consultations via phone or Skype. Most people can get the bulk of their queries answered in an hour, on average. If you’re interested in this, contact me here.
Until then, happy eating on your expat journey, wherever you choose to land.