In the heart of Casco Viejo, very close to the Santa Ana park, lies the legendary Café Coca Cola, the oldest active restaurant in Panama City. Legendary figures, of the likes of Che Guevara, Evita Peron, even Teddy Roosevelt himself, were among its clientele.
You would not go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower right? Well it is the same for Café Coca Cola when visiting Casco Viejo, you simply cannot miss it! This café is a city icon and that is why many of our guests staying at Las Clementinas often ask us for instructions on how to get there, as well as menu suggestions. Café Coca Cola is really close by Las Clementinas; you can reach it in about four steps! Walking into the café is like submerging yourself into an active and vibrant present time while still reminiscing of times past. It was inaugurated in 1883 and owes its name to the famous beverage. In fact it is the only café with Coca Cola’s namesake approved by The Coca Cola Corporation. It is a cultural icon in Panama and is strategically located at a convergence between five streets, where a multitude of people pass by each day. For those who often ask us for recommendations or suggestions, we would always start with the coffee, aromatic and with a deep flavor. We also recommend their breakfasts; especially the traditional ones, following Panamanian customs of beginning the day with a strong breakfast, giving you plenty of energy to allow you to enjoy the adventures that the rest of the day offers.
Cafe Coca Cola in 1941, photography by David E. Scherman.
The Café Coca Cola, is a restaurant that has been functioning since the 19th Century, and has been witness to how Casco Viejo went from being the most relevant and essential nucleus of the city, to becoming abandoned and ruined, only to rise from it all; full of vitality and prosperity. Throughout all the changes however, the café has managed to maintain its gastronomic philosophy: Good homemade-style food, amazing flavors, generous portions and low prices.
Photograph of one of our many visits to the restaurant, the menu options they have are quite varied and at affordable prices.
The Café Coca Cola is not only a place to have a great meal though, you can also come and observe all manner of peculiar characters, from the local opera tenor who personally likes to invite the cafe’s guests to his scarce presentations; through tourists that admire the café with fascination, all the way up to the old ladies and gents who have been faithful patrons of the café for many decades. It is said that originally the Café Coca Cola was a cafeteria and ice cream parlor, the first one established in the Republic of Panama.
Inside Cafe Coca Cola, you can see various paintings of the place in various pieces that decorate the place.
Since then, local personalities as well as city folk have come to mingle with historical and emblematic personalities, like the Che Guevara and Teddy Roosevelt. There is even a story that in 1953, while staying in Panama, Che Guevara would meet up with Fidel Castro at the Café Coca Cola, perhaps even preparing the coup against Batista and subsequent birth of the Cuban revolution.
As guests to the café, there were also the celebrated Argentinians Evita and Juan Domingo Peron, even Literature Nobel prize-winning Pablo Neruda.
The Café Coca Cola always functioned as an axis for culture and politics, where intellectuals, writers, professors, musicians, poets and bohemians would meet. So it is no surprise that with so many years of rich history, the Café Coca Cola has plenty of fun anecdotes!
Current view of the building.
It was at this exact café, that great writer Guillermo Sánchez Borbón, birthed the idea for his first movie: Memoria Mínimas (sic) – The first movie created in Panama. The creative crew and actors were all loyal clients of the café. The movie was filmed at Casco Viejo and Sánchez Borbón recounts that in the original script for the film, the male protagonist was generously forgiving an unfaithful woman. The improvised actor, a regular at the café, refused to film the scene saying “If I forgive her, everyone is going to make fun of me at The Coca Cola. No one will respect me again”. Of course, due to his adamant refusal, the scene was changed for a new one that was more convincing for the actor.
We leave you with a final suggestion. When you come to Panama, if you are lucky enough to coincide with a world boxing title match, don’t miss out on watching it at Café Coca Cola. It is quite the noisy and exceptional event, where local neighborhood experts, fans of the sport and peculiar personalities converge. Just as peculiar as in times gone by. Unchanging. As Always.
Written by Alberto Gualde / Published by Paola Montilla.
She’s been a part of Las Clementinas since the restoration and is just so passionate about every nook and cranny of the property that you would think she built it with her bare hands. Having said that, it just makes sense that Paola will treat you as if you were staying at her own house. Whatever you need she will make it happen!