Panama Hotel & Restaurant: Reviews

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Eric Watterud
Name: Eric
Occupation: Retired Middle School Teacher
Location: San Anselmo
Favorite Restaurant: Panama Hotel & Restaurant
Reviewed Panama Hotel & Restaurant: Friday, April 9, 2010

The Panama Hotel has a delightful entry under an old spreading wisteria vine and twinkling fairy lights. You get the sense that the restaurant has some history in the neighborhood. There are three choices of seating locations: the main dining room, which feels cozy with photos, paintings, and thrift store antiques covering every wall and surface; the entry way covered patio, which feels like a garden setting if you don't mind a little traffic; and a fenced-in garden patio that is more casual and available when the weather warms up.

We had a 7:15 reservation for three, including wife and me, and our daughter who would be arriving a little later. Upon entering the patio area we spied old friends, which led to an extended "catching up" conversation. Ten minutes later, as their starters arrived, we checked in and were seated with no problem, even though our party was not complete. In the meantime, I ordered a pint of rich tasting Panama Red Ale, produced in a Petaluma brewery. A check of the fellow diners revealed table groups that appeared to be regulars, as well as couples enjoying a night out.

When our daughter arrived, orders were taken. The waitress easily accommodated those that wanted a starter followed by an entrée, and those who wished to choose their meal entirely from the small plate starter list. This option, by the way, is a great way to go. There are many delicious choices, and the servings are ample. I wanted a wine suggestion to go with my entrée, and the waitress was quick to suggest one that ended up being the perfect complement.


The appetizer I chose was the ahi tuna ceviche. The fish was combined with bits of avocado, tomato, red onion, chile, and cilantro. No one addition overwhelmed the flavor of the tuna, which was excellent. The item was plated in the shape of a cylinder, and it was topped with microgreens. A small glass filled with fresh tortilla chips came on the side to provide a salty crunch to the experience. I can think of nothing I would change about this yummy combination of flavors and textures. My dining companions agreed, and it was all I could to balance my desire to share my good fortune against keeping the lion’s share for myself.

For my entrée, I chose the vegetarian option of a stuffed plobano chile. I had long been a fan of chiles rellenos, but now avoid such fried food when I can. (Pass the french fries, please.) This large chile was fire-roasted to a soft texture, and came stuffed with a list of healthy sounding ingredients. The bulk of the stuffing was a tasty quinoa, to which mushrooms, pine nuts, and goat cheese were added. The quinoa provided some sweet, the cheese, a little sour, and the red chile sauce, fire. The suggested wine -- a red Grenache from the Ojai region of Santa Barbara -- worked well with this spicy complex combination of flavors.

For dessert, we decided to share a butterscotch crème brûlée. The rich pudding arrived in a demitasse paired with ginger cookies and a dollop of whipped crème. Again, a treat so good you want it all to yourself, especially after you find your daughter has a "thing" for butterscotch.

The overall experience is delightfully comfortable and it calls me back often. The restaurant also has a schedule of weekday live music offerings that provide another way to experience dining at The Panama Hotel.

Gina Lovoi
Name: Gina
Occupation: Personal Trainer & Boxing Instructor
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Woodhouse Fish Co.
Reviewed Panama Hotel & Restaurant: Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My experience of the Panama Hotel started on our drive to San Rafael. The traffic from San Francisco to the Panama Hotel at commute hour was a concern from the get-go. My mother and I left an hour before our 5:30 p.m. reservation, and our traffic concerns soon proved to be unfounded. The drive was pleasant, and as we drove closer to the restaurant, I realized I had been to this part of town before…which is odd since I rarely go anywhere. The Panama Hotel is located several blocks from one of the greatest places in the world: WildCare! If you’ve ever picked up an injured wild animal from Golden Gate Park or the mean streets of San Francisco, you may know of where I speak. I immediately got a good feeling because I started relating my pending dining experience to one of the best non-profits ever.

In typical Lovoi fashion, we were there way before anyone else. There are three dining areas to the Panama Hotel Restaurant: the grand-looking inside, the funky atrium, and the serene outdoor area, which was closed, probably due to the cold weather. We had our choice of seats and picked the smaller, funky atrium, which gave us a chance to see the well-manicured grounds of the hotel, and the outside décor of a few rooms. The whole atmosphere was fantastic, and my mother was perfect company at this particular location.

The host was lovely and comfortably chatted with us about the cast-boot-thing on her leg. Her demeanor put me at ease, and I was happy to be there despite being one out of three diners…often awkward. We took a gander at the menu and decided on two appetizers (Mini Diver Scallop Tostada and Tuscan Toast Platter), in addition to our two entrees (Crispy Calamari Fritti Salad and Panama Burger with Hand Cut Fries). It was simply hard to pick. The menu has a large variety and something for most palates -- everything sounded good.

The food was fresh, flavorful, and cooked perfectly. Since I’m a big fan of seafood, I can also be pretty fussy about seafood. The scallops were not bitter, not over-spiced, and the accompanying flavors on the tostada complemented them wonderfully. The calamari was tender, not over-breaded, warm, and of a very generous portion. The calamari sat on top of a spicy, sassy salad. It was one of those meals that when you’ve clearly had enough, you continue to stare at it and pick at it despite being at full stomach capacity. My mother ordered her burger medium-well with a lean toward the “well” side. It passed my mother’s stringent medium-well standard -- whew! She kind of went on about it for a while, so I know it was good.

One thing I must mention in this review is the fact that the Panama Hotel is host to two things, which I did not participate in: an extensive wine list and live entertainment. I know myself well enough to know that going on a night without live entertainment is probably the better choice. Again, I can be fussy, and I wanted to have the best food experience possible. I also know myself well enough to know that despite the tempting white wine flight offered, I don’t process alcohol very well. Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on two aspects to the restaurant, which are obviously very popular!

Finally, the staff was very pleasant. They were attentive and there when you needed them with no weird hovering. Overall, it was a great place to go to dinner with my ma.

Marina Levina
Name: Marina
Occupation: UC Berkeley Media Studies Professor
Location: Berkeley
Favorite Restaurant: Addis Ethiopian Restaurant
Reviewed Panama Hotel & Restaurant: Saturday, April 17, 2010

Panama Hotel and Restaurant is tucked away in a quiet residential street in San Rafael. Apparently, the hotel part is very charming as well -- a bed and breakfast type of place with theme-decorated rooms. The restaurant has live jazz on Tuesdays and Thursdays night. However, because of the travel time from the East Bay and our work schedules, my husband and I were only able to make it on a Saturday night, which sadly didn’t have live music. We had a very nice, romantic meal there, nevertheless.

We were coming from Berkeley, and it is about a half-hour drive without traffic. We didn’t have much problem finding the place, and because it is a residential neighborhood, there was no problem finding parking. The hotel building is a charming older grey structure covered with vines. It is not very large and very picturesque. It reminded me a bit of little hotels one can find in the European countryside.

The restaurant is prominently located on the first floor, and it doesn’t feel like you are inside a hotel lobby. I was a bit worried about that, but the restaurant is a stand-alone experience with a particular atmospheric charm. The medium-sized dining room has terracotta-plastered walls, which prominently feature black and white family photographs, history of the restaurant and the building, and a bunch of Latin American and Spanish knickknacks. The lighting is soft, and the room exudes warmth. It is an inviting, romantic atmosphere. The crowd was definitely a bit older, although there were a few young couples. There is a nice bar area and a generous outside dining area, which I imagine would be quite nice on warm summer nights.

The menu also features quite a bit of Latin American and Spanish influence, although not exclusively so. For appetizers we had Scallop Tostadas. The scallops were outstanding -- perfectly seared and served on a crispy tostada with guacamole and sweet pickled tiny red tomato salsa. For the entrée, I had the filet of salmon with grilled Yukon potatoes, and roasted red and golden beets with lemon cream sauce and toasted almond slivers. The hostess told me that this is the dish they have featured for a couple of years and they do not take it off the menu due to popular demand. That definitely shows. It was outstanding. The salmon was encrusted with spices and perfectly made -- it was flaky, soft, and delicious. All the flavors, while not wildly inventive, perfectly complemented the fish and each other. The potatoes were especially perfectly roasted. I am a bit dubious about lemon-based sauces, but here the flavors of lemon and cream were perfectly balanced. My husband really enjoyed his Baja seafood salad, which featured shrimp and scallops, but the salmon was the stand out.

We were stuffed, but we found room a slice of lemon tart with whipped cream and blueberries. Again, I am not a particularly huge lemon lover, but the tart was light and the crust was perfectly crisp. Next time I will try the bread pudding, which looked delicious.

For the wine service, we split a flight of California white wines. A flight of five wines was $20, and the pouring was generous. The hostess served the wines and she didn’t seem to be too well versed in them, but they had a handy description of each wine and we enjoyed trying various flavors of whites. They also have wine by the bottle and by glass. The service was fine -- perfectly nice and accommodating.

We had a great time. The meal was great, the atmosphere was warm and inviting, and we had lots of fun with the wine flight. The food is not particularly inventive, but this is a “traditional” upscale restaurant menu elevated by its preparation and understanding of flavor combinations.


I don’t think we would make a trip from the East Bay specifically to dine there again, but this is not a reflection on the restaurant, as much as it is a testament to the great assortment of fantastic restaurants in the East Bay. However, if we were specifically looking for a nice restaurant in Marin, we would definitely go back. If you are from Marin or find yourself traveling that way, I would definitely strongly recommend this place. It is a nice, hidden gem of a place.