It is 6:30 PM in Casco Viejo, Panama.
The sun is just setting, casting a glow on the yellow and turquoise walls of a once residential building. The windows are illuminated from the inside, and sounds of laughter and conversation can be heard drifting through wide french doors.
Cocktail hour is upon us, and we’ve been told that Tantalo Hotel is the place to be.
We are lucky enough to enjoy our sunset cocktails with Tantalo’s General Manager, Lorenzo Robles, in the restaurant and bar. The space resembles a chic museum of modern art, lit by bulbs intertwined by black wires and sleek communal wooden tables.
Lorenzo determined that the perfect introduction to the fusion restaurant-hotel-bar would be to taste a cocktail invented by the owner of the hotel himself, Matthew Blesso. The Zen-Jito cocktail, an invigorating combination of muddled yerbabuena, gin, cucumber juice, ginger infused syrup, mint leaves, and lime juice, was a delicious welcome to Tantalo.
The concept for the eclectic hotel, which boasts a tapas-style restaurant and sky-high rooftop bar, emerged when owner Matthew Blesso visited Panama City in 2008. He was drawn to Casco Viejo – a culturally rich city becoming more cosmopolitan by the minute: full of artists, ambitious restaurateurs, and a strong local community. Blesso decided that he wanted to create a hybrid of the best the city has to offer: local art, creative cuisine, an edgy rooftop bar, and a boutique hotel experience. There’s a reason Tantalo serves tapas; doing just one thing well was never Blesso’s style.
Lorenzo explained that sustainability is the inspiration for the hotel, and is a crucial element of all of the hotel’s unforgettable features. At first glance, it’s hard to miss the hotel’s four-story atrium, which hosts a sprawling green wall of 983 live plants fed by an up-down irrigation system. The plants are watered by reclaimed rainwater from the lounge’s skylight, creating a self-maintained living wall.
The restaurant is a cacophony of urban artwork, from portraits on the walls to dangling light fixtures made of bottle caps. Lorenzo enthused, “We transformed Tantalo into an art gallery. All of the art that you see is from an exhibit last week by a local artist.” Much of the artwork is made reprocessed materials and recycled items found locally. History buffs will love this additional (and ecofriendly) design feature of the hotel: both the lounge tables and the roof bar deck contain recycled wood from the building of the Panama Canal one hundred years ago. Yes, recycling has never been more stylish.
Tantalo’s restaurant aims to offer a similarly mixed and exciting approach, honoring Panamanian cuisine with traditional local ingredients, but keeping the cuisine fresh with quirky twists on international dishes like mac ‘n cheese and baba ganoush. Executive Chef Pierre De Janon Janson instantly vibed with Blesso’s concept of a Spanish-style tapas menu.
Lorenzo explained, “When you have dinner with Matt, you always have to share. Normally the restaurant has two communal tables: they want it to be a communal restaurant, for meeting people. It encourages people to talk, for continuity between eating and nightlife.”
Chef Pierre excels at combining flavors from one country with the techniques of another. The balboa fish and chips ($8.50) seduce with beer battered Panamanian sea bass and fried plantains meet classic English malt vinegar. Traditional flavors are found in the encima pulled pork tacos ($6.50), marinated fall-apart pork served on corn tortillas with a spicy mojo mayonnaise, a hearty winner. The cold plate to order is the crazy corn fish ceviche ($8.50), a zesty version with local sea bass, sweet corn, and parmesan cheese. You’ll want to order a few to share, and experiment with both local and international flavors.
When stomachs are full, Tantalo’s boutique suites are just one floor above, and the urban art only gets better. The hotel offers twelve guest rooms, each with an individual, energy-filled glimpse into the Panamanian art culture. Blesso commissioned local up-and-coming artists to individually design each room, creating a one-of-a-kind masterpiece in every space. The hotel provides detailed, artist descriptions of the inspiration behind each room’s design concept, many of which are rooted in Panamanian culture. From lusty red walls with black accents to geometrical designs and bright hues, every room offers a different story. The diversity of the artists’ work is tempered with reincarnated décor and a few modern pieces with a burst of color. While each room maintains it’s artists’ identity, a boho-chic continuity shines through.
At the top of the building we find the gleaming gem of Tantalo hotel: the rooftop bar. Designed to facilitate an easy transition from dinner to a night out, supper and drinks at the restaurant require a mere two-floor elevation to enter a chic bar experience: music, well-crafted cocktails, and an impeccable view of the Panama skyline, sparkling in all its glory. Playful mixology suits the hotspot, which draws both locals and travelers alike. Try the Lulo Margarita on a warm night: Don Julio Silver tempered with Triple Sec, fresh lulo, and a punch of passion fruit. The atmosphere is extremely social, with various nights of the week dedicated to different artists and styles of music, from salsa nights to dueling pianos. Whether the DJ spins from his elevated terrace (best view in Panama, by far) or live music drifts from table to table, the roof top bar offers a sleek, city alternative to the bars nearby.