It’s only a few floors up, but the Panama Dining Room feels miles from Smith Street. The vast loft is furnished with a hodgepodge of tables, booths, lounges, bar stools and a three-quarter size pool table.
When owner Luke Stepsys came to Melbourne, he’d never even heard of the venue, originally founded by Laki Papadopoulos and James Langley (Rice Queen, Vegie Bar). He was hungry for a shot at ownership and Panama proved to be love at first site.
Since mid-2014, the space has been opened up and de-cluttered, with some of the kitschier decorations removed. The service is more professional; and the food has improved thanks to head chef Ayhan Erkoc, who Stepsys knew in Adelaide.
Erkoc ran his own restaurant there, Celsius. He also spent time at Noma and in two of Sydney’s top restaurants, Pier and Marque. His menu offers refined snacks such as oysters with finger lime and cucumber; pumpkin eclairs with goat’s cheese; and barbequed ox tongue.
In the slightly quieter restaurant area, you can better take advantage of mains such as pork belly with chestnuts and leek; and gnocchi with black garlic and parmesan.
On drinks, the venue is well-rounded whether you fancy beer, wine or a cocktail. It’s this point that keeps it heaving on Friday and Saturday nights. Don’t forget to to check out the view.