For transients, resident ex-pats and those (few) locals with gastronomically adventurous souls, Antigua hosts a catholic muddle of international eateries, but finding the right place on the right night often involves a fair amount of legwork. The city has an outward charm that is easy enough to appreciate just by strolling around its cobbled streets, but the parts that are most worth finding are more tucked away, restaurants included. In terms of bums on seats only a few ever reach critical mass, especially on weeknights, and the very best are usually the ones that look as if they have no real need of customers.
Central America's best hotel, Casa Santo Domingo not surprisingly boasts a fine dining room. It hasn't been too snooty to jump on the Bill woz here bandwagon, yet you might say that this beautifully-restored Dominican convent was where Clinton should have stayed during his well-remembered visit back in 1999. (In fact, as their website proudly confirms, the President kipped at the lovely 5-suite guesthouse La Posada del Angel.)
Now in an exquisite hidden garden setting comparable to the grounds of the old religious house, El Sereno (4a Ave Norte) serves probably the most expensive sit down meal available in Antigua. A few years ago, when this property housed a smart asador, there was a bizarre little Cuban bar in the grotto called Mojitos, populated by unlikely stylish specimens posing like extras from a Bacardi ad. (You would never see their like anywhere else in town.) Then and now the highlight of this establishment is the terrace bar which affords fine, elevated views of nearby patio gardens and the spinach-green northern flanks of the Panchoy valley.
In our opinion the best restaurant in Antigua is the Mesón Panza Verde (5a Ave Sur) − affectionately the 'Panzón Verde' − whose resident chef Christophe Pache (a shy Swiss married to a local girl) has conceived a menu that re-imagines classic European dishes with unique local ingredients. (I have enjoyed the sopa de chipilín.) Every month the gallery holds a semi-porous private view of their current exhibition, attracting a regular crowd of eccentric ex-pats, foreign diplomats and upper-end gringos. Highly-quoffable Undurraga cabernet from Chile is uncorked and Christophe sets up his raclette kit. Sunday brunch is also excellent and there's live jazz in the vaulted sala on Thursday and Friday evenings.
The quirkiest of our four top picks is Welten (4a Ave Oriente), run almost as a personal folly by its owner, a Swiss millionairess. It's certainly not one of those joints with an "hola amigo" type standing outside blocking the footpath whilst handing out leaflets.
V and I used to come here on our pre-historic dates to drink piña coladas in the compact yet intensely-ornate bar area with its walls of arabesque blue tiles and rows of mahoganny high chairs. We were often the only visible guests − rarely are there more customers floating around than alarmingly attentive staff. (The worryingly aged Germans that used to gather here on Sunday afternoons during the 80s have long since moved on up to the National Socialist Valhalla.)
On arrival you have to knock a couple of times on the big wooden portón before a face appears in a tiny inset door at what for the locals equates to head height. If they like the look of you the bolts are unfastened and you can walk through the conservatory-style dining room to the cushioned sofa-style seats at the tables around the pool, its surface invisible beneath a carpet of multicoloured rose petals. The food is savoury yet delicate; this time local recipes with a continental twist.
Part 3 will cover the well-patronised restaurants of middling quality clustered around the main square and along the Calle del Arco.