The Panama Hotel is a true Seattle gem. A museum and teahouse hybrid located in the International District, this place is a unique combination of historic and delicious–and very reasonably priced! This has long been one of my favorite places in Seattle; its charm, historical significance, and exotic tea collection render it very much worth visiting. I guarantee you, once you go, you will be back for more.
Built in 1910, the Panama Hotel has that authentic, old Seattle feel, with its exposed brick walls and slightly creaky wood floors. The furniture, flowers and decor give it a delightfully vintage Japanese feel. The walls are lined with framed old black-and-white pictures and newspaper articles, chronicling the early days when the hotel served as a “workingman’s hotel,” and an epicenter for Japanese culture. There is a window in the floor where you can look into the basement and see the never-reclaimed belongings of anonymous people during Japanese-American internment in 1942. It’s kind of melancholy but very powerful.
The tea selection is every bit as exotic as the hotel itself. There are dozens of teas to choose from, imported from all over the world. My personal favorite is the Lavendar Earl Grey from England, but this time I went with the Lychee tea from China. For each of those, a cup costs $2.50, and a pot costs $4. Go back on a hot summer day and get the fresh mango iced tea. They serve a variety of Asian-inspired delicious homemade treats, like green tea shortbread or sesame shortbread (I went with the latter and it ROCKED) for only $1.35. They are always changing the specialty treats they offer–various kinds of mochi or other interesting dessert noms–and they are pretty much all under $3. That’s a great value to be essentially teleported to a Japanese kitchen in your mouth.
It’s obscenely cheap to go to the Panama hotel just for tea and treats. A pot of tea with a friend and a delectable baked good will put you at well-under $5. However, even for those roaming through Seattle and looking for a more substantial meal, the paninis are a good deal. The paninis are made fresh, pressed right in front of you, and run between $7.50 and $8. I chose to go with a spring vegetable panini, which was oozing with thick, fresh mozzarella, arthichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, balsamic and fabulously bold seasoning on buttery focaccia. A cup of tea and a panini will put you around $10 for lunch or dinner, but you’re paying for quality and experience.
Incidentally, there was a bestselling fiction novel written about the Panama Hotel in 2009 by Jamie Ford, called Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. That happens to be next on my reading list, and I’ve heard amazing things about it. The book, which envisions a story to account for the luggage and belongings left behind in the hotel, is a testament to the powerful, almost haunting mystery surrounding this extraordinary landmark. Especially if you are a Seattlite, hit this place up as soon as you can– it’s seriously amazing.