Panama House:

251 Bondi Road, Bondi NSW
(02) 8020 6698
The team behind The Corner House launch an all-day eatery.

Bondi Road’s new Panama House café and bar is not anthropology, it’s hospitality. Don’t expect an ethnographic survey of Panamanian cuisine. As Anthony Kaplan, the 36 year-old, co-owner and the engine behind Bondi’s Shop on Curlewis street and the Corner House on Bondi Road, said, “We’ve tried to embrace the spirit of Southern food rather than slavishly adhere to the letter of the law.”

By ‘Southern’ he means the flavour of the Americas, especially those regions lapped by the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Think: Lousiana, Texas and Mexico as well as Panama and Jamaica.
Hence, Chef Brent Mills’ menu includes Louisiana ‘po-boys, Jamaican Jerk chicken and Mexican tacos and tortillas as well as Panama Burgers. There’s lots of lime, tequila, rum, avocado, salsa, chilli and gumbo used creatively and with a lightness of touch for the Australian palate, across breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings.
A po’ boy — for those who don’t know — is a baguette filled with battered oysters, shrimp or fish. Jerk is a dry rub based on pimento and scotch bonnet peppers. Tortillas and tacos are corn bread cooked with lime and the Panama burgers are made with flavoursome hanger steak. While it’s now generally accepted that Mexican is the flavour of the month in Sydney, Kaplan wanted to broaden the scope a little. He said, “Mexican food is the Thai food of the 20-teens. In the ’80s in Sydney there was an emphasis on and adaptation of European flavours, in the ’90s and 2000s it was Asian and now there is an exploration of South American flavours.
“I felt there was a lack of daytime options in Bondi. Although having said that, it’s hard to make money during the day. One reason being, people generally don’t drink during the day, so you can’t really make money from alcohol sales.”


One of the other reasons a daytime venue in Bondi is problematic, Kaplan said, is because there isn’t the high traffic in Bondi that there is in the CBD, Potts Point or Surry Hills. “Surry Hills, for instance, has that commercial or industrial component like the East End of London or New York’s Lower East Side,” he said. “There are people who work from home in Bondi, like shift workers, housewives and husbands, surfers, travellers and students but there isn’t an industry, as such, to create traffic. “But I got an itch. The Corner House has been open for two and a half years and I wanted to explore the middle ground between a tiny venue like The Shop and a bigger one like the Corner House. I felt there was a niche in the market and a story to be told in Bondi that hadn’t been written as yet.” Kaplan hasn’t given himself a time limit for Panama House to succeed. “At the moment I’m looking for a manager. I’m learning how to delegate those things that I don’t have time to do or don’t want to do and those things I’m not good at.” What he is good at he said is “people, listening, and creating a rapport and an environment.”


In creating the environment for Panama House, Kaplan, Mills and their business partner Simon Beckingham had designer Andrew Cliff from The World is Round, who also did The Shop, do the certification but otherwise designed it, as Kaplan put it, ‘on the fly’. While he said his eye is better with each fitout, he admits doing things on the fly isn’t especially practical because of potential blowouts in the schedule and budget. Nonetheless, the result is a success, with a stripped back interior and a materials palette featuring copper, raw steel, concrete, Brazilian slate, reclaimed black butt, equestrian leather, matte white tiles and custom-made seating by Nicholas Rogers. One of the reasons Kaplan doesn’t have time for certain things anymore is not only the demands of running three venues but also those of new baby, 15 month old, Leo.


While he credits his partner Tara’s willingness to virtually become a single parent while they established Panama House, to juggle everything he needed to delegate and choose good staff, which he did by trusting his gut. “I’ve very rarely been wrong,” he said. “Although it’s getting harder because there are fewer people to choose from given the boom in the number of venues in the past 18 months, due to the new Melbourne-style licensing laws in Sydney.” Melbourne’s loss is apparently Sydney gain though. Kaplan said: “I went to Melbourne twice while setting up Panama House. Nothing great has happened there in the past 18 months.” When it’s mentioned venue remit extends past the Sydney city limits, he conceded, “Well Andrew McConnell is a genius. The Pub in Fitzroy is great.” But went on to say that he thought Sydney now had the advantage because “there is more money in Sydney in terms of investors and possibly more creativity and originality, which always occurs whenever there’s a new boom.” – Heather Barton

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