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Havana Restaurants

From local dishes to modern international cuisine, the dining scene is varied and interesting
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Havana—The Insider's Guide, November/December 2011

(continued from page 4)

The climb up three flights of a dimly lit, crumbling marble staircase doesn’t do anything to quiet the little voice inside you saying, “Why are you doing this? Where are you going?” Along the way, there is usually at least one young child begging for a few coins, and down the hallways at each landing of the decrepit old building, someone sticks their head out a door to an apartment. But the climb is worth it; at the top of the stairs waits La Guarida, the best restaurant in Havana. And, the passage through a rundown, sketchy apartment building to find a gem says everything you need to know about dining in Havana: even if it doesn’t seem possible, everything is possible in Cuba.

Enrique Nuñez del Valle, the proprietor, smiles hopefully when asked how things are going now. “It’s coming along. We’re doing a good business.” From the people waiting in the foyer, to the filled tables in the jumbled warren of rooms around the small kitchen, he’s telling the truth. But he is still trying to get back to the level of service the restaurant had before it closed in 2009, partly due to crushing government rules. With those rules relaxed, he reopened late last year, and has been forging ahead ever since.

The restaurant scene in Havana is more exciting today than at any time in the last 20 years. Those new government rules—which allow a variety of private businesses including restaurants to now hire and fire employees and legally expand the number of seats—have thrown a new wrinkle into the quest to find and judge the dining scene in Havana. The new places are opening so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track of them, but perhaps more importantly, in some cases, they are being opened by former workers from the government’s top restaurants.

Those defections will affect quality and service in some old standards, so be aware of that phenomenon. And if those employees can’t start their own restaurant, many veteran waiters and chefs are seeking employment at the private restaurants, or paladars, as they are known in Havana.

During a weeklong trip in early May, David Savona and I ate at as many restaurants as we could manage in six days and seven nights. We sampled a couple of old favorites, made sure to visit some of the most well-known and older paladars, and tried to hit as many of the new places that are getting rave reviews from the local expatriot crowd, which is always on the lookout for good places to eat. We also ate at some of the places reviewed in this story on our trip in December.

One of the most frustrating things about dining in Havana is the lack of any clearinghouse of information, no Zagat’s guide to Havana restaurants. You have to rely on word-of-mouth, or on a hotel concierge. With the latter, there’s no guarantee that he will have any firsthand information; his reports are likely gleaned from tourists who have visited the establishments. While we were there, I had at least three conversations where someone said, “Oh, you have to try this new restaurant, or that new place.” Often, the next person hadn’t even heard of the new place. Therefore, anyone using this guide should reconfirm our choices, and be on the lookout for new places. We ate at three restaurants that had not even been open on our visit in December.

Undoubtedly, there will be new restaurants opening in the course of 2011, and some of them may be quite good. So it pays to ask around.

On the rooftop terrace at La Terraza there is a grill for meats and vegetables, and diners can watch their food being perpared by chef Jorge Falco Ochoa.
On the rooftop terrace at La Terraza there is a grill for meats and vegetables, and diners can watch their food being perpared by chef Jorge Falco Ochoa.
The other good piece of advice is simple: lower your expectations. Even the top restaurants serve mostly uncomplicated, straightforward food. Grilled or steamed seafood and grilled chicken are pretty much standard fare on every menu. There is almost always fresh shrimp and octopus, and usually lobster, although the latter is often reserved for government restaurants; as always, it seems that where there’s a will there’s a way, so many paladars do have lobster. The chicken is usually very flavorful without being plump or fatty. Steaks are variable; we had one excellent steak at a paladar, although the rumor is that paladars don’t often get beef, or certainly not the best cuts, for the same reason that limits lobster.

Of course, there is always the exception to the rule: the papaya lasagna at La Guarida is worthy of any top restaurant in any city in the world, and you can tell from the name that it is not your usual dish. Shrimp in malanga batter at Hurón Azul was top-notch. And a one-time menu item at Cocina de Lilliam, a cazuela of corn, was outstanding. Sometimes it is also worth asking if there is anything “off the menu.” That can produce exotic offerings such as sea turtle or venison, so it is worth asking about. But the safest bet is to stick with the basics, and you won’t go wrong very often.

Wine lists are pedestrian and predictable, with only a couple of exceptions: El Aljibe and Club Habana, which has a smaller list but with some interesting and unusual choices. Most lists have a pretty complete roster of Spanish producers: Marques de Riscal, Marques de Caceres and Torres, with an eclectic smattering of Argentine and Chilean labels. The prices for the standard wines are pretty uniform, ranging between $25 and $50. Once you get into higher end wines at El Aljibe, figure that the sky is pretty much the limit. As an example, a bottle of 1997 Sassicaia costs 1,400 cuc (about $1,600). I recommend to drink simple and drink young; storage is problematic (less so at El Aljibe, which takes good care of its wines), so unless you are certain of the cellar, any wine with age is probably not going to be in peak condition.

As for cigars? This is Havana. Your cigar is welcome at virtually every table.

We have chosen a group of restaurants as Editors’ Choices; they were our favorites. There is also a group which we ate at that are simply good restaurants, and worth a visit for convenience and overall experience. And finally, we’ll give you a list of popular restaurants that others have recommended, and hopefully, next time we’ll get a chance to try them out too.

Editors’ Choices

La Guarida
Concordia No. 418, entre Gervasio y Escobar
Centro Habana
Tel: (537) 866-9047

This has been—with a brief intermission during its closure in 2009—Havana’s best restaurant for many years. It was one of the city’s first paladars and continues to attract a very well-heeled international business and diplomatic crowd. The wine list is still being rebuilt, so expect little more than the standard labels for now. Fish and chicken are outstanding here, and the papaya lasagna is worth a detour. One table has a view out over Havana, but the other rooms are quaint and the tables close together. This is a must-stop.

La Terraza
Prado 309, esquina Virtudes
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 862-3626

There are three restaurants in this building, which is owned by the Spanish society, the Sociedad Cultural Asturiana. The terrace on the top floor houses La Terraza, and the stoves are currently manned by chef Jorge Falco Ochoa, a master griller. Try the grilled octopus with pesto and grilled potatoes, or the warm octopus salad.

He also often serves up an entire leg of lamb off the grill. The covered rooftop terrace is spectacular, with great views. Just inside is an air conditioned room. This is a nice hybrid between a paladar and government restaurant because of the connection to the Sociedad. You can often see dance classes just outside the more casual restaurant on the ground level, and the second floor frequently has music from its stage overlooking the tables.

La Moraleja
Calle 25, No. 454, entre J y I
Vedado
Tel: (537) 832-0963

A long walkway of brick, stone and wood brings you to this wonderful and relatively new restaurant—it had been open only a few months when I lunched there. Started by Olgadia and Jorge Luis Añel, it is very close to the Habana Libre. I had the ceviche exotico, flavored with olive oil, lime and pepper.

The Camarones Hemingway (shrimp), served in an earthenware bowl, were a little sweet from the anise and garlic flavoring, but nevertheless delicate and delicious. There is a nice wine list with very attentive service. At night, meals are served in the courtyard and along the walkway. Convenient to the Habana Libre Hotel.

Doctor Café
Calle 28, No. 111, entre  Av. 1 y 3
Miramar
Tel: (537) 203-4718

Doctor Café is tucked away behind a house out in the Miramar section, and people simply point and say, “it’s around back.” One of the older and more successful paladars in Havana, this is not a big restaurant, although I would guess it will expand under the new rules for paladars, which now allow up to 50 seats. Juan Carlos Doce oversees the dining room, and is quick to offer any daily specials that may not be on the menu.

Try the delicious appetizer of shredded crab enchilado with tomato sauce and peppers. The menu for lunch that day included conch grilled with olive oil, onions and garlic, and it tasted like cèpe mushrooms from the sea. This is another great place to keep on your dining agenda in Havana.

Hurón Azul
Calzada de Infanta (Humbolt 153 y Calle P)
Vedado
Tel: (537) 879-1691

This paladar run by Jose “Pepe” Hernandez, which is right behind the Habana Libre Hotel, is a hidden gem, and in fact, had some of the best food we ate all week. Try the shrimp in malanga batter; malanga is a Cuban root vegetable that many restaurants serve as deep-fried croquettes. The deep-fried shrimp with the batter is a perfect combo. Octopus with onions and olives, shredded crab with polenta in a tomato sauce and a casserole of rabbit were all nearly perfect.

For the main courses, a beef filet with a chocolate and Roquefort sauce was brilliant, if a little heavy for my taste. Shrimp in a ginger sauce was delicious and the chicken in a honey lemon sauce was also very tasty. The wine list is decent, and if you have a small group (up to about eight people can fit comfortably), ask to dine in the private room. A real treat—and not on everyone’s radar yet.

Good Choices

Café Laurent
Calle M, entre 19 y 21, Penthouse 257
Vedado
Tel: (537) 832-6890 

Started by former employees of the outstanding government restaurant El Templete, Café Laurent is one of the best seafood outposts in the city. It sits atop a small apartment building within walking distance of the Hotel Nacional, and the view from the terrace extends up and down the Malecón. The seafood focus is evident in such excellent dishes as the squid in ink sauce that was spot on.

However, this restaurant was still finding its way when we were there; expect it to get better. For now, the wine list is minimal, even lacking some of the normal go-to Spanish wines, and a couple of main courses were spotty on the night we were there. But the setting more than makes up for any hiccups now.

El Aljibe
Av. 7 y Calle 24
Miramar
Tel: (537) 204-4233

Not a place for haute cuisine, El Aljibe is nevertheless one of Cigar Aficionado’s favorites, a traditional first stop on our visits to Havana. This is a place to eat roast chicken. There are other entrées on the menu, but frankly, we’ve never tried them. The black beans, French fries and rice are all great. And, if you’re in need of a good bottle of wine, this is one of the largest wine cellars in Havana, maintained at proper cellar temperature.

You can ask Inti Alvarez for a tour, but it’s quite likely that when you ask for a bottle of wine, he’ll say, “Follow me,” and take you into the cellar to pick your bottle. The better wines are expensive, but you can drink good Spanish Albariños or Chilean Chardonnays for around 40 cuc. But the cost of dinner is minimal: 12 cuc, or about $15 for the chicken. A large thatched roof covers the open dining area, which is a big expanse of tile floors with wood posts. Plus, there’s a cigar shop just outside the main entrance.

La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48 1311, entre 13 y 15
Miramar
Tel: (537) 209-6514

One of the prettiest, and older, paladars in Havana, this is a quaint restaurant in a residential area of Miramar that is run by Lilliam Dominguez. The tables are set up under a trellis covered with tropical plants, and the entire garden bursts with colorful tropical flowers. The food is quite simple, but a couple of dishes stand out. Without debate, it produces the best malanga fritas in Havana. Try them. On one visit we also had a corn casserole that was excellent. The shrimp is also as good as anywhere in Havana. There is often a guitarist. The main drawback is that it is a little out of the way; I’d recommend hiring your taxi by the hour and have it wait. Service can be slow.

La Fontana
Calle 46, esquina Av. 3
Miramar
Tel: (537) 202-8337


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Comments   1 comment(s)

Kevin Shah — Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia,  —  February 21, 2012 11:48pm ET

I've been to La Guarida, and totally agree with the entire first paragraph!


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