Dining a la Cuba When in Havana, Eat What the Cubans Eat—But Keep it Simple. Here are Some of the City's Best Eateries
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Ave 19 y 140
Phone: 2409346 or 235838
This small restaurant is on the same grounds as the overrated El Ranchon restaurant and everything here is better. It's a small house with five or six tables as well as seating outside on the patio. It has a cozy and homey ambiance. The menu usually includes grilled meats and seafood, which for the most part are well prepared, although a recent visit included a main course of chicken that was overcooked to a state of shoe leather. Service is friendly and attentive. The wine list is large, but only about half of the selections are ever available. Bring your own cigars.
Calle 21 esquina M
With its tatty 1950s interior, La Roca looks like a slightly down-at-the-heels fish shack in New Orleans or Miami. The food is good, but stay away from anything with sauces. I once had a fabulously cooked fresh lobster ruined by sweet canned coconut sauce thrown over it. The restaurant has a serious wine list for Havana. Service is slow and disinterested. Don't miss the dive bar in back. It's the sort of watering hole that Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra would have loved.
Chung Shan Los Dos Dragones
No. 311 Altos First Floor entra Rayo y San Nicolas
La Habana Vieja
This is a simple, rundown Chinese joint in the middle of Havana's small Chinatown. Don't be intimidated by the dilapidated entrance. Located on the first floor, the small dining room serves food that is fresh and delicious and ridiculously inexpensive. Wonderful seafood as well as chicken and vegetables are always available. The mouthwatering fried rice is a treat. Forget about the wine. It's cooked beyond recognition due to the poor storage conditions. Stick with Cuban beer. Service can be very slow, so bring a big cigar to sit out the wait.
Calle 100 y Cortina de la Presa
This is a restaurant that is suitably named not only for the nineteenth-century ruins inside its walls, but for the ruinous number of tourists in buses visiting the place and the inconsistent quality of the food. Located about a half hour's drive outside central Havana near the airport, the restaurant is large and spacious, with a lovely view of the lush green grounds of Lenin Park. Food is simple and often overcooked. A surprisingly good selection of wines is available, not to mention the very good but very underappreciated wine waiters.
Ave 19 y 140. Cubanacan. Playa
Phone: 2409346 or 235838
This is supposed to be the up-and-coming top restaurant in Havana, but it falls flat on its face. The venue is a beautiful garden setting with a rustic, country ambiance, but it's downhill from there. The food is your standard grilled steaks and seafood with frozen fries and canned vegetables, which are all poorly prepared. The starters of crab claws and fish balls are fresh out of the freezer. Service is slow and unhelpful. And the wine list is incomplete. This is overrated and overpriced.
5ta ave y Calle 30
Phone: 247410, 247411
When it opened a few years ago, this restaurant, located near some of the embassies in the Miramar district, was touted as the top eatery in the city. However, it was all hype. From the outside, the place looks as exclusive as its name suggests, since it's in a restored 1950s mansion complete with swimming pool in the garden. But the food, service and ambiance are sub-par all the way. The only redeeming thing about Le Select is the live music most nights in the garden.
Calle 18 esquina 3
Phone: 242209, 224530, 242998
Years ago this was the restaurant to go to in Havana. Located in Miramar in a small nineteenth-century mansion, it was always full of upscale tourists, foreign businessmen and diplomats. The food was straightforward but very good, with grilled steaks and shellfish la rigueur. Alas, it's no longer up to par. The food is still good but it's outrageously expensive--$25 to $30 for a good but standard grilled steak is a joke. Their starters of crab claws, meat balls and garlic shrimp are available in many restaurants in Havana and for half the price. The wine list is limited and what is available is normally in bad condition since the bottles are stored next to the kitchen. The only reason to pay such high prices for such run-of-the-mill food and surly service is the excellent live music, which is usually played by a small ensemble of veteran jazz musicians who know all the classic Cuban songs from the 1950s and 1960s.
Calle 5, entre 110 y 112
This is another popular restaurant of yesteryear. It serves uninspired grilled meats and shellfish with black beans and rice at inflated prices. The outdoor seating under palm-thatched roofs is pleasant enough, but the annoying trio of musicians, not to mention a ridiculous magician, ruins the mellow atmosphere. Better forgo the restaurant and come for the live music in the outside auditorium next door, which often features some of the hottest salsa bands in Cuba. It usually gets going around midnight. Book a table in advance.
Restaurante La Paella
Calle Oficios No. 53
esquina a Obrapia
The restaurant in this small hotel in Old Havana is said to have the best paella in town. I have been there three times over the past five years and the kitchen has never been able to properly prepare the famous rice and seafood dish of Spain. What I have eaten instead has verged on being inedible. And the service is rude.
Cafe del Oriente
addresses and telephone to come
This is another new and flashy restaurant and bar located in a restored building in Old Havana, which looks as if it should be in downtown Milan. Located near the ship terminal, it's a great place to stop during a slow afternoon and enjoy a cocktail or coffee while listening to the live piano music. Forget the restaurant upstairs. It's pretentious and the chefs are incapable of cooking anything on the menu, from sautéeing fresh prawns to slicing and plating smoked salmon. What a shame, since the wine list is good and the service admirable.
Ave. 23 y 198
This is an out-of-the-way restaurant in the outer suburbs of Havana. At one time, the cooking was very good thanks to the handiwork of a Bahamian chef who was on loan from the Nassau restaurant Graycliff. But the chef left and now Pedregal serves the same old international cuisine you can get in just about any upscale restaurant in town. It tends to be either full of busloads of tourists or almost empty.