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Dining a la Cuba

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
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

Havana is certainly not a place to go for a gourmet getaway, but you can eat surprisingly well if you know where to go and what to order. Despite major obstacles in obtaining fresh ingredients and in finding competent staff, a few restaurants in the city are able to create simple and satisfying cuisine, from sweet grilled lobster to succulent roasted chicken and pork. And nowadays, some of the small, family-run eateries known as paladares cook up as good or better food than most formal restaurants on the island.

The rule for gastronomic survival in Havana is always to order the least sophisticated dishes on the menu. Chicken and lobster are usually sure bets, although during my last trip to Cuba I was served a sautéed chicken breast that resembled my dining companion's tennis shoe and a grilled lobster that was as dry as Parmesan cheese. However, such experiences are usually the exception if you visit the best establishments, such as those recommended in this article.

You can eat just about any type of cuisine you like in Havana, from Cuban, or criollo, food, such as roasted pork with black beans and rice, to Chinese, complete with freshly made wontons and shark fin soup. Generally speaking, criollo is the best choice, since it's what the Cubans eat and the ingredients are readily available. Every Cuban working in a restaurant knows how to roast pork and chicken or prepare black beans and rice.

The biggest minefield in dining in Havana are restaurants that serve "international cuisine." Most have neither the ingredients nor the know-how to properly prepare such food. Eating in one of these restaurants is like traveling back to the 1950s. It's all there, from canned vegetables to Jell-O. I have even seen Spam served in one restaurant. A typical dish in these places would be something like Norwegian salmon in a canned mushroom cream sauce with frozen carrots. Who really needs this in Havana?

Strangely, the arm of Cuba's government even extends to the recipes in Havana's restaurants. Chefs are given written instructions on how to prepare each dish on a menu; in many places, it seems as though they haven't had any new recipes since the revolution.

"I can't lighten or change any of the dishes in my restaurant because the government prescribes exactly how they should be prepared," says a chef in one Havana restaurant. On the wall of his kitchen hang a few dozen photographs showing exactly how the dishes on his menu should appear when they arrived at the table. "Besides, the ministry wants us to maintain specific dishes from the 1950s which were always served here," he adds. "They don't want anything changed."

Two types of restaurants exist in Cuba. One is the government-run establishments that cater primarily to foreigners who pay in U.S. dollars [European and other visitors pay in U.S. dollars?--bg] or with non-U.S. credit cards. (Due to the embargo, credit cards drawn on U.S. banks cannot be used in Cuba.) These restaurants are the places listed in most guide books and found in hotels. Hotel staffs are instructed not to recommend anything other than the government's restaurants. Most are overpriced with poor service and mediocre food.

The other type of restaurants are the paladares, the family-operated places that feed locals and visitors alike who pay in cash, either in dollars [again, what about Europeans, etc.?--bg] or in Cuban pesos. Usually about one-third or one-half the price of government places, these private restaurants began springing up about four years ago. Their name comes from a Brazilian soap opera, "Vale Todo," which featured a poor woman who soon gained her fortune after starting a small roadside restaurant--El Paladar de Raquel. The government limits the number of seats in paladores (up to 12) and prohibits lobster and steak from their menus. In spite of the restrictions, the best paladores offer a welcome change from the predictable fare of the government-run restaurants.

"There's a longtime tradition of small, family-run restaurants in Cuba," says Fernando Fernandez, a wine salesman in Havana. "Before the revolution, my father had a small restaurant in Old Havana. This is the reestablishment of a tradition. The most interesting food in Havana is now in paladares."

Unfortunately, because so many paladares have opened recently, it's become difficult to monitor their sanitary standards. I have been to some where you are literally eating in someone's living room with granny and mother cooking and serving. A quick look in the kitchen normally gives you an idea about the quality of the food. I have seen some kitchens so filthy that they turned my stomach. Stories abound of tourists spending their holiday in their room after eating at a paladar recommended by a taxi driver.

Perhaps the greatest improvement in dining in Cuba has been the wine selection. Few major cities throughout the Caribbean or Latin America have as many good wines available to diners as in Havana. There's even a club of knowledgeable wine waiters. "I must have been crazy," admitted Enrico Garzaroli, an Italian who owns and runs the major wine-importing company on the island, Wines and Spirits Distributors of Havana. "But I love wine and you have to have something good to drink when you are in Cuba." He sells close to 50,000 cases a year in Cuba now, mostly in Havana restaurants and hotels.

Most restaurants, not including paladares, have good wine lists, usually with at least 50 to 60 different selections. It's best to keep to Chilean or Spanish wines since the turnover is better, which means you have less chance of ordering a poorly stored bottle. Cuba's hot, humid weather is hell on fresh wines. Look for such names as Torres, Marques de Riscal, Marques de Caceres and Concha y Toro. You may also find good wines from France, including those from Louis Latour, Ladoucette and Hugel. There are even California wines from Wente.

Surprisingly, the availability of good Cuban cigars is usually a problem in local restaurants. Most do not have large cigar selections, and numerous sell counterfeit smokes. A few have a roller in their dining rooms who makes cigars on the spot, but the cigars are often rough or poor tasting. It's best to bring your own unless you are going somewhere such as La Floridita, which has a great selection.

Below are restaurants I have visited in the past year. Keep in mind that paladares, being home-grown operations, can close without notice. It's best to ask around. Expensive restaurants are those that cost $40 or more per person without wine; moderate, $25 to $35, and inexpensive, less than $20. Cuban waiters expect to be tipped after a meal; 10 percent of the bill is more than appreciated, although they often don't deserve it.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

El Aljibe
Ave. 7ma entre 24 y 26
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 241584, 241583
Moderate
This is the liveliest, most popular restaurant in Havana for people in the know, and for good reason: El Aljibe serves the best Cuban food in town. It's Havana's outdoor answer to a bustling Parisian brasserie or a jumping New York bar and grill. Order the house specialty, which is a platter full of juicy roasted chicken served in a flavorful meat sauce. Neither the waiters nor the chef will divulge the recipe for this wonderful sauce, but sources say it's made from fermented orange juice and drippings from the roasted chicken. The roasted pork or grilled steaks are equally good. Regardless of your choice, everything is accompanied with crisp French fries, beans and rice as well as local produce such as plantains. Plenty of good wines are available, especially those from Chile and Spain, and they are well kept in a temperature-controlled storage room. After your meal, try a seven-year-old Havana club rum or the rarer Matusalem Anejo Superior in a snifter, along with a cigar. The restaurant's humidor is usually well stocked.

La Guardia
Calle Concordia No. 418
e/Gervasio y Escobar
Centro Habana
Phone: 624940
Inexpensive
The coolest place to eat in Havana is this small paladar. Located on the third floor of an eighteenth-century townhouse in central Havana, the three-room restaurant is in a converted apartment that features a balcony and beautifully carved cornices with wooden shutters. It's like a small, funky yet hip restaurant in New York's Soho or the Latin Quarter in Paris. Don't worry about the dilapidated entrance and stairway that lead to the restaurant; it's just part of the experience. (The 1995 Oscar-nominated Cuban film, Fresa y Chocolate, was filmed there.) The food is thoughtfully prepared with a delicate touch. On a given night you might encounter a tangy and savory gaspacho soup or succulent fillets of snapper and grouper served with a buerre blanc sauce that shows just the right amount of lively acidity. Owner Enrique Nunez keeps a small but interesting selection of wines, mostly Spanish. A keen cigar smoker, he was one of the creators of Cuaba. Carlos Rodriq[g?]uez rolls cigars for the restaurant. The two are worth the trip alone.

Don Congrejo
Calle 1ra entre 16 y 18
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 24-41-69
Moderate
This is Havana's take on Joe's Stone Crab in Miami, but it comes across more like a cheap oceanside fish house outside of Barcelona, despite being in the upscale district of Miramar. Nonetheless, Don Congrejo's fish is second to none for quality, which is not surprising since the Ministry of Fisheries oversees the restaurant. Come for lunch; the view of the sea is refreshingly calming after spending some time in the hustle of the city. You can eat outdoors if weather permits. Crab, lobster and shrimp are prepared in just about every way imaginable. Fresh fish is always available; try the grouper or snapper. Plenty of good wines are available, with a list featuring more than 150 selections from France, Spain, Italy and even California. Ask Rene Garcia, an English-speaking and highly professional wine waiter, for his recommendations. Bring your own cigars.

Ranchon (Casa de 5ta y 16)
5ta Ave esquina 16
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 241185
Moderate
This is one of the most pleasant places for a cigar lover to spend a quiet al fresco lunch in Havana. Located in the fashionable Miramar district, the small restaurant is adjacent to one of the best cigar shops in the city. Order a frosty mug of Cuban beer, preferably Crystal, and enjoy the simple but well-prepared food. The standard grilled lobster or roasted pork and chicken are always reliable; however, chef Juan Luis Rosalas usually has a special of the day, which can include anything from grilled lamb cutlets to roast beef. Try his delicious stuffed red peppers with tuna for a starter. Service is quick and friendly. And don't forget to order a good cigar after your meal. Or walk into the shop a few feet away and buy a box.

La Floridita
Obispo No. 557
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 631060, 631061, 631111
Expensive
This is an institution in Havana, and a must visit for everyone. It is what a restaurant such as Tour d'Argent is to Paris and Four Seasons is to New York. Stop in for a cocktail at the best bar in town. Order a daiquiri nature, which is a shaken drink instead of the nose-tingling frozen version; it's the connoisseur's daiquiri. A fresh bowl of deep-fried plantain chips are always nearby to go with your drinks.

Sadly, the dining room is not up to par with the bar, although it's not bad. The modern neoclassical decoration of the room is elegant and inviting. It's classy and formal, yet doesn't necessitate wearing a suit--after all, this is Havana. Service is incredibly professional and attentive. The big problem is the kitchen. The menu is too ambitious, with lots of complex international-style dishes with rich sauces that could never be prepared properly in Havana. Stick to simple dishes instead. For instance, one of the best courses is prawns flambéed in rum by your waiter at the table. It is fresh and flavorful. The wine list is one of the best in the city, with excellent choices from France and Chile. Look for excellent French whites such as Baron de L Pouilly Fume or the Corton Charlemagne of Louis Latour. To finish off your meal, the restaurant has the best selection of cigars in the city, not to mention a large assortment of rums.

La Torre
Edificio Focsa
Calle 17 e/M y N
Vedado
Phone: 55-3088
Expensive
If you want a fine dining experience in Havana, this is the only place to go, and it's all thanks to a crazy young French chef called Frank Pecol. He came to Havana a few years ago as a tourist and fell in love with the place. Despite all the obstacles in obtaining good ingredients, he still manages to turn out well-prepared, interesting food, from grilled prawns with a sweet and refreshing soya [soy?--tf] sauce to a juicy, perfectly cooked steak with a red wine reduction served with fresh vegetables and potato gratin. It's like top hotel food in Europe or the United States, but in Havana it's three-star Michelin quality. In addition, the view of Havana from the dining room is fantastic at night since the restaurant's on the twentieth floor.[of what?--tf] The wine list is very good, with all the usual quality selections in town, from Torres Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon to a Concha y Toro Amelia Chardonnay. Service is helpful but slightly disorganized. Just don't look closely at the dining room's decor; it's reminiscent of an insurance company office circa 1960.

Le Chansonnier
No. 306
Calle 15 entre H e I
Vedado
Phone: 32-37-88
Inexpensive
One of the more popular paladares in the city, Le Chansonnier aspires to be like a small family restaurant in France, and it does a pretty good job of it. The private restaurant was originally created with the help of a waiter from the Le Chansonnier bistro in Paris. The place is small and cozy, with a few tables located in the front garden terrace as well as inside the house. Food is simple and well prepared. Try the grilled lamb chops or roasted rabbit in mustard sauce. They usually are served with the best French fries in town. The wine list is very limited, and you must bring your own cigars.

La Casa
Calle 30 no.865 entre 26 y 41
Nuevo Vedado, Plaza
Phone: 817000
Inexpensive
This is an extremely good, small family-run restaurant in the quiet neighborhood of Nueva Vedado. You can eat either in the dining room or out in the garden. Located in a 1950s-style house with a modish decor, La Casa serves such delicious dishes as fresh prawns sautéed in butter with garlic, and juicy roasted pork with beans and rice. The proprietor recommends his deep-fried chicken stuffed with cheese--something he calls "Chicken Gordon Blue." Regardless, it's tasty and rich. I once ran into Spain's Michelin three-star chef, Juan Mari Arzak, at La Casa, and he says he always eats there when he is in Havana--not a bad recommendation. There are usually a few good bottles of wine available as well as a good selection of rum. Bring your own smokes.

La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48 No. 1311 entre 13 y 15,
Miramar, Playa
Inexpensive
This is a relaxing little restaurant, with a wonderful plant-filled garden to soak up the atmosphere of a sultry Cuban evening. There's also a private room with air conditioning if you want more creature comforts. The food is solid home cooking, from oven-cooked meats to sautéed fish. A starter of warm chick peas mixed with sautéed onions and three different types of ham is mouthwateringly satisfying, while a tuna-and-onion tartlet is reminiscent of my grandmother's simple but tasty cooking. Lilliam [last name?], who does the cooking, is a master with fresh fish. Try the snapper or grouper, which is oven-roasted. Service is attentive and very friendly. Not much to drink in the way of wine, and bring your cigars.

RECOMMENDED

El Bodeguita del Media
Empedrado No. 207
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 624498, 618442
Moderate
Sure it's a tourist trap, but that's no reason not to enjoy yourself at this funky and famous bar/restaurant. The atmosphere is great. Get there early for either lunch or dinner, since it's packed with busloads of tourists at meal time. Many don't even bother buying a drink or meal and simply overcrowd the place to have their photographs taken inside. The food is criollo, with plenty of roasted pork and chicken dishes as well as black beans, rice and root vegetables. It's simple, rustic and satisfying. Service can be jaded and surly. They obviously don't need most people's business. El Bodeguita was supposedly one of the favorite drinking holes of Ernest Hemingway, and he reportedly always drank mojito cocktails at the bar. He would be appalled at the quality of the mojitos today. They have resorted to using unaged cane alcohol for the drinks, making them taste like sweetened firewater. Order a mojito with three-year-old rum instead. Bring your own cigars.

La Ferminia
No. 18107
5ta Ave. entre 182 y 184
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 336786, 336555
Moderate

Plenty of restaurants offer outside dining in Havana, but this is one of the better ones. A large converted private house in Miramar, La Ferminia is spacious, with tables in the covered patio as well as in the garden. Tables are also available in air-conditioned rooms. The food is standard issue but very good. Lots of grilled and baked fish, steaks, pork and chicken with black beans, rice and French fries. Main courses of grilled prawns and grouper fillets are particularly good. Service is attentive and quick by Havana standards. The wine list is adequate, with about 60 selections. Try the Miramar Torres Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California. [which Pinot Noir, or is this all one wine?--bg] The cigar selection can be rather limited, so bring your own.

Restaurante Terraza Florentina
Hotel Capri
Calle 21 esquina N
Vedado, Plaza
Phone: 33-37-47(48)
Inexpensive
The only good thing about the dilapidated Hotel Capri is the small Italian restaurant on its top floor. Looking out from 19 floors above central Havana and the sea, you can sometimes see Florida on a clear day. The views of the Malecon and Old Havana are some of the best in town. The food is cheap and cheerful, with plenty of pastas, risottos, and grilled fish and meats. Don't bother ordering starters here. A main course of spaghetti with shrimp in a white wine garlic sauce is always tangy and satisfying. The wine list boasts more than 100 selections and prices are reasonable. Check out the 1990 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, which sells for about half the price it does in U.S. wine shops. Service is friendly and quick. There's even a small cigar selection.

El Palenque
17 y 190
Siboney
Phone: 218167
Inexpensive
Located near the Palacio de Convenciones, this is a no-frills place where you rub shoulders with everyone from diplomats to taxi drivers.The dining area is next to the car park under open-air, palm-thatched buildings. The food is fast and dirt cheap, with anything from hamburgers to pork steaks with French fries, rice and beans. Just to give you an idea of prices: a bottle of Cuban beer is 85 cents, while half a fried chicken is $2.90. This is real Cuban food at real Cuban prices. Service is always friendly. Bring your own cigars.

La Divina Pastora
Parque Historico Militar Morro Cabana
Phone: 338341
Moderate
One of the best views of Havana can be seen from the terrace of this restaurant, located across the harbor at the foot of the Castillo de Morro, the sixteenth-century fortress, which for centuries has guarded the port of the city. It is a large, open and relaxed place, serving mostly international cuisine. Forget about ordering almost anything other than the lobster, which is kept live in tanks in the restaurant before meeting its end with your order. Another good selection is the fresh prawns, which can be grilled or deep-fried. The wine list is limited. Ask for a bottle of white, such as the crisp and satisfying Torres Vina Sol from Spain, and you'll do fine. There's even a small shop with cigars for sale, if you forget to bring your own.

Torre de Marfil
entre Obispo y Orapia
La Habana Vieja
Phone: 62-3466
Inexpensive
If you are tired of heavy Cuban food or insipid international cuisine, eating at this small Chinese restaurant in the renovated part of Old Havana is a tasty alternative. Of course, it's not the quality of a Cantonese eatery in Chinatown in New York, San Francisco or London, but it serves clean, fresh and yummy fried rice, delicious wok-prepared vegetables and succulent pork and prawns. You can even have a Chinese beer with your meal. After lunch, walk across the street to La Casa del Habanos and buy yourself a top-notch cigar.

Cafe El Mercario
No. 112
Calle de los Officeos
Plaza de San Fransico de Asis
La Habana Vieja
Located across the street from the Cafe del Oriente, this brasserie-style restaurant serves quick and well-prepared sandwiches and omelettes. For a quick lunch or light dinner, you can't go wrong. But it doesn't have much in the way of Cuban ambiance other than what you can see through the windows.

Pizza Nova
Marina Hemingway
5ta Ave. y 248
Santa Fe
Phone: 241150, 246969
Inexpensive
Besides serving the best pizza in town, this restaurant offers good pasta. The only problem is that it's a long way from central Havana, as it's located at the Marina Hemingway. Try the small Italian restaurant in the Melia Cohiba Hotel as an alternative if you need a pizza fix. After lunch at Pizza Nova, walk to La Casa del Habano, one of the better cigar shops in Cuba, and buy yourself a robusto or double corona.

La Finca
Ave 19 y 140
Cubanacan, Playa
Phone: 2409346 or 235838
Expensive
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.

La Roca
Calle 21 esquina M
Vedado
Phone: 334501
Moderate
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.


OTHERS

Las Ruinas
Calle 100 y Cortina de la Presa
Parque Lenin
Phone: 57-85-23
Expensive
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.

El Ranchon
Ave 19 y 140. Cubanacan. Playa
Phone: 2409346 or 235838
Expensive
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.

Le Select
5ta ave y Calle 30
Miramar, Playa.
Phone: 247410, 247411
Expensive
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.

El Tocororo
Calle 18 esquina 3
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 242209, 224530, 242998
Expensive
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.

La Cecila
Calle 5, entre 110 y 112
Miramar, Playa
Phone: 24-1562
Moderate
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
Hostal Valencia
Calle Oficios No. 53
esquina a Obrapia
Habana Vieja
Phone: 623801
Moderate
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.

Pedregal
Ave. 23 y 198
La Lisa
Phone: 337832
Expensive
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.

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