While Cuba Remains Off-Limits to Americans, Havana and the Island's Beaches Draw Tourists from the Rest of the World
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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Restaurants & Bars
If there is one basic guideline for drinking and eating in Cuba, it is to keep it simple. Though international fare is featured by nearly every upscale restaurant, it is always better to order traditional drinks and food.
Wine lists have improved greatly over the past few years, but nothing is more inviting and thirst quenching than the local Hatuey beer, a full-flavored lager usually served just above the freezing point. Rum-based cocktails are an island specialty, particularly the daiquiri and the mojito, both of which were favorites of Ernest Hemingway during his Cuba years. The Hemingway daiquiri is a mix of light rum, ice and lime juice (no sugar), blended to a frozen mass. The mojito is made with rum, sugar, lime juice, crushed mint, soda and a dash of Angostura bitters, served on the rocks.
All the best hotels all have at least one good bar (some have several) where you can drink and smoke in comfort. This is particularly true at the Cohiba, Nacional and Comodoro. But no one should go to Havana without visiting the legendary Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, two great Old Havana watering holes made famous by Hemingway, John Dos Passos and other internationally known personalities.
Abandoned for many years after the Revolution, Floridita has been painstakingly restored to its past splendor using old photographs and the memories of former employees. The large, dark barroom, decorated principally in red, has a plush, 1940s feel. On the walls are pictures of Hemingway during his Cuba days. White-jacketed barmen stand before the expansive back bar mixing daiquiris, which they serve up in huge stemmed goblets. On busy nights, the constant whir of the blenders rises and falls above the noise of the crowd. Most afternoons, though, it is cool and quiet at Floridita, and it is easy to imagine Papa dropping in for a drink after a long morning at the typewriter.
At the other end of the scale, La Bodeguita del Medio is casual and almost always crowded. The walls of this narrow, three-story bar/restaurant are covered from floor to ceiling with graffiti, much of it signed by internationally known artists, writers, statesmen and scoundrels. Shoved in a tiny room at the front, the bar buzzes with activity, as mojitos, Cuba libres and frosty Hatueys are served up at a dizzying speed.
Neither Floridita nor La Bodeguita del Medio are known for serving high-quality food. At Floridita, the menu is mainly seafood, service is stiff and the food, overpriced. At La Bodeguita del Medio, service is relaxed to a fault, the food is simple Cuban fare (rice, beans and pork), inexpensive and fresher at lunch than at dinner.
It is not easy to get a good meal in Havana. Most restaurants suffer from the generally tough economic times and a blasé socialist approach to dining. As with bars, some of the best restaurants are in the better hotels, where the food, wine lists and service come closer to meeting international standards.
There are some notable exceptions, including a trio of Miramar eateries. The best of these (and one of the best restaurants in Cuba) is Tocororo, at Third Avenue and Calle 18, which occupies the ground floor and garden patio of a neocolonial mansion. Here, the antique-filled interior rooms are formal, yet the huge, plant-filled covered patio is tropical and relaxed. A favorite spot of diplomats and the multinational business set, its cuisine is international with a criollo flair. Dishes such as chilled shrimp in basil vinaigrette, mixed seafood brochette and grilled lamb chops are superb. The wine list is limited to a few Spanish selections, but they do make the best mojito in Havana, if not in the whole island.
A few blocks farther out in Miramar is La Casa de 5 y 16's El Ranchon garden restaurant. The cuisine here is typically Cuban, with grilled fish and meats, and beans and rice; mixed salads are the specialty. The portions are huge, and the food is expertly prepared. Particularly good are the thick grilled pork chops. The setting and the service are casual, making it a great place for lunch or an early dinner after a visit to the cigar store inside. Again, the wine list is limited, but the beer is as cold as you can get anywhere in the city.
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