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"It's very sad," said Enrique Núñez, owner of La Guarida, who spends a large amount of his time searching for the best ingredients, from fresh fish to vegetables. "There just aren't a lot of places to visit on the island."
Probably only 300 to 400 seats combined in good-quality restaurants exist in Cuba. Most can be found in La Guarida and other paladars such as La Cocina de Lilliam, La Casa and La Esperanza. And it's not inexpensive anymore. Prices can be the same as Miami or Los Angeles at $40 or $50 a head for a three-course dinner without drinks. A large part of this is because very few Cubans eat out. They simply can't afford it. And the majority of tourists eat in their hotels at large buffets or other down-market venues. So the few who go out have to pay for everything.
"We don't have the [restaurant] culture here yet," lamented Núñez. "And we don't have the customers."
This lack of culture, or dedication for a better word, is why I haven't listed more restaurants in this article. They just aren't worth making the effort to go to. In addition, a number of places have gone down in quality, including La Fontana, La Floridita and El Ranchón.
But this doesn't mean that it's not fun to go out for a meal in Cuba, especially Havana. There's something intriguing about going to a good paladar, and it's an experience that can't be replicated, especially in the United States. I have never eaten in a restaurant in Los Angeles or New York that doubles as someone's house.
Take Havana's La Casa for example. It is one paladar in the city that has improved in the last year, and shows that a tiny restaurant culture is slowly taking hold. Alejandro Robaina, nothing to do with the cigar legend, looks more like a Spanish movie star than a restaurateur, but he has spent time in Europe and aspires to make more sophisticated, refined food, instead of the criolla cuisine he served before. A recent dinner on the patio of his small restaurant included roasted rabbit in a creamy mustard sauce, grilled smoked pork chops, pan-fired snapper, and fresh vegetables and creamy puree potatoes. Granted, it's not New York or London, but it's the beginning of haute cuisine in Cuba for the moment.
"It's not easy," Robaina said, waiting on a handful of tables with his father, while a friend manned the small kitchen. The restaurant is the first floor of their 1950s modern-style house. "But you always have to try to do better, no matter the difficulty."
Paladares pay high taxes, which is one reason many are no longer in business. Moreover, the government now heavily regulates private restaurants, and many could not keep up with the health and financial rules.
Government restaurants, on the other hand, are used to the regulation. In fact, they were created with rules in mind. This makes for tidy organization but results in mostly mediocre food and service. Food, even in the best hotels, is insipid at best. In the 16 years I have traveled to Cuba, I have never had an exceptional meal in a hotel.
This doesn't mean a few good government restaurants don't exist. For example, El Aljibe is an outdoor restaurant that is one of the most popular in Havana, both with tourists, expatriates and international businessmen. The restaurant can serve hundreds of covers in a day, with most customers eating its specialty of roasted chicken in tangy citrus gravy with black beans, rice and French fries. I like to say it is the Habaneros' answer to a grand Parisian brasserie. Plus, El Aljibe has a temperature-controlled wine cellar with 20,000 bottles, from Italy's Tignanello to Chile's Almaviva.
But at the end of the day, a seasoned traveler to Cuba, in particular Havana, is going to go to the same five or six restaurants in the city. In fact, you often see the same people and they all seem to know one another on a first-name basis. There's often an exchange of pleasantries as well as cigars at the end of the meal. I am sure the American woman I met on her gastronomic tour found the same thing, if she was able to find the handful of places to go other than hotel restaurants.
Here are my favorite restaurants on the island. All are in Havana.
La Guarida
Calle Concordia, No. 418
Entre Gervasio y Escobar
Centro Habana
Tel.: (7) 866-9047
Monday to Sunday, dinner only; cash only
Enrique Núñez and his family produce the best food on the island in what has to be one of the coolest restaurants in the Caribbean. A walk up the spiraling marble staircase to the third floor of a decaying town house where the restaurant is located is like going back in time. Stop on the second floor and gaze at the crumbling ballroom. When you get to the restaurant, knock on the small door with a peephole, and the door opens to a dreamy, bohemian ambience. La Guarida doesn't change its menu much, but it always delivers stylish dishes like a tasty roasted tuna filet with a vanilla sauce or hearty rabbit vegetable lasagna. It has a well-selected wine list too. You'll be satisfied gastronomically and spiritually here. Don't miss it.
La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48, No. 1311
Entre 13 y 15
Tel.: (7) 209-6514
Sunday to Friday, lunch and dinner; cash only
This is home cooking, 1950s Cuban cuisine, and a fun place to eat, either for lunch or dinner. Most customers prefer to eat on the patio of the Spanish colonial—style house built in 1937. The refreshing green garden with ferns and small ponds is refreshing during a warm, humid Cuban day. Food is hearty with lots of pork, fish, rice and beans. Desserts are sweet and delicious. Plenty of Spain's Torres wine is available, although a cold Cuban beer or refreshing Mojito does the trick as well.
El Aljibe
Avenida 7 entre 24 y 26
Tel.: (7) 204-1584, 204-1583
Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner
Moderate; most major credit cards
You can't go to Havana and not eat at this sometimes raucous outdoor restaurant. It's great for people watching at night, so go around 9 p.m. The food is savory and satisfying. Just about everyone eats the same thing: roasted chicken in a pungent sauce made with fermented oranges, chicken drippings and garlic; spicy black beans; delicate boiled white rice; and deep-fried plantains. Ask one of the sommeliers to recommend a rich Spanish, Italian or Chilean red from the restaurant's 20,000-bottle cellar. Order a bottle of 2003 Don Melchor; the delicious Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon was Wine Spectator's No. 3 wine last year.
La Esperanza
Calle 16, No. 105
Entre 1 y 3
Tel.: (7) 202-4361
Monday to Saturday, lunch and dinner; cash only
This restaurant has had its ups and downs, but the food and service seems to be back on track. It's as real a paladar as you get in Cuba, plus there's a romantic refinement to the 1930s Spanish colonial house. Relax and enjoy. Coming here is like being invited to a bohemian dinner party.
La Casa
Calle 30, No. 865
Entre 26 y 41
Nuevo Vedado
Tel.: (7) 881-7000
Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner; cash only
This could be the second best restaurant in Havana, if owner Alejandro Robaina can continue to innovate in his kitchen. The atmosphere is relaxed, hip in a 1950s Miami sort of way. Plenty of good pork and fish dishes as well as the occasional rabbit or chicken. Food is light and refined now. Just what you need on a hot, humid night in Havana.
Doctor Café
Calle 28, No. 111
Entre 1 y 3
Tel.: (7) 203-4718
Every day, lunch and dinner (reservation needed); most major credit cards
A very simple paladar in the back of a doctor's house, hence the name. The food here is solid criollo eats with lots of roasted and grilled meats, poultry and fish accompanied by black beans and rice. Arrive on an empty stomach.
El Templete
Avenida del Puerto, No. 12
Esquina Narciso Lopez
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: (7) 866-8807
Every day, lunch and dinner; most major credit cards, but cash preferable
This is one of the nicest places in Havana for lunch, sitting outside on the terrace overlooking the harbor of the city next to the cruise ship terminal. Lots of fresh seafood is on offer, from snapper to lobster, and it's prepared various ways, from simply grilled to sautéed in olive oil and garlic. The standard Cuban side dishes are available. Good wine list.
El Palenque
Calle 17 y 190
Tel.: (7) 271-8167
Every day, lunch and dinner; cash only
When I am in Havana I always go here for lunch for the good, hearty simple, food and fun atmosphere. Located near the Palacio de Convenciones, it's the sort of place where you rub shoulders with everyone from diplomats to taxi drivers. The dining area is right next to the car park under open-air, palm-leaf-roofed buildings. Order something off the outdoor barbecue, like ribs or pressed chicken.
La Bodeguita del Medio
Empedrado, No. 207
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: (7) 867-1374, 757-1375
Every day, lunch and dinner; Visa; reservations needed
OK, it's full of tourists. And the bar can be very loud. But it's fun. Relax and enjoy a simple lunch or dinner of grilled fish or roasted pork with plenty of black beans and rice. Hemingway was said to drink his Mojitos here. But apparently it may not be true. Who cares? He should have drunk them here and you can too.
La Fontana
Calle 3 A, No. 305
Esquina 46
Tel.: (7) 202-8337
Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner; cash only
The restaurant has been inconsistent at times, but it is currently getting it very right. The main courses of grilled meats and fish are good, like many places in Havana, but the starters are exceptional, from tender grilled octopus to spicy homemade sausages as well as sautéed garbanzo beans with tomatoes and smoked ham. Eating outside on the patio is a treat, but it's cooler, in both senses of the word, to eat in the air-conditioned bar. Good bottles of Torres are available, both from Spain and Chile.
Havana's Cigar Shops
The Cuban capital has some of the world's best cigar emporiums, with great selection and service
Havana is the cigar mecca of the world and its unofficial guru is cigar merchant Enrique Mons. The 64-year-old has been selling cigars in the capital for close to two decades. He opened the first fine cigar shop in the city in 1990 after spending 18 years as head of quality control for the export company for Cuban cigars, then known as Cubatabaco.
"Back then I traveled frequently to Europe and I could see how well the cigars were kept at the stores," he says, smoking a lonsdale that a roller in his shop had made a few minutes before. His current store is located in the Club Havana in Miramar, an opulent area in the southern part of the city. "I always thought that Cuba, being the best producer of cigars in the world, that we should also be able to keep [and sell] our cigars with the same care that was done elsewhere in the world.
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