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Cuba Travel Guide

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

(continued from page 3)

Intimate Dining
Gourmet cuisine in Cuba remains elusive, but a number of spots, chiefly the cozy private paladares, are trying to rise to the challenge

The American on Mexicana Flight 7324 from Cancún to Havana said she was traveling surreptitiously to Cuba for a culinary tour. "I want to see Cuba for myself, but I thought I would do it for a reason," she said, looking slightly nervous. "So I decided to discover the cuisine of Cuba."

I just smiled and nodded my head in agreement. But I thought to myself how her tour would be a very short one because serious gastronomy continues to be in its infancy on the island, even in Havana. There's only so much you can do with roasted port, black beans and boiled rice.

I had high hopes of dining out in the mid-1990s when the Cuban government opened up its economy to small private restaurants called paladares. In a few months, these small eateries, which were officially limited to 12 seats, were all over the island, particularly in the capital. Some estimated they numbered close to 1,000 in Havana alone. Most specialized in home-style cooking, or cocina criolla, which normally means simple roasted or fried pork and chicken dishes with lots of white rice, black beans and yucca or plantains. This is what most travelers to the island still find in restaurants, both private and government-owned.

However, a handful tried to do more, even emulating nuevo latino cuisine from across the ocean in Miami. One of the most successful was La Guarida in a run-down part of Havana called Centro. The small restaurant is still located on the third floor of a large dilapidated eighteenth-century town house that was once used for filming Cuba's most famous film, Fresa y Chocolate. The eatery became so popular with its hip bohemian atmosphere, refined food and friendly service that it was almost impossible to get a table. It's still the toughest reservation in Havana. Queen Sofia of Spain, Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon and many other dignitaries and celebrities have eaten there. And most have their photographs on the wall.

"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.

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