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Cuba Travel Guide

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

(continued from page 4)

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

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