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Eating Well in Cuba

The few quality restaurants get better, but finding good food remains difficult
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

Securing a table in one of the few good restaurants in Cuba is difficult these days. If you don't reserve a table well in advance or you don't know someone who works at, or better, owns one of the best restaurants, you probably will be stuck eating dull, poorly prepared international-style food in one of the island's hotels or government-run restaurants.

"The food scene is more and more interesting in Cuba, particularly in Havana," says Enrique Nunez, owner of La Guarida, the city's best restaurant, "but it is still very, very limited." The top places to eat in Havana may represent only a couple of hundred seats. There are now fewer good restaurants in Havana than there were just two years ago when I wrote a similar story for this magazine (for reasons I'll explain later). However, the small number that remain are getting better and better. They offer the discerning visitor good and interesting food, attentive and friendly service, and intriguing, sometimes exceptional, ambiance. Plus, they usually cost only about $20 to $30 per person for a two-course meal with drinks included.

Take Nunez's tiny eatery as an example. It is located on the third floor of a dilapidated early-twentieth-century town house in the area of Havana Centro, which resembles a bomb site with buildings literally falling into the street. Yet Nunez attracts some of the best clientele on the island. Even the queen of Spain and actor Jack Nicholson have dined at La Guarida, which, incidentally, was a location for the award-winning film, Fresa y Chocolate. "It's a shame that there are not more restaurants for the sophisticated traveler to Cuba," Nunez says. "It's just like trying to find places to hear good music or have a quiet drink with a friend. The number of places is very limited."

Most of these exceptional restaurants are tiny, family-run establishments called paladars. They are completely different from the large restaurants designed for tourists that are run by the government or hotels, which are usually overpriced and offer dull food. A good paladar can be anything from a handful of tables in the dining room patio of a family's 1950s-era Miami Deco house in the quiet neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, to a cluster of round wrought-iron tables in the garden of a manor house in the posh area of Miramar. These places are fun, welcoming and satisfying. They not only please your taste buds but also satisfy your general well-being with their distinctly Cuban atmosphere. They are also popular with the growing middle class on the island, since most restaurants, especially tourist places, are far too expensive for locals.

Paladars by law can seat only 12 people, because the government does not want competition with its tourist restaurants. These small restaurants sprouted up like weeds in the mid-1990s when the Cuban economy was struggling and the owners hoped to make a few dollars to supplement their tiny incomes. At one point, Havana alone had close to 1,000 paladars. Today, the number has shrunk to approximately 120. Most of the would-be restaurateurs found the work too difficult and the government regulation and taxes too stifling. Moreover, many of them deserved to be out of business, because they offered poor and sometimes unhygienic food. Stories of tourists whose holidays were ruined by stomach maladies are well known among those who frequent paladars. Also, taxi drivers often dictate which paladars are popular since they receive a kickback from the owner. These paladars nearly always disappoint, so don't take dining advice from taxi drivers.

However, really bad food now appears to be the exception with paladars. Menus are much more interesting than full-fledged tourist restaurants, even though paladars are restricted from using such ingredients as steak and lobster, which are the specialties of government-run restaurants. Fresh fish, poultry, pork and vegetables are the typical fare, since paladar owners can obtain ingredients from local farmers and not only from government suppliers. Food is usually prepared in home kitchens by family members or friends.

Paladar service is equally familiar. A number of establishments have tried to be more professional, such as La Guarida, which has a chef and a well-equipped, yet tiny, restaurant-quality kitchen, but the normal experience feels like being invited for dinner at someone's house.

"We have traveled to Europe and we have many friends from around the world who have restaurants and who are chefs," says Nunez, who with his wife, Odeysis, takes care of the front of the house at La Guarida seven days a week. The menu regularly changes and can offer diners anything from simple hearty gazpacho soup to fresh sautéed snapper filets served in a tangy orange sauce. La Guarida is the hardest table to reserve on the island, so, says Nunez, "We have lots of inspiration to do better."

Inspiration is not a word used by many who have eaten in the majority of official tourist restaurants on the island. I recently ate at one steak house in Havana, which served a starter of deep-fried plantains filled with small boiled shrimp in Thousand Island dressing. The plate was "decorated" with ketchup and mustard. The steak that followed tasted as if it had been frozen for months and was as tough as shoe leather. Adding to the meal's injury was the bill; it came to more than $100 for two with a mediocre bottle of Spanish wine.

A European friend who worked as a chef for a few months in a number of well-known Havana restaurants says that those were some of the most frustrating days of his life. "We just couldn't get fresh ingredients," he says. "We had to buy from the government suppliers, and everything was frozen. All the vegetables were canned. Even if I wanted to buy from local farmers or fishermen, I was not allowed to. I often paid for meat or fish on the black market with my own money or brought ingredients with me from Europe, because I couldn't take it anymore. I wanted to make good food, but it was too difficult."

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