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Inside Havana

Dining and lodging options in Cuba's capital remain virtually unchanged, but a few venues still stand out. Here are the best places to stay and eat.
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, January/February 2009

Change is a relative word in Havana. The status quo generally prevails in Cuba, with the exception of natural disasters like the three hurricanes in 2008. For example, a regular visitor to Havana will not discover big changes in the hotel and gastronomic scene. A couple of new restaurants and a few renovated small hotels have opened, but long established places are still the most popular.

I travel to Havana three or four times a year, and I like to go to the same places. There's nothing better than arriving at a hotel or restaurant and seeing a familiar face. "Señor Suckling, como esta?" or "Como esta su familia?" Cubans are empathetic people and relationships mean something.

But I often wonder what would happen if the travel ban for Americans was lifted? How would Cuba cope? How would Havana handle the influx of visitors? At the moment, there just isn't an infrastructure to take care of tens of thousands of American visitors to the island. There are not enough restaurants nor hotels to accommodate more tourists on the island, which currently total about two million annually.

Service is another issue. For the most part, workers in the hospitality business in Cuba are not very attentive or professional compared to their counterparts in other countries. That service culture was lost a long time ago. Nonetheless, many Cubans are friendly and attentive wherever they work, especially if you are patient and friendly to them.

The restaurants I frequent are listed below. I have visited all of the eateries in the past year. There is more variation in the privately owned restaurants, called paladares on the island, than government-run ones. The menus are still remarkably similar, with most places focusing on locally caught fish, such as grouper or snapper, or chicken and pork. Spain dominates wine lists, with names such as Marqués de Cáceres and Torres being the most popular labels. I tend to order them because I know the stocks are well kept and turn over, which assures that they are good bottles in such a hot and humid climate.

Hotels have not changed that much either, although a few smaller inns have opened in Old Havana. I usually stay in the same place—the Meliá Cohiba. It's almost better than home with its good service, Wi-Fi Internet and a comfortable swimming pool. The executive floor, the Plata Real, is equivalent to similar dedicated service floors in international hotels in other parts of the world, but in Cuba such attentive service is a rarity.

I have visited all the other key hotels in Havana on a regular basis, and friends have stayed in them in the past year as well. The main reasons to stay in a particular hotel in the capital are service and ambience. For instance, the National and the Santa Isabel have historical elegance and style, the former being a beautiful art deco building and the latter a Spanish colonial edifice. But service in both is dismal. Meanwhile, the Meliá Cohiba and Meliá Habana have excellent service for the island, but their modern facades leave a lot to be desired. Newer hotels such as the Parque Central or Saratoga are a combination of the two.

Here are my choices for the best restaurants and hotels in Havana. They are listed in my order of preference.

Restaurants

La Guarida
Calle Concordia No. 418, between Gervasio and Escobar
Centro Habana
Tel.: 624940
Mon. — Sun., dinner only
Moderate; cash only
This remains the island's best restaurant, combining a sophisticated and hip ambience with solid food preparation. The small, private eatery is located in a crumbling townhouse on the second floor above a dusty ballroom. Ring the tiny bell on the entrance door with a peephole, and if they let you in, be ready for one of Havana's few truly bohemian gastronomic experiences. The food is imaginative for Cuba, from flavorful stuffed red pepper with tuna in a red pepper sauce to hearty rabbit lasagna.

El Aljibe
Avenue 7, between 24 and 26 Miramar
Tel.: 241584, 241583
Mon. — Sun., lunch and dinner
Moderate; most major credit cards
Happy Birthday to Aljibe. It just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Nobody should visit Havana without eating here. It is an institution more than a restaurant; it's as well known for its people-watching during a late dinner as it is for its savory Cuban food. Almost everyone orders the house specialty: roasted chicken in a tangy sauce made with fermented oranges, chicken fat and garlic; the dish is served with spicy black beans, delicate boiled white rice and deep-fried plantains. Ask one of the sommeliers to recommend a delicious Spanish wine from Emilio Moro or Alion from the restaurant's 20,000-bottle cellar. It's the best wine cellar on the island.

La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48 No. 1311, between 13 and 15
Playa
Tel.: 296514
Sun. — Fri., lunch and dinner
Moderate; cash only
I go to Lilliam for lunch because there are few things better than sitting in its serene patio area, eating delicious food and smoking a rich cigar. The food is essentially home cooking in a 1950s time warp, so don't order too much—it comes in generous quantities. Don't miss the sautéed garbanzo beans with ham and sausage, or a simply grilled piece of snapper and salad. The place is popular with ex-pat businessmen as well as diplomats, so book ahead.

El Templete
Avenida del Puerto No. 12, corner of Narciso Lopez
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: 866-8807 • Mon. — Sun., lunch and dinner
Moderate; major credit cards
This is my favorite place for lunch in Havana, sitting outside on the terrace overlooking the harbor of the city next to the cruise ship terminal. I always eat fish here, which is usually grilled snapper or mahi mahi. The stewed octopus in a spicy tomato sauce with potatoes is also very good. Bring cigars for after the meal.

Doctor Café
Calle 28 No. 111, between 1 and 3
Miramar
Tel.: 203-4718
Mon. — Sun., lunch and dinner (reservation needed)
Inexpensive; cash only
The food gets better and better at this small privately owned restaurant in the back of a doctor's house. I always order something from the charcoal grill, generally the octopus salad or mahi mahi. Most people eat in the small, air-conditioned dining room. Desserts are worth saving room for.

La Esperanza
Calle 16 No. 105, corner of 1 and 3
Miramar
Tel.: 224361
Fri. — Wed., lunch and dinner
Moderate; cash only
Although some people say this restaurant is inconsistent, I always have a good meal here. It's like eating in someone's chic 1930s Spanish colonial home in Coral Gables or Los Angeles. In fact, you can have a drink in the living room with all the owner's family pictures and objets d'art surrounding you. I stick to the specials, which are usually grilled fish or rabbit.

La Casa
Calle 30 No. 865, between 26 and 41
Nuevo Vedado
Tel.: 81-7000
Mon. — Sun., lunch and dinner
Moderate; cash only The food at this family-run restaurant recently has been more ambitious, but it still focuses on good ingredients with a no-nonsense preparation. If smoked pork chops or chicken is available, don't miss it. The atmosphere is relaxed, and hip in a 1950s Miami sort of way.

El Palia
Calle 88 B, corner of 51 A
Marianao
Tel.: 267-0282
Mon. — Fri., dinner; Sat. — Sun., lunch and dinner
Moderate; cash only One of the best new restaurants in Havana, El Palia delivers hearty and imaginative food. It's about a 20-minute taxi ride from the center of town, but it's worth the drive. Chef Lucio changes the menu daily at the small outdoor, private eatery. I recently enjoyed a dinner of grilled Wahoo filets with shrimp and roasted pork with a balsamic meat reduction. The starters of octopus and mango salad and tomato bruschetta on grilled toast were equally tasty.

El Palenque
Calle 17, corner Calle 190
Siboney
Tel.: 271-8167
Mon. — Sun., lunch and dinner
Inexpensive; cash only
What's more real in Havana than eating a Cuban sandwich with everyone from government officials to taxi drivers? That is what you do at Palenque, where sides of pork are grilled over an open fire, sliced and served with crusty bread. A bottle of Crystal beer, and you're thoroughly satisfied. It's a huge outdoor eatery that resembles more of a parking lot than a restaurant, but don't let that stop you. Besides, you can find a taxi with no problem after your meal!

La Fontana
Calle 3 A, corner of 46
Miramar
Tel.: 202-8337 Mon. — Sun., lunch and dinner
Moderate; cash only
This family-owned restaurant has undergone a number of renovations, and its latest reincarnation is a little dark and heavy. But the food remains very good, especially the flavorful barbecued sausages. I sometimes come for a quick weekend lunch just to enjoy the handmade meats, but the fish, pork and chicken are equally good over the charcoal here.

Tocororo
Calle 18, corner of 3 • Miramar • Tel.: 204-2209 • Mon. — Sat., lunch and dinner • Expensive; major credit cards An old haunt for most regular travelers to Havana, Tocororo still delivers good steaks and crisp French fries, although it's always been one of the most expensive places to go for dinner on the island. Nonetheless, a bottle of red, a juicy steak (usually Canadian beef), live bolero music and a cigar can be well worth the premium price.

La Floridita
Obispo No. 557
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: 867-1299
Mon. — Sun., lunch and dinner
Expensive; major credit cards
Food has never been a strong point for this famous tourist destination, which still serves the best Daiquiris on the island. The bar/restaurant claims to have invented the drink. But the rum flambéed shrimp with vegetables and a cold glass of white wine is still one of my favorite dinning experiences on the island. The flaming tableside service is hard to find anywhere in the world these days.

El Bodegita el Medio
Empedrado No. 207
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: 867-1374
Mon. — Sun., lunch and dinner
Moderate; major credit cards
Yes, it is a tourist trap. And the mixed drinks, particularly Mojitos, are nothing special. But the grilled pork, black beans and boiled rice are still cooked to perfection. The place reeks of history and fun. A funky spot in old Havana.

Hotels

Hotel Meliá Cohiba
Calle Paseo, between 1 and 3
Vedado
Tel.: (7) 8333636
Fax: (7) 8333946
www.solmeliacuba.com
Expensive
Modern and big with 500-plus rooms, this hotel has always had a business ambience to it. But there is pleasure, too, at the Meliá Cohiba, with excellent service, good food in its various restaurants and a comfortable pool. The executive floor is worth the extra money for the pampering, dedicated bar with drinks and snacks, and Wi-Fi Internet service. This is the hotel where I stay while in Havana.

Hotel Parque Central
Calle Neptuno, between Prado and Zulueta
La Habana Vieja
Havana
Tel.: (7) 8606627
Fax: (7) 8606630
www.nh-hotels.com
Expensive
This is an excellent hotel for people who want a good mix of the old and the new. It's a minute or two walk from the National Theater and the Capitol building. Rooms are modern, clean and comfortable, and the service is friendly and attentive. I love the rooftop pool and whirlpool. What's better than spending an afternoon in the sun, taking a dip in the pool and gazing at the skyline of Havana?

Hotel Nacional
Calle O, corner of 21
Vedado
Tel.: (7) 8363564
Fax: (7) 8365054
www.hotelnacional.com
Expensive
Nothing ever seems to change at the Nacional. The classy 1930s-style hotel is the most beautiful on the island, with a fabulous location on a knoll overlooking the avenue bordering the sea called the Malecón. The terrace and garden are some of the nicest places to relax with a cigar and a drink in Havana. It's a shame the rooms remain stark and tired and the service inattentive. The food is terrible.

Hotel Santa Isabel
Calle Baratillo No. 9, between Obispo and Narciso Lopez, Plaza de Armas
La Habana Vieja
Tel.: (7) 8608201
Fax: (7) 8608391
E-mail: commercial@habaguanexhsisabel.co.cu
Moderate
The location and Spanish colonial facade of this beautiful small hotel with a couple of dozen rooms make it worth staying in. You are in the heart of Old Havana, and can walk to many sights, restaurants and shops. But the rooms are tired and the service poor.

Hotel Meliá Habana
Calle 3, between 76 and 80
Miramar
Tel.: (7) 2048500
Fax: (7) 2043905
E-mail: jefe.creservas.mha@solmeliacuba.com
Expensive
This is very similar to its sister hotel, the Meliá Cohiba, but the 400-room Habana has a more relaxed atmosphere due to its location in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar overlooking the sea. The pool is more relaxed than the Cohiba. And there are tennis courts as well. A serious cigar shop is located in the basement.

Hotel Saratoga
Paseo del Prado 603, corner of Dragones
La Vieja Habana
Tel.: (7) 8681000
Fax: (7) 8681001
E-mail: commercial@saratoga.co.cu
Moderate
You have to love a hotel that's almost directly across from the Partagas cigar factory, but even though it is in the center of Havana, the Saratoga can be a little quiet. Rooms are clean, light and airy, with large bathrooms. The staff is friendly and helpful. The swimming pool on the roof is a marvelous place to spend an afternoon on a hot day, and the food is good at the bar there. Otherwise, don't eat here.

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