Cigar Aficionado

A Sad Day for Dining

What was one of the last great cigar-gastronomic experiences in the world is over. La Guarida, arguably the best restaurant in Havana, closed its door for good in December. Its owner cited the difficulty of the current economic climate as the main reason.

“It was just too difficult to keep La Guarida going,” said Enrique Nunez, the owner of the third floor restaurant in Central Havana on Calle Concordia. “It didn’t make sense anymore.”

La Guarida was first known as the location for the 1995 Oscar-nominated Cuban film, Fresa y Chocolate. Just about the same time Nunez took over the space in the crumbling town house and started his famous private restaurant, which the Cubans call in general a paladar. The word comes from a Brazilian sitcom popular on Cuban television.

As I wrote a few years back in a report for the magazine, 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 a few dozen or so. 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 bad stomachs following a meal 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.

Paladars 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. Paladars are tiny, family-run establishments that can consist of 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.

La Guarida became the “la paladar des stars, la star des paladars” as the restaurant used to promote on its website. It was the paladar of the stars and the star of the paladars. Everyone from Jack Nicholson, Matt Dillon, Sting, and Jody Foster went there as well as royalty such as the Queen of Spain. It was the favorite haunt of diplomats and foreign cognoscenti on the island.

Enrique Nunez

Enrique developed his own “Nuevo Cubano stilo” sort of food emulating dishes he had heard about in South Florida and New York, from pan seared bonito with a vanilla sauce to rabbit lasagna. I gave him a book from the well-known Cuban American chef Daniel Rodriguez a few years after he started the restaurant and this more than helped him on his way.

He was a great fan of fine wines and always had good bottles on his small but well selected wine list. He served mostly Spanish wines but I remember drinking his supply of 1997 Tignanello over a week’s trip years ago. Moreover, he had cigars for his best clients at all times.

I remember taking friends from all over the world there–celebrities or not–and they always had the same impression when they walked into the tiny reception area. Their mouths dropped open in amazement.

As I wrote in my first review of the restaurant in the magazine:

“The coolest place to eat in Havana is this small paladar. Located on the third floor of an 18th century townhouse in central Havana, the three-room restaurant is in a converted apartment that features a balcony and beautifully carved cornices with wooden shutters. It's like a small, funky yet hip restaurant in New York's Soho or the Latin Quarter in Paris.”

The food, wine, service and ambiance were hipster, bohemian and classy at the same time. And the fact that it was in Havana made it all the more amazing. What was better was lighting up a cigar in the small restaurant the minute after arriving and smoking through the dinner at a slow and enjoyable pace. It was the best smoking experience I ever had whenever I was in Havana.

Alas, it will only be a memory now. But La Guarida will remain in my heart, like a lost love, and whenever I smoke a Cuban I will briefly think of Enrique and his wonderful paladar.

"James, it is sad to hear. I only had eaten there on 2 occasions, but it was always a wonderful experience. I remember the first time I went there. Entering the front door, walking up the steps, I wondered where my friend was taking me, but needless to say, the food the ambiance and the experience was memorable. I have since been to many palladar' but La Guardia was always one of my favorites. They can take away a lot from us, but we will always have our memories." —January 11, 2010 14:04 PM
"In yiddish the saying is thats a shahnda, translation, what a shame. " —January 8, 2010 23:39 PM