Dining in Havana

Cuba’s dining scene was once tired and predictable, but today’s Havana features restaurants with surprising quality
| By Gordon Mott | From Welcome to Cuba, May/June 2015
Dining in Havana

Roast chicken as good as L'Ami Louis in France. A lasagna de papaya as creative as any dish you could find in Barcelona. A barbecue pork rib as succulent and tender as you could order in Memphis. A tuna sashimi platter as fresh as you could eat in Tokyo. A décor as striking and chic as you could lay eyes on in South Beach.

With high praise like that, you would think this story was about New York or London or Paris or Los Angeles. But Havana? No way.

Yes, we're serious. Havana's restaurant scene is changing, and getting better. Much better. It's not just new restaurants raising the standards, but some old favorites are improving, either from new investments in their buildings, or from the competition that is forcing every eatery to step up its game.

We spent a total of 15 days in Havana in February, and ate at nearly 30 restaurants. Five years ago when we conducted our first comprehensive restaurant survey here, if we had eaten 30 restaurant meals, we would have been going back to the same ones more than once. There were not that many places worth investigating. This time, things are different, and constantly changing. We wanted to be sure to cover our old favorites, touch base for the first time at the few places we had never visited, and sit down to eat at the new ones which had a special twist, seemed unusual or offered a glimpse of the future of Havana's dining scene. We didn't get to all the ones we had heard about, as you would need at least another full week in Havana to cover all the possible places to eat, and even then new ones might be opening under your nose.

Take El Cocinero. The year-old restaurant has been created out of an old vegetable oil factory. A towering brick chimney looms over the entrance, and even when sitting on the rooftop terrace for your pre-dinner cocktail or post-dinner rum, you have to crane your neck to look at it. The indoor space is modernist chic with white walls and sleek banquettes. The outdoor dining terrace is minimalist chic too with metal and wood tables, and a tropical feel amid the plants. The observation that it could be in South Beach brought a quick, cheeky reply: "In South Beach, there would be more Cubans." Yes, the restaurant was filled with foreigners, but in Havana, at the better restaurants, that will usually be true; an average professional Cuban can't afford to go to these restaurants, at least not very often.

The reality is that the restaurants with pretensions of international service and food are aimed at tourists. That is both good and bad. They strive to produce food that foreigners want to eat, and pay good prices for. But, despite the growing number of good restaurants, there are still more tourists than chairs available. The good places can become overwhelmed by large tour groups, or simply be booked all the time. For the first time in Havana's history, you better make reservations before your meal. If not, you might end up waiting a long time, or not getting in. (We have provided phone numbers for the restaurants, and note the new "7" after the country code "53" for Cuba. That digit is a new addition, so if the number doesn't work, try it without the "7.") Demand also has caused some previously good places to spiral downhill. We've left them off our list.

Finally, like most things in Cuba, dial down your expectations. Despite our glowing assessments, the reality is Havana is not London, or Paris, or New York or Barcelona. Some dishes are great. But many are just good. Stick to the basics-grilled seafood, simply prepared shellfish and uncomplicated preparations for everything else. However, lamb and pork are better than they have ever been. If you go in expecting to be satisfied, not blown away, you will leave happy. Service still is not up to three-star standards either. It can be slow, but the waiters are almost always eager to please.

We have to highlight the smoking rules in Cuba. While they are widely ignored, many restaurants have restricted smoking to terraces or patios. That's the law. Some places won't mind smoking indoors when it's late. Others are adamant. Just ask. Almost every restaurant has a place to smoke, but you may have to leave your table to light up.

We have put the restaurants into three categories: Editors' Choices, Excellent to Very Good and Others. Prices are per person, without alcohol. We would eat at all of these restaurants. If a restaurant appeared on our 2011 list, and isn't here, take that as a red flag and stay away.

Editors's Choices

La Guarida
Calle Concordia 418, entre Gervesio y Escobar, Centro Havana, Tel: (537) 866-9047

Enrique Núñez, the owner, is back on top of his game. This is Havana's best food, and most romantic restaurant. Housed in a building where Enrique was born and raised, he is expanding his footprint, and extending the restaurant. There is a chic rooftop bar, and a big new modern kitchen. The colonial look and feel of his older dining rooms has been preserved, but the kids begging tips on the way in are gone. This is the home of the lasagna de papaya we love. The Caesar's salad prepared tableside is as good as it gets and the gazpacho is outstanding. Try the lamb tikka masala too. Any of the seafood dishes are fantastic and fresh. Reservations are a must at all times of the year, or expect to wait. Expensive: $40 to $50

Casa Grande
Pezuela No. 86, esquina Fóxa, Cojimar, La Habana del Este, Tel: (535) 316-6295
Open less than two months, this is the new discovery of our recent visits. The chef is Jorge Falcon, who used to man the grill at La Terraza in Old Havana. He has installed the same grill at Casa Grande, and is turning out some of the best grilled food—fish, lobster, pork ribs—that you will find anywhere in the world. The ceviche, made from mojarra, or silver perch, was delicate with a light, lime marinade. The pork ribs, slow cooked for more than two hours and then flash heated on the grill to sear the lime-soy marinade, were incredibly tender and succulent—that dish alone is worth the 20-minute drive from Central Havana to Cojimar, one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite Cuban retreats. The setting is a bit rustic and off-the-beaten track, but it is worth the detour. Moderate: $30 to $40

La Moraleja
Calle 25, entre I y J, Vedado, Tel: (537) 832-0963

Five years ago, this restaurant was brand new. Today, it's as good as ever. However, it has become a favorite of tour guides, so our one caveat is plan on dinner to run late. But the food is outstanding. The grilled octopus salad is delicious. The rabbit is worth a try when it's on the menu. The Camarones Hemingway is a delicious preparation of tiny shrimp in a light sauce. The service is outstanding. The wine list is one of the better ones in the city, and the storage is decent since they keep the wine in a small basement dining area, actually our favorite place to eat here. But be forewarned, the wines are pricey. Expensive: $40 to $50

Corte del Principe
Calle 74, esquina Avenida 9, Miramar, Tel: (537) 255-9091

This recommendation violates one of our basic rules about not touting ethnic cuisine in Cuba. But Sergio, an Italian expat who owns the restaurant, wipes out any concerns about sending people here. The food is fantastic. The warm octopus salad with potatoes is one of the best dishes in Havana. The beef carpaccio with arugula and a light truffle oil dressing could be on any menu anywhere. The pastas are fresh, and the sauces are authentic; my pesto was great, and an arrabbiata sauce (perhaps not as spicy as some) was tasty. The main courses are all delicious, with good steaks, shrimps and veal prepared in traditional Italian styles. Reservations are an absolute must here. The restaurant is already filled with the expat community in Havana, especially Sergio's Italian friends, and outsiders won't be pushing them off their regular tables. Expensive: $40 to $50

El Cocinero
Calle 26, entre 11 y 13, Vedado, Tel: (537) 832-2356

This is one of Havana's newest restaurants, and the one that highlights the future of what dining will be in Cuba. It would fit in South Beach, or Los Angeles, or any major city. The duck blinis were outstanding, as were the lobster bisque and the corn soup. The red snapper with succotash also was very good. The kitchen is a bit inconsistent, and at least one octopus dish with paprika would not inspire a repeat order. But this is a do-not-miss experience in Havana. The setting, with the tall brick chimney rising high above you, makes it feel a bit other worldly. Expensive: $40 to $50

Santy Pescador
Calle 240A, Jaimanitas, Tel: (537) 271-4925 and 286-7039

That's all there is to the address. Keep the phone numbers. As one guide says, you may need to call along the way to get final directions. This seafood shack is at the end of a dusty street in Jaimanitas, a small fisherman's community on the way to Hemingway's Marina. You may wonder along the way what we've gotten you into. By the time you leave, you will understand. The door makes you feel like you are approaching a speakeasy. Open it, and walk into a small restaurant that overlooks a little river off its back balconies. The menu is simple: the catch of the day. It changes daily. There was fresh tuna one day; we had it as a tuna sashimi and a tuna ceviche. The fish tasted as it should—of the sea. Reservations at Santy's are absolutely necessary. Moderate: $30 to $40

El Aljibe
Avenida 7, entre 24 y 26, Miramar, Tel: (537) 204-1583

This roast chicken emporium climbs into our Editors' Choice category because every time we go we say, "Wow, the chicken is great here." It is. And, for a little over $13.50, you get all the chicken, rice, black beans and french fries that you can eat. This is old Havana. It has very few frills. But the same family has been operating it since the 1940s. The chicken is delicious, and I could make a meal just out of the rice and beans. There's also a good wine cellar, which is air-conditioned, most of the time. You go inside to pick out your bottle of wine. El Aljibe is a Cigar Aficionado tradition; the first night in Havana, we always eat there. So, why shouldn't it get a recommendation for you to eat there too. Inexpensive: $20 to $30


Excellent to Very Good

Ivan Justo
Aguacate 9, esquina A Chacón, Habana Vieja, Tel: (537) 863-9697

Like so many Havana restaurants, a narrow, steep staircase leads up to a couple of small rooms with tables, and then onward and upward to a delightful small terrace. Ask for the latter when you make a reservation. The chef, Ivan Justo, used to cook for Fidel Castro. The food is excellent. Malanga frita, a deep-fat fried root vegetable, was delicious, and something that's harder and harder to find well-prepared today in Havana. The octopus and lamb were both well-prepared, but don't pass up the roast pork—it's simply outstanding. Expensive: $40 to $50

La Terraza/Gijones
Prado 309, esq. Virtudes, Habana Vieja, Tel: (535) 817-8778

La Terraza, on the third floor of the Asociacion Asturiana building on the Prado, has long been one of our favorites. It is still very reliable. The upgrades are nice; the grill is now behind a partition so you don't get covered by smoke. The original chef is long gone, but the food, especially off the grill, is fantastic. A roasted leg of lamb couldn't have been better. Stick to the basics. Order a bottle of red wine. You won't go wrong. Moderate: $30 to $40

Rio Mar
Avenida 3, No. 11, Miramar, Tel: (537) 209-4838

This restaurant sits facing the inlet that runs between Miramar and the Malecón, Havana's famous seaside promenade. Get a table on the terrace, and enjoy the view and the fresh breeze off the water. I had a grilled red snapper. The fish was fantastic. Grilled fish is the order of the day here, but the seafood pasta, a combination of shellfish and regular fish, is delicious. One warning: this place is on the tour bus circuit so be prepared for some big groups. Moderate: $25 to $35

Avenida 35, entre 20 y 41, Playa, Habana, Tel: (537) 203-8315

This is a very elegant, new restaurant near the Casa de la Musica Miramar. We ate there twice to double check its quality. The Cuban chef, Armando Perez Leon, is putting out a modern cuisine based on Cuban traditional food. A thick gazpacho was redolent of its fresh tomato base. A grouper ceviche was perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of citrus. A lightly sautéed lobster was served with carrots and avocado. The fresh fried sardines, served with a lime-avocado dressing, were perfect. Main courses a few nights later were not quite up to those reviews, but they were delicious and the setting is wonderful. Expensive: $40 to $50

Doctor Café
Calle 28, No. 111, entre 1 y 3, Miramar, Tel: (537) 203-4718

Another old standby. A recent lunch was ribs, an order of turtle, fish and excellent french fries. The food is consistent, if a bit slow to reach the table. The ambience hasn't changed in more than 10 years. Most of the food is prepared on the grill. We have had venison there, and other dishes such as conch grilled with olive oil. Just ask for the daily specials. They change frequently, and you won't go wrong. Expensive: $40 to $50

El Rum Rum de La Habana
Calle Empedrado, No. 256, entre Cuba y Aguiar, Habana Vieja, Tel: (537) 861-0806

This is a relatively new paladar in Old Havana. That makes it special. There are not that many good privately owned restaurants in the old part of the city. Your best bet would be a mojito at Bodeguita del Medio down the street, and then retire here for dinner. Seafood in black rice, grilled chicken and an arroz con pollo were all flavorful and well-prepared. Service is a bit slow, but the restaurant is an oasis in this older part of town. Moderate: $25 to $35

Calle 29, No. 205 entre B y C, Vedado, Tel: (537) 800-7711

This restaurant is in one of the older mansions in Vedado, a stately two-story house with a beautiful patio. Reserve there. The food is delicious. I had a pez perro (dogfish) in a bright orange-lime sauce that was delicate and delicious. Casserole de mariscos was done Mediterranean style, with olives, tomatoes and peppers, but it was light, not heavy. The appetizers also delivered; good malanga frita made in small little balls (which makes them crispier) and great ceviche. You won't go wrong here. Moderate: $25 to $35

Café Laurant
Calle M, entre 19 y 21, Vedado, Tel: (537) 831-2090

This restaurant has not only survived the test of time, but it has improved since our last visit, shortly after it opened. The ceiling is draped in white curtains, and it produces a nice romantic feel with a nice view over the rooftops of Vedado. Smoking is allowed on the outdoor terrace. Pez perro was a delightful grilled fish. The mixed seafood and shellfish dish was impressive with plenty of variety. The wine list is affordable. Moderate: $25 to $35

Mediterráneo Havana
Calle 13, No. 406, entre F y G, Vedado, Tel: (537) 832-4894

This restaurant contends for one of the better ones in the city. Appetizers of octopus with pesto and a seafood salad were great, and the seafood croquettes, often a staple menu item in Havana, were a cut above average. Pasta with squash and shrimps also got high marks. The upstairs terrace provides a nice place to smoke. Friendly service. Moderate: $30 to $40

Calle 5, entre Paseo y 2, Vedado, Tel: (537) 836-2025

One of the most elegant settings in Havana. The main interior room is stylish, with art on the walls, and large spaces between the tables. And, the outdoor terrace, when it's not windy, is a delightful place to sit out under the stars and enjoy a warm Havana evening. The food wasn't quite as consistent as previous visits, but nonetheless it is quite good. A duck dish was savory, if a little tough, and a garlic-and-oil preparation of octopus kept this octopus fiend happy. The fish is always well-prepared here. Moderate: $35 to $45


Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48, No. 1311, entre 13 y 15, Playa, Tel: (537) 209-6514

One of the oldest paladars in Havana, and it has stood the test of time. It serves great malanga frita, and it's always worth a trip if you're looking for traditional Havana-style cooking. Wonderful outdoor garden.

San Cristóbal
Calle San Rafael 469, entre Lealtad y Campanario, Centro Havana, Tel: (537) 860-1705

The ranking of San Cristobál in this category speaks more about how many good places have opened up in Havana than about this restaurant's quality. The setting is on the edge of outrageous, with beautiful rooms filled with antique statues and artifacts. Stick to the basics here, and you'll be fine.

El Litoral
Malecón 161, entre K y L, Vedado, Tel: (537) 830-2201

Opened last year, this place is still humming and producing great food. It's right on the Malecón, but its design would remind you of a nice seafood restaurant in any port city in the world. Seafood pasta was excellent, and the other seafood dishes are of good quality.

Avenida 1, entre 22 y 24, Miramar, Tel: (537) 203-8328

Another of the venerable paladars in Havana. The setting is fantastic—the house is situated right on the ocean—and the view from the dining room is spectacular. The lobster is always great here, as is the shrimp. Nice reliable place.

Malecón 107, entre Genio y Crespo, Centro Havana, Tel: (537) 861-4864

This restaurant earns its way onto the list not just for the food, which is reliable, but the setting. The balcony tables have an unfettered view of the Malecón, up and down its entire length. Good seafood, especially lobster. Worth a visit.

La California
Calle Crespo No. 55, entre San Lázaro y Refugio, Centro Havana, Tel: (537) 863-7510

A fun little restaurant in Centro Havana. Excellent fish carpaccio, with a light, lime marinade. Great atmosphere. Friendly service.

La Paila
Calle 25, esquina M, Vedado, Tel: (535) 284-6072

This is a downtown version of El Aljibe, and is located right behind the Habana Libre hotel. It opened just a few months ago. The chicken here is only $10, and is roasted and delicious. Feels like a beach restaurant, so come here if you're hungry and feeling informal. Everything is well-prepared.

El Templete
Avenida Del Puerto No. 12, esquina a Narciso López, Habana Vieja, Tel: (537) 866-8807

One of the best of Cuba's government-run restaurants. The seafood has always been extremely good and fresh. And the service is pretty good. It gets big tourist traffic, so be prepared to fight your way through the crowds.

La Imprenta
Mercaderes No. 208, entre Lamparilla y Amargura, Habana Vieja, Tel: (537) 864-9581

This government-run restaurant is right on one of our favorite streets, Mercaderes. The food is simple and good. The setting is fantastic—an old printing plant. It is a great place to stop for lunch if you're doing a walking tour of Old Havana.

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