Dining in Havana: Old Favorites, New Finds

Dining in Havana: Old Favorites, New Finds
Photo/Angelo Cavalli
The thatched roof, open-air ambience of El Aljibe remains intact; the waitresses still friendly and the beer cold.

In recent years, dining in Havana has been a tug-of-war between old favorites and new discoveries. On short trips, the decision is even harder. There are only so many lunches and so many dinners. Furthermore, in the off-season, like now, even old favorites are not always on their game. Recent gas shortages, which have complicated delivery of foodstuffs to both government-run and privately owned restaurants, means that there are no assurances you’ll find things the way you remember.

I stuck to my first night tradition, El Aljibe, considered one of the finest restaurants in Havana for roast chicken served with rice and black beans. I was last there in February, when my arrival coincided with a gaggle of cruise ship passengers delivered to the restaurant in huge tour buses. The place was packed, and we waited for a table. This time, there were only two other occupied tables, a total of six people dining. The chicken was, to put it kindly, not up to previous trips either, although it was still perfectly roasted and tasty. The thatched roof, open-air ambience remains intact; the waitresses still friendly and the beer cold. And tradition is tradition.

Several meals at new places that were recommended are not worth highlighting. A so-called gourmet restaurant with a Japanese theme in the Meliá Habana was fine, but just not worth a detour, as Michelin rating guides are fond of saying.

But one old favorite, which I hadn’t been to in several years, Vistamar, is back on my recommended list. The oceanfront restaurant has been upgraded and expanded, and the food was excellent—an extravagant seafood salad with shrimp and lobster, a grilled octopus and an eggplant lasagna was expertly prepared. The Miramar location is within easy taxi distance of Old Havana, and while it was pouring rain during the lunch I was there, the new poolside tables promise a great ambience at night.

Costa Vino is a new discovery. My initial impression based on one visit is to put it near the top of my recommendations in the city. Alejandro Herrera and Yoel Chacon has transformed a building on the west end of the Malecón, right across from the old fort protecting the river, into a fine dining oasis. As I’m accustomed to doing, I ordered the octopus, which was perfectly grilled and served with a light pesto sauce.

One person ordered steak, which I usually shy away from in Cuba; this one was delicious and tender. Another ordered the ceviche, which arrived with a modern-style foam and a light dressing, and a side order of steamed vegetables. On top of that, the restaurant has the best wine list I’ve seen in Havana in years; a good range of French and Italian wines, plus some excellent Spanish wines, including Pintia and Vega Sicilia—the latter two aren’t cheap but they are available and are stored either in a wine refrigerator or in the air-conditioned main dining room. Smoking is permitted on the outdoor terrace, which overlooks the Malecón and the old fort. Check it out. I will again the next time I’m in Havana.

My last meal was at Tocamadera, a new discovery two years ago that remains an excellent choice. The restaurant is small, so reservations are mandatory. I ate a flatbread focaccia with fresh, flavorful arugula, tomatoes, basil and mozzarella on one half, and a melted cheese and truffle topping on the other. The main course was a pasta dish with chicken chunks in a cream sauce and a light dusting of truffles; it was outstanding. Stick to the beer here. You’ll feel like you are in Havana of a long gone era when private restaurants were small and pretty much hidden away from prying eyes. It’s a rustic setting in a small interior space of a house in Miramar with a patio filled with plants and vines, the perfect place to have an after-dinner cigar.