Cigar Aficionado

Eating Well in Cuba

The few quality restaurants get better, but finding good food remains difficult

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."

He says that most of the Cubans he worked with just didn't care, or simply couldn't understand, what good food was about, from the dishwashers to the head of the restaurant group. "I once asked my second what his favorite dish was and he said, 'Scrambled eggs with avocado and ketchup,'" he says with a laugh. "I knew that someone like that would have problems appreciating the subtleties of cooking for educated people from around the world."

Some Cuban chefs just don't want to admit their pitfalls. "There is no one in Miami or the United States that can make authentic Cuban food like I can," says one well-known "culinary star" on the island. "Why would I want to know what restaurants are doing anywhere else but here?" His restaurant serves starters of processed Canadian fish balls and crab claws from out of the freezer as well as tough, second-rate beef from the same source. There is absolutely nothing Cuban on his menu except for the black beans and rice that accompany each dish.

However, it would be unfair to roast all of the big-name restaurants on the island. One of the most successful places in Havana is the large outdoor restaurant called El Aljibe. Each day, it serves hundreds of pounds of perfectly roasted chicken, savory boiled rice and spicy cooked black beans, and the service is as fast and professional as a Parisian brassiere or New York grill. It's one of the most popular restaurants in Cuba, not only for tourists but also diplomats, foreign businessmen and the small number of local elite. El Aljibe is the best spot on the island for Criollo food, what Cubans call the cuisine of their country.

"The number one reason why we do well is that we have respect for our client," says Sergio Garcia Marcias, who started El Aljibe in 1993 after running a smaller, similarly styled restaurant near the airport. He has also recently taken over the management of La Cecilia restaurant, which, before turning into a tourist trap about five years ago, served very good Cuban food. He plans to turn it around with his winning formula: "We serve good Cuban food and nothing else. The food is always good and the service is always quick and friendly."

Garcia makes it sound easy, but in Cuban restaurants, quality food, good service and pleasing ambience is still the exception instead of the norm. But there is hope for a better future. Below are the restaurants I frequent when I am on the island. They are listed in my order of preference and placed in categories of expensive (more than $40 per person without wine), moderate ($25 to $35 per person), and inexpensive (less than $20). Most places are cash-only. No U.S.-issued credit cards or traveler's checks are accepted anywhere on the island. Remember to add 10 to 15 percent to the bill for service.

La Guarida

Calle Concordia, No. 418 e/Gervasio y Escobar

Centro Habana

Tel.: 62 49 40

Monday to Sunday, dinner only

Moderate

This remains the hippest, best restaurant in Havana. Its third-floor venue, in one of the dozens of apartments in a huge, rundown town house, makes you feel as if you are in a speakeasy in 1920s Chicago. You have to walk up a dark staircase and then bang on an imposing wooden door with a peephole that someone slides open to see who is there. The three dining rooms are decorated with wood paneling, posters, photographs and candles. It's warm, romantic and elegant and the food is always good. Try a starter of fresh and zesty aubergine caviar followed by a main course of tasty roasted snapper with perfectly cooked local vegetables. Granted, the food is not the best of New York, but they are trying.

 

La Cocina de Lilliam

Calle 48, No. 1311 e/13 y 15

Playa

Tel.: 29 65 14

Sunday to Friday, lunch and dinner

Inexpensive

This is a great place to eat lunch or dinner. Part of a large Spanish colonial style house built in 1937, its green, lush garden, full of ferns and small palms, is bliss in the warm, humid Cuban weather. The food is hearty and flavorful, including such starters as roasted chickpeas mixed with pieces of ham, sausage and tomatoes, and a simple bruschetta topped with tuna. The pork loin rolled and stuffed with dates, peanuts, ham and sausage was delicious although extremely filling. Lilliam even offers a nice selection of wine from Spain's reliable producer Torres.

 

El Aljibe

Ave. 7ma e/24 y 26

Miramar

Tel.: 24 15 84, 24 15 83

Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner

Moderate

If you want the works as far as Cuban food, go nowhere else but here. This is rich and invigorating country food for which even the proudest farmer in the Vuelta Abajo would ask for a second plate. This large, bustling outdoor restaurant dishes up the best chicken on the island. Nine out of 10 customers order the roasted chicken, which comes soaked in a deliciously pungent sauce made with fermented oranges, chicken drippings and garlic. Then there are the spicy black beans, lightly boiled white rice and deep-fried plantains that accompany everything. If you are not a chicken eater, try the deep-fried pork. Service is quick and professional. They also offer one of the best wine lists on the island, and all the bottles are perfectly kept in a temperature-controlled room.

 

La Esperanza

Calle 16, No. 105, esq. Avda. 1 y 3

Miramar

Tel.: 22 43 61

Friday to Wednesday, lunch and dinner

Moderate

La Esperanza reminds me of some of the small, family-run restaurants I knew in parts of San Francisco in the 1980s. It is located in a 1930s-era middle-class family house in the chic district of Miramar. Diners are invited to take an aperitif in the living room and relax on a big, fluffy couch while gazing at an eclectic collection of modernist paintings, sculptures, religious icons and dusty family photographs. The handful of tables, also in the living room, have lovely family china, cutlery, tablecloths and napkins. There's a deft, light touch to the cooking, whether a crisp and refreshing salad of grilled eggplant or a main course of roasted chicken in a spicy tomato sauce. The friendly service is as if you are eating in a friend's home. This isn't really a restaurant; it's a dinner party.

 

La Casa

Calle 30, No. 865 e/26 y 41

Nuevo Vedado

Tel.: 81 70 00

Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner

Moderate

This is a cool hangout for those looking for the 1950s Miami/Havana atmosphere. This tiny restaurant is on the ground floor of a stucco family home built during that decade, complete with an industrial iron staircase, veneered wooden furniture and brightly painted rooms. (I thought I even saw a lava lamp and a wooden Spanish galleon clock.) Ask for a table on the tiny patio with a small pond with turtles floating by. The food is good, straightforward fare. A mixed starter of delicious fish ceviche, fried yucca, onion rings, potato balls and squid in a spicy tomato sauce is a meal in itself. The fresh fish, usually snapper, is always delicious for a main course, as well as grilled chicken or pork chops. Stay away from sauces, since they can be heavy, especially on a warm summer's night.

 

Floridita

Obispo, No. 557 esq. a Monserrate

La Habana Vieja

Tel.: 67 13 00, 67 13 01

Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner

Expensive

No one should visit Havana without stopping here. Floridita was made famous as Ernest Hemingway's favorite local watering hole and it still makes the best Daiquiris in Havana, especially if you ask for a hand-shaken cocktail instead of a blended one. The neoclassically decorated bar and dining room is a treat to be in and makes you feel regal and affluent. The efficient and attentive service reinforces the ambience. I only eat one thing here, the fresh prawns flambéed in rum with fresh vegetables. It may be one of my favorite dishes on earth. Otherwise, choose something simple and stay away from anything with sauces.

 

La Chansonnier

Calle J, No. 257, e/15 y Linea

Vedado

Tel.: 32 15 76

Monday to Sunday, dinner only

Inexpensive

Although this very good, small family-run restaurant no longer has outdoor seating, it still dishes up excellent food. Located in a large neocolonial house from the early 1900s, it drips with atmosphere. The food is not very French as the name suggests, but it is hearty, simple cuisine. Order the special salad made with ripe tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, tuna, olives and anything else that resembles fresh vegetables. It's big enough for two people. Main courses of roasted rabbit in mustard sauce or pork chops are always good.

 

La Fontana

Calle 3ra A, No. 305, esq. 46

Miramar

Tel.: 22 83 37

Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner

Inexpensive

This is basically a Cuban barbecue joint serving up very good meat, poultry and fish on an outdoor grill. Seating is in the garden and in the cellar. The food is typical Cuban Criollo cuisine, with lots of fried yucca and marange; black beans and rice accompany everything. The spare ribs and small pork cutlets are particularly good. Come with an appetite; this is bold, pull-your-stomach-in Cuban home cooking.

 

Ranchon (Casa de 5th y 16)

5ta Ave., esq. 16

Miramar

Tel.: 24 11 85

Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner

Moderate

I have hardly ever been to Cuba
without eating at this small al fresco restaurant. Granted, this is because it is on the same grounds as one of the best cigar shops on the island, but the food is always good and the service quick and friendly. Chef Juan Luis Rosalas knows how to grill, whether it's a large piece of pounded chicken, juicy steak or brochette of shrimp. His starter of stuffed red pepper is always delicious. An icy mug of local beer such as Cristal from the small bar also hits the spot.

 

Abanico de Cristal

Meliá Cohiba

Calle Paseo e/1 y 3

Vedado

Tel.: 33 36 36

Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner

Moderate

This is a restaurant that has been trying to find itself for years and may have finally arrived. It tried to be a fancy restaurant but couldn't deliver either the food or service. Now, it's serving very good yet simple Spanish cuisine, particularly rice dishes such as blackened rice with squid and mixed seafood rice. The wine list is extensive, and, Rene Garcia, one of the best sommeliers on the island, works there.

 

Havana Club Distillery Foundation

Calle San Pedro No. 262

La Habana Vieja

Tel.: 61 80 51

Monday to Sunday

Inexpensive

This is not really a proper restaurant, but you can sample good, simple grilled meats and fresh vegetables in the courtyard and large bar of this museum of the well-known Cuban rum brand. The large eighteenth-century building has been restored to perfection with the help of the French drinks group, Pernod Ricard, which also owns a piece of the Havana Club brand. The large courtyard is a glorious place to have a drink in the evening. There's a beautiful art museum on the second floor, which features some of the finest contemporary Cuban artists. Besides the bar and restaurant, there's a short tour explaining how rum is made. A small tasting is also available.

 

La Cecilia

Calle 5, e/110 y 112

Miramar

Tel.: 24 15 62

Monday to Sunday, lunch and dinner

Moderate

When I first traveled to Havana in the early 1990s, this was one of the most popular restaurants in town, serving solid Cuban cuisine in a friendly outdoor atmosphere with good service. However, it soon turned into a tourist trap with poor food, rude service and expensive prices. Improvements are on the way. The management of El Aljibe has taken control, and it promises to bring the place back to its former glory. A recent visit suggests they are making headway, since the food was very good and the service acceptable. Too bad the restaurant was empty.

 

Sushi Sakura

El Tocororo restaurant

Calle 18, esq. 3

Miramar

Tel.: 24 22 09, 22 45 30

Monday to Sunday, dinner only

Moderate

For most visitors to the island, it doesn't make any sense to eat sushi, but a fresh piece of salmon or shrimp sushi, not to mention the refreshing miso soup, can be a nice change after a long stay in Havana. Strangely, the sushi bar is in the Tocororo restaurant, which remains one of the biggest disappointments on the island. Don't get the two confused.