It's not an exaggeration to say that Havana '59 is a revolutionary restaurant. Its atmosphere recalls and celebrates the heady first year of the Castro-led revolution in Cuba, from crumbling columns and ceiling fans to Yankee signs advertising Gulf gas and Coca-Cola. There's a newer revolutionary fervor here, too: Havana '59 encourages cigar smoking.
Located in a nightclub-studded former warehouse section of Richmond called Shockoe Bottom, Havana '59 offers a feel and taste for the hot times in Cuba's capital before the city was placed off-limits to Americans. A linen suit and Panama hat would look just right here, as would Castro's plain fatigues.
Specialty drinks feature rum and tequila; there are no Cuban beers available, but Mexican stand-ins Carta Blanca and Negra Modelo add a tropical, slightly exotic note to the bar offerings. The wine list is respectable though not extensive, primarily California domestics.
Although head chef Brian Munford is a native of Richmond, a number of years working in California showed him the possibilities of tropical fruits, and he puts that knowledge to work skillfully. He adds pizzaz to an appetizer of conch fritters, for example, with a mango-pineapple chutney, and he is likely to serve meat dishes with fruit-flavored sauces or glazes.
Munford knows how to dress up even the homeliest of Cuban fare, too. The Cuban black bean soup arrives in a wide-lipped shallow bowl of Caribbean blue, topped with a drizzle of sour cream that says "59." A decorative red filigree on the rim of the bowl turns out to be salsa.
Presentation of the entrées is also artful, and there's no minimalism at work here. Plates are full with generous servings--fuel for the hard work of creating a new government, perhaps.
Some meals tend toward the exotic. Munford stuffs chicken breast with serrano ham and mild manchego cheese, then covers it with a morello cherry glaze to pull together all the flavors. Served with it were roasted garlic boniato--a tropical version of warm German potato salad--and garlic green beans.
Those with a taste for something plainer would still find plenty of flavor in the Cuban roast pork dish at Havana '59. Munford and his crew chop and sauce the pork barbecue-style, but the sauce is fruity-spicy instead of tomato- or vinegar-flavored. It comes with saffron-flavored rice covered in black bean sauce and onion mojo.
For dessert, Havana '59 really shows off its flair for tropical fruits, with items like guava-lime cheesecake with raspberry coulis as well as chocolate offerings. Even an ordinary flan becomes special when it gets a drizzle of mango sauce, caramel and fruit flavors blend well to flavor the creamy custard.
But the meal doesn't end with dessert at Havana '59. Ask for the cigar menu and make a choice from a full list of smokes from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Honduras and the Canary Islands. Or wait until the cigar girl comes around--yes, even that memory of Old Havana is recalled. Wearing a short skirt and halter top, she roams the room with a well-worn leather cigar tray. And all the service people at Havana '59 carry lighters and are quick to help you light up.
Even in Richmond, a city known for its tobacco connections, a restaurant like Havana '59 is unusual. Its crowds, even in midweek, are an indication that the romance of the cigar, when teamed with good food and tolerance, is not ready to go up in smoke.
As Fidel might say, long live the Revolution!
-- Jody Rathgeb
Jody Rathgeb is a freelance writer living in Chester, Virginia.
16 North 17th Street
Phone: (804) 649-2822
Dinner: $30 per person, without beverages