The climb up three flights of a dimly lit, crumbling marble staircase doesn’t do anything to quiet the little voice inside you saying, “Why are you doing this? Where are you going?” Along the way, there is usually at least one young child begging for a few coins, and down the hallways at each landing of the decrepit old building, someone sticks their head out a door to an apartment. But the climb is worth it; at the top of the stairs waits La Guarida, the best restaurant in Havana. And, the passage through a rundown, sketchy apartment building to find a gem says everything you need to know about dining in Havana: even if it doesn’t seem possible, everything is possible in Cuba.
Enrique Nuñez del Valle, the proprietor, smiles hopefully when asked how things are going now. “It’s coming along. We’re doing a good business.” From the people waiting in the foyer, to the filled tables in the jumbled warren of rooms around the small kitchen, he’s telling the truth. But he is still trying to get back to the level of service the restaurant had before it closed in 2009, partly due to crushing government rules. With those rules relaxed, he reopened late last year, and has been forging ahead ever since.
The restaurant scene in Havana is more exciting today than at any time in the last 20 years. Those new government rules—which allow a variety of private businesses including restaurants to now hire and fire employees and legally expand the number of seats—have thrown a new wrinkle into the quest to find and judge the dining scene in Havana. The new places are opening so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track of them, but perhaps more importantly, in some cases, they are being opened by former workers from the government’s top restaurants.
Those defections will affect quality and service in some old standards, so be aware of that phenomenon. And if those employees can’t start their own restaurant, many veteran waiters and chefs are seeking employment at the private restaurants, or paladars, as they are known in Havana.
During a weeklong trip in early May, David Savona and I ate at as many restaurants as we could manage in six days and seven nights. We sampled a couple of old favorites, made sure to visit some of the most well-known and older paladars, and tried to hit as many of the new places that are getting rave reviews from the local expatriot crowd, which is always on the lookout for good places to eat. We also ate at some of the places reviewed in this story on our trip in December.
One of the most frustrating things about dining in Havana is the lack of any clearinghouse of information, no Zagat’s guide to Havana restaurants. You have to rely on word-of-mouth, or on a hotel concierge. With the latter, there’s no guarantee that he will have any firsthand information; his reports are likely gleaned from tourists who have visited the establishments. While we were there, I had at least three conversations where someone said, “Oh, you have to try this new restaurant, or that new place.” Often, the next person hadn’t even heard of the new place. Therefore, anyone using this guide should reconfirm our choices, and be on the lookout for new places. We ate at three restaurants that had not even been open on our visit in December.
Undoubtedly, there will be new restaurants opening in the course of 2011, and some of them may be quite good. So it pays to ask around.
The other good piece of advice is simple: lower your expectations. Even the top restaurants serve mostly uncomplicated, straightforward food. Grilled or steamed seafood and grilled chicken are pretty much standard fare on every menu. There is almost always fresh shrimp and octopus, and usually lobster, although the latter is often reserved for government restaurants; as always, it seems that where there’s a will there’s a way, so many paladars do have lobster. The chicken is usually very flavorful without being plump or fatty. Steaks are variable; we had one excellent steak at a paladar, although the rumor is that paladars don’t often get beef, or certainly not the best cuts, for the same reason that limits lobster.
Of course, there is always the exception to the rule: the papaya lasagna at La Guarida is worthy of any top restaurant in any city in the world, and you can tell from the name that it is not your usual dish. Shrimp in malanga batter at Hurón Azul was top-notch. And a one-time menu item at Cocina de Lilliam, a cazuela of corn, was outstanding. Sometimes it is also worth asking if there is anything “off the menu.” That can produce exotic offerings such as sea turtle or venison, so it is worth asking about. But the safest bet is to stick with the basics, and you won’t go wrong very often.
Wine lists are pedestrian and predictable, with only a couple of exceptions: El Aljibe and Club Habana, which has a smaller list but with some interesting and unusual choices. Most lists have a pretty complete roster of Spanish producers: Marques de Riscal, Marques de Caceres and Torres, with an eclectic smattering of Argentine and Chilean labels. The prices for the standard wines are pretty uniform, ranging between $25 and $50. Once you get into higher end wines at El Aljibe, figure that the sky is pretty much the limit. As an example, a bottle of 1997 Sassicaia costs 1,400 cuc (about $1,600). I recommend to drink simple and drink young; storage is problematic (less so at El Aljibe, which takes good care of its wines), so unless you are certain of the cellar, any wine with age is probably not going to be in peak condition.
As for cigars? This is Havana. Your cigar is welcome at virtually every table.
We have chosen a group of restaurants as Editors’ Choices; they were our favorites. There is also a group which we ate at that are simply good restaurants, and worth a visit for convenience and overall experience. And finally, we’ll give you a list of popular restaurants that others have recommended, and hopefully, next time we’ll get a chance to try them out too.
Concordia No. 418, entre Gervasio y Escobar
Tel: (537) 866-9047
This has been—with a brief intermission during its closure in 2009—Havana’s best restaurant for many years. It was one of the city’s first paladars and continues to attract a very well-heeled international business and diplomatic crowd. The wine list is still being rebuilt, so expect little more than the standard labels for now. Fish and chicken are outstanding here, and the papaya lasagna is worth a detour. One table has a view out over Havana, but the other rooms are quaint and the tables close together. This is a must-stop.
Prado 309, esquina Virtudes
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 862-3626
There are three restaurants in this building, which is owned by the Spanish society, the Sociedad Cultural Asturiana. The terrace on the top floor houses La Terraza, and the stoves are currently manned by chef Jorge Falco Ochoa, a master griller. Try the grilled octopus with pesto and grilled potatoes, or the warm octopus salad.
He also often serves up an entire leg of lamb off the grill. The covered rooftop terrace is spectacular, with great views. Just inside is an air conditioned room. This is a nice hybrid between a paladar and government restaurant because of the connection to the Sociedad. You can often see dance classes just outside the more casual restaurant on the ground level, and the second floor frequently has music from its stage overlooking the tables.
Calle 25, No. 454, entre J y I
Tel: (537) 832-0963
A long walkway of brick, stone and wood brings you to this wonderful and relatively new restaurant—it had been open only a few months when I lunched there. Started by Olgadia and Jorge Luis Añel, it is very close to the Habana Libre. I had the ceviche exotico, flavored with olive oil, lime and pepper.
The Camarones Hemingway (shrimp), served in an earthenware bowl, were a little sweet from the anise and garlic flavoring, but nevertheless delicate and delicious. There is a nice wine list with very attentive service. At night, meals are served in the courtyard and along the walkway. Convenient to the Habana Libre Hotel.
Calle 28, No. 111, entre Av. 1 y 3
Tel: (537) 203-4718
Doctor Café is tucked away behind a house out in the Miramar section, and people simply point and say, “it’s around back.” One of the older and more successful paladars in Havana, this is not a big restaurant, although I would guess it will expand under the new rules for paladars, which now allow up to 50 seats. Juan Carlos Doce oversees the dining room, and is quick to offer any daily specials that may not be on the menu.
Try the delicious appetizer of shredded crab enchilado with tomato sauce and peppers. The menu for lunch that day included conch grilled with olive oil, onions and garlic, and it tasted like cèpe mushrooms from the sea. This is another great place to keep on your dining agenda in Havana.
Calzada de Infanta (Humbolt 153 y Calle P)
Tel: (537) 879-1691
This paladar run by Jose “Pepe” Hernandez, which is right behind the Habana Libre Hotel, is a hidden gem, and in fact, had some of the best food we ate all week. Try the shrimp in malanga batter; malanga is a Cuban root vegetable that many restaurants serve as deep-fried croquettes. The deep-fried shrimp with the batter is a perfect combo. Octopus with onions and olives, shredded crab with polenta in a tomato sauce and a casserole of rabbit were all nearly perfect.
For the main courses, a beef filet with a chocolate and Roquefort sauce was brilliant, if a little heavy for my taste. Shrimp in a ginger sauce was delicious and the chicken in a honey lemon sauce was also very tasty. The wine list is decent, and if you have a small group (up to about eight people can fit comfortably), ask to dine in the private room. A real treat—and not on everyone’s radar yet.
Calle M, entre 19 y 21, Penthouse 257
Tel: (537) 832-6890
Started by former employees of the outstanding government restaurant El Templete, Café Laurent is one of the best seafood outposts in the city. It sits atop a small apartment building within walking distance of the Hotel Nacional, and the view from the terrace extends up and down the Malecón. The seafood focus is evident in such excellent dishes as the squid in ink sauce that was spot on.
However, this restaurant was still finding its way when we were there; expect it to get better. For now, the wine list is minimal, even lacking some of the normal go-to Spanish wines, and a couple of main courses were spotty on the night we were there. But the setting more than makes up for any hiccups now.
Av. 7 y Calle 24
Tel: (537) 204-4233
Not a place for haute cuisine, El Aljibe is nevertheless one of Cigar Aficionado’s favorites, a traditional first stop on our visits to Havana. This is a place to eat roast chicken. There are other entrées on the menu, but frankly, we’ve never tried them. The black beans, French fries and rice are all great. And, if you’re in need of a good bottle of wine, this is one of the largest wine cellars in Havana, maintained at proper cellar temperature.
You can ask Inti Alvarez for a tour, but it’s quite likely that when you ask for a bottle of wine, he’ll say, “Follow me,” and take you into the cellar to pick your bottle. The better wines are expensive, but you can drink good Spanish Albariños or Chilean Chardonnays for around 40 cuc. But the cost of dinner is minimal: 12 cuc, or about $15 for the chicken. A large thatched roof covers the open dining area, which is a big expanse of tile floors with wood posts. Plus, there’s a cigar shop just outside the main entrance.
La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48 1311, entre 13 y 15
Tel: (537) 209-6514
One of the prettiest, and older, paladars in Havana, this is a quaint restaurant in a residential area of Miramar that is run by Lilliam Dominguez. The tables are set up under a trellis covered with tropical plants, and the entire garden bursts with colorful tropical flowers. The food is quite simple, but a couple of dishes stand out. Without debate, it produces the best malanga fritas in Havana. Try them. On one visit we also had a corn casserole that was excellent. The shrimp is also as good as anywhere in Havana. There is often a guitarist. The main drawback is that it is a little out of the way; I’d recommend hiring your taxi by the hour and have it wait. Service can be slow.
Calle 46, esquina Av. 3
Tel: (537) 202-8337
A celebrated and venerable paladar in Miramar that is very popular with the local expatriot crowd, this is a vibrant restaurant with several levels and an enclosed dining room, in addition to a covered terrace. There is often live music in the evenings. The food is above average for Havana. We had a delicious appetizer with three kinds of chorizo, or sausage. Grilled octopus, grilled chicken and a penne with seafood were all excellent. I ordered an arroz con pollo that came in a large earthenware bowl, and was full-flavored with peppers and onions. After dinner, head to the downstairs bar, a low-ceilinged affair with two of the most attractive bartenders in all of Havana.
Malecón No. 107, entre Genios y Crespo
Tel: (537) 861-4864
Just look for the bright yellow building on the Malecón, a few blocks east of the Prado. Book a table on the terrace, and take in the sweeping view from the Malecón from one end to the other. Another place to stick to the basic items. A garlic shrimp dish served in a casserole was delicious, with the seafood fresh and sweet. Both the lobster and the chicken were a little overcooked. But nothing will detract from the view.
Calle 5ta, No. 511, entre 2 y Paseo
Tel: (527) 836-2025
This rooftop restaurant, which opened in early 2011, is within view of the Meliá Cohiba. The outdoor terrace has big comfortable couches where you can take a cocktail before dinner. I would recommend eating indoors if it is windy; the dining room is almost Moorish in its décor. The warm octopus salad with onions was excellent, as was the fresh lobster. The swordfish was a bit tough, but that may have just been due to the quality of the day’s catch. Others have recommended the duck and the rabbit, so be a little adventuresome, which is what chef Nuria Higuera aims to be with her culinary offerings.
El Chelo, Club Habana
Av. 5, entre 188 y 192
Tel: (537) 204-5700
This is a bit of a change from the normal restaurant in Havana. It’s setting, out on the ocean in Miramar offers a great view. The buildings were once part of the Biltmore Yacht Club in the heyday before the revolution, and it retains much of its former charm. The restaurant has tables on a covered patio just steps from the pool, and you can walk out to the ocean on a sandy beach. The food is standard, but good, and it has some unusual bottles of wine on the list, including a Chilean Cabernet, Don Melchor (180 cuc), and several vintages of Vega Sicilia Unico (400 cuc). Seafood, especially the shrimp, is a good bet here.
Av. 1, entre 22 y 24
Tel: (537) 203-8328
This paladar restaurant, in an old seaside home, is a reminder of the pre-revolutionary heyday. The second-floor dining room overlooks an infinity-edged swimming pool that looks out over the Caribbean Sea. This is a seafood palace, and has the best lobster I have eaten in Havana. Shrimp and grilled fish are also excellent here. A wonderful place to have a quiet lunch. Stick to the beer.
Av. Carlos Manuel Céspedes
(Av. del Puerto)
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 204-0624
This is one of the most popular, and considered among the best, government-run restaurants in Havana. It is known for its seafood. It’s very close to the Hotel Santa Isabel and the Plaza San Francisco, down at the port of Havana. An appetizer of fried calamari was lightly breaded and delicious. The main courses of red snapper and dorado were both perfectly grilled.
Calle Mercaderes 208, entre Amargura
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 864-9581
An impressive two-story atrium of an old printing plant houses one of the newer government eating establishments in Habana Vieja. Delicious seafood in a unique setting. It’s centrally located on Mercaderes, one of the most completely renovated areas of Habana Vieja.
Café del Oriente
Oficios No. 112, esquina Amargura
La Habana Vieja
Tel: (537) 860-6686
A beautiful restaurant with a large and elegant bar. One of the early renovated spaces in Habana Vieja, it sits right across the street from the Marques de San Felipe hotel. The food is pretty standard, but just walking in to sit at the bar takes one back to an early twentieth century bar in New York or London. International cuisine.
Places to Try
Calle 212, No. 2904, entre 29 y 31
La Lisa, Habana
Tel: (537) 271-1073
One of the hot new places among the expat crowd in Havana. We did not eat here, but it’s getting rave reviews.
Calle 17 y 190
Tel: (537) 271-8167
In the style of El Aljibe, but with a focus on roast or grilled pork. We didn’t eat here because it suffered a fire in February, but the reports were that it was up and operating again. Very rustic and simple, but the roasted pork is said to be uniformly good.
Two other restaurants have come to our attention and may be worth visiting: San Cristóbal in Centro Habana and D12 in Vedado. Ask your concierge for directions.
For Cocktails & Music
Bodeguita del Medio
Calle Empedrado No. 207
Tel: (537) 867-1374
One of the world’s great bars. They do have a full kitchen, but it’s not a place anyone ever recommends for the food. This is a place of mojitos and cigars. In fact, one of the main bartenders, Pedro E. Tejeda Torres doesn’t make daiquiris, only mojitos. There is almost always a small, three-piece acoustic band playing with a singer crooning the old Cuban standards. It’s a great place to hang out for awhile, drinking away the afternoon. Papa Hemingway apparently knew the score. By this fall, there will be a cigar lounge up on the second floor with a small balcony.
Obispo, No. 557, esquina Monserrate
Tel: (537) 867-1300
Not a bad choice to eat, but we prefer other restaurants. This is a place to come for frozen daiquiris. They are delicious and the room is a wonderful example of art deco décor. Great long bar, and there’s usually music.
Café de Paris
Obispo y San Ignacio
Definitely not a dining spot. But the music is often outstanding. I heard a great Cuban band, Son de Cuba, one night, and their sounds drifted through the streets in Old Havana.
Calle 17, esquina M, Edificio FOSCA
Tel: (537) 838-3088
A sunset spot. On the 33rd floor of the FOSCA apartment complex, this top-of-the-world bar on the 33rd floor provides magnificent views of the ocean, of Havana and the sunsets. Usually not recommended as a dining spot, but you might find it hard to leave.