The Restaurant Scene in Havana
Cuba has never been famous for its cuisine but since the Castro brothers loosened Cuba’s laws on private enterprise, Havana’s restaurant scene has seen something of its own revolution.
In response to the post-Soviet economic crisis of the 90s Fidel Castro allowed Cubans to turn their homes into private restaurants (Paladares). In recent years, Raul Castro expanded this law by allowing entrepreneurs to open restaurants beyond the walls of their own kitchens.
Despite the recent boom in private enterprise, eating out in Havana can be a bit hit-or-miss. It’s not just a matter of seeking out the paladares and private restaurants, (although this tends to be a good rule of thumb), but rather finding restaurants that can maintain a high standard. This is especially difficult in Cuba where taxes on private businesses are extremely high and where supplies are not consistent. Restaurant staples like salt and cream come and go depending on Cuba’s general book-keeping each month. These food restrictions often force chefs to be imaginative with substitute ingredients. It’s knowing where to find these restaurants and creative chefs that is the problem many tourists face when visiting Havana. Moreover, many of Cuba’s restaurants (particularly the private ones) do not have signs on the outside of their buildings, making them difficult to stumble upon.
Fortunately we had expat friends in Havana who kindly shared their favourite eateries with us. Without their help, we would have likely settled for reheated pollo y arroz and coagulated carbonara in any restaurant that could seat us at short notice. Thanks to their tips, we secured tables in advance and ate exceptionally well.
Best Restaurants in Havana
Here are our top picks for where to eat in the three main districts of Havana – Central Havana, Old Havana and Vedado – with or without the kids in tow!
Paladar La Guarida
Hidden away behind a crumbling exterior in Centro Habana is this legendary restaurant. Made famous by the Oscar-nominated movie Fresca y Chocolate (it was filmed in the same building) it is often cited as the best paladar in town. Framed stills from the movie line its bright yellow walls, together with photos of countless celebrities who have dined here. I saw that Queen Sofia of Spain once sat in our table and Natalie Portman had dined there only a week before.
Not surprisingly, the food does not disappoint. I had (and highly recommend) Atun a la Caña, my husband the Cochinillo (roast pork) and the children shared Pescado Vegetales (grilled fish with vegetables). For pudding, we shared the signature strawberry & chocolate ice-cream!
Tables are laid with mismatched china and silverware. In addition to a decent meal, come for the friendly service and unique setting!
Mains: approx. $12-18
Reservations are essential.
Address: Concordia No.418 /Gervasio y Escobar. Centro Habana.
(+53) 7866 9047; (+53) 7866 2354; (+53) 5414 7852
Paladar La Guarida website
This compact two-storey restaurant has the best mojitos in town, if not on the entire island (with one exception – see El Del Frente below – which is run by the same people and on a par with O’Reilly). It also serves excellent tapas. If at any point you’re feeling a little run down (as we were at one point) I also highly recommend their restorative chicken and vegetable soup (Consome de Pollo). Together with a maracuja mojito, it’ll put a salsa step back into your stride.
Reservations are recommended.
Address: 304 O’Reilly Street, between Habana and Aguiar Streets, Old Havana.
(+53) 5264 4725 or(+53) 5305 6150
El Del Frente
Directly opposite O’Reilly 304 is this other little gem that we happened upon by chance. We had intended to eat in O’Reilly but as there were no tables available they suggested their sister restaurant over the road. With no signs on the door, or anything to indicate a restaurant inside, we would have never found it otherwise. With only a few tables on the first floor and a handful more on the roof terrace, it has a similar modern, yet unpretentious vibe to O’Reilly’s. The menu is also similar, as are the fabulous cocktails!
Reservations are recommended
Address: 303 O’Reilly Street, between Habana and Aguiar Streets, Old Havana
(+53) 7863 0206
We didn’t make it to Dona Eutimia, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Tucked into the far end of a cobbled alley leading off the Plaza de La Cathdral this homely restaurant serves simple Cuban food with reasonable prices, and is always full! We hear their speciality is ropa vieja. Literally translated as ‘old clothes’, this traditional Cuban meat stew is a popular dish throughout the Caribbean and is usually served with rice and beans.
Reservations are essential:
Callejón del Chorro No. 60-c, Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja
(+53) 7861 1332
Popular with backpackers, this restaurant is known more for the personalities that have frequented it and its social scene than for the food itself. Ernest Hemingway is claimed to have said “My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daiquiri in the Floridita” and numerous celebrities have autographed the walls including Fidel Castro, Pablo Neruda, Brigitte Bardot, Nat King Cole and Salvador Allende. Thousands of tourists have followed suit, including us!
Although their signature drink is the mojito it certainly wasn’t the best we had in Havana. Food is simple Cuban and menus are designed to cater to the masses. Later at night, the crowd of 20-somethings becomes more raucous. Go for the buzz rather than a decent meal.
Address: Calle Empedrado e/ Cuba y San Ignacio
+53 7 8671374
La Bodeguita website
For the same reasons as La Bodeguita, La Floridita also attracts hordes of tourists.
This state-run restaurant in the heart of Old Havana sits in a beautifully refurbished building that was once a printing house. The service may be a little slow and the food is so-so but it’s prime location makes it an easy option for a drop-in lunch or dinner. The kids ate pasta, I had pork solomillo and my husband the prawns.
Address: Calle Mercaderes, 208, between Lamparilla y Amargura, Old Havana.
+53 7 8649581
For a decent coffee (not easy to find in Havana) and a simple, yet substantial baguette sandwich, head to Café O’Reilly (not to be confused with O’Reilly 304).
Address: 203 O’Reilly, between Cuba and San Ignacio, Old Havana.
Located in a very quiet residential part of Vedado, this contemporary fine-dining restaurant may not an obvious choice for families or tourists. Popular with expats and foodies, this is a good place to come if you are in the Vedado district. If however you only have a few nights in the capital and want to soak up some of the nighttime buzz that Cuba is famous for stick to Old Havana. My husband and I enjoyed a blissful kid-free evening here (we had a friend in town with a teenage daughter who babysat! And no, I can’t share her details – sorry!).
35 Street, between 20 AND 41. Number 1810
(537) 203 8315
Although we didn’t eat here during our visit, my husband did on a recent work trip and enjoyed the food and roof top setting. Located in a former oil factory, and accessed by three flights of spiral staircase, it’s hip industrial setting attracts affluent artists, musicians and expats.
Calle 26, Between Calle 11 and 13, Vedado
What do we call ‘Family-Friendly’?
A reminder that at globetotting we lean more towards parent-friendly restaurants (and hotels) that warmly welcome children. In other words, food takes priority over kid-friendly amenities! What’s more, highchairs and kids’ menus are not common fixtures in Havana, or for that matter anywhere in Cuba (with the exception perhaps of the all-inclusive hotels in the beach resort of Varadero).
If you want to eat well, that is follow our recommendations above, reservations are essential! Due to the recent surge in tourism, Havana has yet to catch up with the demand and finding a table at short notice can be problematic. Take a note of restaurant telephone numbers and book in advance (a day or two in advance is enough for most places).
What have we missed?
If you have a restaurant recommendation in Havana, we’d love to hear from you! Please share your experience in the comment section below. Thank you.
An insightful report on Cuba’s cuisine today. By food blogger, Gerald Tan for Al Jazeera. (You may want to add San Cristobal Paladar to your list too after watching this!).
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