Havana restaurants sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to variety and service. But the restaurant scene in Cuba‘s fascinating capital is changing fast. The fact is that you can now get some pretty interesting and innovative meals throughout the country, from the far west valleys of Viñales to the eastern mountains of Santiago de Cuba.
Havana Restaurants: The Food and the Flavor
For some years now, private enterprise restaurants known as “paladares” have been flourishing in this island nation. These can range from a couple of seats in someone’s living room to large multi-story establishments some of which have become world-renowned for their amazing cuisine.
Read on to learn about Cuban food and some unique restaurants where you can sample real Cuban food in this fascinating city.
There are a couple of things that need to be established upfront. First, Cuban food is not spicy. It is also not at all bland. These are common misconceptions that I am constantly surprised by. Cuban food is very flavorful and, when done right, it is delicious.
As is the case with many cuisines, the richness of contemporary Cuban food comes from the blending of many cultures throughout the centuries.
A Brief History of Cuban Food
The Spaniards arrived in Cuba in 1492 with their cooking methods and livestock. These blended with native Indian ingredients like corn, sweet potato, and guava. A short while after, slaves were brought to Cuba from West African with their influences, and introduced okra, plantain, and Guinea hen.
By the early 19th Century, waves of French immigrants were flooding into Cuba retreating from the Haitian Revolution.
As if the influences of rich cultures like Spain, American Indian, France and West Africa were not enough, 150,000 Chinese contract workers arrived in Cuba to work the sugar plantations around the mid-1800s. Many of these workers overstayed their contracts and they too contributed cooking methods and ingredients to the local cuisine.
So now you have influences from Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa all blending, mixing, fusing and creating something unique.
The foundation of a typical, contemporary Cuban dish is olive oil, parsley, garlic and onions. Most dishes spring from those ingredients.
The most popular Cuban dish is generally acknowledged to be “Ropa Vieja” which translates into “old clothes” so named due to its appearance. The dish is composed of shredded beef in tomato sauce seasoned with garlic, cumin and cilantro.
Another traditional dish is roast pork. This dish is eaten any time of year but especially during Christmas Eve “Noche Buena” celebrations.
Common accompaniments or side dishes include white rice, black beans, fried plantains and yuca, a starchy tuber served with garlic and oil.
Havana has many restaurants offering a variety of international cuisine. But I wanted to focus on the eateries that offered typical Cuban food. Herein is a curated list of the best places to have a classic Cuban meal in Havana.
Five Notable Havana Restaurants
On a side street in Centro Habana, this is where U.S. President Obama had lunch with his family when he traveled to Cuba. As is the case with many paladares, San Cristobal was originally established in the owner’s home, a turn-of-the-century residence. As the business grew so did the restaurant’s expansion until it filled most of the home. The decorations are eclectic and include a Santeria (local Afro-Cuban religion) altar. In one corner sits a portrait of Obama. The wine glass he drank from is encased under a glass dome.
The food in Paladar San Cristobal can also tend towards the eclectic but solid Cuban fare is the standard. We had “chilindron de chivo” (goat stew). The best I’ve ever tasted.
Everything about La Guarida is fascinating. Let’s start with its history. The restaurant has been in the same location at Concordia # 418, in Centro Habana, for over 20 years. What really put this restaurant on the map was that this is where Cuba’s most famous film, “Strawberries and Chocolate”, was filmed. The building boasts graceful vestiges of better days and the entrance looks like it hasn’t seen a paintbrush in decades. That’s part of the charm. You go inside, through an apartment complex where residents are hanging laundry, and up a rickety spiral staircase.
It’s on the landing where the whole scenario changes. The restaurant opens up to bright tropical colors of yellow and burnt orange. Whimsical decorations cover the walls. The floors are wonderful examples of classic Cuban tiles from the turn of the last century. That’s the dining room. Go up another flight of stairs and you’re on the rooftop with a cool breeze and interesting views. You can have a drink and snacks on the roof top without having dinner. But do have a meal here. The food is exceptional. Some say it’s the best restaurant in Havana. It’s a little on the pricy side but worth it.
Reservations are highly recommended or you will not get a table.
In 2012, Doña Eutemia was voted one of the best 101 restaurants in the world by Newsweek. This wonderful little paladar of Cuban culinary treasures sits right smack in the middle of Old Havana on a side street off Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square) next to what is perhaps the most iconic sight in all Havana, the Cathedral.
The restaurant was not accepting reservations last time I was there but this might have changed. The meals are reasonably priced and it is difficult to get a table. We tried to get a table at an unusual time for lunch or dinner, 2PM and were successful. You may want to try a similar tactic. If you’re in Havana do your best to try this place. You won’t be disappointed.
There is a lot to be said about El Cocinero. It is the only one of these five paladares that is outside of Old Havana or Centro Havana. El Cocinero is located in the upscale neighborhood of El Vedado to the west of Havana. It is in a restored old cooking oil factory on the roof top. The food is classic Cuban at its core but it flares up to offer innovative creations around seafood and traditional dishes. It is an explosion of flavors, colors and aromas.
The other resident of the restored cooking oil factory is the unique, Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory) or F.A.C. for short. This is an entertainment venue unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere. Three or four massive floors of art exhibits, cinema, dance performances, musicians, dancing, restaurants, snack bars, poetry readings, fashion shows, bars…you name it, if it’s art, it is there.
It makes sense to have dinner at El Cocinero then head to the F.A.C. for an unforgettable evening. Doors open at 8pm at the F.A.C. but the line to get in starts forming around 6:30. Call for hours to both the F.A.C. and El Cocinero as they change frequently.
The paladar is named after the very busy thoroughfare it is on. Los Mercaderes street runs north and south through Old Havana connecting two of Havana’s most picturesque plazas; Plaza Vieja and Plaza de La Catedral. This is a wonderful street full of interesting stores, snack bars, parks and stunning architecture. Los Mercaderes # 207, in on the second floor in front of a leafy park with vendors selling everything from parrots to puppies.
The paladar offers reasonably priced “menu del dia” or daily specials at lunch time. They frequently have musicians roaming the various dining room. The food is classic Cuban with all the traditional trimmings. This place is hard to beat for ambiance, quality and price in the center of Old Havana.
Despite hardships and the scarcity of key ingredients in Cuba, Cuban chefs have continued to create. Cuban-American chefs Alain Rivas, Jaime de Rosa and James Beard Award winner, Douglas Rodriguez are leading culinary tours to Cuba. New paladares crop up with increasing frequency. Havana restaurants are coming into their own and attracting international attention. And prices have not reached those of similar restaurants elsewhere.
Havana restaurants will surprise and delight you with their quality and tasty, innovative cuisine.
Have you had Cuban food? Where? Share your stories.
Do you know where you will be staying in Havana? I recommend you stay at a “casa particular,” this is a Cuban B&B. These are reasonably priced, serve killer breakfasts and can be found throughout the country. You can book one on Airbnb and here is a $40 credit on your first stay.
And make sure to bring my book over with you, Don’t Just Travel to Cuba, Experience It: The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide.
Want to learn how to make Cuban food at home? Try recipes from these Cuban cookbooks: