Used to be this was a no-brainer question, but these days it seems like there’s a new restaurant opening around here on a weekly basis. It’s sometimes hard to keep up on the latest paladar (private entrepreneur-run) restaurants. But don’t despair, there are a couple of handy online tools that might help to guide you.
A La Mesa Cuba is an easy to use online resource of restaurants in Cuba, available in English and Spanish with search categories for type of cuisine and location to narrow down your selection. Their webpage also has a section for new / popular restaurants. Restaurants can register for free. Some restaurants even publish their menus with pricing here, certainly a great tool for someone who’s never visited an establishment before. They regularly send some pretty enticing updates on their Facebook page.
If you’re an app fan, then there’s always expat resident Conner Gorry’s Havana Good Time, compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. For just a few bucks, you’ll also get all kinds of entertainment ideas thrown in, many of which you’d never find out about otherwise as a visitor to Cuba. Heck, I’ve been living and working in travel here for almost half my life and Conner sometimes surprises even me with some of the places she knows about. The fact that her app is dynamic and regularly updated makes it so much more attractive than a guidebook for this type of information.
The folks at Cuba Absolutely magazine have published a fairly comprehensive review of a considerable number of Havana restaurants. Although I have to tell you that a few of my favorites didn’t make their list. And the reviews seem largely geared to an expat crowd. Unlike a decade ago, in today’s Cuba there are a surprising number of Cubans who dine out, but they’re not necessarily frequenting the same restaurants as the expats. Which brings me to the question of what makes a restaurant stand out to and attract different crowds of people.
Quite a number of years ago on Valentine’s Day my husband and I made some last minute plans to get together for a dinner out with his sister, her husband and their family. For most Cubans dining out is a special occasion, much more so on the “Dia the los Enamorados”. They asked my opinion on where to go, thinking we’d pick somewhere different than the usual spots which are habitually inundated with diners on Feb. 14. I racked my brain for somewhere we could try that would impress them, and ended up suggesting something that had been very recently recommended to me by a client but that I hadn’t test-run myself. The client, a server in a 5-star Vail, Colorado restaurant had raved about the place. So who was I to question his judgment? Big mistake. The place ended up being not a particularly attractive Centro Habana rooftop, with a section divided off for what appeared to be some kind of disco. Their menu was the same typical fare that you can get at any restaurant in Cuba, with a few illegal dishes such as crocodile and turtle (eek to my eco self!) thrown in. And the prices were obviously geared to a tourist clientele. The service was slow, and the servings not too plentiful (another huge drawback when you’re dining with Cubans who often judge by quantity, not necessarily quality). What had impressed my client so much? This quote by Dagobert D. Runes kind of sums it up: “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” And sometimes to go to restaurants they wouldn’t frequent at home either, apparently! Good thing my sister & brother in law have a good sense of humor – we still occasionally laugh about that botched Valentine’s Day dinner outing.
There are certain restaurants and paladares in Havana that are distinctly geared towards an expat crowd of foreign diplomats and representatives of foreign firms with deep pockets. La Guarida used to be one of these before it was as well-known as it is today. But then they were discovered by the tourist masses who don’t blink at $15 and up for main courses. They are one of the few restaurants with so much demand from international visitors that they offer just 2 sittings a night by advance reservation only. If you’re a visitor here you will surely enjoy the well-prepared food and unforgettable ambience. I’m not sure if they get many expats there as clients nowadays; it’s been at least a few years since I’ve eaten there. But I do continue to send the occasional group of travelers. Although nowadays they have alot more serious competition than they did for this market than they did a couple of years ago.
Several nights ago my Cuban husband and I were returning from the airport and decided that it was too late to cook at home so we were going to head to El Beduino, a relatively new spot that we love in Vedado serving Middle Eastern food at very moderate prices (the two of us can easily drink & dine for $25, and have leftovers to take home for the next day’s lunch). It was Tuesday night but when we arrived we were disappointed to realize they don’t operate on Tuesdays. So we drove a little further down the street talking about where we might try next, when I saw an attractive building lit up and recognized the restaurant name from a review I’d read on Cuba Absolutely. We decided to go in and try it out. From what I’d read their menu was constantly changing and offered some fare that makes it stand out from the regular staples in most Cuban restaurants. As we made it up the stairs to the landing my husband immediately said, “Uh oh, this is a tourist spot, I can tell already”. We’ve been to a LOT of restaurants over the past year, trying to keep abreast of the changes so that we can make informed recommendations to our clients. And he now knows that while some places we have visited don’t do a bad job on the meal, there are certain spots that just aren’t memorable enough meal-wise for the price paid to make it onto our list of spots to revisit. Ambience seems to be a deciding factor for the patrons of a lot of these more exclusive private restaurants. I reminded him not to judge a book by its cover, that you never know, and I’d read some good things about this place. So in we went, and sat on their nice semi-circular sofa to peruse the menu while I gazed around the room and saw that everyone there was either a tourist or an expat. Not a single Cuban diner in the place. Imported bottled mineral water was being served. In places like this San Pellegrino usually costs about three times the price of the local brand. Ciego Montero’s perfectly acceptable for me, so I’m not quite sure why it’s stylish to drink brand name sparkling water. Is it because it’s poured into your goblet from a glass, not from a plastic bottle? And as we took a closer look at the menu which had some pretty expensive appetizers (what we’d have paid for a main at our first restaurant choice had they been open), my husband told me that he honestly didn’t want to pay $50 for a meal that he figured he could eat somewhere else for much less. Maybe the choices are more exotic on this particular establishment’s ever-changing hand-written menu on some evenings, but all we saw were dishes such as ropa vieja (shredded beef), pollo supremo (supreme chicken), and pretty typical Cuban fare. As we drove away my husband said that he might have tried the place out if they’d had something really enticing like, for example, garlic octopus (one of his favorite seafoods of late), but not for comida criolla. No way, no how. Not with those prices.
So where else could we try out? I’ve been wanting to try out the new Swedish place in Centro Habana but didn’t have the street address on me. And even if I did have a Smartphone, there’s no wi-fi connection here except in a few select Havana hotels, and even then you have to pay for it. So we had to rack our brains. He opted to head to La Pachanga, also nearby in Vedado. They serve a variety of Cuban dishes, and also some Mexican tacos. Since we’d had lunch there once already (in the a/c indoor section) we figured we’d try out the outdoor cafeteria seating that night. Until he was informed that he couldn’t wash his hands unless he was a patron of the indoor restaurant. Rather than argue about the questionable policy with the restaurant staff, in we went. With a name like La Pachanga, the first time we went there we expected to be bombarded with reggaeton music, but thankfully it’s peaceful and subdued inside (they even have signs reminding their clientele about keeping the noise level down). The only thing that I don’t really like about it is the funky lighting, which (depending on where you sit) doesn’t allow you to see the true colors of your food. It can be a little unsettling to be eating a blue or neon green colored pesto and wondering if anything made it into your dish that shouldn’t have, but you can’t discern because of the distortion of color. My husband ordered what else? Garlic octopus, of course. It was only $6. The other patrons included a couple of families (one of the teenage girls had a smart phone with an annoyingly loud musical ringtone), two pudgy Mexican fellows accompanied by a couple of young Cuban girls in very short skirts who totally put “The Walk” on for the 4 steps it took them to get to the washroom from their table, another Mexican fellow flying solo and drinking daiquiris, and a very well-known Cuban academic with his companions. As diverse a mix of guests as you might expect from a country like Cuba. Content we were with our meal, my husband happier still with the $24 tab, and he felt pretty good about the experience as we drove home satiated.
All in all, Cuba’s dining scene is become much more diverse. You can now choose from Cuban, Japanese, lots of Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian or Mexican fare. Restaurants are being combined with entertainment such as belly dancing, musical acts, or comedy shows. I heard of a breakfast spot (Cubans aren’t big on breakfast so this must be for the tourist crowd), and have been to a couple of pretty nice new cafes, never part of the scene here before. And for the most part, satiating your hunger or quenching your thirst in Cuba is still very much a bargain compared to dining out in the rest of North America. As for picking the spot that’s right for you, that’s a pretty personal question. But hopefully you can narrow down the choices with some of the tools above, and from there, try your luck. !Buena suerte y buen apetito!