I love to eat. If you follow my adventures you already know that. I love diving into the local food scene to explore and taste what the regions Chefs are creating and what the locals love to eat. In Cuba, I am not sure what to expect. After 50+ years of trade embargos from the USA what access to ingredients will Cuban Chefs have and what style of cuisine will be the result of this challenge? While Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, there is no way they can produce enough food to feed the 12+ million residents and 1 million tourists that visit each year. Havana restaurants are going to be an adventure for me and I can’t wait to dig into the local food scene. I’m going to check out a couple of famous classic Havana restaurants and experience some relatively new privately owned paladares. Who’s hungry? Let’s eat.
Before I get into the specific Havana restaurants that I visited let me explain how the restaurant scene works in Cuba. There are two types of restaurants. The first is the government owned and run establishments. These dominate the cities and generally, in my opinion, offer the least exciting experiences. There are exceptions to the rule and I found one which I will share with you. The other dining establishment is called a paladares. These are privately owned and operated and Chefs can create whatever they want depending on the ingredients they have access to. These are my favourite Havana restaurants to dine in and I can’t wait to come back to explore them all.
Let’s start with the government-owned Havana restaurants I visited.
Floridita – This classic and historic restaurant first opened in 1817 and reopened in the 1950’s hosting such illustrious guests as Ernest Hemmingway. It is located across from the The National Museum of Fine Arts and usually has an array of classic American cars parked out front. It is hard to miss.
The bar is located at the front of the restaurant where you can talk to strangers, drink a Daiquiri and listen to live music. This is where Hemmingway discovered and fell in love with the Daiquiri.
The back of the restaurant offers more formal dining options and this is where I enjoyed a Prix Fix meal of salad, Gregorian Chicken followed by a bowl of Ice Cream. The food is ok, I would come for the live music and the amazing Daiquiris.
El Aljibe – If you have a driver or are willing to hop in a cab for dinner, I highly recommend you head out to the Miramar neighbourhood of Havana to El Aljibe. Pre-revolution Sergio and Pepe Macías opened Rancho Luna and wowed guests with great food and service. It closed and reopened in 1993 under the name of El Aljibe and still serves the speciality of the house El Aljibe Chicken. There may be great dishes on the menu but I highly recommend the house speciality as it truly is special.
A secret family recipe served family style with Rice, Beans and of course the fabulous Chicken. The pan dripping turned into gravy are worthy of a glass to drink all on its own. FANTASTIC!
Restaurante Marinero – Located near the cruise ship terminals and the Almacenes San José Artisans’ Market this waterfront view restaurant offers a great place to relax, refuel and enjoy a break from your hectic day of sight seeing.
As with the other Government owned restaurants I enjoyed a Prix Fixed meal that included an appetiser sampler followed by a delicious Beef Stew and a Brownie topped with Vanilla Ice Cream. They also make a nice Mojito.
And now for the Paladares.
Cafe Laurent – What do you get when you convert a top floor apartment into a restaurant? Great views and pretty good food. If you don’t have a reservation make one as this place books out quickly. Amazing views of the city and the sunset are on offer from this penthouse restaurant. Those prime tables book up quickly.
This was my last Prix Fix meal in Havana as I found that ordering a la carte gave me better options. No complaints from me though as I enjoyed this Daiquiri with a view of Havana.
My meal started with an appetiser sample plate followed by Ropa Vieja a la Criolla. Simple yet delicious. A fine introduction to the creativity and talent of the local Cuban Chefs.
San Cristobal – Madonna, Beyonce and Obama have all enjoyed a meal at San Cristobal. Now they can add my name to the list of illustrious guests. Chef Carlos Cristóbal Márquez is a force fo nature both in the kitchen and front of house. During our dinner Chef often came out to greet guests, help sort out a private room and to make sure everything was to our liking. A true host.
The restaurant’s decor is worth a visit all on its own, but the food is some of the best I had on my entire trip. From the appetiser sample platter that was brought out for us to share to my main dish of Cuban Lamb Stew. Amazing.
The best service of my entire Cuba trip was had here and our server wouldn’t let me leave without a little sip of some very fine aged Rum.
At San Cristobal, I recommend you pick up one of the guides to Paladares books as it has a great list of some of the best places to eat in all Havana. Some may be walking distance from your hotel or you’ll have to hop into a classic car and taxi your way there. All an experience and one that will only get better as the Chefs have better access to quality ingredients. The talent and drive are already there.