Renowned and beloved by visitors for its vibrant ambiance, permanently hot weather and chaotic yet harmonious blend of old and new, Havana has long been a hotspot for tourists who value sunshine, good music and colonial treasures. Gastronomy, however, had not always been the city’s strong suit. Though the island boasts a tasty and homey cuisine, not many restaurants offered top quality nor varied options for dining until recently, when the private sector began to blossom.
In the beginning private-owned restaurants, named “paladares” in Cuba, were fairly simple backyards of country-like houses where traditional Cuban food was served. Run by families, there were several restrictions for owners of “paladares” but the government became more flexible in 2010, when it announced the intention of updating the island’s economic structure. Since the date, private-owned and mixed (run by both the government and a private owner) restaurants have been flourishing all around the country, and especially in the capital, Havana.
Big urban centres like the upscale neighbourhoods of Vedado and Miramar, as well as the colonial jewel of Old Havana, are home to many of these venues. As you walk around Havana, there are many chic restaurants tempting you to enter. Though many venues are worthwhile, I have chosen to present some up-and-coming gems that I have visited in the past year, which all boast excellent food quality, friendly service and distinct styles.
Memories of the Soviet Era at Nazdarovie
Though the country has evolved since the downfall of the Soviet Union, this communist power was once the beacon for Cuba, which was filled with products and propaganda coming from the socialist block. Though very few traces of this time are left in the city, “Nazdarovie” restaurant brings its clients back to this era through its delicious soviet dishes and evocative decor.
Named after the Russian word for “Cheers!” during a toast and situated on the top floor of an old colonial building in Old Havana, Nazdarovie faces the city’s famous Malecon seawall. Once you make it up the three flights of stairs, the exercise is well worth it as you’re welcomed by this petite but bright venue. Filled with communist propaganda from the Soviet era in the form of posters and paintings, and comprising walls painted in a deep red colour, the restaurant also boasts a beautiful balcony where guests can sit and look out at the sea.
The most reminiscent touches, however, can be found inside with socialist slogans on the walls, Russian music playing in the background and an assortment of Soviet headwear which make for fun photo sessions with family or friends as you’re waiting between meals.
If the ambiance is great on its own, Nazdarovie’s food will leave you satisfied and eager for another visit. I highly recommend the pelmeni in Smetana sauce and Russian salad for starters, whilst the Chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff are two classics you won’t want to miss out on for main courses. To finish the soviet menu, blinis with ice cream will leave your palate sweetened.
With main dishes ranging from 10 to 18 CUC, Nazdarovie is a truly worthwhile experience that will take you back to the time Cuba was part of the Soviet dream.
Asian aromas and kimchi craze at Club Su Miramar
One of the most original, eye-catching “paladares” in Havana, "Club Su" is the very first Korean restaurant in Cuba. Set within the posh Miramar neighbourhood, this jewel stands as an oasis of Asian delicacy and elegance. Boasting the exterior appearance of a hanok (traditional Korean home), the entrance welcomes you with a lush green garden that comprises charming harubang statues, wooden details and cobblestone paths that lead to the restaurant.
Both outdoor and indoor spaces are cosy and exude the tranquillity of elegant Asian decor. To get you even deeper into this serene mood, the waiters off appetizers on the house, including vegetables fried in tempura and kimchi (cabbage soaked in Korean chili spices). Once you decide on the menu, you can choose to brave it up with chopsticks or ask for European cutlery.
A wide array of yummy Korean plates is available including Chap-Che (noodles with meat and vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce), Sukyu (steamed pork chops wrapped in cabbage leafs with spicy sauce) and Bibimbap (a bowl of seasoned rice, vegetables and meat topped with a fried egg). For the less adventurous, other oriental options like sushi and tuna tataki can also be ordered as well as other international dishes.
Though it may seem too spicy to those who are not accustomed, Club Su offers original and authentic flavours as Cuba’s first specialized Korean restaurant. With prices ranging from 10 to 18 CUC, this elegant venue is definitely worth a visit to those who look for something different, daring and delicious.
Authentic Italian flavours at La Mimosa
You might think the capital’s Chinese neighbourhood in the municipality of Centro Habana would be the last place to find tasty Italian fare. Ironically, this area is home to some of Havana’s tastiest pizzas and pasta dishes. Most Chinese restaurants offer, in addition to famous Chinese dishes like chop suey, chow mein or eggrolls, a variety of pizzas and pasta. Nevertheless, the only venue the vicinity that is 100 per cent specialised in authentic Italian fare is the popular “La Mimosa”.
Once you abandon the busy streets of the Chinese neighbourhood and step inside, you will find a welcoming and typically Italian atmosphere. The candlelit interiors feature the red, green and white colours of the Italian flag as well as Italian renaissance replicas in the form of statues and paintings like the famous Mona Lisa portrait.
Seated at your table, the menu offers a great variety of delectable Italian dishes from seafood risottos, stuffed pasta (cannelloni, lasagna), fresh pasta with a wide range of delicious sauces and of course, a wide array of delicious pizza; from anchovy and prawn to four cheeses and Tuscany style pizzas. Unlike most Italian venues in Havana, Mimosa pampers you providing the authentic Italian way with crispy-based pizzas and pasta cooked al dente.
The prices at this excellent restaurant are surprisingly affordable, ranging from 5 to 10 CUC on main dishes and the service is friendly and efficient. For a stride through Italy in the heart of Havana with great quality at an economic price, La Mimosa is just the spot.
Elegant dining and decor at El Biky
Close to the iconic University of Havana, “El Biky” presides over the bustling corner of Infanta and San Lazaro avenues, inviting tourists and locals in for a delicious meal. This venue has been gaining popularity amongst a varied public due to its excellent quality and varied offers. “El Biky” is divided into three different spaces: the bar, which oozes a casual and chic ambiance and where tapas and cocktails are served, the bakery/pastry shop where delicious pies, cakes and other pastries are sold 24 hours and the restaurant, which occupies the largest area.
Featuring white, clean and elegant decor, El Biky’s restaurant comprises two options: the top floor for a more refined and exclusive experience and the bottom floor for more casual, tapa style meals. Featuring large ceiling-to-floor windows and photos of Havana in the 50s, the bottom floor offers tasty treats like shrimp cocktails, ropa vieja (shredded beef), croquettes, octopus tapas, pizzas, creams and soups. The prices on this large variety of dishes range from 7 to 15 CUC.
For a special occasion, you can choose to sit at the top floor, where an elegant and intimate ambiance awaits you, with a piano player treats guests with pleasant melodies. Prices are higher (from 12 to 20 CUC) and more refined dishes are served including chicken breast rolls filled with Serrano ham, delectable beef stroganoff, cannelloni stuffed with prawns and mushrooms or oriental chicken cooked in a pineapple and honey sauce with sesame seeds. Today, “El Biky” stands as one of the best options for varied international dining in Cuba.
Light lunching and tasty treats at Betty Boom
Only steps from the island’s National Aquarium, in the posh neighbourhood of Miramar “Betty Boom” offers delicious snacks and refreshing drinks in a chic environment. Boasting a beautiful garden with a fountain and cobblestone paths, this open-air cafe is suitable for breakfasts, light lunches and afternoon snacks. Whether visiting with family, co-workers or friends, “Betty Boom” is a wonderful place to unwind and enjoy tasty treats.
Inspired on images of famous cartoon character “Betty Boop”, the venue offers delicious snack-style treats including succulent hamburgers, Serrano ham sandwiches, Cuban-style pizzas (with pork and onions), delicious pasta and sugary desserts like cheesecake, lime pie and ice cream.
Betty Boom is also ideal for those who are looking to enjoy a warm cup of tea or coffee with or cool cocktails (frappe daiquiris, pina coladas, mojitos, etc.) to take a break from the heat. For a light snack and thirst-quenching beverages, Betty Boom is an ideal stopover.