Certainly one of the most enjoyable parts of being on a holiday (no matter how good your cooking skills may be) is taking a break from the kitchen, and allowing others to pamper you with tasty food. As a traveller, every restaurant you visit is part of the overall holiday experience; being able to discover new flavours, receiving attentive service and enjoying a pleasant atmosphere are all highlights of a happy visit.
However, Cuba was not at all a foodie destination just a few years back. For a long time, Cuba had very little variety in its gastronomic offers; pork meat with beans and rice was all the country was known for, and the quality of the food and services was not up to par with that of its Caribbean neighbours. Thankfully, this panorama started to shift several years ago. The changes became more apparent in 2010, when Raul Castro introduced an economic reform programme, which loosened constraints on private business and gave entrepreneurs more opportunities to grow. Since then, a new wave of private restaurants has swept the country, especially so its capital, Havana.
Paladares in Cuba – the private sectors brings more variety and higher quality to eateries
These private-owned restaurants are referred to as “paladares” in Cuba. In the beginning, “paladares” were only allowed to be run by families out of their own homes. These days, they have evolved to become proper restaurants with multiple rooms that are staffed with professional cooking and wait personnel. Private-owned dining venues can range from simple eateries serving snacks, and traditional ranchones specialising in homey Cuban fare, to sophisticated and stylish establishments dishing local specialties fused with international flavours.
The healthy competition has ultimately raised the bar for the dining scene in Cuba. Food quality has risen to new heights; cooking styles from all over the world have spread to the island; services, locales and decors have all stepped up, and there has not been a better time for a dip into the Cuban gastronomic world than now.
Vedado – hip, modern and full of culinary options
Vedado is one of Havana’s most modern and affluent neighbourhoods. It was developed in the first half of the 20th century, during the period of the Republic (1902-1959), as a residential area for the wealthy sector of the society. Today, Vedado is home to many landmarks, including the University of Havana campus, the lively 23rd street, part of the Malecon seawall, the Cristobal Colon cemetery and the Plaza de la Revolucion.
Trying to find a good restaurant in Vedado is far from being a problem; in fact, the trouble may be picking from all the options. The neighbourhood is filled with private-owned restaurants for all occasions. This is why it should come as no surprise that, during my recent visit, the three culinary gems I found were located in this urban district.
Tasting the difference – three Havana restaurants to treat your palate
Eager to visit great restaurants during my holidays to Cuba, I decided to try some popular eateries in Havana that have earned a positive reputation for the quality of their food and, at the same time, the reasonable prices they offer clients. Each with its own style and charm, all three of the venues were ideal for a relaxing and enjoyable meal.
A chic venue suitable for all occasions - Ice cream and snacks at Cafe Presidente
Situated in the corner of 25th street and the above mentioned “Avenida de los Presidentes”, this sophisticated restaurant is the perfect place to take a break from exploring Vedado and enjoy some delicious food. Cafe Presidente, named after the avenue it is located in, catches the eye of all passers-by with striking floor-to-ceiling windows revealing the chic ambiance inside. When it first opened to the public five years ago, the owner intended for it to be a refuge amid the city noise, the ideal spot to grab a cup of the house’s secret cappuccino, to get fresh pasta or meat dish.
Today, Cafe Presidente has lived up to these expectations, becoming one of the signature dining spots in Vedado. Boasting luminous interiors that reveal harmony in white and wooden colours, the restaurant features simple yet elegant decor that is reminiscent of the 1950s in Havana, with large black and white photographs of what the city used to look like in that time.
Following a charming yet arduous stroll through Avenida de los Presidentes under the relentless Cuban sun, we stopped at the restaurant for some refreshments. Eager to cool down, the first thing that popped out at us on the menu was the ice cream shakes for drinks. The friendly waitress that assisted us was speedy in delivering our shakes and recommended some “tapa style” dishes, when we mentioned we were looking for an afternoon snack.
After skimming through the options, we decided on the bruschetta and the stuffed peppers that our waitress suggested. Both tapas were simple enough, but tasty, and again, brought to us promptly. In terms of prices, Cafe Presidente offers good value for money. Though slightly more expensive than other venues in Havana, the location, ambiance, food quality and service of the restaurant is line with the bill. Priced at 2.50 and 3.50 CUC respectively, the bruschetta and stuffed peppers had a good value, as did the ice cream shakes priced at 2.95 CUC.
The tranquil atmosphere was ideal for chatting and catching up with friends and the attentive service made our experience all the more enjoyable. Café Presidente’s privileged setting in the heart of Vedado, great food and attentive service will certainly keep me motivated to make another visit in the near future.
Fun lunch served by local celebrities and eccentric scenery – Habana Blues
One of the most unique venues in the entire city, Habana Blues launched three years ago with an innovative concept that sought to bring art and gastronomy together. Located a short distance from the busy La Rampa, the peculiar dining venue is today one of the most popular options amongst locals and visitors alike. This is why it is a good idea to make a reservation days before, as visiting spontaneously may result in having to wait a long time to enter.
Initially inspired in the 2005 Cuban film of the same name, the restaurant was inaugurated with two unique and gripping features: stunning and eccentric decor in all of the dining salons that represent part of the island’s most interesting landmarks and natural wonders; and a strong focus on Cuba’s artistic scene, with the original idea of having local TV stars as the wait staff. This original concept and riveting combination has made Habana Blues a great success that I was more than eager to discover at first hand.
On this occasion, I went to lunch with friends and family who had already made the reservations two days in advance. From the outside, Habana Blues has the same elegant look of a typical Vedado mansion. However, from the moment you step inside, you feel as if you have crossed over into an exciting world of colour, music and art. The entrance corridor, boasting a small bridge and a replica of the mythical statue of “El Caballero de Paris” (a famous wanderer of Old Havana in the 1950s) was an upside down version of a coral reef. The roof emulated the bottom of the sea, with decorations of marine life. We could already tell we were at a truly unique place.
We were then immediately greeted by our waitress for the evening; a Cuban soap opera actress who took us through to our table swiftly and kindly answered questions about how the idea for this restaurant came to be. She explained to us that the owner had thought of this idea to treat visitors who would get to meet and be served by some of their favourite TV stars, all the while giving actors a job opportunity when they were not shooting scenes.
We were seated at the main salon, accompanied by live music from a talented piano player. Painted in cool blue shades, the decor of this dining area represented some of Havana’s most distinctive landmarks and features; from the Malecon seawall and the Morro Fortress to “almendrones” (American cars from the 50s) and colonial balconies in Old Havana. After ordering our meals, we explored some of the other rooms: one had been designed like Matanzas’ breath-taking underground cave of Bellamar, another boasted musical references hinting at the Habana Blues film, with a long piano tile-board stretching through the walls, and another paid homage to the island’s excellent rum and tobacco plantations, where the best cigars in the world come from.
Focusing mainly on the delicacies of local cuisine, the menu at Habana Blues includes a range of tasty Cuban plates. For starters, we ordered an assorted platter of some local and international favourites including “tostones rellenos” (plantain filled with ham and cheese), fish croquettes, fried malanga (a local root) and deep-fried prawns. For the main courses, we ordered the classic “ropa vieja” (shredded beef), fresh snapper with prawns and “bistec uruguayo” (breaded pork steak filled with ham and cheese). Main dishes are all accompanied by two sides (these are included in the price), which are usually rice and black beans, yucca con mojo (cassava with a zingy lime, garlic and onion dressing) and crunchy plantain chips. To end our night on a sweet note, we gave Habana Blues’ desserts a try before leaving: lemon pie and brownie with vanilla ice cream.
In our experience, all the food we tried was very tasty and the service was quick and attentive, with the added bonus of getting the chance to snap a photo next to a local TV star. Taking into consideration the amazing ambiance and decor, fun and unique waiting staff, and the simplicity and great taste of traditional Cuban food served in Habana Blues, there is one more highlight that truly rounds off the experience: the unbelievably affordable prices! Main dishes like the “ropa vieja” with two sides cost just 8 CUC, whilst desserts were only 3.50 CUC. In terms of value for money, Habana Blues is certainly one of the capital’s best dining venues.
Elegant night out at Habana Mia 7 – excellent food quality and service
One of Cuba’s most refined restaurants to the date, Habana Mia 7 (HM7) was designed to give locals and travellers a taste of exquisite fusion cuisine. Located on the second floor of a chic building, in front of the Melia Cohiba hotel, by the Malecon seawall, the upscale restaurant is a tranquil and elegant place to enjoy gourmet food in Havana.
I visited HM7 on one of my last nights in Havana for a romantic dinner with my partner. As we made our way up to the restaurant, we were greeted by our friendly waiter for the evening, who guided us to tour table in the main dining area. HM7 also boasts a bar with stunning views of the sea beyond. Once in our seats, we appreciated the minimalistic decor in tones of red and white, but we were mostly excited about the fact we could see the chef and cooks at work. A large window in the kitchen allowed us to take a look at the pristine facilities inside and how the staff plated beautiful dishes right in front of our eyes.
We ordered a mojito each to start off the night and took a look at the menu. With a wide range of seafood options, as well as meat dishes including filet mignon and roasted rabbit, and even various vegetarian dishes, the menu fused international flavours with a sprinkle of Cuban tradition. For starts we tried the ceviche with a touch of coconut and rum, as well as the beef carpaccio with parmesan and capers. For our main course, I ordered the seafood soupy rice and my partner the prawns in curry sauce, and left for dessert a cheesecake with guava marmalade topping to share.
All of the dishes we tried were absolutely delicious and came with the added bonus of seeing how they were made and plated with extreme care and delicacy in front of our eyes. Although considerably more pricey than the previous venues, with a medium of 8 CUC for the starters and 13 to 18 CUC for main courses, HM7 is worth every penny. The luxury of dining in this elegant space, with fine service, and gourmet meals is one of the most memorable moments of my stay in the capital.
A sweet taste of progress in Cuba’s gastronomic offers
In visiting these three “paladares”, it was evident to me just how much Cuba’s culinary scene has evolved over the years. Variety and food quality have come a long way since 2010, and the growing number of up-and-coming private restaurants has created higher expectations in dining for both locals travellers. If you are visiting Havana any time soon, its paladares are sure to leave you with a delightful taste of Cuba.