Gone are the days of bland food, military-hall style eateries and overpriced staples in Havana. Nowadays, the Cuban capital is gaining a sturdy reputation for offering some of the best and most authentic fare in the Caribbean. Granted, some may think this should not be too difficult; yet with the rise and rise of paladares, or private home eateries, the city has seen an absolute surge of great quality, well priced eateries where the food is varied, fresh and utterly delicious.
The paladares may not do much for the socialist cause, yet for the visiting tourist they couldn’t have come at a better time. As more and more foreigners descend on the (ever so slowly) modernizing city, the demand for quality epicurean treats is naturally on the rise.
Given their very humble definition, paladares seem to open and close almost on a weekly basis, yet Havana is home to a few institutions which have been around for years and seem to be going nowhere fast. GREAT! Head to the following haunts when next visiting Havana and indulge in one of the best aspects of Cuban culture.
Viva la food!
La Casa: for that great first impression
More like a fully fledged restaurant than a simple home-based hole in the wall, La Casa is the top choice for visitors who may find the standard of service and ambience of some basic eateries a little on the simple (ie. dodgy) side. If there were a rating system for paladares then La Casa would certainly be considered 5*.
So the name may not be all that creative, but if the owners of La Casa (or ‘the home’ in Spanish) meant for this to feel like a ‘home away from home’ for visitors, they have certainly succeeded. This is not the humblest of paladar, yet for the first time visitor to Cuba it may just be the best intro into the world of home-run eateries.
La Casa offers a vast array of freshly caught fish, lots of different local tapas and the unmissable Cuban staples of rice, beans, steak and plantain cooked in every which way. Servings are VERY generous, staff attentive and hospitable and prices reasonable; so head here first to get a lovely sanitised paladar experienced and you won’t be disappointed.
La Guarida: for the top-notch food and the star spotting
This Cuban institution cultivated its cult following after it was featured in the country’s most successful film to date, Fresa y Chocolate. Even if you’ve never heard of the movie, you should definitely have at least one meal at this über-popular paladar during your Havana stay.
La Guarida has been running for nearly two decades and is housed in a stunning (albeit a tad run down) old colonial building in central Havana. Up on the 3rd floor, following one of the most recognisable spiral staircases and headless-angel statues in the country (you really should watch that movie) is where you’ll find one of the most charming and enticing dining halls in Havana. All the accolades bestowed on La Guarida are not merely for show mind you, as this place delivers one of the most amazingly delectable gastronomic experiences you’re likely to find. Anywhere. The fusion of international flavours and Cuban classics easily rate this as one of Havana’s very best restaurants.
From coconut-glazed tuna and corn crusted lobster to salmon and tuna tartar, all served alongside beds of crunchy roasted vegetables, the fare at La Guarida is consistently stunning and wonderfully presented. Make sure you leave room for their orgasmic chocolate fondant self-saucing pudding and then you can go home and die a happy camper.
Doña Eutimia (Callejon del Chorro): for wholesome Cuban fare the way abuela used to make
Every single detail of this paladar is absolutely adorable; from the sweet elderly owner who almost cries when you leave, to the unpolluted local dishes and quaintness of decor, Doña Eutimia is our first recommendation for anyone who wants to flavour great wholesome Cuban classics, the way grandma used to make. Heartily satisfying, comforting and almost ridiculously cheap, the food Doña dishes out may not be Weight Watchers approved but our taste buds seemed to be delirious with it nonetheless.
Firm favourites are the slow roasted lamb, garlic prawns (or garlic anything else!) and whatever you do, don’t miss the ropa vieja. This beef stew is an almost historic Cuban staple, and it is here that you’ll savour the best of its kind in Havana.
Keep in mind that servings here are also rather voluminous so don’t go overboard and you won’t have room for Dona Eutimia’s famous home-made desserts!
Wash your prized meal down with a frozen mojito and you’ll be well on your way to culinary euphoria.
El Chanchullero de Tapas (Teniente Rey): for the young and hip in all of us
This supremely trendy joint is casual, fun and totally captivating, especially if it’s great food with a serve of social mingling you’re after. Boisterous and musical (sometimes even a little too much) El Chanchullero is a popular staple in Havana when the cocktails are head spinning, the array of food varied and prices super-affordable. The array of nibblies, ranging from pork to fish and red meat is perfect if travelling in a group and all the food is freshly made and served in the usual generous Cuban way.
The menu has English translations even though some may just leave you scratching your head! Luckily the staff is always helpful and fun so working out the connection between ‘revolved scrimp with egg’ and ‘prawn omelette’ should not be too difficult! Both the chicken fricassee and garlic prawns are commendable even though this place is casual enough to be considered a local drinking hole as well.
Leaving the best till last…
The old adage ‘the best things in life are often the simplest’ could not ring truer in Havana. Whilst every paladar has something unique and delicious to offer, sometimes the most delectable treats in Havana come courtesy of cheap and cheerful street stands. Here, you can get anything from chock-full oil-dripping meat sandwiches, piping hot chips and the most Moorish dessert to date: churros.
Churros must be one of Spanish cuisine’s most popular exports, yet if you’ve ever drooled over a serve of these incredibly divine freshly fried stick doughnuts at food festivals or amusement parks back home…just you wait ‘till you try the real thing. Savour one in Havana and you’ll learn that the dough is supposed to simply melt in your mouth (as opposed to the chewy variety one gets abroad) and the sugary taste meant to linger on your lips for hours afterwards.
You’ll find churros stands scattered about the Old Town and, whilst their actual parking spot may vary so as to make it impossible to recommend one, best you can do is to find one with a long queue of salivating customers. A newspaper cone filled with scolding hot churros dusted generously with sugar may only cost you 50 cents, but they may soon become the best treat during your entire stay.
Appetizers, Dana Moos via Flickr
La Guarida, Tony Hisgett via Flickr
Paladar, via Flickr
Ropa Vieja via Wiki
Churros stand, Advencap via Flickr