Havana, as the internet has noted, is exploding with food options. This wasn’t always the case — the Cuban government legalized privately owned paladares (restaurants in homes) in the mid 90s along with casas particulares (guest houses for foreigners) as it pivoted toward tourism to stave off economic disaster. Today, with the a new tourist boom and the continued easing of economic restrictions on businesses, there are new restaurants popping up all over the place on the island, or at least wherever there are foreigners who can pay 6-14 CUC for a plate of food.
There are several recent pieces about dining in Havana — from Bon Appétit, Thrillist, Saveur, NYTimes, and Virgin Atlantic’s blog — that provide a good starting point for foodies headed to Cuba. There is also a good episode on the podcast The Sporkful about the history and politics that surrounds Cuban food and Cuban-American food. These pieces do a good job of summing up the best and most well known paladares in the city — I recommend reading them to get a sense of what’s out there. Many of them already have an established reputation in Havana and on the internet — Atelier, La Guarida, Ivan Justo, Café Laurent, San Cristóbal, El Cocinero, Doña Eutemia, Le Chansonnier — and deservedly so: they serve good food at a reasonable price with great service and a decent variety of dishes, a combination that was impossible to find even just a decade ago.
But there are other spots that deserve internet mentions for their offerings. In addition to these fancier, more established spots (which can sometimes feel stuffy and tend to cater to the mostly older and mostly anglo tour groups) there are lots of paladares that are worth exploring — what some might lack in superficial refinements they make up for in delicious Cuban recipes, great prices, or singular ambiance — after all it’s Havana’s refreshing mix of refinement and lack of refinement that makes it unique. What distinguishes the following list is both the food but also ambiance — the locale, the design/decor, the views — which contribute to the experience, even if they fail to make it onto other lists. Also, some of them are just so new they aren’t on anyone’s radar yet.
This paladar is similarly hidden on the 11th floor of a massive residential highrise in Vedado. I was made aware of it when I was staying at a casa particular three floors up, and it didn’t disappoint. The dining area is decorated with an eye for antiques — chandeliers, mirros, and funky furniture — and the windows, which run along two entire walls, make for a view that’s worth the trip on it’s own. The food, it should be mentioned, is also quite good, and priced the same as lots of paladares without any view at all. Watching the afternoon sun slowly set over the lush streets of Vedado and the Caribbean behind it, with a full belly and a drink in hand — everything the weary Cuba traveler could want, Porto-Habana provides.
You might not see the logic in eating anything but traditional Cuban food during your stay in Havana, and I get that—why sample international cuisine in a place where the local traditions have more than enough to offer. However, there are several reasons to make a stop at Topoly, the outdoor Iranian-Cuban restaurant on Calle 23 and Calle D in Vedado. First, it’s owned by real Iranian-Cubans, and the chefs manage to somehow create delicious, authentic tasting Middle Eastern food in a country where getting even the simplest, most familiar ingredients can be difficult. Second, the pillared, open-air seating area, which wraps around the outside of this former mansion, is decorated with hookah pipes, bird cages, and two-toned hand painted portraits of visionaries like Einstein, Ghandi, Hemingway, and Frida Khalo. Third, Topoly and other non-Cuban restaurants in Havana represent a truly novel development in contemporary Cuba—for half a century there has been almost no international cuisine options—so by eating here you are participating in a historic moment for the island. And finally, there is a certain satisfying irony of already being in Cuba, perhaps America’s greatest antagonist in the west, and dining on dishes from another of the U.S.’s sworn enemies, Iran. If only there was a North Koreatown in Havana to complete the trifecta…
O’Reilly 304 and El Del Frente
These two paladares have certifiably blown up, but they are just so good I had to include them in this list of recs. The original is O’Reilly 304, but it’s overnight success led the owners to quickly open El Del Frente (“The One Across the Street”) to satisfy demand. The menus are similar (they may actually work out of the same kitchen) and there are often waiters and other staff running across the street from one location to the other. Situated among the bustling, cramped streets of Old Havana, both spots epitomize that same crowded, fun, energetic feeling of the neighborhood. This place is hip, the food is on par with restaurants where I live in Brooklyn (high praise for a Cuban paladar), and experiencing a meal here is a memory you won’t soon forget. Pro-tip: get a reservation…if things continue to go as they have with tourism in Havana, this place will continue to be booked solid most nights.
I was skeptical when I first heard about Nazdarovie (“Cheers” in Russian, roughly), and when I arrived at the address and was greeted by a man wearing a beret with a sickle and hammer, I was even more skeptical. But this Soviet themed restaurant is anything but a tourist trap—it’s a well run restaurant that thoroughly and authentically explores the connections between Cuba and not just Russia, but the entire Slavic world. As readers may be aware, Cuba and the U.S.S.R. were in a tight partnership for almost 3 decades, and this involvement resulted in lots of travel by Cubans to various places in the Soviet sphere and also brought many Soviets to Cuba, resulting, naturally, in many romances and ultimately many Cubans of Soviet descent. The staff at Nazdarovie is largely made up of these Slavic Cubans, with Serbian mothers or Ukrainian fathers mixing their heritage into the island’s food and culture. The restaurant is decorated with a fantastic collection of Soviet art and tongue in cheek propaganda, and the food is so Eastern European I can’t begin to pronounce most of it. A highlight is the outdoor balcony overlooking the Malecón, which provides a great view of the water and the capitalist hellscape beyond—a perfect place to contemplate the fate of global systems of capital while sampling some “Pollo Tabaka” and a “Mojito Eslavo.”
El Dandy has more of a bar atmosphere, but there is a full menu and great service. Along with the presence of El Chanchullero up the street and the reopening of Plaza de Cristo, this bar sits at a newly lively nexus of Old Havana. The bar is adorned with photo prints of Havana’s local, state run bars, in all of their grimy glory, and give the place an artsy (and cheeky) feel.