Cuba, a country that captured my heart from the very first visit, particularly Havana. The captivating allure of its colonial architecture, sprawling beaches, and the open-mindedness of its people left me enchanted. I’ve revisited multiple times since, witnessing the evolution of this nation. The recent political developments bring joy, lifting over 50 years of sanctions, ushering in a more relaxed era for the Cuban people. While there’s a concern that Cuba might lose some of its charm, the small price paid for freedom makes each return visit a source of gratitude.
There’s a saying that resonates with Havana explorers, “People don’t go to Cuba for the food.” While the local cuisine is delightful, the island’s limited ingredients often result in the creation of somewhat monotonous resort-style dishes, failing to showcase the true charm of Cuban gastronomy. But times are changing! My March 2015 visit to Havana revealed that you can now enjoy a splendid meal in the Cuban capital. Here are some of my favorite spots to savor during your winter escapade.
1. La Guarida
Location: Central Havana
One of Havana’s most renowned family-run restaurants, La Guarida has graced the scene for two decades. Housed in a grand faded building, the worn walls and rusty iron staircase add to the charm. The menu seamlessly blends international and Cuban flavors, featuring dishes like Green Lobster Lime Vegetable Salad, Roasted Whole Suckling Pig (with orange and honey sauce), and Grilled Lobster with Yellow Stingers.
2. Doña Eutimia
Location: Old Havana
A bustling restaurant in Old Havana that requires advance reservations. This family-operated establishment specializes in Cuban cuisine, with their Lamb Minced Meat (a traditional Cuban lamb dish) ranking among the best I’ve ever had—an absolute must-try.
3. Café O’Reilly
Location: O’Reilly Street, near Old Havana’s Cathedral Square
A chic café nestled on O’Reilly Street, near Old Havana’s Cathedral Square. It’s a fantastic spot for drinks or snacks, especially if you manage to secure a seat on the balcony for some people-watching.
4. La Bodeguita del Medio
Location: Old Havana
Havana’s quintessential bar, where Hemingway savored his cocktails. Yes, it’s a tourist hotspot, and prices are a bit high, but it’s a traditional must-visit. La Bodeguita claims to be the birthplace of the Mojito, so you must indulge in one here.
5. Paladar San Cristòbal
Set in the courtyard and on the ground floor of a chef’s residence, offering traditional Cuban cuisine. The lamb stew and fresh fish are excellent choices, but be warned, Cuban portions are generous!
Situated on the second floor of an old building in Havana’s Vedado district, extending to a lovely rooftop terrace. The menu changes daily, making it a haven for meat enthusiasts, as quality options aren’t found everywhere in Cuba.
7. Heladeria Coppelia
Location: Various, including Vedado
The go-to spot for ice cream in Havana, attracting both locals and tourists. The lines can be lengthy, especially the ones designated for Cubans. However, joining these queues offers a chance to chat with some locals while you wait.
8. Hotel Nacional
Renowned for its old-world charm, one can envision the hotel lobby teeming with 1950s movie stars and mobsters. The outdoor courtyard is an excellent spot to grab a sandwich or a drink while marveling at the majestic peacocks strutting against the deep blue sea backdrop.
In concluding my culinary journey through Havana, Cuba, it’s evident that this vibrant city is not merely a feast for the eyes but a culinary haven that has evolved over the years. The once limited gastronomic landscape is now flourishing, offering a delightful blend of international influences and authentic Cuban flavors. From the historic elegance of La Guarida to the bustling charm of Café O’Reilly, each dining spot tells a unique story, intertwining tradition with the winds of change.
As Cuba embraces newfound freedoms, there’s a palpable sense that the essence of the nation remains intact, despite the inevitable shifts. The warmth of its people, the faded grandeur of its architecture, and the evolving culinary scene collectively contribute to Havana’s timeless allure. So, as I bid adieu to this enchanting city, my taste buds lingering with the memories of delectable dishes, I look forward to future visits—embracing the spirit of Cuba, where every flavor tells a tale of resilience, adaptation, and the enduring love for life.