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Thanks to friends’ recommendations and extensive research we came to Cuba fully prepared, or what I thought was prepared with restaurants and locations of interest flagged on my downloaded map of Cuba (via the App Maps.Me which allows you to use a map without WIFI). This App is extremely helpful when walking around a foreign city, especially when looking for somewhere you WANT to eat.
Within the last few years, paladares have been popping up all over Havana. These family run private restaurants with locally sourced ingredients are changing the food game. The dilemma that all one can find in Cuba is rice and beans is over. For breakfast, eat in your casa particular for 5 CUC ($5), which often includes eggs to order, coffee, fresh juice smoothies, various meat, flan dessert, and a fruit plate. Then, head out the streets to discover Cuba’s new culinary revolución.
Favorite places to find some respite and a good meal or mojito in Cuba:
In Old Havana on the dirty, dilapidated street O’Reilly, step inside this tiny upstairs downstairs establishment with bold mod art on the walls. One of my favorite meals in Cuba was their beautifully presented large langoustine with colorful crisp vegetables in a metal skillet, a special that night for about $11. Start with their fresh ceviche or tacos. Sip mojitos and mango daiquiris at their other location across the street too. No sign, but you will see people hanging out over the street on the outdoor upstairs tiny patio.
O’Reilly 304, Habana Vieja
Down an alley near Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana, you will find a bustling nook with restaurants and at the end, Dona Eutemia, where you can dine inside or out. I made a reservation for 9 PM the night we landed by emailing weeks ahead because I heard this was a popular spot. This was one of my favorite meals. Ask about the specials and maybe they will have the $4 thinly sliced squid sautéed in garlic and olive oil with bread. The blended mint mojitos were also my favorite drinks in my entire six days. The Cuban specialty ropa vieja or shredded meat was not as good as I imagined. I would skip that dish and stick to seafood. You can expect a basic choice of pork, chicken, beef, black beans, and salad. End with the guava cheesecake. The founder’s portrait still hangs above the entranceway.
Callejon del Chorro # 60-C
Feeling bruised, battered, and exhausted from the fumes, stomach ailments, and travel in general, getting off the gritty streets here was a welcome rest for lunch. Just entering this white mansion made me feel worlds away, for a few hours. The space is filled with gorgeous retro décor like vintage typewriters, old school TV’s, sewing machines, a retro Coca Cola sign, and hip artwork. There is a large dining room with two lush outdoor balconies for enjoying their changing menu. Even the bathroom was the niceest and most unique one I used in Cuba. We sat outside and sipped what felt like our 100th mojito filled with stalks of mint. Different dishes can be found here like conejo al vino (rabbit in wine) and a moist duck confit. We enjoyed the squid salad and salmon wraps with a cream cheese blend inside and raisins on top.
Calle 5, #511, between Paseo and Calle 2, Vedado
Our last dinner in Cuba was another giant langoustine, but with fries this time. El Cocinero is right next door to the highly talked about La Fabrica de Arte, an apparently super fun club/bar/concert venue/art gallery that we sadly missed since it was closed on our last night in Havana.
El Cocinero is absolutely gorgeous with its Brooklyn/NY vibes located in an abandoned factory with a fifty-foot brick smokestack looming over the chic rooftop outdoor dining area. As we climbed up many levels, we sat on a tall dining table near the bar and watched the pretty crowd roll in over more mojitos. Many tourists wanted to get in, and after most walked away not wanting to wait even for five minutes for dinner, we were grateful to be sent upstairs to a table after the “begging for a table” crowds were turned away. You can call to make a reservation, but they do not take your name for another day. Dinner for two was around $50 without drinks.
Calle 26, 57, Vedado
I heard Madonna ate here when she visited, so I knew it would be good. This was one of the most beautiful and memorable restaurants we dined at, for the views. I made reservations way in advance via email. Climbing the rickety rackety derelict stairs is impossible to describe as your venture up through this falling apart almost war torn-like building to reach the top floor of this establishment. Make sure to get to La Guarida for sunset as a massive frame literally frames the view.
We shared drinks with a New York couple who just arrived at the bar with views of crumbling Havana. Although there was a big group seated next to us in one of the major dining areas, they sat us by ourselves on this tiny popping out private balcony, where we sampled another langoustine aka Caribbean lobster. Food here is expensive for Cuba (around $100 for two), but worth the experience.
Concordia #418, Havana Centro
Find this place with no sign and a Cuban man outside, and take the wrought iron elevator up to the rooftop to Havana’s version of cool. Listen to languages from all over the world as you enjoy your $4 cocktail with a DJ and hip travelers all looking for a little fun in a battered city. Cinder blocks create mini tables and old car seats become your seating option as candelight and the decaying buildings in view seem more like a movie than reality. We enjoyed this place so much we went back again for more Havana Club passion fruit cocktails.
Take a break in this old timey café and enjoy a pina colada and mojito, or a few snacks (cheese quesadilla?) in this touristy part of town. This café is cheap, fun, and busy.
Corner of Parque Cristo, Old Havana
Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine)
Near John Lennon Square, a Cuban 35 year old guy took us to this Beatles Bar where we danced and sang our heart out to old school 80’s and 90’s tunes, live music, and watched the Cubans salsa dance. Fun art dons the walls with Beatles slogans and pop art portraits of John, Paul, George and Ringo. When the bill came, I had to smile because for 3 people it was around $20 for a night of beer and drinks. There was a small cover charge, which was more for tourists. Make sure to walk through the John Lennon park nearby and sit with John Lenin immortalized in bronze.
Corner of Calle 6, Calle 17, Vedado
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
Although a bit outdated with its late 50’s glamour, this touristy spot is sometimes needed when looking for a place to rest. On a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, sip more mojitos or Cuba Libres on a cozy couch and try out your cigar. Internet is available for $7 for twenty minutes. Guests we met were gravely disappointed with their $400 rooms that came with no hot water and broken doors, with no intent from the hotel to fix their situation. You have to comprehend that a five star Cuban hotel is a one star hotel in America. We grabbed a vintage convertible ride for an hour drive through the city for about $30, but probably overpaid considering we found our ride right outside the “fancy” historic hotel.
Calle Obispo Esquina A S/N, La Habana
Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso
If you make to the Viñales Valley (several hours from Havana) with its organic cigar farms, coffee plantations, and dramatic scenery, make a reservation ahead of time at this organic farm restaurant. Make sure to arrive before sunset, as the golden glow bathes the landscape reminding me of Ojai in California. For $10 per person, you get about ten plates of food like various sweet potatoes, brown rice, cucumbers and tomatoes, lamb, beef, chicken, and their typical flan dessert.
El Palenque de los Cimarrones
In the Viñales Valley, the Cubans took us here to party in a cave, a mind blowing cave that was real but looked like it was crafted at Disney Land. I seriously couldn’t get over it, as we bustled along in a dusty road with no street lights and a car that felt like it would combust at any moment. A bar was inside the gigantic cave with its glowing colorful lights illuminating the craggy rocks. For Valentine’s Day, there was a huge show like American Idol Cuban-style or a high school talent show consisting of an emcee who hosted a show of fashion, dancing, and live music with a general feeling of joyfulness and drinking. It was a wonderful way to mix with the Cuban people and see their enthusiasm for life.
Km 36 carretera a Puerto Esperanza, Vinales
All photos courtesy of Melissa Curtin.