As the entire world seemingly descends upon Havana these days, it becomes increasingly essential to know exactly where you are going to dine, and when, in order to avoid disappointment. As many of these establishments are tiny compared to Western standards, reservations weeks or months in advance of your trip are becoming de rigeur.
As an intrepid foodie, here is my list of favorites which are sure to please even the most discerning palate.
Some of the world’s most unique restaurants await you…
You have surely never seen anything like La Guarida. Billed as one of the city’s paladars (private restaurants opened in a section of a person’s home or apartment with a limited number of seats) La Guarida originally starred in one of Cuba’s most famous films Fresa y chocolate (1994). Located on the third floor of a crumbling century-old building in Centro Havana some guests have been known to be frightened to even enter the building. From below, it hardly looks inviting, though a burly door man at the bottom of the steps (Where’s the elevator? You kidding me?) is intended to calm novice diners’ nerves. However, once you arrive at the door of the paladar you enter a magical culinary paradise that is lit like a dream. If you are looking for some place romantic, you have found it. If you are looking for some of the best red snapper anywhere, voila! You won’t want to leave.
Reservations are essential. firstname.lastname@example.org.
418 Concordia (between Gervasio and Escobar).www.laguarida.com
When was the last time you ate on the roof of a former olive oil factory? Never? I knew it! Well, that is about to all change as you climb up three flights of winding stairs (what is it about all these stairs in this country?) to the open air roof-top restaurant, El Cocinero. This recently-opened tapas emporium has the design and flair of anything SOHO could throw at you with enough tables to accommodate the city’s trendiest crowd. Here the menu is a series of delectable tapas but the ambiance and service make the food almost secondary. Plus if you are lucky, something might be going on the the Fabrica de Arte next door after your meal which is Havana’s most exciting art gallery/nightclub/performance hall of the moment. The Fabrica is a place to get lost in the soul of the Cuban artist and all their hangers-on. At El Cocinero reservations are required. Open for lunch as well.
Calle 26 (between 11th and 13th) Vedado.
7-832-2355. On Facebook.
Want a front seat on the Malecon with a tasty bowl of borsht to help digest the view? Nazdarovie is perhaps offers perhaps the most unlikely mix of Ukrainian/Russian cuisine this side of St. Petersburg. Certainly you were not expecting this offering in the land of plantains and rock lobster? With a spectacular view of Havana Bay and El Moro castle aside, this third floor (Yep! Up the narrow stairs we go!) restaurant not only features the exotic cuisine but friendly staff, a wonderful variety of vodkas and some fun vintage Russian propaganda posters to boot.
25 Malecon (between Prado and Carcel).
Tel. (537) 860-2947
Another paladar that I love that has a view of the ocean is Vista Del Mar. Located on the coastline in Miramar, with an infinity edge pool in the foreground, Vista Del Mar feels like a bungalow that you might see out of an episode of Miami Vice. Here you will find a selection of some of the best seafood Havana has to offer. The grilled lobster is to die for though, in general, prices are slightly higher here.
They recently expanded their balcony to accommodate more diners wishing exposure to a lovely sea breeze and, in high season, there are even tables available by the pool.
Open from noon to midnight and closed on Sundays. Reservations recommended.
1st Avenue (between 22nd and 24th), Miramar.
Tel. (+53) 7203-8328
The local ex-pat community is going kill me for telling you about this next dining emporium as they have long staked it out as their own ever since Sergio opened his doors a few years ago. So at the risk of permanent expulsion from their good stead, I present you Corte del Principe (known locally, as simply, “Sergio’s), this is undoubtedly Havana’s finest Italian restaurant. Here Sergio’s team puts together fine pastas, carpaccio, garlic-infused grilled shrimps, some finely melted cheese dish that I can not quite ever get out of my mind, and many of the other Italian favourites you may have been craving.
Please don’t tell anyone I sent you here!
9na, esq.74, Playa, Havana
tel. (+53) 5 255-9091
noon-3pm/ 7pm-11pm. Closed Mondays
Café Laurent is one of the newer editions to Havana’s burgeoning foodie scene. This restaurant is on the 5th floor of a small apartment building and, thankfully, is accessible by a tiny elevator. Café Laurent has a bit of Parisian flair to it and has been adorned with American advertisements from the 50s. Quite a large restaurant by Cuban standards, every table here has a view of surrounding rooftops and the sea beyond. One can pop in here for a simple snack such as a shrimp cocktail savored with a mojito or limonado, perhaps, or go for a complete dinner or lunch. A pretty spot with attentive service that is merely a stone’s throw from the Hotel Nacional. The ladies seem to love it.
257 Calle M (between 19 and 21) Vedado
tel: (+53) 7-8312090
And finally for Havana’s best value outside a street vendor’s ham and cheese sandwich, run, don’t walk, to El Chanchullero. This casual dining resto is slightly larger than your own dining room but serves up some of the best grilled fish, shrimp and lobster dishes known to man. At prices you are convinced must be a typo, you may end up deciding to have every lunch and dinner that you eat while in Havana. I love to saddle up to the four seated bar here and watch the drinks being blended and the lobsters being grilled for my entertainment. Nestled in Old Havana on one of the side streets, be sure to bring the address with you as it is not easy to find. If you get lost, it right beside the shooting gallery arcade, which, in itself, is a masterful display of Cuban ingenuity. El Chanchullero.
You’ll thank me!
457 Teniente Rey (between Bernaza and El Cristo)
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based writer and photographer who is starving for a grilled Cuban lobster.