If you are young and trendy these days (or, if you are like me, just trendy, sort of) your first Havana stop for mind altering cocktails and mouth watering food will most likely be either O’Reilly 304 or El Del Frente. Or possibly even the two of them in the same day!
Fortunately both are on the same street, O’Reilly, in Old Havana, which is named after an Irish-born military reformer and Inspector General of Infantry for the Spanish Empire in the 18th century, who had fought in Cuba. O’Reilly runs one block north of the main drag, Obispo, which itself is teeming with restaurants shops and bars. Both restaurants are directly in front of one another hence the name El Del Frente meaning “the one in front”(of O’Reilly 304.)
“O’Reilly’s” as it is more commonly known, has become an overnight sensation leaving both La Bodeguita del Medio and La Floridita in its dust. Nestled in a relatively tiny space on Calle O’Reilly just above Aguiar, O’Reilly’s is a product of the Cuban government’s recent encouragement of private enterprise within certain sectors. O’Reilly’s co-founders (and brothers) José Carlos and Julio Imperatori jumped at the opportunity to open their own restaurant as soon as they could.
It quickly became popular beyond their wildest dreams forcing them to expand quickly. Fortuitously a flat was available across the street and up the stairs from O’Reilly’s, which was perfect for the required additional space. Some may even prefer El Del Frente as its dining space is alittleroomier with higher ceilings plus a balcony overlooking the hustle and bustle of O’Reilly Street as well as a rooftop terrace which is the local hipster’s go-to hangout in the evenings. The menus at both locations are similar though I might be bold enough to suggest that somehow El Del Frente’s is slightly more sophisticated (have a look at the risotto de langosta being served at the next table.)
Both restaurants feature spectacular cocktails (fruit daiquiris reign supreme at El Del Frente bursting with enough fresh garnishes to put together a small salad) while Wilson at O’Reilly’s (probably Havana’s most famous bartender at the moment) will whip together mojitos and Bloody Caesars that will make your hair curl. (At the end of your meal ask him for a “Dun Dun” shot. This is sort of a modified dirty martini with a kick of Tabasco that will leave you wondering why you are suddenly crying?)
Both restaurants feature a variety of tacos (fish, pork or chicken) that are served up stuffed with fresh lettuce, onions, and tomatoes and sprinkled with herbs inside a perfect tortilla shell (3 for 8 CUC – all prices as of June 2016). O’Reilly’s tends to lean towards more of a pub menu (it bills itself as a “gin bar” after all) with offerings such as ceviche (5 CUC), croquetas- deep fried and crunchy risotto balls (3 CUC) to name but a few of its signature delights. El Del Frente, on the other hand, has a tantalizing array of fuller dishes such as some pasta choices (I would go for the “Meat Ball Spaguetti Tony Soprano” for 11 CUCs on name alone), “Langosta Grillé” at 13 CUCs or the “Filete Chateaubriand” for 18 CUCs. The two restaurants also feature a collection of local art making the ambiance most creative and warm. O’Reilly’s layout features a ceramic decorated bar manned by the aforementioned Wilson as well as a few tables on the main floor while the upper mezzanine clusters several more tables in a rather claustrophobic atmosphere under a low ceiling.
While O’Reilly’s is the more famous of the two, El del Frente wins out for those craving a little more elbow and headroom. Nonetheless, both are absolutely a blast to visit and staffed by a friendly, multilingual, young team who are constantly hugging, back slapping or smooching each other making you feel as if you just dropped into Havana’s coolest house party. But fear not, if you ever over stay your welcome at one you can simply stumble across the street to the other! Either way, you will be returning multiple times to eat, drink or both, during your visit to Cuba, that’s for certain! O’Reilly 304, 304 O’Reilly (between Habana and Aguiar) Tel: +53 52 644725 El Del Frente , 303 O’Reilly (upstairs through the white door) (between Habana and Aguiar) Tel. + 53 78 630206 Both open noon to midnight.
A.J. Twist is a Montreal based photographer and travel writer cultivating his hipster good looks in his spare time.