The culinary landscape of Havana is shifting. While Cuba is not typically known as a gastronomic destination, a new wave of innovative restaurants is putting the capital on the foodie map for the first time.
Most of the talk is around paladars (privately owned restaurants), which are growing in number since Raul Castro’s economic reform programme loosened restrictions. Paladars used to be somewhat austere, often set in a spare room of the proprietor’s house, but they are now cropping up in remodelled venues with eye-catching interiors.
And that’s not the only change underway: chefs are using this newfound flexibility to experiment with creative menus and fresh flavours – and it’s paying off. From a stylish Swedish-Cuban eatery to a hip Mexican-influenced tapas haunt, here are the best restaurants in Havana right now.
Accessed by an antique elevator, Café Laurent is set in an old penthouse overlooking Vedado. Local chef Dayron Avilés Alfonso has designed the Spanish Basque-based menu, which has a focus on fish and seafood dishes. Diners tuck into beautifully presented plates of paella and red snapper in salsa verde in a bright and airy space – all whitewashed interiors and wide glass windows. A back wall papered with 1950s magazines adds a touch of character, while the balcony is the best spot for taking in the incredible city views.
Address:Calle M No 257, e/ 19y21
When the guest list features the likes of Natalie Portman and Jay Z, you know you’re onto a winner. La Guarida is a long-running Habana Centro paladar and celebrity favourite, but it may be one for those with deeper pockets – although the food is worth the above-average prices. Cuban-fusion dishes are created with originality and flavour – menu items might include papaya lasagne, watermelon soup or sugar cane tuna glazed with coconut. The environment matches up to the food: the top-floor restaurant is in a wonderfully rundown apartment where the movie Fresa y Chocolate was filmed, and tables are spread across a trio of sumptuous rooms decorated with old film paraphernalia. Advance booking is essential, as it’s fully booked most nights, even after 75 years.
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With elaborately garnished cocktails and inventive dishes, O’Reilly 304 is one of the most popular spots in town, and in our view, one of the best restaurants in Havana too. The Mexican-influenced menu is dominated by tapas, including excellent tacos and empanadillas (Cuban pastries), alongside larger seafood and meat dishes. Be sure to try the ceviche – it was voted the city’s best by Havana Insider. The two art-lined floors are always buzzing: a cluster of tables and chairs are arranged around a small bar downstairs, while the intimate mezzanine is densely packed – but this just adds to the lively vibe.
Address:O’Reilly 304 e/ Habana y Aguiar
This culinary big-hitter is housed in a former peanut oil factory nudging up to Fábrica de Arte Cubano. Nights at El Cocinero start with a drink in the first-floor bar, before you head up the iron spiral staircase to discover a loft-style dining room hung with contemporary art. A rooftop terrace is furnished with huge potted plants and candlelit tables. Starters include the renowned duck confit blinis, while mains could be grilled lobster or filet mignon with creamed pumpkin. Stay after dinner for an expertly mixed cocktail on the terrace while you rub shoulders with locals from the trendy Velado neighbourhood and take in the glittering cityscape. Dishes are pricey but worth the splurge.
Address:Calle 26 e/ 11 y 13
Swedish-Cuban cuisine is a fusion very few people have had the opportunity to try – until Casa Miglis arrived. This eccentrically decorated paladar is the brainchild of Swedish film producer Michel Miglis, whose goal was to bring Nordic culinary influences to Havana. He teamed up with Swedish cook Jonas Anderson, the man behind the menu, to offer diners the chance to sample skagen (Sweden’s take on prawns on toast) and meatballs with mashed potato and lingonberries. Sourcing the produce appears to be an occasional issue – some dishes are dependent on the team being able to hunt down the ingredients.
For an authentic taste of Cuba, head off the tourist path to this unassuming little joint hidden down an alleyway in Habana Vieja. It’s all about national culinary classics at Doña Eutimia, where the owner, Laetitia, uses traditional Creole recipes passed down from her mother in the kitchen. Expect the likes of malanga fritters and croquettes followed by ropa vieja (shredded steak in tomato sauce) and pork, rice and beans. The generous portions and reasonable prices mean Doña Eutimia is always busy, and there’s a sociable atmosphere from a huddle of tables arranged snugly in the arty dining room.