There’s something you should know about me – I plan most of my vacations around food (like you didn’t know this already). What to eat, where, who the up-and-coming local chefs are, their signature dishes, where the local chefs eat, the best farmers markets, etc. Yes, of course, I leave room for surprises, but I like knowing that the core of the day is structured around the city’s best tastes & flavors.
For me, a unique meal in a memorable location is the essence of great travel – it touches on all your senses and can instantly transport you back to a place and time. Like that salted Asian pear I had on a 110 degree F day in Tokyo, or the buttery pain au chocolate I ate on the Paris subway alone at 7am, or that amazing 4-hour long birthday lunch at Per Se overlooking Central Park. Food can be the most magical teleportation device.
Planning our Havana dining itinerary was both exhilarating and daunting. The best meals in the city are served in people’s homes. They don’t have websites. There’s no Havana Zagat guide. These intimate and private restaurants – known as paladares – are cooked in a home kitchen with as few as 4 or up to 20 seats, usually set up in a converted room in someone’s apartment. You might walk through the family’s living room to get to your table.
So how to begin planning?
Super-lucky for us, the New York Times ran an article on up-and-coming Havana paladares one week before our trip, so we figured that was a good place to start. We hit 3 of the places on their list and a few of our own.
Dinner our first night was at Havana’s most popular (and admittedly, a little bit touristy) paladar, La Guarida. The restaurant was featured in the film Fresa y Chocolate and sits on the top floor of a dilapidated family tenement in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood. Other than a beefy security guard standing in the building’s doorway, you’d walk right past it. But once you turn in, you’ll discover a spectacularly gorgeous early 1900′s building, grand stairwells leading up to a grander empty ballroom, with clothes-pinned laundry drying where dignitaries once danced. It’s surreal.
La Guarida definitely had some of the better food on the trip. And the espresso cocktail pictured above is a must-try.
But this is where I should probably tell you that Cuban food is not the most exciting. I’m not sure why I was so surprised by this… I guess I figured a place with such amazing salsa dancers would have equally vibrant and amazing food. But Cuba is a country where eggs are rationed at 5 per person per week and where the entire city could unexpectedly run out of salt or beef (literally, we heard stories of major ingredients becoming unavailable for days and even weeks). Given that, and the fact that there is not a tremendous amount of fresh produce or herbs/spices, and the cuisine is a little uneven. Most of the fish and meat was sadly overcooked. Still… the experience of these paladares trumps all, and you can trade off the forgettable food for the unforgettable ambiance.
On a sidenote, the mojitos are solid pretty much everywhere.
The next morning, we skipped the hotel’s buffet breakfast and ventured out into the city. We sat down at a restaurant only to be told that just two of the menu’s 20+ dishes were available that day (remember I mentioned the shortages?). So off we went walking again….
Just a few blocks away, at the corner of Calle Oficios and Calle Teniente Rey, we discovered a cute little hotel restaurant and bar. They had eggs. They had pineapple. And most importantly, they had Guarapa!
Guarapa is raw sugar cane juice, extracted from 6-foot long stalks of freshly-shucked sugar cane using this fancy contraption:
It takes some serious strength to juice the stuff – 10 powerful rotations extracts just a few drops of nectar. But when you pour it over ice with a healthy swig of aged rum, mmmmmmmm… all that exercise is worth it. We had these every morning – it’s a great way to smooth out the cobblestone streets.
Lunchtime brought a detour. I had set up lunch at the paladar Atelier (mentioned in the NYT article). We didn’t have the exact address, just the intersecting streets, and we made the mistake of asking a local shop owner for directions. “Ah yes, I know exactly where this is. I will take you there,” she said.
Twelve blocks later, we arrived at an apartment building that is totally not the one we were seeking, but we felt kinda bad because this nice person just walked half a mile with us, and… you can see where this is headed. We were having lunch here, like it or not.
I’m not sure whose doorbell we rang, but it was either Grisel, Ana Maria or Juana. One of them took us up five flights of stairs to an apartment with a very beautiful balcony overlooking the street, and probably the nicest host you could imagine. “Welcome to Las Clavellinas,” he said, handing me the flower that is the restaurant’s namesake. It was just us, having a private lunch in the family’s home.
The food was just OK (tip: rice & beans will become the staple of every meal you have in Havana), but the atmosphere was pure magic. Romantic afternoon light pouring in through the balcony, the feeling of being totally alone in someone’s home, families having conversations in Spanish across balconies and from balcony to street… we were right there, in the middle of it all. Something about that experience lingered throughout the day and I instantly felt more connected to the city.
I made sure to get clear directions to our dinner spot, Cafe Laurent. This was a NYT’s reco and definitely a more upscale version of a paladar (if you didn’t walk up 4 flights of an apartment building to get there, it would feel like a regular restaurant). They have a beautiful patio overlooking the city, it’s a great place to watch the sun set. The food was pretty good… a wide selection of tapas along with the traditional Cuban fare. We especially liked the croquetas and the mushroom tart.
For dessert, we decided to walk over to Coppelia, the Cuban equivalent of Ben & Jerry’s. This place might as well be a nightclub… it was jam packed with 500+ people at 8:30pm on a Thursday. They have a bouncer and sometimes up to an hour queue (we were lucky to wait only 15 minutes).
And here’s yet another example of the effects of communism and strict rations on food selection. Coppelia has two ice cream flavors. TWO. Strawberry or caramel. That’s all you get. So we got both.
The ice cream was… fine? Again, nothing to write home about, but a fun experience nonetheless.
The last stop of our dining adventure was by far the most memorable. Madrigal is a private tapas bar taking up the second floor loft of filmmaker Rafael Rosales. The man created a truly captivating space (the photos don’t even begin to do it justice). It was at once strikingly modern yet with an old-world feeling… cutting-edge Cuban art meshed with a red-lit, vintage brick space. The place was mesmerizing and would be #1 on my places to visit when we return to Havana.
Sip a frozen daquiri (the pink one is quite fun) and just take it in. Their tapas are so-so, but so cheap you may as well try a few just to experiment. Just so you know, quesadilla to them is omelet to us (we got our 5 egg ration in that one dish).
A perfect night and a beautiful close to a long, meandering day.
We’re already planning a return visit (Ross & Evelyn, we’re looking at you!) because there’s just so much of the city to explore. It’s a truly magical place and a vacation I will always remember fondly.
After a three-leg plane flight home (and a near-miss with U.S. customs), we arrived at Casa Resnick to discover probably the most creative birthday greeting ever… love our sweet girls.
And to my sweet Josh… happy birthday, I love you forever.