Posted by - 09 August 2011 - No comments

Eating and drinking in Havana

Cuba is not known for its gastronomy.  Before leaving for the Caribbean island I was warned about its bland food.  "Bring a bottle of hot sauce" one friend told me.  The fact is the US trade embargo has had a significant impact on the cuisine of the country.  

Our initial foray into a Cuban supermarket was quite a harrowing experience.  We hadn't expected to be greeted with bare shelves, or even to be told good luck when asked where we could find some crisps (potato chips for my non- UK readers).   It was a really humbling experience, and it made us appreciate everything we ate.

Despite he lack of variety of produce, the Cubans are incredibly resourceful cooks and we had some great meals, the best of which were served in private restaurants called paladars. So, forget the tourist traps of El Floridita et al, here is a run down of the places we dined at and thought were worthy of a mention.

Best for late night eating
El Gijones
Location: Paseo del Prado No 309 altos Esquina Virtudes
The private restaurant is located at the top of a grand building next to Parque Central.  The menu is vast covering seafood and meats, mostly cooked on the outdoor grill on the terrace.  The food isn't perfect (the meat was really tough), but the service was swift and very accommodating. If you're dining during the day you'll also have great views of the city. It closes at midnight. 

Grilled lobster tail and vegetables

Good for beach side dining
Club Habana
5ta Avenue e/ 188 y 192, Play
This old school private beach and country club is located in a chi chi area of Havana  and looks like it could be twinned with the resort from The Prisoner. It's eerily quiet but  don't let that put you off, the food is actually quite good and reasonably priced.   Go for the mix grill platter.
Mixed seafood grill

Good for the drinking beer
La Taberna de Muralla
  Ignace Street No 368, corner Muralle street, Plaza Vieja
Apparently this bar with its own microbrewery is the only place in Havana to sell draught beer, but not just any pint but beer served in large three litre transparent cylinders fitted with a tap so you can drink at your leisure.  If you're peckish there's also a bar menu .  
Pour your own pint
The food isn't the best, but if you do choose to eat it's probably best to stick to grill meats, and avoid  at all costs the hamburgers which taste like spam and is served with a slice of cold meat. And if you fancy a bit of entertainment, make sure you bag at table outside as the bar also has a traditional Cuban band.
A "ham"-burger

El Templete
Best for noveau cuisine
Avenida del Puerto #12, corner of Narciso Lopez
Located by the harbour in the old town this Spanish restaurant is one of the best places to eat in Havana.  The chef Arkaitz Etxarte hails from Basque country home of the world's best and most exciting cooking.  
Eggs, ham and potato
The emphasis here is on good quality ingredients and ingenuity.  Highlights include ham, egg and potato, the salt and pepper calamari and  the frozen strawberry daiquiris. 

Best ice-cream in Havana
Calle 23 y L
You only have to look a the ridiculously long queue to know the ice-cream at this heladaria is going to be good.  Crowds of Cubans descend on this space-age building in a small park in Vedado for a scoop or two of the best and most famous helado in all of Cuba.  

The mammoth queues at Coppelia
Sadly it's only Cubans paying in pesos who have to wait  for hours for this delicious treat, if you're paying by CUC youll pay slightly more but can bypass the queue all together.  I think a scoop is priced at a reasonable 1.30 CUC (70p).

Best table in town
La Guarida

Calle Concordia No 418, e/ Gervasio y Escobar
This is a must visit for anyone who is anyone visiting Havana.  Not only is the food at this upscale speakeasy style paladar excellent, it is located in the most wonderful setting.   
Theatrical setting
It's easy to miss this paladar located on a dimly lit streeet in Central Havana, if it were not for the charming and rather large doorman hanging outside this grand, but rundown  building.  One thing is for sure, as you climb the battered staircase, pass the lines of washing, you'll wonder whether the guy on door is playing a joke, that's until your eyes catch the light piercing through a closed door to a gastronomic Narnia. 
Quirky antique interior
Ge yourself ready as the door creeps open to reveal the most enthralling filled with an interesting array of old newspaper cuttings, images of famous diners and of course Fresa y Chocolate posters of which the restaurant appeared in. The atmosphere is electric, unexpected and in stark contrast to the quiet streets below.  
Best lobster in Havana
To match with the food is quality.  The lobster was the best we ate in Cuba and was so sweet and succulent.  Other highlights also include the grilled aubergine stack.  Make sure you book.
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