There are some aspects of society that you’re probably perfectly happy to let the government take care of. Education, health care – these are things that the government should be on top of. But restaurants? A government seal of approval on an eatery is hardly a ringing endorsement. And yet this is how it was in Cuba, or at least until quite recently. Prior to 2010, the majority of restaurants were actually operated by the state. They didn’t need to worry about competition, and so rather unsurprisingly, the standards were low. President Raúl Castro (Fidel’s younger brother) initiated 2010 reforms that made it significantly easier to operate a private business, and the culinary scene in Cuba changed for the better. There are many places that still deal primarily in typical Cuban fare, and this is the type of food that can be described as nothing else but hearty. Think of a massive quantity of deliciously spiced meat, generally served with rice and beans. You should by all means try this type of food, but it’s also great that many Havana eateries have realised that their patrons expect a little more variety. So where should you go in Havana when you want to tempt your tastebuds?
- Panaderia San Jose/Cafe Santo DomingoTwo amazing eateries sharing the same premises makes life easier. On the ground floor you’ll find an exquisite pastry shop (Panadería San José) with the best baked goods in Havana, and there a huge number of different kinds of Cuban pastries. These are similar to the empanada, which is popular throughout Latin America – but the Cuban version is lighter. Expect a variety of savoury and sweet fillings, baked inside a light and fluffy pastry. Upstairs in the same building is the Café Santo Domingo. Grab a coffee and take a seat on the balcony, from where you can observe the busiest street in Old Havana – the Calle Obispo. Located at Calle Obispo 159, Havana.
- Cafe El DandyYou should try to spend an evening at El Dandy… if you can get a table. There are only four tables in the whole joint, so be prepared to stand for a while. The music is excellent, and they have realised that not everyone in Havana wants to listen to unending salsa music. There’s an extensive drinks menu, but the food is more of the snack variety, rather than a full meal. The food is tapas style and of excellent quality. They even have a considerable number of vegetarian and vegan options, which is really rare for Havana. Located on the Plaza de Cristo in Old Havana.
- Asociacion CanariaA word of warning: you might want to have your drinks after your meal here. They are amazingly generous with the alcohol in their cocktails, so you run the risk of being more than a bit tipsy by the time your food arrives. And trust us, you want to have all your senses running at maximum to enjoy the food here. The house specialty is crayfish, which will cost you a mere 6.30 CUC (around USD $6.30, and prices are subject to change). The restaurant is spotless, and the staff can’t be faulted – attentive and friendly without being intrusive. Located at Calle Monserrate, 258, Havana.
- CoppeliaA perfect place to end a full day Havana tour, Coppelia is an old-fashioned ice cream parlour. It rose to prominence during the socialist regime and is still associated with this period of history. The selection is not always as extensive during the evening, as they’re so popular that they often run out. The menu has prices in both the local currency (CUC) and the convertible peso (CUP). If your Spanish is good enough, you can try to order using CUC, since the prices are significantly lower. There are two outlets in Havana, but the best is on Calle 23, Vedado, Havana.
- Cafe Bohemia
Cafe Bohemia is not the cheapest option for dining in Havana, but the food is so good that you won’t mind spending a few extra pesos. There are vegan and vegetarian options, all made with organically grown produce, which doesn’t happen so often in Cuba. There are also a huge number of meat and seafood choices. Makes sure you conclude your meal with a limonada frappé – it’s out of this world. Located on the Plaza Vieja, Old Havana.