Most of my pre-trip research said Cuban food is bland and boring. It’s even been suggested to bring your own spices to the island. While we definitely had some bland food, it wasn’t as bad as I was led to think. The more high-end restaurants have the most flavorful food (no surprise there) – but as a rule, Cuban dishes are generally mild and lightly seasoned.
Cuban dishes are centered around seafood, specifically lobster and shrimp. But almost every restaurant makes Ropa Vieja (the national dish of shredded beef in tomato sauce), some kind of chicken (usually the most boring dish on the menu), and roasted pork. You’ll find pizza everywhere – for just a few CUC (one CUC is equal to one US Dollar), you’ll be served a medium-size pizza with watery tomato sauce and lackluster toppings. However, pizza is always a great option for vegetarians and kids.
For those of you who enjoy a cocktail with your dinner, you’ll be happy to know that the drinks are strong and cheap in Havana. Cocktails generally start at 2 CUC, and can go up to 4 to 6 CUC at high-end restaurants. Most places have extensive liquor menus, but there’s a noticeable lack of variety in wine and beer. Stick with hard liquors and cocktails, they really are delicious here.
Some of the best places to eat in Havana are paladares, privately owned restaurants often located inside of a home. The chef might live on one floor, and the restaurant will be on another. But no worries – you usually won’t be able to tell that someone lives here unless you go poking around. Some of these paladares have a doorbell at the entryway. Walk right up and ring the bell, a waiter or doorman will answer promptly. After that, service will be slow… but you also will never feel rushed to leave. You’re on island time now.
If you’re hoping to cook for yourself in your apartment, it might be hard to find ingredients. There are some farmers markets sprinkled around the city stocked with fruits and plantains, but grocery stores often lack a variety of meats and vegetables. In fact, some of the grocery stores just have shelves of mayonnaise and soy sauce and little else. I’m told that the tourist industry snaps up all the good food in the city, leaving scraps for the local population. This will hopefully change in time.
A note on tipping – in Old Havana, most restaurants offer live music all day (in Vedado, live music usually starts in the evening). These musicians will come around to your table eventually asking for a tip. If there are dancers in the restaurant, they will also request a tip. One or two CUC is acceptable for performers. For the restaurant bill, leave a minimum 10% tip.
Where We Ate
We ate here twice as our apartment was right across the street. Fine dining with great ropa vieja and roast pork dishes starting at 8 CUC. Cocktails 2-3 CUC. Pastas, pizzas, and some veggie dishes available. Outdoor seating, not the most scenic though. Get reservations if arriving after 8pm. Paseo and Calle 9 in the Vedado district.
Area + 53
Upscale, modern restaurant with a youthful vibe. Air conditioning inside, but there’s a decent view of the Malecon from the shaded outdoor balcony. Traditional Cuban dishes starting at 8 CUC, cocktails 2-3 CUC. Across the street from Hotel Melia Cohiba in Vedado.
National Museum of Fine Arts
Great for a rainy day. 5 CUC per person to get inside the museum. Cafe inside has a beautiful bar area and serves sandwiches, appetizers and drinks. Would only recommend getting drinks. On Parque Central in Old Havana.
Large, airy restaurant with live music and dancing right on the famous Obispo street. Great stop for drinks when walking around Old Havana. I tried the shrimp and lobster appetizer for 5 CUC, it was okay but would probably only stick with drinks on a return visit. Cocktails under 3 CUC. Corner of Obispo and Aguiar.
One of Havana’s highest rated restaurants and featured in French Elle. Service is superb, with an incredibly attentive wait staff that speaks English. Balcony seating surrounded by lush plants but not much of a view. Be sure to check out the bathrooms, best we found in Havana. Cocktails 3.50-5 CUC. Dishes 14 CUC and up. Try the Hemingway – chunks of fresh lobster with cream sauce stuffed into a lobster shell, 20 CUC. Open at 6pm, reservations recommended for late dining. Paseo and Calle 17 in Vedado.
This one isn’t even on the maps yet, but it will be soon. A beautiful upscale restaurant headed by a chef who trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy. Pastas at 12-16 CUC, fish and chicken dishes at 15-18 CUC. Cocktails 6-7 CUC. Get reservations for late evening dining, this is a very small restaurant. Outdoor patio doesn’t have much a view. Paseo and Calle 11.
Hotel Melia Cohiba – main floor cafe
Breakfast plates at 8 CUC and up for eggs, bread, jam, coffee, juice. Sandwiches and other dishes at 8 CUC and up. Would recommend for breakfast only, or while waiting for your tour bus to arrive. There are two more full-scale restaurants on the second floor as well. On Paseo, across the street from the Malecon in Vedado.
Modern, funky vibe in this third floor restaurant on Plaza Vieja. Look for a statue of a naked lady on a rooster – the restaurant entry is right behind it. Cocktails 5-6 CUC, a few dinner entrees at 8 CUC and up. One wall of the restaurant is open to the plaza for excellent views. Awesome spot during the day, but would be a magnificent hang out spot at night. On Plaza Vieja in Old Havana.