Before we went jetting off to Cuba, I’d heard so much about how awful the food was, how bland and tasteless it would be, and that a foodie fanatic like myself would be hugely disappointed. I hung my head in sorrow before delving into tons of research on the food in Havana – what to eat, where to eat, which street food to try and the best cocktails in town (because of course cocktails had to be on the list when in the Caribbean).
I was so thrilled to find that the food in Cuba, especially Havana, is absolutely divine and anyone who tells you any different is a great big fibber. Or maybe they just didn’t do their research.
The places where Cuba’s bad food myth runs true are in the touristy government owned restaurants. While their menus may sound tempting, the taste leaves a lot to be desired and these places should be avoided. We ate in one of these restaurants while on A Vintage Car Tour of Havana and it made me so glad I’d done my research beforehand. Seafood is one of Cuba’s most popular foods and yet my fish was chewy and tasteless. The rice had no flavour whatsoever, and the flan for dessert was nothing special (and I’m never negative when it comes to sweet treats!). The soup for starter was the best part of the meal and that’s only because it was something I’d never had before – popcorn cream soup!
The paladares are without a doubt the best places to eat in Havana and there are some fantastic ones to be found all over the city. Paladares are small restaurants that have been opened up in a family’s home – sometimes it felt like we were dining in a small intimate restaurant, other times it felt as if we were eating in a family’s dining room. Either way, the food is home cooked, fresh, a lot cheaper than the government run restaurants, and the service is so much more personal.
So this is my definitive guide of where to eat in Havana, where to drink in Havana and everything possible related to food, in the hope that if you ever visit yourself you can have a foodie’s delight too!
Paladar Los Mercaderes
From the moment I heard about this place from Catherine of Lux Life I had made up my mind. If there was only one place I could eat in Havana then this was it. We HAD to go here. And I was not disappointed!
We were shown to a romantic table for two on the balcony overlooking the street below, where we watched people walking by and the street vendors starting to close up at the end of a long day.
I scoured the menu eagerly for the dish I had been drooling over for months before our trip (thanks to Catherine) but despite the tempting sounds of the other dishes, there was no swaying me – lobster tail in a special pineapple sauce was the only thing my rumbling stomach desired. My first ever taste of lobster, with fresh pineapple chunks all swimming in a creamy pineapple sauce, was so delicious it almost had me licking every last drop off my plate before I remembered that I was out in public.
I have absolutely no idea what Mr Ayla ate as I was far too engrossed with my own meal!
Throughout the evening we could hear soft music being played by the band from the other side of the restaurant and I happily sipped at my piña colada which came looking ridiculously amazing in an actual pineapple. I’m sure Mr Ayla will tell you that my excitement over a piña colada in an actual pineapple was slightly over the top. But seriously, I mean come on…a piña colada in an actual pineapple?! Best cocktail ever!!
I’m not usually one for sharing when it comes to food but we were already so full but so desperately wanted to try the dobosh for dessert that sharing was the only way to go. The sponge cake with layers of chocolate, buttercream and caramel was sweet, rich and an oh so perfect end to the meal.
I realise I’ve just gone on way too much about this place – there are plenty of other places to eat in Havana as well but you can probably tell that this was my favourite!
This paladar, just off Plaza de la Catedral, always seemed to pop up as a favourite, whenever I looked into food in Havana, as the best place to go for traditional Cuban cuisine.
We popped into the paladar the day before to book a table as it gets ridiculously busy. We had a lovely spot for lunch on the patio outside where we sipped our sugary sweet fresh lemonades under the shade of the umbrellas, watching the buzz of people around the Plaza.
Being the place to go for Cuban cuisine, I wanted to sample as much of the local food as I could so, after a delicious starter of fish croquettes, I had the picadillo (mince meat) with soft sweet fried plantain and Mr Ayla had breaded fish with banana chips. A side of black beans and rice (Moros y Cristianos) is served with every meal so no matter what takes your fancy on the menu, you’ll still get to try one of Cuba’s staple foods.
An added bonus at this paladar was the waiting staff who all seemed to be just as delicious as the food they were serving!
The scrumptious food combined with the scrumptious waiters made for the perfect Cuban lunch at Doña Eutima. I could have easily eaten here every day if it wasn’t for the fact that there were other places we wanted to try.
This paladar is famous for its appearance in the film Fresa y Chocolate but I think the fame may have gone to its head as La Guarida didn’t really live up to expectations.
The setting is the big draw, located in a dilapidated building in one of the more residential areas of Centro Habana, with a wide elaborate staircase leading the way up past people’s homes to the paladar, which is decked out in paintings and posters covering the walls giving the cosy restaurant a very homely yet elegant feel.
We stopped off at the rooftop bar for a drink before our meal and the modern luxurious setting, complete with chaise lounge and cosy blankets, was a stark contrast to the view looking out over the crumbling buildings.
We had a romantic table on the balcony but the food – fish of the day for me and honey and lemon chicken for him – lacked the delicious flavours that the other paladares had. The fish tacos were a tasty start to the meal but overall we left feeling quite disappointed.
A stroll down the main bustling street, Obispo, or around any of the plazas, you’ll find plenty of food carts and little hole in the wall shops serving up all sorts of tasty delights. Cuban pizza, churros and these odd looking hot doughnut jam-filled treats were our favourites and we could easily fill our bellies up for only a few Cuban pesos.
As well as the food, the drink (or more precisely the cocktails), are also of major importance in Cuba with rum being one of the country’s biggest productions.
As Ernest Hemingway said “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita” so of course we had to stop off for a drink at both these places to see what all the fuss was about.
Being only a couple of minutes away from our hotel at the top end of Obispo, El Floridita was our favourite place for a cocktail. Or, more specifically, our favourite place for a daiquiri. This is the place that the daiquiri was created after all.
While tourists flocked in for a quick snap of the famous Cuban bar, we propped ourselves up at the bar with Hemingway, bopped along to the rhythmic music from the band, and sipped happily on our daiquiris.
I wish we had had more time here as there were so many different flavours of daiquiri on the menu just waiting to be tasted.
La Bodeguita del Medio
While we loved El Floridita, La Bodeguita wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They serve a good mojito and the pictures and writings all over the walls are interesting to look at, but because of its reputation thanks to Hemingway, it was jam packed full of people, the staff were rushed off their feet and we felt very much in the way just sitting at the bar for a drink. A cheaper mojito can be found at any of the other lesser known bars around the city.
Just behind our hotel, Sloppy Joe’s made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to a gangster paradise with it’s saloon style doors, old black and white photos lining the walls, and the long mahogany bar full of a huge array of drinks. I went for a classic original frozen daiquiri (mmmm) and Alex a Cuba Libre (super strong rum and coke).
La Zorra y el Cuervo
Jazz clubs aren’t usually our thing but we wanted to give this place near the Nacional Hotel a try. The entrance is through a red telephone box where we descended into a tiny dark basement bar and spent the evening drinking cocktails and listening to the band play.
Parque Central Hotel
This rooftop bar of one of the top hotels in Havana is the perfect place for a drink. Lucky for us we were staying here during our time in Havana so an early morning virgin San Francisco in the sunshine or a mojito at sunset, overlooking Old Havana, Parque Central and all the colourful vintage cars driving past down below, was the perfect way to start or end the day.
Have you been to Cuba? Were you as much of a fan of the food as I was?