This dynamic city of weathered beauty and colonial charm has been madly restoring buildings and opening modern hotels, while giving passionate chefs a little more leeway to do their thing.
Paladares to Eat At
Alina Menéndez Lamas proudly brings over the cookbook Paladares: Recipes Inspired by the Private Restaurants of Cuba and shows the spread about her restaurant in Havana’s Miramar neighbourhood. Hecho en Casa means “made at home” and Lamas quietly dismisses the tiny chalkboard menu (with prices in the local, not tourist, currency), saying she welcomes customers as if they are guests in her own home—cooking for each visitor’s taste and mood. With just seven tables, and vintage Cuban music softly playing, dishes are lovingly presented, starting with piquillo peppers stuffed with ropa vieja (shredded beef) and served on fried plantains, a Cuban caprese salad with local farmer’s cheese, creamy pumpkin soup and grilled pork with a hint of coconut oil served with papaya jam. Dinner ends with a custard recipe handed down from Lamas’ grandmother and mother, and chocolate ice cream made with cacao from the city of Baracoa in eastern Cuba.
Ivan Chef Justo
The fact Ivan Chef Justo (by Iván Rodríguez and Justo Pérez) is tough to find, in a colonial building in Old Havana near the Museo de la Revolución, adds to its charm. So does the doorman, who checks reservations and sends you up a narrow staircase to sit among ornate chandeliers, antique chairs and poster-packed walls. The food is modern Cuban—a fusion of Spanish, African and Chinese influences, with local ingredients, saucy smears and pretty platings. Lamb, duck and rabbit make appearances. Suckling pig, fish ceviche and fried potatoes with chorizo are winners. Sister restaurant Al Carbón is located downstairs.
Street Food to Try
At Clandestina, a stylish Cuban design shop in Old Havana, staff swear by the Pastel Yeyé vendor who cycles by daily hawking sweet and savoury hand pies, such as pie de coco (coconut pie). A few blocks away in Plaza Vieja, street vendor Felipe Iglesias sells coco glacé—ice cream in a coconut shell—from his Helados Mayan cart. Other street foods to watch for include fresh churros, guava juice and peanut and sesame snacks. Grab a Cubano sandwich from La Bien Pagá or sit inside its tiny shop eating croquettes and fritters.
Breakfast: El Café
El Café serves all-day breakfast with espresso-based beverages and fresh-pressed ginger and lemon drinks. The pulled pork sandwiches with yucca and orange marmalade are stunning, and the sourdough bread is homemade.
Lunch: El Aljibe
Some say El Aljibe is Cuba’s best state-run eatery. Come for the roast chicken, served since 1946, with a secret, garlicky, bitter orange sauce. The feast comes with all-you-can-eat fried plantain chips, rice, black beans and vegetable salad.
Dinner: Paladar Doña Eutimia
Beside Taller Experimental de Gráfica (an art workshop) in Callejon del Chorro alley, Paladar Doña Eutimia serves popular Ropa Vieja del Chorro (shredded lamb in red sauce) and makes soulful work of rice, eggs and plantain.
Bar Stops to Make
Morning: El Dandy
El Dandy, a laid-back bar, art gallery and café, starts serving cocktails as soon as it opens. Try a rosemary and ginger-gin tonic or mango daiquiri frappé as you people-watch.
Afternoon: El Surtidor
Cocktails at the El Surtidor pool terrace and bar of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski are beautiful to behold, but so is the panoramic view from the rooftop hangout.
Evening: Fábrica de Arte Cubano
Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a multi-art venue inside a converted factory that’s only open Thursdays to Sundays, makes a mean mojito frappé at its upstairs café.
A Farm-to-Table Experience
Cojímar, a town on the outskirts of Havana that inspired writer Ernest Hemingway, is home to the private restaurant Café Ajiaco. Guests are invited not just to eat, but also to tour its backyard garden where herbs and greens are picked, make mojitos with its bartender, and cook lunch dishes with its chefs. It’s all part of a food trip designed by Ela Velunza, one of the Havana guides who works for ToursByLocals, a Vancouver-based company that connects travellers with locals around the world. Don’t miss the restaurant’s signature dish—ajiaco, a hearty stew with root vegetables, three kinds of meat, corn cobs and chunks of tamale. It’s considered one of Cuba’s national dishes.