The Best of Havana’s Paladares Part 1

Forget all the horror stories about Cuban dining. True, many state restaurants still attain truly Soviet-class awfulness, especially the hotel buffets. Fortunately, these days Havana is in the midst of a culinary revolution. Privately owned restaurants (paladares) have exploded in number since 2011, offering heapings of style and good food. Few state restaurants can compete for ambience and flavorful fare, although many are improving as they convert into workers’ cooperatives.

Habana Vieja

Top choice for private restaurants is the cozy Doña Eutimia (Callejón del Chorro #60C, tel. 07/861-1332, daily noon-midnight), tucked off Plaza de la Catedral and run by delightful owner Leticia. Delicious down-home creole cooking includes the best ropa vieja (braised lamb prepared with garlic, tomatoes, and spices, CUC7) in town and heaps of cumin-spiced black beans. Leave room for the chocolate torta (CUC2.50). Booking is imperative!

Centro Habana

A table set for dinner in front of a wall decorated with pictures and knickknacks at La Guarida in Havana.
The walls of La Guarida are festooned with period Cuban pieces and giant prints showing famous personages who’ve dined here. Photo © Tony Hisgett, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Centro Habana boasts the most acclaimed paladar in town: La Guarida (Concordia #418, e/ Gervasio y Escobartel, tel. 07/866-9047, daily noon-4pm and 7pm-11:45pm), on the third floor of a once glamorous, now dilapidated 19th-century townhouse turned crowded ciudadela (tenement). Don’t be put off by the near-derelict staircase, lent an operatic stage-set air by hanging laundry. The walls are festooned with period Cuban pieces and giant prints showing famous personages who’ve dined here, plus fashion shoots on the crumbling stairways. You may recognize it as the setting for the Oscar-nominated 1995 movie Fresa y Chocolate. Owners Enrique and Odeysis Nuñez serve up such treats as gazpacho (CUC4) and tartar de atún (tuna tartare, CUC6) for starters and an out-of-this-world roast chicken in orange sauce and honey (CUC13), plus desserts such as lemon pie (CUC5). It has a large wine list, but only house wine is available by the glass (CUC4). In 2014, owner Enrique Nuñez expanded the restaurant and added a chic rooftop tapas bar. Reservations are essential.

Giving La Guarida a run for its money is San Cristobal (Calle San Rafael #469, e/ Campanario y Lealtad, tel. 07/860-1705, Mon.-Sat. noon-midnight), with astonishing decor (an eclectic museum’s worth of antiques, objets d’art, religious and music icons, and armoires stuffed with old books). Ebullient owner-chef Carlos Cristóbal Márquez and his kitchen team deliver superbly flavorful traditional Cuban dishes, such as grilled lobster, succulent roast pork, and Cuban-style mezze plates. Oh, yes—Beyoncé and Jay-Z dined here. Like La Guarida, it’s not a place to reach or leave by walking the streets alone late at night; take a taxi.

The inspiration of Swedish film director and owner Michel Miglis, Casa Miglis (Calle Lealtad #120, e/ Animas y Lagunas, tel. 07/863-1486, daily noon-1am) offers the only Scandinavian cuisine in town, although I’d more accurately call it Cuban-meets-the-world. The menu includes couscous, Mexican chili, and Greek souvlaki. My pork with herb-fried potatoes in bean sauce, chopped shrimp, and balsamic cream induced a sigh of delight. As did a divine vanilla ice cream with raisins and añejo rum topped with cacao. Your setting is a centenary townhouse with classically elegant all-white furnishings and place settings from Sweden. The bar is a work of art: Aged seats hang suspended as if floating in air. Miglis hosts live theme nights Friday-Sunday.

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