Private restaurants—paladares—have been permitted since September 1994 to help resolve the food crisis. The word means “palate,” and comes from the name of the restaurant of the character Raquel, a poor woman who makes her fortune cooking, in a popular Brazilian TV soap opera, Vale Todo. Here you can fill up for CUC5–15, usually with simple, albeit huge meals that usually include a salad and dessert. The owners often display an inventiveness and good service lacking in state restaurants. Some are open 24 hours. Not all owners are honorable, however; lack of a written menu listing prices can be a warning sign. Don’t ever order food without seeing the menu, or the price is likely to be jacked up.
Paladares are fettered by onerous taxation and rigorous restrictions that are usually honored in the breach. For example, they are not allowed to sell shrimp or lobster (a state monopoly) or potatoes! Nonetheless, most do, so ask: It’s easy enough to find a huge lobster meal for CUC10, including beer or soft drink, although such meals are often served in a second dining room hidden at the rear of the house. Beef is also illegal: The state maintains a monopoly and anyone found selling beef can face a lengthy spell in jail. Though relatives can assist, owners cannot hire salaried workers. And they may serve only up to 12 people at one seating (politically favored owners brazenly cram far more guests in than are legally allowed).
No new licenses for paladares have been issued since 2004, and inspections, the crippling monthly licensing fee, and taxes have put many out of business.
Taxi drivers and jineteros may offer recommendations. Their commission will be added to your bill.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition