La Bodeguita del Medio (Empedrado #207, e/ San Ignacio y Cuba, tel. 07/862-1374, comercial [at] bdelm [dot] gca [dot] tur [dot] cu, restaurant daily noon–midnight, bar 10:30 a.m.–midnight, CUC10–20), one block west of Plaza de la Catedral, specializes in traditional Cuban dishes—most famously its roast pork, steeped black beans, flat-fried bananas, garlicky yucca, and sweet guava pudding “overflowing,” thought Nicolás Guillén (Cuba’s national poet), “with surges of aged rum.” Though Ernest Hemingway liked to drink mojitos here, today they are the worst in Havana.
You may have to wait for an hour or more to be seated, but a tip or friendly banter with Tito or Caesar, the “house captains,” should get you a good table. The service is relaxed to a fault, and the atmosphere bohemian and lively. Troubadours entertain. Reservations are advised.
Restaurante El Patio (tel. 07/867-1035, café daily 8 a.m.–midnight, restaurant noon–midnight), on Plaza de la Catedral, has heaps of ambience, as you dine at tables spilling into the plaza, with live music. It serves sandwiches (CUC3.50), hamburgers (CUC3), and gazpacho (CUC4.50), plus hot dishes such as roasted pork leg (CUC9). The main restaurant has three dining rooms and an upstairs grill where the overpriced dishes (CUC16–28) include shrimp al ajillo (in garlic) and T-bone steak.
Similar, but facing onto Plaza de Armas, is the touristy and always packed Café/Restaurante La Mina (Obispo #109, esq. Oficios, tel. 07/862-0216, daily noon–midnight), offering shaded patio dining and a menu of snacks and salads (CUC3–5) and Cuban dishes (CUC4–12). The waiters are efficient, the setting is wonderful, and there’s always live music. The courtyard to the rear has free-roaming peacocks.
Penny-pinchers once knew to head to the former Restaurante Hanoi. Now the Casa de la Pava (Brasil, esq. Bernaza, tel. 07/867-1029, daily 11:45 a.m.–midnight), it is promoted as Vietnamese cuisine but is, in reality, limited to a typical Cuban menu that offers “combination specials” for below CUC5. Mojitos cost a mere CUC2.
To dine with Cubans, you can’t beat Los Nardos (Paseo de Martí #563, e/ Teniente Rey y Dragones, tel. 07/863-2985, daily 11:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m.), upstairs in a run-down building opposite the Capitolio. The long lines at night hint at how good this place is. It has restaurants on three levels; be sure to dine in the atmospheric Los Nardos, not the more ascetic El Trofeo or El Asturianito, on the upper levels. Los Nardos has a soaring ceiling, fabulous wooden furnishings, and a wall lined with soccer trophies, plus a wine cellar. The huge meals include garlic shrimp, lobster in Catalan sauce, paella, and Cuban staples such as pork dishes. For drinks, opt for the house sangria, served in a pitcher. Service is on the ball. The place is run by Cuba’s Spanish Asturian association. Best yet, it’s bargain priced, and a pianist sometimes performs. No credit cards accepted.
Similar, but less atmospheric, is the hidden restaurant in the Asociación Canaria de Cuba (Monserrate #258, e/ Neptuno y Ánimas, tel. 07/862-5284, Wed.–Sun. noon–8:30 p.m.). Tucked into the rear at the top of the stairs, it serves fruit cocktails (CUC0.50), shredded beef stew (CUC2), and shrimp enchiladas (CUC5) amid garish surroundings.
Completing the Spanish social club triptych, the Centro Andaluz (Prado #104, e/ Genios y Refugio, tel. 07/863-6745, www.centro-andaluz.galeon.com, Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–10 p.m., CUC5–10) is another bargain-priced, albeit no-frills criollo restaurant. I recommend the paella (CUC8) followed by a locura flamenco cocktail (CUC1.75). On Thursday and Saturday, stick around for the flamenco show at 9 p.m.
Café Taberna (Mercaderes #531, esq. Brasil, tel. 07/861-1637, daily 10 a.m.–midnight), on the northeast side of Plaza Vieja, is a lively place serving creative criollo fare (CUC5–15), and the long bar is a handsome place to bend an elbow. A nine-piece band performs. Inspect your bill; I’ve been scammed by the waiters every visit!
Taberna de la Muralla (San Ignacio #364, tel. 07/866-4453, daily 11 a.m.–1 a.m.) serves a good cheese and onion soup (CUC1.50), shrimp skewers (CUC9), and grilled sausage (CUC4), plus burgers. The shaded patio overlooking Plaza Vieja is a great place to sit.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition