I’ve felt like a yo-yo reporting on Cuba ’s dining scene during the past two decades. In the early 1990s, the only options were mostly-dismal state-run restaurants. Then, in September 1994, the Cuban government began to permit private restaurants called paladares (the word means “palate” and comes from a popular Brazilian telenovela, or soap opera), which operated under crushing government taxation and rules.
Nonetheless, several superb paladares established a reputation as the best dining options in Havana , far outclassing the motley state restaurants for standards of service and creativity. That most were located in well-aged, often crumbling buildings added flavor to the experience.
For example, the Hollywood stage-set entrance to La Guarida , up a grime-stained and crumbling marble staircase, is a quintessential Havana setting for many a fashion photo shoot (see my blog post: “Havana’s top paladar draws Hollywood’s finest” ).
Then the axe fell and many paladares were forced to close (see my blog post: “Cuba’s best private restaurants forced to close” ), including La Guarida.
Earlier this year, the Cuban government did yet another about-turn in an effort to promote self-employment.
As a result, new paladares have been sprouting around the island like mushrooms on a damp log. Not least, La Guarida has reopened and owner Enrique Nuñez de Valle has managed to reestablish his reputation as the finest restaurateur in Havana.
Another of my favorites—Hurón Azul—has also reopened after a three-year hiatus.
The new opportunities are enticing many of the best chefs and waiters to desert their state-run restaurants and start their own businesses. Thus, former staff at El Templete seafood restaurant have transferred their know-how to the brand-new Café Laurent (Calle M #257 e/19 y 21, Vedado, tel 53-7/832-6890), just two blocks from the Hotel Nacional.
The rooftop Atelier (Calle 5ta #511 e/ 2 y Paseo, Vedado, tel 53-7/836-2025) is another newcomer, this one close to the Hotel Meliá Cohiba. It serves creative lobster dishes, plus duck and rabbit, and has an open-air terrace, perfect for enjoying a postprandial cigar and añejo rum.
And Jorge Luis Añel and his wife Olga have created a beautiful dining space, including a courtyard with arbor, at La Moreleja (Calle 25 #454 e/ I y J, Vedado, tel 53-7/832-0963), just steps from the Hotel Habana Libre. Beautiful! Begin with the ceviche exótico (with olive oil and pepper) followed by camarones Hemingway (anise-and-garlic-flavored shrimp served in an earthenware bowl).
As to state restaurants, things have gone downhill at some of the places long-considered the best. For example, the renowned chicken in orange sauce house dish at El Aljibe is now undistinguished since the recent passing of the restaurant’s “owner”-manager brothers.
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Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker  Photo © La Guardia Restaurant