La Esperanza (Calle 16 #105, e/ 1ra y 3ra, tel. 07/202-4361, Fri.–Wed. 7–11:30 p.m.) is an exceptional paladar inside a 1930s middle-class home with a sala full of art nouveau furnishings, antiques, books, and intriguing miscellany. Jazz or classical music normally plays. The waiter will read off the day’s French inspirations, served with lively sauces. At last visit, I enjoyed a superb eggplant de ochún (in honey) stuffed with chicken. The service is friendly and professional, and prices are fair (budget CUC25 for a meal), although a 10 percent service charge is automatically added. Reservations are essential.
Reservations are also vital at Cocina de Lilliam (Calle 48 #1311, e/ 13 y 15, Miramar, tel. 07/209-6514, Sun.–Fri. noon–3 p.m. and 7–10 p.m.), in the lush grounds of a 1939s-era mansion romantically lit at night. The brick-lined patio is shaded by trees and set with colonial lanterns and wrought-iron tables and chairs. Lilliam Domínguez conjures up tasty nouvelle Cuban. Her appetizers include tartlets of tuna and onion, and a savory dish of garbanzo beans and ham with onion and red and green peppers.
Entrées include such Cuban classics as simmered lamb with onions and peppers; chicken breast with pineapple; plus fresh fish dishes and oven-roasted meats served with creamy mashed potatoes. Budget CUC15–25 apiece. The place has been jam-packed ever since President Jimmy Carter dined here in May 2002. The house often runs out of more popular dishes by 9 p.m. and closes for two weeks in summer and the month of December.
By the shore, Paladar Vistamar (1ra Av. #2206, e/ 22 y 24, tel. 07/203-8328, daily noon–midnight), in a modern house on the seafront, is popular for its high-quality cuisine and has the advantage of ocean views. It serves continental fare as well as Cuban staples. Starters include fish cocktail (CUC3) and mushroom soup (CUC3.50), while main dishes include pescado milanesa (CUC12) and grilled fish with garlic (CUC11.50).
Paladar Ristorante El Palio (1ra Av. #2402, esq. 24, tel. 07/202-9869, daily noon–midnight) serves Italian-criollo cuisine and is popular with elite Cubans. You dine on a shaded patio, with suitably Italian decor.
La Fontana (3ra Av. #305, esq. 46, tel. 07/202-8337, daily noon–midnight, CUC2–15) specializes in barbecued meats from an outdoor grill serving T-bone steak. Starters include salads, escabeche (ceviche), and onion soup; main dishes include a greasy fillet grilled with garlic. Rice and extras cost additional. Review your bill closely. Choose cellar or garden seating in a traditional country bohío setting. It has caged birds and animals. Service is hit or miss.
Mi Jardín (Calle 66 #517, esq. 5ta Av. B, tel. 07/203-4627, daily noon–midnight), in a beautiful 1950s home full of antiques, is run by an affable and conscientious Mexican and his Italian wife. They serve genuine Mexican fare—well, as much as the government prohibition on beef allows. The chicken molé mexicano and house special fish Veracruz are recommended. You’ll also find enchiladas and totopos (nachos), plus Italian and criollo dishes. You can dine inside or on a patio beneath an arbor. Budget CUC10 per person.
Named for the huge cactus in the front garden, Paladar Los Cactus de 33 (Av. 33 #3405, e/ 34 y 36, Rpto. Kohly, tel. 07/203-5139, daily noon–midnight) justifies its prices with splendid fare (they do have off nights, however) enjoyed in a Gothic-style home with a garden garlanded by fairy lights. Try the grilled snapper with creole sauce or the house chicken breast with olives, mushrooms, and cheese, plus baked custard. Budget CUC25 per head.
Out in Marianao, Paladar El Palia (Av. 51A #8827, esq. 88B, tel. 07/267-0282, daily noon–3 p.m. and 6–11 p.m.), handily close to the Tropicana  nightclub, has tables in a lantern-lit garden. Imagine starters of octopus and mango salad, or tomato bruschetta, and grilled wahoo filets with shrimp! You can dine with a drink for less than CUC15.