A standing joke in Cuba is: What are the three biggest failures of the Revolution? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The poor quality of food is a constant source of exasperation. Before the Revolution, Cuba boasted many world-class restaurants. Alas, after 1959 many of the middle- and upper-class clientele fled Cuba along with the restaurateurs and chefs, taking their custom, knowledge, and entrepreneurship with them. In 1967 all remaining restaurants were taken over by the state. It was downhill from there.
The blasé socialist attitude to dining, tough economic times, and general inefficiencies of the system is reflected in boring (usually identical) menus, abysmal standards (tablecloths rarely get washed), and lack of availability. Some of the lousiest service and dishes can be had for the most outrageous prices. And don’t assume that a restaurant serving good dishes one day will do so the next. Restaurants rely upon the dysfunctional state distribution system to deliver daily supplies.
In the provinces eating can be a real challenge. Shortages are everywhere: A refrigerator in Cuba is called a coco because it has a hard shell on the outside and nothing but water inside. It can be a wearying experience trying to find somewhere with palatable food. After a while you’ll be sick to death of fried chicken, bocaditos, and vegetables of dubious quality. As a foreign visitor, you’re privileged to get the best that’s available. Plan ahead. Stock up on sodas, biscuits, and other packaged snacks at CUC-only stores before setting out each day.
Most restaurants serve criollo (traditional Cuban) food, but only a few truly excel. Still, Cuba has begun to invest in culinary (and management) training, and many commendable restaurants have opened, with more being added. In general, the best meals are served in the upscale hotels and tend toward “continental” cuisine. Few places other than hotel restaurants serve breakfast; most offer variations on the same dreary buffets. The variety is usually limited, and presentation often leaves much to be desired. Top-class hotels under foreign management usually do a bit better.
Many restaurants crank up air-conditioning to freezing. Sometimes service is swift and friendly, sometimes protracted and surly. You’re likely to be serenaded by musicians, who usually hit up any available tourists for a tip (or to sell a CD or cassette recording). Eating in Cuba doesn’t present the health problems associated with many other destinations in Latin America. However, hygiene at streetside stalls is often questionable.