Get your passport and appetite ready. The dining scene in Havana is worth booking the next available Cayman Airways flight for.
By Vanessa Martin
With ’50s-vintage Fords, Dodges and Chevys tooling its streets and the colonial and neoclassical architecture of its buildings, Havana, Cuba seems frozen in time. But don’t let its Old-World charm fool you; Cuba is on the cusp of modernism.
As with most cosmopolitan cities, Havana has a burgeoning culinary scene. Cuban cuisine in Cuba, however, is actually quite different than what most would expect. For instance, those looking for a Cuban sandwich anywhere on the island will be disappointed to learn that it is an American invention, much like garlic bread is not authentic to Italy.
Habaneros — Havana residents — take their food much more seriously. “Cuban food in the United States is based more on classic Cuban cuisine,” says chef Douglas Rodriguez, a Cuban-American chef who hosts culinary tours to Cuba. “Food in Cuba goes beyond just black beans and rice. There is a more wide range of ingredients. You’ll go to a restaurant and you’ll see things like rabbit on the menu, and that’s hard to find [in the U.S.]. They have a wider range and repertoire of dishes.”
Travel to Cuba has never been easier, especially with Cayman Airways’ convenient service from Grand Cayman to Havana and Holguín. Book a flight and prepare your tastebuds to be exposed to the flavours of Havana’s exciting dining scene.
The Real Kitchens of Havana
Paladares — privately owned restaurants, as opposed to the traditional government-run eateries of the past — are where to eat in Cuba. Run by proud and passionate restauranteurs, the chefs at paladares are known to employ fresh and inventive spins on classic dishes.
One of the most famous paladares in all of Havana — and arguably all of Cuba — is La Guarida. Celebrities the likes of Beyoncé, Madonna and Robert DeNiro have all dined at this upscale eatery, and you, too, can dine here as long as you make a reservation. Located on the top floor of an apartment building, the iconic family-run restaurant with a winding staircase was once the set of Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Strawberry and Chocolate. Serving contemporary Cuban-fusion, patrons can dine on dishes such as sugarcane tuna glased with coconut or red snapper ceviche in one of three charming and moodily lit dining rooms, as they take in the eclectic collection of wall art. Head upstairs to the new rooftop bar for a daiquiri and sweeping city and ocean views.
Tucked away in an alley off of the Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana, you’ll find delicious Cuban fare at Doña Eutimia. Expect traditional Cuban dishes like ropa vieja (stewed beef), widely lauded as the best in the city, frituras de malanga (crispy malanga fritters) and croquetas (croquettes). After you finish dining, make sure to pick up some local art whilst you’re still in the area. This paladar is located in the city’s thriving arts district, adjacent to the Experimental Graphic Art Studio, where you can watch artists at work and shop from their collection of artwork.
At Iván Chef Justo, Spanish-Cuban dishes are carefully crafted works of art that deliver on flavour, too. That’s largely due to how Chef Justo and his culinary team source their ingredients. “He doesn’t really know it, but he’s a farm-to-table chef,” says Rodriguez. “Everything that he serves in his restaurant is grown for him and he sources out incredible ingredients from all around the island.” Rodriguez recommends ordering the angulas, baby eels from Matanzas, where fishermen bring them live for chef Justo. “He also has cochinillo (roast suckling pig) on the menu, which are absolutely amazing,” he also suggests.
If you’re in the mood to break out of the routine of Cuban food, the inventive tapas-style menu at O’Reilly 304 in Old Havana makes trying several dishes in one visit easy. Standouts include ceviche and seared tuna tataki, as well as broths and soups. For more tapas-style dining, head to Lamparilla Tapas y Cervezas. Located in a funky warehouse kind of space, the kitchen churns out magic in the form of fresh ceviche, grilled lobster and Serrano ham platters, as well as a variety of vegetarian dishes. Cap off your meal with a cigar from Partagás Cigar Factory, which is just down the block.
For true foodies, no trip to Havana is complete without experiencing the gastronomic offerings at Atelier, one of the most progressive outlets for Cuban cooking. Set in a high-ceilinged Spanish colonial home in the Vedado neighbourhood, the paladar bills itself as a cocina de autor, meaning that the chef prepares dishes according to what ingredients are available — and often on a whim. Crowds from all corners of the globe come for the constantly changing menu of Cuban classics with an innovative continental spin. Expect dishes like ropa vieja made with lamb instead of beef and juicy filet mignons (a rare find in Cuba). If you can, eat alfresco on the roof for sweeping views of the city and the sea breeze.
Pizza (Yes, Pizza!)
In Cuba, pizza is as ubiquitous as antique cars. “A lot of restaurants in Havana have a pizza menu in addition to their regular classic Cuban food,” says Rodriguez. “Cubans love their pizza. I mean, everyone loves their pizza, but I think in Cuba it’s unique.” One of his favourites are the wood-fired pies at VIP Havana, where he also cooks for groups every time he visits the city.
Treats on the Streets
Havana has a robust culture of street food. Tantalising treats can be found all throughout the city’s streets, such as hamburguesas de cerdo (pork burgers), empanadas and fried plantain chips. Churro vendors are often found around Plaza Vieja dipping long curlicues of dough into cauldrons of hot oil. The results are deliciously light and crispy churros dusted with powdered sugar.
Perhaps one of the most treasured places to enjoy street food in all of Havana is on the Malécon, a bustling seaside avenue popular with both locals and tourists. Here vendors sell palomitas (homemade popcorn served in paper cones) and chicharrones (fried pork rinds) as popular late-night bites.
Club of Cocktails
Cuba plays a prominent role in cocktail history. After all, many classic cocktails — the mojito and daiquiri amongst them — were invented and popularised on the island. Unsurprisingly, rum is the tipple of choice. It is wise to take note, however, that whilst bottles of Havana Club rum are sold everywhere, Santiago de Cuba is the brand locals prefer.
For frozen drinks, daiquiri lovers flock to El Floridita, a former Ernest Hemingway haunt that is the self-proclaimed “cradle of the daiquiri.” “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita,” Hemingway once scribed on the bar’s wall. A few blocks further into Old Havana stands La Bodeguita del Medio; you’ll know you’ve found it by the crowd at the bar, which spills out into the street. Although it is disputed, La Bodeguita lays claim to being the birthplace of the mojito, which has been prepared in the bar since its opening in 1942.
For less touristy sips, however, cocktail enthusiasts would be remiss to not experience what the bars at the paladares have to offer. Doña Eutimia shakes up a frozen version of the mojito that puts La Bodeguita’s to shame, whilst Lamparilla Tapas y Cervezas wows with its generous and frothy watermelon daiquiris.
For some of the best cocktails on the entire island, chef Rodriguez highly recommends O’Reilly 304. Here the mixologists shake up amazing cocktails with beautiful garnishes and freshly squeezed fruit juices. “They serve ginormous cocktails in these big one-quart glasses. I’m telling you, I’ve never had a better mojito anywhere,” he says. “Their cocktails are all handcrafted and they take two to three minutes to make each drink. Just to watch the bartender there is kind of like an art form.”
The Havana International Book Fair attracts bibliophiles from all over Cuba — and the world. Each February, bibliophiles from all over Cuba congregate for one of the biggest highlights on the Cuban social calendar, the Havana International Book Fair.
Hosted at the San Carlos de La Cabaña fortress, the festival is known as one of the biggest book parties in the world. The 26th annual book fair, which will be held from February 10 – 17, will bring more than 100 large and small publishing houses to present their catalogs and showcase their books. Book lovers will have the opportunity to stock up their libraries with books from local and international authors.
Founded by the famous Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in 1982, the festival has become the most important literary event on the island. Each year, the professional, academic and literary programs include symposiums, tributes, panel discussions, lectures, readings, book launches, meet-and-greets and awards. It’s a time of year for writers, thinkers, cultural promoters, artists and the audience to come together to celebrate literature. After Havana, the fair travels to other Cuban cities.
This year, Canada will be the guest country of honour. The fair will showcase Canada’s diversity and vibrant culture, whilst participants will also have the opportunity to explore the country’s diversity and heritage, as well as celebrate the long-standing friendship between Cuba and Canada.
Visit HAVANA With Cayman Airways
Cayman Airways offers daily scheduled flights from Grand Cayman to Havana, Cuba. To book your flight, call 345-949-2311 or 1-800-4-Cayman, contact your local agent, or visit caymaniairwa