In Havana, Family-Run Dining Goes Upscale
Private Restaurants Try to Expand Cuba's Menu
By VICTORIA BURNETT
Published: March 16, 2012
ON a mild January night, the unlighted street in the artsy Havana
neighborhood of Vedado was quiet and filled with shadows. But as my
companions and I climbed the steps of Le Chansonnier, the glow of
chandeliers gleamed invitingly through the wrought-iron windows, and a
low burble of music drifted onto the street.
Inside, we sipped tangy mojitos in the bar before settling down to a
dinner of spicy crab and tender pork loin with eggplant, in a dining
room whose simple banquettes and white tablecloths struck a chic balance
with the soaring archways and molded ceiling.
This may not sound like a typical Cuban dining scene, and in many ways,
it's not. Decades of Communist rule have produced a host of state-run
restaurants where, all too often, tourists struggle with leathery pork
chops and try in vain to catch the attention of a surly waiter.
But a new crop of privately owned restaurants, known here as paladares,
is bringing a dash of style — not to mention enticing food — to Havana's
normally lackluster dining scene.
The paladares are blooming just as the trickle of American visitors to
Cuba has grown to a steady stream, following the Obama administration's
decision last year to lift some restrictions on travel to Cuba. After a
clampdown under George W. Bush, Americans may now travel in
"people-to-people" tour programs, which encourage contact with Cubans.
Such itineraries usually include stops at the capital's better state-run
restaurants, like El Aljibe, where you can get a roast-chicken dinner,
or El Templete, which serves overpriced, Basque-style food on a breezy
terrace at the edge of Old Havana.
But tour group schedules leave some mealtimes open, offering the chance
to explore the paladar circuit and meet some of Cuba's budding
Paladares, which are usually family-run restaurants in people's homes,
first appeared during the post-Soviet economic crisis of the 1990s, when
the government, briefly and grudgingly, allowed some private businesses
to take root. Many, however, either failed to thrive or were pushed out
of business by officious inspectors. Some survived, among them La
Guarida, a hugely popular restaurant that serves some of the city's best
food in a bohemian garret atop a magnificent, decayed, early
When the Cuban government opened the door to private enterprise again 15
months ago to help invigorate the struggling economy, hundreds of Cubans
leapt at the chance to set up a paladar, this time with more faith that
the government would let them thrive.
Héctor Higuera Martínez, for example, spent tens of thousands of
dollars, from savings and friends, transforming the living room and
bedrooms of what had been a guesthouse in his gorgeous 19th-century
mansion into Le Chansonnier, which opened in October. The dining rooms
display the work of local artists, including a found-metal collage of
old oil and paint cans by Damián Aquiles, a friend.
But keep in mind that this is Havana, not New York: the paladar scene is
limited and relies on a client base of expats, tourists and the few
Cubans who have access to foreign currency and can pay prices that are
well beyond the pockets of most islanders. And in a city where you can
spend a day or two hunting for eggs, restaurateurs contend with
blackouts and poor supplies and rely on visitors to bring in everything
from Parmesan cheese to foie gras.
"It's a headache," said Mr. Higuera, who trained under Erasmo, a
well-regarded Cuban chef, and has lived in Paris. "You dream up a recipe
that you'd like to make but then you can't find the ingredients. One day
you go out to get salt and there's no salt. And I mean no salt. Anywhere."
Oyaki Curbelo and Cedric Fernando ask visitors to bring spices from
abroad to help feed diners at their Nuevo Vedado paladar, Bollywood,
whose small menu offers a mix of Indian and Sri Lankan dishes, including
a piquant shrimp curry with ginger and tamarind. Mr. Fernando, an
Englishman with Sri Lankan roots, gets curry leaves from a tree at the
Sri Lankan embassy, whose chef taught the Bollywood staff the secret of
his coconut roti bread.
On the same wavelength as Le Chansonnier in terms of style, if not food,
is Atelier, housed in the Vedado mansion of a former Cuban senator and
also decorated with Cuban art. The Continental-style cuisine is uneven
but the roof terrace, dotted with candles and cushions, is a lovely
place to enjoy a glass of wine under the starry Havana sky.
If you want to mingle with artists and movie types, have a drink at
Madrigal, the loft-style bar (and home) of the filmmaker Rafael Rosales.
There, you can sip a head-splittingly cold daiquiri (the tapas — cheese
empanadas and tomato bruschetta — are forgettable) to a smooth
soundtrack of jazz and R&B.
"I wanted a completely different kind of space," said Mr. Rosales, who
named the bar after a Cuban movie on which he worked with Fernando
Pérez, a well-known director. "If one person opens a cafe, the neighbor
opens a cafe. Everyone here does the same thing."
Most organized excursions to Havana include some time to wander the
picturesque colonial maze of Old Havana, where a great place to stop for
authentic Cuban "ropa vieja" — shredded lamb prepared with garlic,
tomato, oregano and bay leaves — is Doña Eutimia. This friendly,
bustling paladar just off the Cathedral Square is named for the woman
who, for years, produced hearty meals for the artisans at a nearby workshop.
Only a few restaurants exploit Havana's location on a glittering stretch
of the Atlantic. One is Vistamar — a longstanding paladar that offers
garlicky grilled lobster tails and thick slabs of lemon pie topped by a
heap of silky meringue — where you can book an outdoor table with a view
of the water.
Across town in Vedado, at the penthouse terrace of Café Laurent, you can
gaze across the rooftops to the sea as you dine on meatballs with sesame
seeds and mustard in a red-wine and tarragon sauce or a plate of sticky
rice with seafood.
And for a change from the soggy, tasteless wedges of dough that pass for
pizza on many a Cuban street corner, there is La Carboncita, whose
genial Italian chef serves up crusty brick-oven pizzas, generous plates
of homemade pasta and barbecued meat on the patio that surrounds his
Mr. Higuera of Le Chansonnier said he hoped that as more paladares open
and grow in variety and ambition, they will help shake off the island's
reputation for boring food.
"I believe we can play an important role in revolutionizing Cuban
cuisine," he said. "We need fusion. We need spice. We need contrasting
flavors," he added. "Not just rice and beans and roast pork."
IF YOU GO
Atelier (Calle 5, No. 511, Vedado; 53-7-836-2025; atelier-cuba.com;
dinner for two is around 48 Cuban convertible pesos, or CUC, or $55, at
.87 convertible pesos to the dollar ) serves Continental food in a
Bollywood (Calle 35, No. 1361, Nuevo Vedado; 53-7-883-1216; dinner for
two around 43 CUC) offers Indian food off the tourist trail.
Café Laurent (Calle M, No. 257 penthouse; 53-7-832-6890; dinner for two
around 52 CUC) serves Cuban-Continental food on a tranquil terrace.
Doña Eutimia (Callejon del Chorro, No. 60-C, Plaza de la Catedral;
53-7-861-1332; dinner for two is around 42 CUC) is the place to go for
down-home Cuban food in Old Havana.
La Carboncita (Avenida 3ra, No. 3804, Playa; 53-7-203-0261; dinner for
two around 32 CUC) specializes in Italian food served on a patio.
La Guarida (Calle Concordia, No. 418, Centro Habana; 53-7-866-9047;
laguarida.com; dinner for two around 57 CUC), offers Cuban-Continental
dishes in a romantic garret.
Le Chansonnier (Calle J, No. 257, Vedado; 53-7-832-1576; dinner for two
around 53 CUC), housed in a converted mansion, has a French-influenced menu.
Madrigal (Calle 17, No. 809 altos, 53-7-831-2433; mojitos and daiquiris,
2.50 CUC; closed Monday) is the place to go for drinks and tapas.
Vistamar (Avenida 1ra, No. 2206, Playa, 53-7-203-8328; dinner for two
around 53 CUC) serves Cuban and Continental food overlooking the Atlantic.