The two basic types of restaurants in Cuba are the paladares, or privately-run businesses, versus the state-run restaurants for tourists. Paladares have always existed in Cuba, but were illegal until the 1990’s. They were allowed to operate but were regulated as far as the type of products offered, the hiring of the labor force and the number of seats. Since 2010/11 the model changed which resulted in a large number of openings. Today they offer a diverse variety of cuisines with many operated by professionally trained chefs.
The government restaurants can be good but are not typically known for great food.
On my first trip to Cuba in 2009, I found the offerings were very limited. I noticed a substantial difference on my most recent trip in November, 2016. I was fortunate to try several of the new paladares and was very impressed with the quality of the food, level of service and the design of the spaces.
My recent finds in Havana include:
El Carbon by Ivan Justo: This is Chef Ivan Justo’s newest restaurant with a great decor featuring local artists. I enjoyed a mix of Cuban specialities from fish to rice and beans. The sides consisting of paella, plantains and octopus salad were excellent. Aguacate 9.
Chef Ivan Justo Restaurante: Located above El Carbon is the chef’s original farm-to-table paladar. It has a great decor featuring old photos and antiques. The menu is extensive with wonderful appetizers and entrees, from fish stew, gazpacho and lamb to a warm beet salad with arugula and a crab risotto. It was one of the best meals of my trip. Aguacate 9.
Restaurante Opera, Calle 5ta no. 204 entre E y F in Vedado: Located in a lovely home owned by a local couple. The husband, the chef, is from Italy. They feature Italian pastas and entrees in a room filled with local art. I particularly loved the raviolis. The home is also filled with great contemporary Cuban art.
Cafe Ajiaco: A small casual paladar in Cojimar which is perfect for lunch. I enjoyed fish with rice and beans, yucca and ropa vieja plus some lovely appetizers in 3 dipping sauces. The soup was also excellent. The mojito made with dark rum and local honey was very tasty. Calle 92 #267.
Habana 61 Restaurante/Bar: Located at Calle Habana #61, this is a newer paladar featuring very good food. I enjoyed a lovely swordfish entree along with plantains, rice and beans. The contemporary design is most attractive.
Mediterraneo Havana Restaurant: A farm-to-table restaurant, this lovely small paladar in Vedado has great food and service. They make their own pasta and cheese. The pasta dishes were really outstanding. Calle 13 #406 entre F y G.
Decameron, Cocina Cubana Tradicional, Linea # 753 entre Paseo y Calle 2 in Vedado: This is a small palador warmly decorated with antique clocks that were collected by the owner’s grandfather. I had a lovely lunch of pumpkin soup, grilled lobster, rice plus a tasty dessert selection of rice pudding, flan and lemon pie.
el Cocinero: A new gourmet restaurant featuring really good food. I loved the grilled pork with corn/coconut sauce, rice, salad with dried fruits and cheese, coconut flan, curried lamb and more. They have a lovely patio off the dining room and a very large hip rooftop terrace and lounge/bar. I highly recommend it. Make sure to go next door to Fabrica de Arte Cubano/ FAC, a wonderful venue for art, film, cocktails, music and more. Calle 26, entre 11 y 13 in Vedado.
Divino Restaurante, Calle Raquel #50: A lovely restaurant overlooking their organic garden, flowers and fruit trees. Don’t miss the wine cave below with its collection of antique wine glasses and historic cocktail glasses. They raise many of the vegetables used in their food preparation.
Restaurante Otramanera: A sleek local restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating. They feature a number of Asian specialities. I enjoyed the green papaya salad and the Thai noodles with grilled shrimp. Calle 35, entre 20 y 41.
La Casa Restaurante, Calle 30 #865 entre 26 y 41: This is a lovely, small paladar located in a private home. The decor is contemporary and features some contemporary Cuban art. The menu has many options to choose from.
From 1996, Paladar La Guarida is one of the oldest paladars in the city. It is located in an aging mansion turned apartment building at Concordia #418 entre Gervasio y Escobar. As you climb the stairs, you see a blend of local life with that of an upscale restaurant. They have a large rooftop bar which is the perfect spot to view the sunset over old Havana. The elegant dining rooms, with great art, are a great spot to try their upscale fare.
Other recommendations that I did not have time try include Doña Eutimia in the heart of the old town on Callejon de Chorro #60c off the Plaza de la Catedral, Paladar Rio Mar in Miramar with great views of the harbor at 3ra y Final #11 and Restaurante Paladar Cafe Laurent. There is also La Cocina de Lilian in Miramar and Atelier Restaurante, Penthouse, 257 Calle M.
On my first trip 2009, we had dinner at La Bodeguita del Medio. It was one of Hemingway’s favorite bars and is well-worth the visit. Calle Empedrado No. 206.
More formal with a great atmosphere is Cafe del Oriente in Old Havana. This is a government owned restaurant with good food. Calle Oficios #112 esq. a Amargura.