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Havana report (long but kinda bland)

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Havana report (long but kinda bland)

Mr F | Jan 9, 2011 12:10 PM

There's not much talk of Cuba here -- it has a well-earned rep as a country where eating is typically an unfulfilling adventure -- so I thought I'd post a few Havana notes for future searchers and anyone who's curious.

(Note on currency: I'll use the $ sign for the Convertible Cuban Peso, CUC, of which 1= roughly 1.15 Canadian or US dollars, depending how and where you change your money.)

On to the food:

Almost everything is a government establishment, and they run the gamut from very low end to very high end. We didn't try any high-end ones, nor many at the very low end. We stuck mainly to the middle, where value and quality seemed to be pretty decent for the most part.

A couple of "hits" among the mid-range state establishments:

- Amelia is a coffee shop (possibly part of a chain) that became our daily breakfast joint instead of the much more expensive hotel offerings. Good omelettes, sandwiches and pizzas for around $3-5/person with so-so coffee. Located in the trade centre complex across from the Melia Habana.

- La Dominica (108 O'Reilly) is a fairly pricy Italian joint... didn't try the Italian dishes (mains were about $10 and up IIRC), but until 6 pm daily the restaurant has a small sidewalk café around the corner from the main operation. The café serves a surprisingly good Cuban table d'hôte for $3-4/person, including main course, rice, black beans, roasted potatoes or yuca/manioc, nondescript salad and steamed veggies, and a small portion of flan for dessert. Add a couple of beverages and a very substantial lunch/early dinner for two comes to about $10.

More miss than hit, but will do in a pinch:

- Jazz Café is a decent music venue with fairly reasonable prices (many food options around $3-6, a few main courses $10 and up). You pay a cover charge ($10 most nights; NYE was $20) that you get back in the form of food and drink. We spent ours on both... if you go, I recommend you eat beforehand and just order drinks (beer and standard cocktails about $1.50-3; full bottles of rum about $10 and up if memory serves).

The food is stereotypically bland/mediocre Cuban government restaurant fare, with the exception of the fries, which were a great $1 snack resembling homemade potato chips (but made from a different tuber whose name we couldn't properly hear in the din). An attempt to order spaghetti threatened to become a re-enactment of Monty Python's cheese-shop sketch, until we asked what sauces they DO have. Spaghetti was predictably bland, with a canned red sauce applied sparingly. Shrimp three ways (battered, garlic, thermidor) were acceptable if unremarkable.

- Cub Havana is a former yacht club with a truly spectacular 1928 main building and a more recent Soviet-style restaurant. The club has one of the better beaches on the west side of the city -- the main attraction for us on the day we went.

The beachside restaurant offers plenty of charcoal-grilled meats and seafood along with the usual pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, etc., and isn't too bad when all's said and done. (We stuck to meats - chicken, beef, pork; no seafood.) But because the clientele is captive (once you've paid your day's admission to the club, there's nowhere else to go), the prices are on the high side and the service poor. Lunch was about $8/person, plus there's a $10/day admission charge to use the club's beach, pool, and other facilities. Beachside drinks are an affordable $1-3, but you may have to dash inside to fetch your own.

Great big miss:

DiMar is a fast-food seafood chain. Oh my. Probably my worst fast-food experience ever. Everything looked right enough, but battered hake fillets were leathery and pungent, while the fisherman's rice (arroz marinera, loaded with hake plus rubbery little shrimps) had an intense fishy flavour that took some serious getting used to. It was all edible and didn't make us sick, and we did eat most of it because our options were few at that moment, but it was one of the nastiest meals I've ever gagged down. About $2/person plus drinks.

Street food:

Street food is dirt-cheap by North American standards, but much of it may seem unappealing to pickier eaters (though I can't say I saw anything as appalling as what showed up on our plates at DiMar). Tourists are definitely discouraged from indulging, but aren't stopped either.

Expect to pay about .50 for a single-serving pizza that's about the size of a typical slice. It's nothing to write home about, but generally about as good as the pizzas served in pricier places (fluffy bread, tiny amount of sauce, little bit of cheese that produces an amazing amount of grease). A scrambled egg on a bun made a good snack for around .25.

Didn't try many other offerings, mainly because we never seemed to find a stand when hungry, but you'll see lots of simple sandwiches (ham, roast pork) for around .50 and box lunches (e.g. pork, rice, yuca) for about 75 cents to a dollar.

Private restaurants:

Apparently the government changes its handling of these places on a regular basis, so they come and go often. We only tried one, La Fontana (http://www.lafontanahavana.info), which appears to flout certain regulations and operates discreetly, yet does advertise openly (I sense a well-connected owner). Great atmosphere and decent food, but I can't really recommend it. The food was no better than Dominica or even Club Havana, but vastly more expensive -- dinner for two came to about $75 including a bottle of wine, a couple of cocktails and coffee. There's really no reason to spend that much on dinner in Havana, but check any guidebook: there are many places where you can do just that. So this was a big splurge, and while I don't regret it, wouldn't be in a hurry to repeat it.

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