Where to Find the Best Food in Havana, Cuba

Dec 3, 2016

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With many US airlines now launching nonstop flights to Havana, the Cuban capital will soon be seeing an influx of American travelers. While there are plenty of great restaurants popping up all over Havana, it can be difficult for travelers to find out where to dine, especially since many restaurants don’t have websites or social media, so you’ll likely need to ask the locals.

Cuba offers two kinds of restaurants: those that are government-owned and privately-owned spots called paladares. While hotels will often recommend government-owned restaurants, consider this list your go-to guide of paladares options, which are generally regarded as being of better quality and a good way to directly support Cuban owners and families.

Where to Chow Down Like President Obama: Paladar San Cristobal

A regal establishment in Havana Vieja, with antiques and paintings lining the walls, this restaurant makes you feel as if you’re in Madrid or Seville — with a light Caribbean touch. The menu is traditional, featuring all the right Cuban dishes, like sweet plantains and juicy camarones. If you want to dine as President Obama recently did, order the sirloin steak and crispy tostones — though my waiter mentioned the president didn’t order any alcohol when he dined here, a mojito or daiquiri would complement the meal nicely. Be sure to make reservations here — ever since POTUS popped in, business has been booming.

A perfect Cuban meal at San Cristobal (check out the steak, which is what Obama ordered).
A perfect Cuban meal at San Cristobal. Image by Darrel Hunter.

Traditional Cuban Fare: La Moneda

It’s the perfect spot for lunch, as the umbrella-covered rooftop patio offers lovely views of the water and picture-perfect Havana Vieja. La Moneda’s lunch menu offers soup and salad, rice and beans and traditional Cuban dishes like shrimp, lobster or grilled fish. Locals deem it one of the best lunch spots in touristy Old Havana, and I’ve made it a point to return here on various trips to Cuba, never to be disappointed. Best of all, your meal will typically come with some live Cuban music. A little “Guantanamera,” anyone?

Some live salsa in action at La Moneda.
Salsa in action at La Moneda. Image courtesy of Darrel Hunter.

The Best Ropa Vieja: Rancho Luna

Located near the cathedral in Havana Vieja, Rancho Luna doesn’t seem notable at first, but just wait until you sample the grilled marlin with garlic that melts in your mouth. The restaurant, with its white wrought-iron patio furniture lining a cobblestone alleyway, offers typical, no-frills Cuban cuisine — think fresh fish, shrimp, beans and rice and, of course, ropa vieja, Cuba’s famous dish of tender, flavorful beef. I discovered this spot by accident, as the fancier, more popular paladar Doña Eutimia across the alley was too packed. I left smiling, with my belly and wallet still full, as the Rancho Luna dinner special — which includes a cocktail in addition to a main entrée, beans, rice and salad — only costs about $15.

The quaint outdoor patio at Rancho Luna.
The quaint outdoor patio at Rancho Luna. Image by Darrel Hunter.

Best for an Intimate Dinner Out: La Guarida

This restaurant is on the pricier end of the spectrum, but it’s truly a special space. When you wander into the dilapidated mansion from the borderline shady street in down-and-out Centro Havana, you may be wondering what you got yourself into. But as you climb the marble staircase and take in the poetry written on the walls, you’ll realize that you are walking into a hidden gem. Once you arrive upstairs at the restaurant, there are several rooms, each with a trendy and unique decor, dim lighting and an all-around charming vibe. You won’t regret ordering the seafood, like the red snapper or the tuna tartare, and there are plenty of fancy cocktails to choose from. Afterward, head upstairs to La Guarida’s secret rooftop bar for a cocktail.

A candlelit dinner of fresh seafood at the fancy La Guarida.
A candlelit dinner of fresh seafood at fancy La Guarida. Image by Darrel Hunter.

The Road Less Traveled: Saraos

Elsewhere in the residential Vedado neighborhood, Saraos feels almost more Miami than Cuba, with with a sleek white interior and a Cuban and international menu. After dinner, this place turns into a happening nightclub frequented by Cuban locals, so stay on for a cocktail and enjoy the live music. This hotspot also features a variety of meats, cheeses and chicken dishes that may be harder to come by at more traditional Cuban restaurants, as well as Italian dishes and Spanish-style tapas. Saraos also has an extensive cocktail list, so get ready to drink up.

Cocktails at Saraos.
Cocktails at Saraos. Image courtesy of Darrel Hunter.

A Break From ‘Moros Y Cristianos’: Topoly

When you’ve decided you’ve had your fill of rice and beans (“Moors and Christians,” as the Cubans call it), you can enjoy Iranian-style breakfast, lunch and dinner on Topoly’s quaint wrap-around terrace overlooking a tranquil green garden in Vedado. The falafel here is unrivaled, while the chicken and lentils with raisins, couscous and endless variety of fresh juices are all excellent. Sipping the signature rose water surrounded by the restaurant’s peaceful garden setting is a relaxing experience that takes you miles away from Havana’s nonstop hustle and bustle.

An Iranian breakfast at Topoly.
Treat yourself to an Iranian-style breakfast at Topoly. Image courtesy of Darrel Hunter.

Swedish-Cuban Fusion: Casa Miglis

This Centro Havana restaurant artfully fuses Cuban flavors and sauces with traditional Swedish plates like meatballs. Bonus: The staff is the friendliest I’ve encountered in all of Cuba, and everyone here speaks excellent English. Don’t miss its signature drink, a strawberry daiquiri made with real strawberries.

Swedish-Cuban fusion is actually delicious, who knew?
Who knew Swedish-Cuban fusion could be so delicious? Image courtesy of Darrel Hunter.

Tapas and Cocktails: El Cocinero

This is the kind of place where you plan to head over for a quick, light dinner, and six hours later find yourself still there, several margaritas in with a whole new set of friends, marveling at how much you love Cuba. The vibe in this hotspot in Havana’s hip Vedado neighborhood is simply intoxicating with several levels of seats under the stars, light bites like croquetas and ceviche, lounge music and beautiful people everywhere. If you head over on a weekend, check out the popular art-gallery-turned-bar next door, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, as well — just be prepared to wait in line for a long time, unless you’re willing to fork over a little cash to the right doorman.

Where are some of your favorite places to eat in Havana? Tell us about them, below.

Featured image courtesy of Darrel Hunter.

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