Eat List: Havana, Cuba

In the past two years more than 400 paladares – independently owned restaurants – have opened in Havana, completely transforming the Cuban capital’s dining scene. With fewer restrictions on private enterprises, such as no longer limiting paladares to 12 seats, and greater access to specialty products, Havana’s dining scene has been infused with new life. There are still severe issues with running a restaurant in Havana – namely the lack of consistent access to staple products like flour or eggs – but you can at least find an above average meal here now. Here are my picks for Havana’s paladares of the moment:

Otramanera

Without question, Otramanera, which opened in mid-2014, is the best restaurant in Havana right now. Spaniard Álvaro Diez Fernández, a sommelier by training who spent time in Girona, his Cuban partner Amy Torralbas, and their chef who trained in Argentina, have created a contemporary, market driven eatery in a sleek Miramar house. otramaneralahabana.com/en

O’Reilly 304

A self-proclaimed gin bar, this intimate two-level nightspot has some of the best food in Havana Vieja. If they have it, order the rabbit spice with curry and cinnamon, or their enchilado de cangrejo, a rich crab stew.

Doña Eutimia

Hidden away down a cobblestone alleyway beside Plaza de la Catedral, Doña Eutimia has become the standard bearer for traditional Cuban dishes. The menu is comprised of recipes based on the traditional cooking of the owner’s mother. You’ll get very straightforward preparations of the most typical dishes like ropa vieja, picadillo, camarones al ajillo, or roasted chicken with black beans.

Casa Pilar

This trendy Miramar restaurant from Spanish born Pilar Fernández, the owner of Bikos, is set mostly on the back patio and shaded upstairs terrace with a distant ocean view. There’s a great atmosphere and a somewhat odd African theme. The food, particularly the starters like lobster fritters, can be great, while some dishes miss the mark spectacularly.

El Cocinero

Up three windy flights of stairs beside the awesome Fábrica de Arte Cubano in Vedado, this “it” restaurant can be seen from miles around by the brick chimney emblazoned with the restaurant’s name towering over it. Skip the dining rooms and opt for the rooftop terrace, one of the best drinking spots in town. The menu is a weird mix of Cuban Mediterranean fusion with duck magret, pastas, curried lamb, and filet mignon. Facebook Page.

Santy Pescador

Despite the coastal location, fish at any restaurant is usually terrible in Havana. State involvement often hinder restaurants from buying fish direct from fishermen, therefore it’s rarely fresh. Way out in the fishing village of Jaimanitas near the Marina Hemingway, Santy has managed to avoid many issues. Set inside a waterfront fishing shack, the father goes out every morning to catch fish while his son uses it to prepare sushi, sashimi, and ceviche. santypescador.com/restaurante

Sia Kara Café

Hidden on a side street behind the Capitolo building (a dead ringer for the White House, which it was modeled after), is this funky tapas bar adorned with Victorian chandeliers and hundreds of hanging neck ties. Opened in April of last year, the menu is listed on a blackboard and changes daily. siakaracafe.com

Mamá Inés

This charming restaurant in Havana Vieja is adorned with photos of chef/owner Tomas Erasmo Hernandez, Fidel Castro’s personal chef for three decades, posing with everyone from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Oswaldo Guayasamin. The dishes can be hit or miss, but you won’t fail if you call ahead for the off menu arroz con pollo that’s served in a ceramic cazulea and spiced with annatto. The chatty Hernandez is usually walking around with a glass of wine chatting up the clientele.

Starbien

From chef Osmany Cisnero Fernández, this modern restaurant in a restored Spanish colonial house has a straightforward Cuban-Mediterranean menu. Stick to hard to fail plates like fried pork chunks or rice dishes.

Nazdarovie

Come to this Soviet themed restaurant and bar near the malecón for blinis and caviar, plus other Russian fare. Helmed by a Miami Cordon Bleu grad, the third floor restaurant is decorated in USSR propaganda posters and matrioshkas, the little painted dolls. nazdarovie-havana.com

La Guarida

Located in the stunning century-old mansion and featured in the film Fresa y Chocolate, this landmark restaurant in the Centro has a fairly standard menu. You’re here for the atmosphere more than anything else. laguarida.com

Café Bohemia

There’s no more tranquilo spot to sit and soak in the Havana Vieja than from the white sofas at this café, which stretches out from the late 18th-century landmark Casa del Conde Lombillo to the cobblestones right on Plaza Vieja, and is owned by the daughter of renowned Cuban journalist Ricardo Sáenz. Their G&Ts, served Spanish style in big, bulbous glasses with lots of ice, are among the best in town, and they have proper pastries, cheeseboards, and sandwiches. havanabohemia.com

La Corte del Principe

Most Italian restaurants in Cuba have a generic menu, mostly dominated by pizza. At this Miramar restaurant the owner Sergio makes all the pastas by scratch and lists the entire menu on a blackboard.

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