The private restaurant business was born in Cuba in the 1990s when the government authorized individuals and families to use their homes to serve prepared foods to the public. (This was in the midst of the so-called Special Period, a time when the loss of subsidies from the Soviet Union caused the Cuban economy to collapse). Tourism remained one of the few bright spots in the Cuban economy. (See our coverage in NotiCen, March 5, 1998).
The private restaurants, which became an alternative to the state-run eateries serving the tourist industry, came to be known as paladares (coining a term from the Brazilian soap opera Vale Tudo).
We covered the evolution of the paladares in the LADB news service. "These started with seating authorized for only 12, but recently the number has been increased to 50," Mike Leffert wrote in NotiCen, March 3, 2005. At the end of 2011, it was estimated that there were almost 1,500 of these restaurants, the majority in Havana. "On her only visit to Havana in 1999, Queen Sofía of Spain dined on her first night in the country at La Guarida, a bastion of self-employment and good food," Daniel Vázquez said in NotiCen, June 28, 2012
NotiCen, Oct. 30, 2014.
A huge downside
A major downside to the growth in private restaurants is that all the high-quality food is going to the tourism industry. "Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch. Thanks in part to the United States embargo, but also to poor planning by the island’s government, goods that Cubans have long relied on are going to well-heeled tourists and the hundreds of private restaurants that cater to them, leading to soaring prices and empty shelves," The New York Times said in an article published on Dec. 8, 2016. This is a topic that we would like to address in a future post.
Cuba Paladar: The Voice of Local Reviewers
The more than 20-year-old private restaurant sector has also become an option for some Cuban citizens in Havana and other parts of the island, especially as an easing of economic restrictions has promoted the growth of the middle class on the island. With this segment of the Cuban population now going to private restaurants, a group of enterprising young professionals developed a new site a couple of years ago called Cuba Paladar. "We are a small and dynamic group of young professionals who have developed this site specilizing in the culinary criticism of Cuban cuisine," said the organizers. "Our team visits each establishment, evaluating the quality and the creativity of the food, the service, the environment and the relationship between quality and the prices that are charged."
Cuba Paladar separates the eateries into three categories: restaurants, cafeterias and bars. (As of Dec. 30, only the restaurants category was active). The site offers an easy search mechanism to the reviews posted by Cuba Paladar raters, as well as opportunities for others who have dined at each of the establishments to offer their own two cents on those eateries. "We have an interactive space where readers can participate with comments, criticisms, votes and recommendations, although the popular vote does not always match our specialized ratings," said site creators (led by Rodrigo Huaimachi and Jessica Rodríguez).
The team--which includes more than two dozen critics, advisors, directors--hopes to keep expanding the operation. "Cuba Paladar is a non-profit and autonomous project of art and culinary criticism," said the organizers. "We hope to become a national and international reference site on Cuban cuisine."
Rating the Restaurants where UNM Group Dined
Cuba Paladar offers reviews for three of the restaurants where visitors from a University of New Mexico tour group dined during a visit to Havana in December 2016.
The group traveled to the Cuban capital to experience and learn about Art Deco and other historical and cultural landmarks in Havana. We also attended the main events of the Havana Plaza Jazz Festival, featuring Cuban jazz icons Chucho Valdés, Roberto Fonseca and Omara Portoundo, and international performers Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride and Fatoumata Diawara.
I start with brief impressions of six restaurants that we visited, followed by the Cuba Paladar review of three of those eateries, and Trip Advisor reviews. Please note that my personal assessment does not necessarily match those of my fellow travelers. Also, let me say up front that the food at the private restaurants was far superior to the offerings from two state-run eateries where we at lunch. One of those state-run restaurants La Torre, made up for its ordinary offerings with a spectacular view of Havana from up above.
|Grilled fish goes well with rice and beans|
Our view: This restaurant was a welcome treat on our first night in Havana, after waiting several hours for our luggage to be downloaded from the Cubana aircraft that brought us to the Cuban capital. The scent of grilled food permeated the site, and the offerings were quite good. A few of us went back on another night to dine at the same place. One member of our group especially liked the grilled lobster tail. The moros y cristianos (rice and black beans cooked together) was outstanding.
Here is a review of La Paila Fonda from Marisel Morejón Barbán of Cuba Paladar in October 2015. "This restaurant in the heart of the Vedado neighborhood and only a block away from the main thoroughfare known as La Rampa, This is not where you expect to find a place that typifies a Cuban ranch. Highlighted by a colorful environment and the open-air layout, this restaurant has been operating for only a little more than a year. During this time, it has gained a loyal clientele, which favors the low prices and high quality provided by this eatery. Simple and harmonious, the decorations invite the customers to sit and enjoy food served in a country environment. The ample space allows clients to choose where they want to sit..Known for its delicious grilled meats and by the economical suggestions from the chef, one can choose between several entrees ranging between 2.95 and 11.00 CUCs (1 Cuban Convertible Peso is equivalent to US$1.00).
TripAdvisor Reviews generally concur with Cuba Paladar. Here is one from a satisfied customer, who rated the restaurant in December 2016. "The place sits on top of a little hill and is nicely decorated. There is a charming romantic patio. My husband had ropa vieja which was excellent and I had fish which could be best described as filling. Not bad but not good either. The extras that came with it were very good though."
|Lobster tail San Cristóbal|
Our View: We were excited to dine at the same restaurant where President Barack Obama and his family ate during a visit to Cuba to formalize the restoration of relations between the two countries. The food and ambience was excellent, although our space was a little cramped. I had the lobster tail, which was tasty and well prepared. The restaurant does not appear to have a website, but does host a Facebook page.
Reviewer Frank Padrón of Cuba Paladar offers his two cents on San Cristóbal. "This is a great setting,with a good indoor climate and international and Cuba gourmet food. This has become a destination for foreign and national visitors even with its high prices. I knew the place not only because of its reputation but because of a meal I had there two years ago,along with members of a jury from Latin American Film Festival. All of us, including the foreign visitors, were impressed by the good service and wide variety of choices--a true delicatessen. I must acknowledge that the restaurant has maintained a high quality since then: courteous service and a large menu. However, while accepting that many of the choices are expensive, there is still an imbalance. For example, even though most of the shrimp options are offered for 10 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos. 1 CUC equals US$1.00), why is the enchilado (cooked in tomato sauce) offered for $15 CUC? What is so special about the red sauce that would cost an additional 5 CUC?
TripAdvisor Review: This review shows that restaurant pricing is in the eye of the beholder and that Westerners have a different price-rating scale. "My friends and I went here not expecting too much, as you really do not visit Cuba for the food. We had one of the best dining experiences of the trip, and one of the best ever. The food was lovely, well priced for such a wonderful restaurant and the service was flawless. After dinner we were given 15 year."
The 'Obama Room' at San Cristóbal
When we asked about Barack Obama, we got nothing but positive feedback because of the president's efforts to remove some restrictions with Cuba. See coverage from Daniel Vázquez in NotiCen, Jan 29, 2015 and NotiCen, March 26, 2015
One of the owners of San Cristóbal personally served the president, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, and Michelle's mother Marian Robinson. President Obama declined an offer of wine with his meal. "I have to work tomorrow," he joked with the server.
In the room where the Obamas dined, there is a painting of President Obama, along with a picture of the owner with the president and the first lady.
|Rabbit at La Casa|
Our View. When we came here, we were not aware that this was one of the oldest paladares to operate in Havana. One of the owners told me that the place has been operating for more than 20 years. The name La Casa reflects the early nature of the private restaurants, which were housed in a person's converted home. Because of its extensive experience in the food-service industry, La Casa has developed its own website
I had the rabbit, which was quite tasty and prepared superbly. This is the only place where we went that offered beer that was not produced in Cuba. Our option was the Dominican beer El Presidente. The service was good, and we were serenaded by two members of a group called Trio Madrigal.
Cuba Paladar: Here is the review of La Casa by Yanko Marrero in September 2015. "Dozens of diners, primarily foreigners, enjoyed fresh lobster recently caught from our waters.,,, \We noticed, somewhat disappointed, that there were not many healthy options available on the menu...Once the needs of the clients were met, the host engaged in conversation with diners to learn their opinion about the food. Amid the myriad of rave reviews, it was inevitable that the news about the reestablishment of relations between the US and Cuban governments made it into the conversation. The host announced in perfect English that his family planned to open new and larger sites in the immediate future. With a sigh of hope, one did not have to wait for the hugs."
|A true "free range" chicken El Cañonazo|
Cuba Paladar: "Our critics will soon visit El Cañonazo and let us know what they think."
TripAdvisor Here is what one reviewer said in May 2016. "Having spent 10 days on the resort, we were more than ready to go for a meal somewhere else. We were not disappointed! Beautiful courtyard with chickens roaming free. Fantastic servers and a fab band. Amazing sharing platter with shrimp, lobster, pork and chicken. A little expensive for lunch time at 40 pesos (CUCs) but lovely for a special meal.
|Octopus appetizer at King Bar|
Cuba Paladar: "Our critics will soon visit King Bar and let us know what they think."
|Ropa Vieja at La Casona de 17|
The restaurant does not appear to have a website or Facebook presence, but some sites like Cuba Restaurants Guide.com offer a good promo for this paladar.
Cuba Paladar: "Our critics will soon visit La Casona de 17 and let us know what they think."
TripAdvisor Here is one nice review from March 2016."Beautiful Caribbean home with nice landscaping in an open environment. They have the best Chicken and Rice in Havana, there is a 45 minute wait as the food is cooked to order. They also have a nice "flan" dish that is very well done and have live music.... very nice location near much of typical Cuban culture. We came back..."