Havana – and the restaurants?Tuesday, 1 April 2014
OK the politics is changing in baby steps since Fidel is still there, even if only in the background. The old American cars seem to be multiplying, I even had this crazy thought that somebody was buying them up in the USA and shipping them to Cuba. But if there was one place where changes definitely had taken place it was restaurants.
Back in the real revolutionary days restaurants were all run by the government, this is when Havana was described as Soviet-era Warsaw, but with palm trees. It was not a recipe for good food. Then in 1995 private restaurants – paladares – were allowed to open, so long as they only employed family members, they seated no more than 12 people and they were not situated near a government-run establishment. Plus there were strict limitations on signage and advertising and even what they were allowed to serve was tightly controlled. If, despite all that, you managed to make a profit then the government was likely to whack you with some extra taxes above the already draconian starting level.
◄ Paladar los Mercaderes, a popular Old Havana establishment at Mercaderes 207.
That was the situation when Maureen and I visited in 2001 and, amazingly, things would later get even worse and many paladares were forced to close. In January 2011, however, the rules were dramatically loosened and the result is a large number of new restaurants, many of them really good. It may seem astonishing, but you can eat very well in Havana today.
▲ Often the décor is nearly as interesting as the food, we could only try a limited number of places during our short Havana visit, but the emphasis often seemed to be on dense décor. There was nothing utilitarian or Spartan about these restaurants. This is the recently opened (and completely unsignposted) Ivan Justo at Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon in old Havana near the Museum of the Revolution. The chef – Senor Justo – has worked in London.
▲ La Guarida at Concordia 418 is a pioneering paladar with wonderful food and an equally wonderful location, it’s upstairs in a spectacularly dilapidated old mansion. Connoisseurs of ‘ruins porn’ will find this is just as good as anything in Detroit. Fresa y chocolate was filmed here.
▲ Bars are on the move as well. For many years you shuttled between La Boduegita del Medio or La Floridita if you wanted to drink mojitos or daiquiris at the same location as Hemingway. Now Sloppy Joe’s, closed for many years, adds a third Hemingway location to your bar crawl.