As far as gastronomic reputations go, Cuba doesn’t have the best one. Before my trip I was met with “bring snacks with you” from two previous visitors. Their reasons? The former got sick and said the food is terrible. The latter is used to massive, overly seasoned portions.
Pretty sure that not all Cuban food could be bad, I decided not to heed their advice. Now, I’m not saying Cuba will ever compete with destinations in the Med, cities like New York or our own emerald isle in the dining out stakes, but with a little research, good food wasn’t too difficult to find.
Cuba’s Paladar scene and the rise in both popularity and standard of Casa Particulares mean there are plenty more places to find a decent meal these days.
All inclusive resorts offer the usual buffet style restaurants and half decent à la carte options, but you won’t find the best cuisine here, even at the five star hotels – it isn’t as easy as that in Cuba.
The best meals are to be found in tourist haven Havana, the colonial old town of Trinidad and home cooked family offerings in casas dotted around the island.
For 5CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, equivalent to the US Dollar), most Casa Particulares will serve up a satisfying start to the day.
Platters of fresh fruit, warm bread rolls, eggs, coffee and juice (which is more like a smoothie, usually mango or papaya).
If you’d prefer to eat out, expect mainly egg and bread options, such as a tortilla (omelette) or fried egg sandwich.
Coffee is easy to come by, as are fresh juices, both of which can be bought from ‘hole in the wall’ vendors along busy streets in the cities.
You’ll stand on the side of the road while enjoying your (extremely cheap) drink before handing back the glass to be reused.
Cafe Fortuna in Trinidad is a must for coffee. Order a Cortadito, made with sweet condensed milk, served in a cute terracotta cup for the perfect kick start to a day of exploring.
For cheap eats, do like the locals and order a pizza from a hole in the wall window. An individual size pizza with meat such as chorizo will cost as little as 40c.
The plain cheese option can start from about 10c, so you’ll never go hungry even on the tightest budget.
Best in Havana
El del Frente and O’Reilly 304 (it’s the address, not an Irish bar) have modernised the mojito and spruced up a few Cuban classics, adding more of a Mexican twist to their meals. The tacos in either of the sister establishments are excellent and while the mojitos at 5CUC are on the more expensive end of the scale in Cuba, they’re absolutely massive and expertly crafted.
For a break from the searing heat, just across from the Museum of the Revolution you’ll find the original Sloppy Joe’s. Yes, the loose meat sandwich originated in Cuba and isn’t at all American. Mix it up a bit with the sloppy tacos and wash ‘em down with a Cuba Libre, Havana Club rum, cola and lime while enjoying the blissful air conditioning.
The beach about 20-30 minutes east of Havana, Playas del Este, can be reached by car, taxi or the T3 bus from Parque Central.
Santa Maria beach is accessed by walking through stalls of food and drink sellers preparing traditional Cuban fare of rice, chicken and beans with cold local beers than can be enjoyed on the golden sand side by side with the locals.
Best in Trinidad
Taberna La Botija has long queues every night, but head at lunch time to be seated almost immediately. Or, even better during happy hour from 4-6pm for 30% off food and drinks. Try the tapas and cocktails and if you do nab a table in the evening, enjoy live music with your meal. It’s open 24 hours too!
La Bodeguita del Medio, the bar famous in Havana for being Hemingway’s favourite mojito spot, also has a branch in Trinidad and lunch there is spot on.
The house speciality of Ropa Vieja, (which literally translated means old clothes) is one of the national dishes of Cuba and consists of very tender shredded stewed beef with tomatoes, olives, peppers and spices, served with rice and plantain chips.
Paladares (or privately owned restaurants) were illegal in Cuba until the 90s and are now openly ran and advertised as restaurant businesses.
They range from tiny family owned paladares, where you will literally eat a basic meal in someone’s home from about €1 for chicken, rice and frijoles negros (black beans), to elaborate palatial (the literal translation of paladar) rooftop restaurants and bars with impressive wine lists and matching price tags.
Best in Havana
La Guarida will be recommended by anyone who’s been to Cuba and for good reason. There’s a nice rooftop bar that serves small plates (the ceviche is delicious) and is perfect for sundowners if you can’t get a reservation.
But, if you book ahead and nab a table in the restaurant, you’ll enjoy one of the better meals on the island.
The fish special is always a good choice and any time you see salad or fresh vegetables on a Cuban menu make sure you order it, who knows when you’ll get that chance again.
Just down the road, you’ll find lesser known La Concordia, which really deserves more hype. Fresh fruit cocktails and delicious menu items like breaded coconut shrimp firmly earn this Paladar a place at the top of the list of best places to eat in Havana.
Best in Santa Clara
This restaurant alone is almost worth the trip to Santa Clara, (they also have a boutique hotel with roof bar across the street), Hostal Florida Center is located through an unassuming door to a lush green courtyard.
The menu is very simple, with two specialities doubling as the house favourites, Ropa Vieja and lobster. Sides of grapefruit, salad and bread accompany all the main courses and a live music duo provide the soundtrack to a very enjoyable evening.
Best in Trinidad
La Redacción probably has the most interesting menu of all the places I visited in Cuba. While it isn’t very extensive, it’s full of fresh produce and flavours you won’t find in other restaurants.
Try the prawn starter and one of the specials for main – there are some decent vegetarian options here too. Pair with decent wine at excellent prices or a well crafted G&T. The restaurant occupies one of Trinidad’s beautiful buildings, with highly detailed decor and very helpful staff.
Best in Havana
No trip to the classic city is complete without visiting a couple of Hemingway’s favourites. The famous quote “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita” pertains to two of his most frequented bars and drinks orders.
La Bodeguita del Medio is a tiny bar in La Habana with a constant line up of mojitos muddled by a couple of the most experienced mojito-makers in town. Grab a seat at the bar to hear the rhythm of the ingredients being mixed by a wooden muddler and enjoy a live version of Guantanamera by the house band set up in the corner.
La Floridita is a much less rustic set up at the end of Calle Obispo, one of the main tourist streets in Havana. You’ll find a life size bronze statue of Ernest Hemingway at the end of the bar and can try his favourite frozen daiquiri in the place where it was invented. There’s a seafood restaurant out back too.
Cervecería Antiguo Almacén de la Madera y Tabaco is a micro brewery venue down at the docks in Havana and it provides a nice alternative to the little mojito bars. It’s a good place to visit for live music in an interesting building at a quirky location, with some of the best beer in Havana.
For cheap drinks like the locals, pick up a bottle of Havana Club Rum for about €4 and head towards the Malecón, the seawall along Havana’s coast. The corner in front of the fountain at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a popular spot for Cubans and you’ll find some street food in this area too. Fried rice, pork and bread can be bought for a few CUC.
Best in Trinidad
La Fortuna hands down makes the best cocktails in Trinidad. The tiny bar is the closest thing to a hipster haven in the city, with Singer sewing machine tables, a bath tub in place of seats, old TVs to rest your drinks on and notes from every currency imaginable hanging from the ceiling.
Try the traditional Cachánchara cocktail, born in Trinidad and served in the original terracotta cups. Some of the ingredients are just like a mojito, but without the mint and replacing sugar for (lots of) honey. If you ask nicely, the bar man will let you try your hand at mixing your own.
Casa de la Musica is an open air bar and music venue with live bands playing (almost) free shows every night. Nab a table and order drinks from the waiters, or head to the bar yourself and take a seat on the stone steps. Not the best show you’ll see in Cuba, but a must-do nonetheless and you’re bound to be asked to salsa dance by one of the locals.
Best in Santa Clara
The Cafe-Museo Revolucion is an excellent spot for a coffee or cocktail on Calle Independencia, which is near the site of the famous battle of Santa Clara.
Obsessed with travel and beauty and unable to find a traditional career that satisfied both passions, I decided to forge my own path by combining the two. I have a tendency to do that, just go ahead and jump two feet in before testing the waters, but luckily it seems to have worked out for me. And more importantly, I have fun doing it.
Visit Nadia’s travel and lifestyle blog, the daily s’elf, to read more about her adventures.