Havana is in the midst of a culinary renaissance. Traditional dishes like the beef stew ropa vieja and the ground beef dish picadillo still maintain a firm footing, but a wide selection of international cuisines are also beginning to make an appearance in Cuba’s capital. Paladares—small restaurants housed in private homes—are at the forefront of Havana’s culinary revitalization. You’ll find the best food in the city at these establishments, but don’t plan on just dropping in. Paladares usually only have a few tables, so reservations are a must.
Pick a paladar
If it’s traditional, no-frills Cuban fare you seek, head to Doña Eutemia in Old Havana, the city’s historic colonial district. You can feast on ropa vieja, as well as tamales and the quintessential trio of pork, rice and beans. If you prefer a greener meal, try Decameron. Located in the Vedado neighborhood, Decameron offers a variety of vegetarian-friendly options, as well as an array of Italian-inspired dishes. Paladar Los Mercaderes in Old Havana is a good option for a romantic night. A staircase covered in flower petals leads to the dining room where violinists serenade you as you feast on international, meat-centered dishes.
Go ahead, splurge
You’ll be hard pressed to find a more sophisticated meal in Cuba’s capital than at La Guarida in central Havana. Inarguably the city’s most famous paladar, it’s housed on the top floor of the building where the movie Fresa y Chocolate was filmed. The menu features tuna with a sugarcane glaze and rabbit paired with a sauce of onions, eggplants and peppers. Or, for a truly luxurious meal, step into Comedor de Aguiar inside the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. A celebrated restaurant in Vedado, Aguiar’s menu features both national and international fare, with a notable tableside flambé of shrimp.
Grab a snack
Don’t leave Havana without having a “cortadito“—a shot of espresso with a hint of steamed milk. Sip on this classic beverage and nibble on a pastry at Cafe el Escorial, a coffee shop housed in a colonial mansion that opens up onto Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. Head to Nao Bar Paladar, also in the old town, for some traditional munchies like yucca chips and malanga fritters. Try El Cocinero, a paladar in Verdado located inside a renovated oil mill, for more substantial snacks in a unique setting. Fish croquettes and a goat cheese club sandwich coexist on the menu here, and the terrace level offers a splendid view of the city.
Havana is known the world over for its nightlife, so take your best salsa moves to a touted bar-restaurant like Don Cangrejo, an open-air waterfront restaurant in the Miramar neighborhood. Don Cangrejo transforms from one of the city’s best seafood spots by day into one of its hottest clubs by night. A no less popular option is El Floridita in Old Havana, said to be the birthplace of the daiquiri. As a regular hangout of Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, it’s a popular spot with travelers. Hemingway was also a regular patron at La Bodeguita del Medio, another Old Havana bar famous for its mojitos. It has hosted the likes of Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole, among other big names.