The vast majority of our restaurants were included in the trip, where we were served per-selected appetizers (typically either salad or some form of seafood soup) and desserts (invariably ice cream) and chose from a selection of three per-arranged entrees (typically some form of fish, chicken or pork, although we sometime had a hard time knowing what we were eating).
This being said, a few of these restaurants were pretty good. These included dinner at La Divina Pastora (with a nice porch and lovely setting on the water near the Castillo fortress) and lunch at La Imprenta (in Old Havana). These group meals also gave us a runaway winner in one ignominious category–worst meal of the trip. That was the dining room in our own El Presedente Hotel. The fish soup had more salt than fish, the unnamed fish was so tough and salty as to be inedible and the vegetables cooked far beyond the bounds of rationality. But, to give the meal it’s due, the rice wasn’t bad.
There were, however, a few winners among the lunch stops. The best, and also the most atmospheric, were:
- La Imprenta in Old Havana, where the roast pork was especially good;
- Casa del Campresino, at Las Terrazas (in the mountains north of the city), with its grilled chicken roast pork, and again, rice and beans; and especially
- The Jose Fuster art center, where we were treated to a seafood lunch (grilled wahoo, shrimp in a light tomato sauce, black beans and rice and more) in the artist’s surreal front yard.
Luckily, the tour also give us opportunities to have dinner, and one to have lunch on our own. Although none were sufficiently impressive to justify considering Havana to be a culinary destination, they certainly left us with a better impression than did the group dinner restaurants. Our favorites included:
- La Chansonnierwas recommended by our guide. This new, large, incredibly beautiful paladar (a non-government-owned restaurant, typically in a private home) that occupies the ground floor of an elegant colonial mansion. Although the building is beautiful from the outside, it is even more lovely on the inside, with lovely marble floors, moldings, ultra-modern furnishings, custom paintings and an entire wall that is a fresco-like abstract artistic statement. Although most restaurant menus make do with descriptions such as “grilled fish” or “pork loin” La Chansonnier servers recite the daily menu with actual descriptions of the type of fish meat and how it is prepared. Joyce and I had curried shrimp and grilled octopus appetizers and for dinner, a roasted dogfish with anchovies vinaigrette and a tuna with teriyaki sauce. Although the dogfish and both appetizers we’re delicious, the tuna was tasteless and the sauce totally overpowering. Other couples with whom we dined had similar impressions, enjoying some dishes (especially both preparations of the dogfish and also the cheesecake with a coconut crust) and totally disliking others (especially the tuna and the duck breast). Worse of all, the server never even bothered to ask why some dines barely touched their meals. Although the restaurant had not yet compiled a wine list, it’s Concha y Tora chardonnay/pinot blanc and carmenere were both satisfactory, especially for their prices of $25 and $30 respectively.
- La Moneda Cubanois another upscale restaurant, this open in old Havana. The servers, incongruously attired in British tricorn caps with artificial dreadlocks and a nice interior with obviously cheap reproductions of the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper were a bit unusual. Even so, the food (we both got the mixed seafood grill of Caribbean lobster, shrimp and fish) was fine, albeit certainly not exciting.
- Restaurant Asturias is a totally different type of restaurant. It serves huge quantities of a broad range of relatively straightforward dishes. Although we typically view such a combination as a big warning sign, we were very pleasantly surprised. While the ceviche was rather pedestrian, the fried green banana stuffed with cheese was good. Joyce, I and a friend shared these and three entrees: langoustines, pork chop with garlic and pork scallops with lemon sauce. All were quite good (although somewhat overdone for our tastes, this appears to be the way Cubans prepare their meats) and came with prodigious amounts of side dishes including salad, a plantain mix steamed in banana leaf and some delicious rice and black beans (which could have been a meal in itself).
- La Terrazas is a grill restaurant on the third floor, above Asturias. The atmosphere, an open-air balcony with a large grill and a modest view of Old Havana, was quite pleasant. Our meal consisted of three courses: fish ceviche, grilled octopus and the charcuterie plate, which unexpectedly (but certainly not unpleasantly) consisted of a few different types of Spanish sausage, grilled in a honey mustard sauce. They went well with our customary beers (the lighter Cristal for Joyce and the somewhat more robust Bucanero for me).
Cuba in general, and Havana, in particular, is famous for its music. While this comes in many forms, the country has its own brand of cutting-edge jazz, Caribbean-infused Salsa and sensuous guitar riffs. Our evening destinations included:
- Buena Vista Social Club, which was certainly the musical highlight of our trip. Although the Club performed in two locations, one in Havana and the other at Hotel Nacional, we went to the former, which still includes two members of the original group. Although expensive (the equivalent of $30 without dinner) the music recreated that of 1950’s era Havana, and the performers, especially the older singers) totally engaged the audience, all through the room, singing directly to patrons, shaking hands and touching patrons on the shoulders. A overall, an evening that should not be missed.
- Jazz Café. Although it is a premier spot for jazz, our experience was mixed due to what appeared to be a lack of enthusiasm among some of the musicians and the loud horns which often drown out the vocals. This having been said, we were entranced by an absolutely amazing bongo drum solo.
Music, however, is not limited to evenings. Many lounges along pedestrian-friendly Obispo street offer music during the day. Many beckon passers-by with music. Among our favorites, most of which are on Obispo Street, Old Havana’s primary pedestrian thoroughfare are:
- Basque Bologna;
- Ruinas del Parque;
- Cafe Paris;
- La Floridita; and for elegant, professional dancing with your music,
The music, however, is certainly not limited to Obispo Street. Additional Old Havana stops should include Dos Hermanos and especially, the Havana Club, which just happens to be connected to the fun and educational Havana Club Rum Museum (see our blog on Old Havana).
And to top it all off, on Sunday, we just happened to pass Hotel Inglaterra, on Central Park, to find 40-person brass band (almost more of an orchestra) playing on the sidewalk, belting out Big Band songs to the delight of the crowd. Listening to this, while smoking a cigar, drinking a Bucanero beer, watching the classic cars parade by on the Prado—and all in the shadows of Havana’s magnificent Gran Teatro de La Habana (Havana’s Grand Theater).
Life doesn’t get much better than that.