SALUD! Probably the best part of any holiday is the ongoing discovery of local bars and restaurants tucked away in and around a city. Havana, Cuba is no exception as there are a multitude of hangouts to savour in one place, many of which have been made famous by Havana’s adopted papa Ernest Hemingway.
“Make mine a Mojito!” Following in Hemingway’s alcoholic footsteps and to savour Cuba’s most popular cocktail, you can’t go past La Bodeguita del Medio. A smoky watering hole kind of affair, her walls are covered in scribblings from patrons past. Blue, loud, crowded and hot with a lively nightly salsa band, it is the place to go with teams of people lounging inside and out all sipping on a glass of this local liquid freshness. Saying this however, this classic lime and mint concoction is offered EVERYWHERE and are a cheap and cheerful way to start or finish many a hot Havana night! The other most popular Hemingway haunts for a tipple are: El Floridita – A large, classy and moody bar famous for its iced daiquiris and scarlet art deco interior; Bar Monserrat – understated, never overcrowded and has great live music perfect for a sassy salsa session and fabulous paella; Dos Hermanos – a slick, red wood panelled corner bar situated (conveniently) next to the Havana Club Rum Museum and opposite the cruise terminal! It also has a daily live salsa band and a famous Cuban cartoonist who does sketches of you for a price!
After all this rampant rum sampling, you need to EAT! Dining options in Havana are endless and vary from 5⭐️ star hotel hâute cuisine, to tiny privately run bistro style establishments called Paladares. Our personal preference has always been to wander around and find a restaurant that has character, is busy and hopefully good food! Sometimes this has been to our detriment, but mostly we discover the best places and always have a great time. Our top favourites are listed below:
El Cocinero: A converted oil factory in the hipster area of Vedado, this very cool, stylishly fitted out restaurant is cut in half. The first level is an elegant, open air à la carte dining space complete with original art deco stemware and plates, and the rooftop, which is romanesque style, serves tapas and has two bars. It was so damn good in every respect that we went twice and tried both restaurants! FYI: Order the duck and admire the stylish scene.
Paladar Los Mercaderes: Enjoy an exotic meal and people watch whilst seated high on an ornate balcony inside a traditional Cuban terrace house! This lovely restaurant is in Calle (street) Mercaderes, in the upmarket area of old Havana town. Beautifully decorated with classic old world charm, this paladar specialises in traditional Cuban food with an innovative Spanish/Creole twist. Yet again we went twice as it was another fab find and an eclectic music trio performs every night which is an added bonus. FYI: Request the pumpkin crème brûlée for dessert or the smoked gin & tonic for aperitif!
Ivan Chef Justo: Having hosted celebrities such as Sting and Will Smith, we thought this unassuming, bright yellow little house was just good enough for us! Having found it by accident (as usual) this wonderful place is on the corner of the old town opposite the Revolution Museum. With wholesome, modern dishes, great service and an old fashioned terraced dining room crammed with B&W photos and antiques, it is a very welcoming space and the food is fantastic! FYI: The lamb shoulder and pork ribs are the bomb, but the servings are enormous and it is $$$!
Restaurant Antojos: Situated down a lively side street strung with twinkling lights, this fabulous tapas bar is a must! Busy, loud and with footpath dining, we just had to try it and the staff are unbelievable! Relaxed, helpful and efficient, I think they would even build you a table if one wasn’t available! There are a handful of tapas style dishes on the menu and are larger sized. Everything was delicious, the presentation contemporary, and the atmosphere electric! We even received complimentary cigars and a nip of 12 year old rum with the bill! FYI: I recommend eating Ropa Vieja (a dish named old clothes as the shredded meat looks like rags) the most popular dish in Cuba. (We tried many versions of this dish during our stay and all were fantastic.)
Van – Van: This squashy, boisterous, turquoise coloured bistro and bar, around the corner from La Bodeguita, is an institution in Havana. Packed to the rafters with diners and drinkers, and offering simple, homestyle Cuban fare it is worth a visit! With a great atmosphere and casual attitude, this no fuss, quirkily decorated place is a fun way to meet locals over a mojito and a cigar! FYI: It has the BIGGEST ladies bathroom I’ve ever encountered!
Doña Blanquita Paladar: MB and I found this little gem on a cold, dreary day, whilst whizzing past on the scooter! They say ‘blue and green should never be seen’ but if it wasn’t for this striking colour combo, we would never have noticed it! On the opposite side to Ivan Justo, this restaurant is decked out like a child’s crayon box and is bright, happy and cosy all at once! Slightly old fashioned and dusty with tinny music (but that’s part of the charm), it had a lovely waiter, tasty food, good wine and a view! What more could you want on a rainy day in Havana? FYI: Have the slow cooked beef in red wine and vinegar! Melt in the mouth magic!
El Dandy: This is a very small, funky little bar that is open all day and night, and just happened to be down the street from both the apartments that we rented AND right across from the WIFI park! High five! With a blackboard menu offering everything from big breakfasts to tantalising tapas and a large selection of cocktails, it is a real local find. The hip staff are as cool and laid back as the fresh juices they squeeze to order and it is the best spot for a night cap and to meet other like minded Havana groupies!
We sampled MANY different restaurants and bistro’s in Havana, and the food ranged from just ok to superb. Some Cuban food is quite plain and repetitive (red cuban rice, plantain and banana chips are offered with everything) and lobster is another very popular dish here as well, but always overpriced and overcooked so I wouldn’t waste my waistline on it. Eating our way round Havana was fantastic fun and a very satisfying culinary journey. As long as you keep your minds and your mouths open and expect the unexpected, you won’t be disappointed! Buen Provecho!
…“One cannot think well, love well or sleep well if one has not dined well”…Virginia Wolfe