Jack Southan highlights the gems of the Cuban capital’s food scene
1. Ivan Chef Justo
This little restaurant, nestled on the corner of La Esquina, Aguacate, opposite the Museo de la Revolución, is a favourite of travellers in the know. It’s a little eccentric and feels more like a cluttered living room than a great restaurant, but this only adds to its charm and ambience. The menu changes regularly, so it’s only presented on a blackboard, but think outstanding house tacos filled with a selection of seafood, beef or pork, plus creamy avocado chunks, Parmesan flakes and spicy chipotle; or filleted fish with a hearty chickpea stew flavoured with sausage and tomato. Wash it all down with a famous Justo daiquiri made with almond liqueur — it’s the perfect digestif for a fantastic Cuban meal.
2. Plaza de la Catedral
On a little side street tagged onto the southern side of the Plaza de la Catedral in Old Havana is a cluster of bustling little eateries. Each one offers the same menu of typically Cuban fare — rice and beans (or “Moors and Christians”, as locals call it), lobster, fish or meat, plantain chips and salad, with a complimentary cocktail — but they’re all busy regardless. The food in itself isn’t mind-blowing, but as a destination, Plaza de la Catedral is excellent. Live music plays at every cafe and in this warm shady corner, people mill around chatting, eating and dancing. Try the tasty lobster tail, served in its shell in a creamy sauce; Mexican black beans are always spicy and filling; and veggie paella is a tempting alternative to the mostly meat dishes.
3. La Guarida
Located on a nondescript, crumbling backstreet in Havana Centro, La Guarida is known as the place to dine in the city. Enter through an archway off the street, past peoples’ homes, up a spiral staircase littered with rubble and dust to the second floor, where you’re greeted by an impeccably dressed maître d’ and led into a wonderfully elegant dining room, complete with gilding and contemporary art, or up another flight of stairs to a beautiful balcony overlooking the city. The food here is some of the best in Cuba — smoked marlin tacos, red snapper with tarragon and lemon, yucca with Cuban garlic butter sauce and the restaurant’s signature chocolate and strawberry fondant. The price tag is a little higher to reflect the quality, but it’s still very reasonable by most standards.
4. El Cocinero
Possibly the hippest spot in town, El Cocinero is built onto the roof of an old vegetable oil factory. Its huge red-brick chimney looms overhead to create an amazing backdrop. It’s hyper-cool and bustles with young professionals and tourists alike. Downstairs is an arts and jazz club (Fábrica de Arte Cubano), which attracts enormous crowds and is probably the best place in the city to head out for a night on the tiles. The food at El Cocinero is exemplary and the atmosphere exciting and new. This place is unlike anything else in Havana and stands as a hopeful prospect of what lies in store for the city as it modernises and comes into its own.
5. O’Reilly 304
Bang in the centre of Old Havana is one of the city’s best up-and-coming restaurants — 304 O’Reilly. Inspired by London hipster hangouts, the restaurant is slick and urban. Bare brickwork and brushed metal, lit by low-hanging tungsten lamps which cover diners in a low atmospheric glow. The food here is some of the finest as well, with a forward-thinking approach to Cuban cuisine. There are western influences at every turn, lending an exciting buzz to authentic dishes. Try the fish croquettes and the chef’s Caesar salad, neither of which will disappoint.