Until recently, running a restaurant in Havana wasn’t just a business decision – it was almost an act of sedition. Since the 1960s, the primary venue for dinners out were state-run restaurants which weren’t exactly at the cutting-edge of culinary innovation. So, restaurants started opening up in family homes, behind closed doors – and for those who knew where to look, these so-called hidden paladares in Havana were the place to find some of Cuba’s best food.
These days, government rules surrounding privately run eateries have relaxed – and the paladar is experiencing a true golden age. Add the following 10 to your diary, then: once you make it inside, you’ll find some of the most delicious, richly flavoured, and exciting cooking in the capital.
Paladares don’t get much more atmospheric than this. At La Guardia, candles flicker on every table, golden walls reflect a convivial atmosphere, and windows open to the gorgeous spread of the Havana skyline. One of the longest-running paladares in Havana (it’s been around for nigh-on 20 years), the family-operated restaurant also features a rooftop bar, where the mojitos are a perfect foil for the balmy weather.
Within a crumbling old mansion, the charming San CristÃ³bal is a local favourite thanks to its exceptional cooking and its eclectic interior, filled with knick-knacks and twining with plants. The menu here leans towards traditional Cuban dishes – only a fool would pass up the chance to try the restaurant’s signature lobster.
In what was once a cooking oil factory, El Cocinero has settled into its ex-industrial enclave with aplomb. The swanky spot – one of the most stylish paladares in Havana – is popular with the city’s trendsetters, as well as visiting jetsetters. Of particular note is the rooftop space, which trades traditional concealment for nighttime views over the city.
If you find yourself feeling peckish whilst wandering the picturesque streets of Old Havana, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better nearby address than Doa Eutimia. The petite little paladar welcomes locals and tourists alike with its hospitality and its hearty helpings of ropa vieja (and other traditional dishes).
Otramanera has gone through quite the revival: one of the first paladares in Havana, the eatery has recently reopened, all shiny and new, after a period of closure. Located within a house that dates to the 1950s, the stylish Otramanera blurs the line between homey paladar and modern restaurant with its sleek décor and contemporary, international cooking – as evidenced by dishes like Andalusian gazpacho with serrano chips and mango fish ceviche.
Japanese food in Havana? Certainly – and not just any Japanese food. Though Santy leans more towards informal beach hut than minimalist sushi bar, the paladar’s vicinity to the sea ensures that the fish is beautifully fresh. Pull up a chair at one of the platic tables on the terrace and soak up the seaside ambiance.
La Corte del Principe
Aside from Creole staples of rice and beans, Italian food has somehow become near ubiquitous around Havana (though not all of it’s worth sampling). For reliable Mediterranean-inspired fare, though, La Corte del Principe is always a good bet. In lieu of pizza, you’ll find an Italian-language menu featuring plates like tagliatelle con gamberi e zucchini. Settle in at a red-checkered table on the terrace and prepare for feasting.
Elegant Atelier may be found within a traditional Cuban mansion, but its culinary leanings scour the world for inspiration. The menu moves from Cuban dishes to overseas-inspired plates, and you can expect to sample dishes ranging from cerdo asado (roast pork) to falafel. While the grand dining room of this colonial house is a stunner, the outdoor enclaves, complete with cushy seats, are equally inviting.
As its name suggests, Rio Mar has a balcony that overlooks the point where the Almendares River empties into the sea. It goes without saying, then, that the terrace is prime turf for those stopping by for a meal. Of all the paladares in Havana, Rio Mar is famed for offering some of the best seafood; its lobster is a particular favourite among visiting diners.
VIP Havana ranks among the most stylish paladares in Havana, and its airy interior is strikingly modern (especially compared to its more historically minded brethren). Inside, a pianist on a baby grand provides the soundtrack for dinner, which consists of tapas-style small plates.
Header image: Santy © OnCuba
Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to Havana from London Heathrow – why not book your flight today and try these paladares on your next trip.
Which of these paladares in Havana are you most keen to try? What are your favourite Cuban dishes? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.