Hi. Barb here and just back from a week in Cuba. What was it like? Amazing, overwhelming, incredible. Let me just say this, if you ever have a chance, GO.
I’m still processing everything I saw, heard and felt. It’s a topic way too big for a blog post. So I thought I would come at the subject from the perspective of food.
We spent the first four days at Las Brisas Trinidad del Mar an all inclusive resort on the Caribbean, just outside the colonial city of Trinidad. We spent almost no time at the hotel, instead seeing the marvelous UNESCO heritage cities of Trinidad and Cienfuegos, was well as the botanical gardens and sugar plantations. But we did eat our meals at the hotel, trying out three of the four restaurants, including the enormous buffet.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, which left Cuba isolated and starving, Fidel Castro first encouraged tourism, “the necessary evil.” He envisioned tourists would stay in these resorts, with their CNN and their BBC and their internet far away from the Cuban population. But tourists wanted to enjoy the incredible physical and architectural beauty of the country. So things began to lighten up, under Fidel and much more rapidly under Raul, both for tourists who now travel everywhere, and for Cubans, who as of two years ago can stay in these resorts—if they can afford it—and form a second high tourist season in the summer.
The resorts, like all major enterprises in the country, are owned by the government, and the food, while perfectly fine, had a feel to it like a some bureaucrat’s idea of what Canadians, Brits, Scandinavians, Spaniards, French and Eastern Europeans (and ever increasing numbers of Americans) might like to eat, executed by the equivalent of school lunch ladies doing their best with ingredients randomly provided. The snack bar advertised hamburgers and a variety of sandwiches, but the waiter looked annoyed when I ordered a burger, explaining my choices were “ham and cheese sandwich” or “ham and cheese pizza.”
All inclusive means ALL inclusive, by the way, including as much rum and as many mojitos as you can drink and a different live floor show of Cuban music and dancing every single night.
In Havana, however, dining is different. The restaurant scene is evolving at a dizzying pace.
Until the 1990s collapse of the Soviet Union, all Cuban restaurants were state run, but one of the concessions in the economic crisis that ensued was to allow Cubans licenses to run small restaurants in their homes. The label paladar came from a telenovella so well-watched in Cuba that when the heroine opened a restaurant and called it Paladar, it became the generic name for all private restaurants. Until recently, paladars were limited to 12 or so guests, but even those restrictions have been removed.
Atelier is a sleek, modern restaurant in the Vedado neighborhood decorated with a rotating contemporary art show. (One member of our group bought a painting right off the wall). Housed in large second-floor apartment, the restaurant today seats about 60 guests, including on a gorgeous outdoor terrace. The food is sophisticated and the ingredients fresh. Cuban food is not spicy or hot, the predominant seasonings are onion and garlic, salt and pepper, but there’s a lot you can do with that.
The experience of dining at La Guarida is one of the most incredible we had in all of Cuba—not just dining experience, but experience overall, in part because it is so emblematic of Havana.
You enter from a dark side street in Central Havana. The 1913 building is at once beautiful and decayed. Ordinary tenants go about their business on the vast first and second floors, hanging out their laundry, changing into their night clothes, leaving their doors open against the heat. Inside, La Guarida is a European-style apartment, high-ceilinged with elegant light fixtures. Movie fans will recognize it as the apartment in the famous Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate. The food is old Cuban-European and delicious.
In paladars you will see people from all over the world, but not many Cubans. At both Atelier and La Guarida, small groups of Havana hipsters, artists and fashionistas trickled in late in the evening. Whatever they do for jobs, they must have access to the hard currency in addition to the pesos the government pays them. Otherwise, they could never afford it.
The third paladar we visited was La Esperanza in Miramar, the wealthy, suburban-style neighborhood where most of the foreign embassies are located. Visiting this restaurant is like time-traveling. The home, the glasses, the dishes all seem to be exactly as they were in 1959 when Castro came to power. It looks like so many of the homes in the neighborhood must have when their owners boarded planes for Miami, thinking they would return in just a few months. The food, which was the best that we ate, is traditional Cuban, with attitude.
This restaurant too seemed emblematic of Cuba. Like everyone and everything that has remained, it has adapted, ingeniously improvised, and gone on.