People seem surprised when I tell them I had trouble finding good food in Cuba. ‘But I went to Florida and the food in Little Havana was SO good!’ they say. Yes, it probably was. But in Cuba it’s different. For a long time Cubans have had little or no access to any kind of variety of ingredients. The situation is improving now, but since 1959 most of Cuba’s food had to be produced on the island, and many spices and aromatics were unavailable.
As somewhat of a foodie, I knew before I went that I might struggle to find good food in Cuba but even so, it was worse than I expected.
The standard meal in Cuba consists of some kind of meat or fish, with rice and maybe beans (moros y cristianos is common – rice with black beans mixed in) and ‘salad’ (tomatoes and cucumber and maybe lettuce or cabbage) and possibly a soup to start with. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? But imagine that the meat is cooked to the point of being leathery, and either completely lacks any flavour or is overly salted in lieu of any other spice. The plain white rice is dry and the beans flavourless. And you eat this every single day.
About two and a half weeks into my trip in Cuba, I was tired of it. Breakfast was always the best meal of the day, although I was getting very sick of eggs to the point where my stomach just said no. I stopped eating lunch aside from the occasional ham sandwich or peso pizza. Getting good, cheap dinners was a struggle. Restaurants are expensive and if you just take a chance on a place, you’ll likely end up overpaying for the same old bland and overcooked meal I described above. I was frequently hungry and getting grumpier by the day.
I spent an evening in Bayamo walking around for hours looking for something decent to eat, being repeatedly accosted by a young man called Alex who wanted me to go to his restaurant, where I’d have the same overpriced meal I’d get anywhere else.
The burger place Alex said was good was actually weird, looking like it was closed with doors shut and curtains drawn, but the sign said open so I went in. It was an empty, undecorated room with fluorescent lighting, a few metal tables and chairs, with just one guy sitting at one of them on his laptop. No food in sight. Not even the smell of food. The waitress showed me the menu, but only one type of burger was available. I excused myself and left.
I wandered some more, and every restaurant in town seemed to be the same – doors closed, curtains drawn, looking entirely closed and uninviting despite an open sign in the window. I walked up and down a couple of other streets, not finding much else.
By this time I was quite hungry and gave up the search at a random hole-in-the-wall that was not so different from Alex’s restaurant, which I’d already rejected. I was hoping to have found a gem, but I should have known better. It was another meal of rubbery, tasteless fried chicken and dry rice. Despite my hunger, I only managed a few bites before I could eat no more.
Often the service in restaurants can be terrible too.
In Camaguey I went to a cheap local restaurant with a group of friends. We waited more than an hour and a half for our food, with the excuse given that we’d all ordered different things. Well, yes, we did, but it was a restaurant. We waited so long that the musicians who came to play for us actually returned a second time, looking rather dismayed to see that we were still there, still waiting for our food. They knew we were unlikely to tip them again.
These are only a couple of examples of really mediocre meals that I’d had over several days, so by the time I arrived in Santiago de Cuba I was done. I decided that even though it would be more expensive, from that point on I would not care how much my food cost, as long as it tasted ok and did not take two hours to get to me. I knew there was good food in Cuba, somewhere. There simply had to be, in a country where you can eat lobster for just 10 CUC. But in a nation of terrible restaurants, how do you know where to go for a decent meal?
Tripadvisor. I actually used some of my precious, limited internet time to search on Tripadvisor and find an acceptable meal, and my life improved dramatically.
I did find some decent places to eat in various towns in Cuba, so I’m going to share those with you. Feel free to take notes for your own trip to Cuba, and if you know where you’re going, definitely consult Tripadvisor beforehand for some recommendations!
Habana 61 – Calle Habana No. 61 between calles Cuarteles & Peña Pobre, Habana Centro Ph: +53 7 8619433
Habana 61 is a busy, lively place with friendly and attentive staff. I ate there twice, the first time having lamb stew and the second lobster in tropical fruit sauce. Both were excellent, and even the rice and beans that come with them were fantastic. Cost for an entrée is 8-12 CUC. Reservations recommended.
Casa Tacos Bar – corner of Neptuno and Basarrata streets in Vedado, near the University.
This is a small, dark place but go upstairs and you can sit right out on the balcony overlooking the street. Each taco order is actually two so go for the slightly more expensive ones for better quality.
Museo del Chocolate – corner of Amargura and Mercaderes, Habana Vieja
This is straight out of the Lonely Planet book and as it’s right in the heart of the tourist zone I thought it would be crazy expensive, but it’s not at all. A glass of cold chocolate milk is delicious and only costs 1 CUC. Don’t get your hopes up for cakes and desserts; it’s just drinks and molded chocolates. There’s a small garden area out the back if the air conditioned café part is full.
The cinnamon bun lady – It might be pointless even telling you about this one but it’s too good not to. I was walking in Habana Vieja one night around 7pm and on the corner of Bernaza and Obrapia there was a woman standing with a small plate in her hands, which was piled high with mini cinnamon buns. She charged 1 peso each for them (not 1 CUC, 1 peso! – equivalent to about 4 cents) and they were fresh and delicious. Take your own bag to put them in. I went back another night at 7pm in hopes of finding her again, but she wasn’t there, so good luck!
Las Mamparas – Calle 37 (aka Prado) #4004, between 40 & 42
This is a popular restaurant with plenty of cheap choices on the menu. The lasagna here is slightly too soft but tasty and cheap (3.50 CUC), and satisfied my craving!
Restaurante Dona Nora – Calle 37 (aka Prado) #4219, between 42 & 44
I went here with some friends I met and it was tasty, but more expensive than I would have normally paid otherwise! My entire meal with drink cost 15 CUC.
Shekinah Café – Calle 46 #3908A between 39 & 41
I was super excited when I walked past this one day and saw the sign outside advertising tacos, kebabs, and shawarma! And what a find! I had a huge chicken shawarma with real yogurt sauce and iced tea and it only cost me 60 pesos (about 2.5 CUC). No alcohol is served here, and it’s only open in the evening from 4pm.
Giroud Bar and Restaurant – Calle Zerquera 403, on the corner of Zerquera (Rosario) and Ernesto (Media Luna)
I ended up in this cozy place on my first day in Trinidad, when I’d suddenly come down with a sinus cold and was feeling hot and tired and a bit miserable and just needed somewhere to sit down for a while. I stayed for a couple of hours, drinking lemonade and staying out of the hot sun. The staff are very friendly and speak a bit of English. In the evening the place is jam packed and buzzing, but you can have a drink at the bar while you wait for a table. Pizzas are delicious but slow (this is Cuba, what else is new?)
Taberna La Bojita – corner of Calles Piro Guinart (Boca) and Juan Manuel Marquez (Amargura)
I was introduced to this place by friends. The line for a table was out the door but we were able to get mojitos to drink while we waited! My huge shrimp and pork skewers were fantastic but not cheap, but there are more economical items on the menu.
Peso place – on Calle Jose Marti (Jesus Maria) between Calle General Lino Perez (San Procopio) and Calle Cienfuegos (Santo Domingo), near Parque Cespedes (Plaza Carillo)
I don’t know the name of it, but this is a slightly more ‘upscale’ peso place, if such a thing exists. There are a few tables you can sit at, and they have a CUC menu as well with some more expensive meals supposedly made with better quality ingredients.
Dulcinea – on the corner of Calle Antonio Maceo (Gutierrez) and Calle Simon Bolivar (Desengano)
There are two of these on the corner opposite each other. One sells pastries and baked goods, the other has ice cream. I can’t speak for the baked goods but the ice cream is 0.80 CUC a scoop and comes in some interesting tropical flavours!
El Solar – Calle Independencia just South of Calle Raul Lamar
I hesitate a bit to recommend this place as it’s the one I spoke of above where we waited for such a long time. But if you got there when they’re not so busy, with a smaller group of people, you might get food within a reasonable time frame. The food was tasty enough, although just a bit salty for me, and it was pretty cheap.
El Ciruelo – Calle Victoria #108 between Calles Aguilera and Frexes
A Chinese restaurant in Cuba! I had just three hours’ stop while waiting for a bus connection, and while this restaurant is maybe only 5 minutes’ walk from the bus station, it took me an hour of walking around asking people to find it! I was the only one there and the waitress spoke English. It took a long time to get my food but when I did I got a mountain of delicious sweet and sour pork.
Restaurante Las Terrazas – corner of Calles Cespedes and Calixto Garcia
There aren’t too many restaurant choices in Gibara, and I would probably have eaten in my casa but I didn’t like the attitude there too much. This place offered a decent set meal for 5-6 CUC, with rice, fried plantains and salad and your choice of protein – including turtle. You can eat here but please don’t eat turtle. Just don’t.
Bodega Bar – Plaza de Himno Nacional #34
I didn’t eat here, but if you walk straight through the restaurant right to the back there’s a little terrace overlooking the forest and river where you can have sunset drinks (or anytime drinks!)
Santiago de Cuba:
Rumba Café – Calle Hartmann (San Felix) 455A, between San Francisco and Hechevarria
A cute little café serving cheap sandwiches and pasta and a huge list of cocktails. My pasta carbonara wasn’t quite like any I’ve had before but still tasty and a wonderful contrast to what I’d been eating. Take advantage of Happy Hour from 5-7pm!
Restaurante Italiano La Fontana – in the Melia Hotel at Avenida de las Americas and Calle M.
At the height of my ‘I can’t eat any more crappy Cuban food’ crisis, this saved me. While I wouldn’t say the food was amazing, it was decent and stuffing myself full of pasta seemed to be what I needed at the time.
Bendita Farandula – Calle Monsenor Barnada between Calles Aguilera and Heredia
Another one straight from the Lonely Planet book, this restaurant does Cuban food well. The prices were mostly in pesos, and my meal with two lemonades cost 150 pesos (6 CUC) It’s a pretty busy place and I can see why.
Chocolateria Fraternidad – on Plaza de Marte, on the South East side
A cup of cold chocolate was thick and creamy and cost 0.70 CUC. It was air conditioned inside and there’s a small outdoor garden area as well. I noticed after I ordered that they had some delicious looking ice cream at the back that would be worth checking out! Service was not great.
Eat at your casa. I stayed five nights, and for four of those ate myself into a food coma at my casa. It was the best food I had in all of Cuba. Definitely try the local specialty of fish in coconut milk sauce.
Restaurante Marco Polo – Avenida Malecon #82, near the corner with Calle Moncada
This is a pleasant place overlooking the water, and the only place in Cuba where I got eggplant on my plate, which was a nice change. The fish in coconut milk wasn’t as good as my casa’s though!
The food scene in Cuba is improving, it’ll just take some time before the natural selection of the restaurant industry brings the average up to some kind of normal standard. Until then, feel free to use my list to find good food in Cuba. However, there are plenty of other restaurants that sound good so I strongly suggest that if you have a plan, you make note of a few of the good ones on Tripadvisor before you go!