Some of the tastiest food in Cuba is served in paladares: independent restaurants — as opposed to government-owned — which were once outlawed but now flourish after the relaxing of economic restrictions. Named after a restaurant in a ’90s Brazilian soap opera, paladares offer better creativity, quality and diversity than their state-run equivalents.
Havana’s most famous paladar is located in one of the city’s timeworn mansions, the setting for the 1993 film Strawberry and Chocolate. The family who owned the building subsequently opened La Guarida, serving confident takes on classic dishes (suckling pig confit with orange reduction, oxtail and saffron risotto). The interior, with its burnished walls and decorative clutter, is as delightful as the menu.
Restaurante Santy Pescador
Visitors are surprised to find sushi in Cuba, but this riverfront spot, on the city’s western edge, is renowned for its Japanese take on local seafood. As they eat super-fresh California rolls on a wooden deck, diners gaze on fishing boats and dazzling sunsets over an authentic Cuban neighborhood. When you’re done eating, head to the nearby fantasia of Fusterlandia, Havana’s answer to Barcelona’s Park Güell.
Set within an elegant 20th century mansion in Central Havana, this hugely popular restaurant—named for its renowned chef and proprietor Carlos Cristóbal Márquez Valdés—is chock-a-block with framed photos, old books and eye-catching religious paraphernalia. Classic Cuban fare includes roast pork, lobster and fajitas with fried plantains (eaten by Michelle Obama during a 2016 presidential visit). Be sure to try the house rum—you may even be given a glass for free.
This chic modern restaurant, whose terrace overlooks the point where the Almendares River flows into the Florida Straits (the name translates to “River Sea”), is as famous for its stunning views as its menu. Bu day, diners enjoy alfresco views of the river while digging into shellfish cocktails, red snapper, lobster tacos and key lime pie. Of an evening, it is a popular date spot, with drawn out after-dinner wine and cigars.
Everyone is raving about Aelier, run by acclaimed chef Niuris Higueras. Set in an old villa, the restaurant has a small but lovely terrace with terracotta tiles and views of the Vedado neighborhood, while its airy interior maintains a simple elegance. On the menu, Atelier surprises with curve balls like falafel (a Havana rarity), as well as beautifully plated staples like duck confit, offering an international spin on Cuban cuisine.
A true institution — and one of the best paladares in town — this small but charming alleyway eatery, steps from the 18th century Havana Cathedral, is the essence of Old Havana. There are only 40 seats here, including a scattering outside, which adds to the homey feel, as does the lovingly-prepared food: malanga fritters, stuffed tostones, picadillo a la habanera and what is said to be the finest ropa vieja in Havana.