Hungry and a little lost, I chugged up and down the hilly streets of Vedado in the backseat of a cherry-red '57 Oldsmobile taxicab, squinting out the window in the late afternoon light in search of a sign. Any sign. A few minutes earlier we had turned inland, lumbering away from the city's famous malecon, curved and cracking, holding back the Straits of Florida with its attendant clusters of young Cubans, whiling away another afternoon in the sun with the help of a bottle of rum and maybe an old transistor radio. But now –when we needed them the most – we found few people to point us in the right direction.
And then I spotted a man on the sidewalk, a sort of al fresco maître d' wearing a dark Havana Club shirt and a tie. Behind him, a small shingle bearing just one word: "Open." Paying the taxi driver a few convertible pesos, I climbed out. This was the place. Following the man's directions, I made my way up an uneven sidewalk toward a 1950s apartment block – a little worse for the wear – and into a rickety old elevator, rattling upward in search of dinner.
According to the old joke, the first three victims of the Cuban Revolution were breakfast, lunch and dinner. And for years, visitors to this island country would agree. Saddled with a bureaucratic supply chain that produced substandard (and often spoiled) ingredients, and a chef's culture that did little to encourage competition, the state-run restaurant system sagged. But that's all changing. With new reforms in place to allow for more private enterprise, fresher food and chefs who take pride in their work, Havana is once again becoming a truly great city to get a meal.
The most prevalent of this new breed of restaurants are called paladares, Cuban shorthand for small restaurants that started as home-based operations but have since – with the loosening of government control – grown into somewhat larger, and in many cases flourishing, commercial outlets. My culinary tour guide Tanja Buwalda tells me that the biggest changes have taken place in just the past two years.
"In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people were just trying to survive," Buwalda, an Irish-born expat and Cuban food aficionada, explained. She said President Raul Castro's reforms have liberalized things, allowing for a revitalization of culinary culture. Still, there are challenges. "There's no wholesale market to speak of," she said. "It's all about contacts."
That was definitely the case at Paladar Dona Eutimia – the first stop on my Havana culinary adventure, days before my uncertain cab ride into Vedado. Searching a tiny, dead-end lane near the city's main cathedral, I found it – just a tiny spot in the corner, a couple of occupied tables in front, and a bustling crowd within.
There, I chatted with part-owner Deandro Martinez, who noted that this space was once his family's home. "Upstairs was our bedrooms," he said, in Spanish-accented English, then waved his hand at the room around us. "And this was our living room." The restaurant is named after his mother, who cooked meals here for the artisans next door, before the government shut her down.
They reopened four years ago, and business has been good. "It's booming," Martinez observed. They still use his mother's recipes, everything is cooked fresh and, as he said, "in the moment." Their biggest challenge (and the reason why they don't expand to a second location) is finding ingredients. I had heard that other paladares set up a private supply chain as early as two years before they open their doors, and Martinez intimated that they work back channels to get their meat and fish and produce, buying them from farmer and fishermen friends. I ordered his mom's specialty ropa vieja. Literally translated, its name means "old clothes," but I assure you, the dish tasted much better than that – shredded beef, patiently slow-cooked in a tomato sauce spiced with cilantro and garlic and cumin. Tender and delicious, it went down quickly with a tasty side of rice and black beans.
Over the following days, the beautiful – and bizarre – dining experiences continued. I ate pizza on the back patio of a mid-century modern home out in the suburb of Miramar. Called La Carboncita, I chatted with the owner, who still lives upstairs. At Esto no es un Café (translated literally, This is Not a Café), I ate dishes inspired by artists in a former gallery space, including the messy, colourful pollo pollack. And at San Cristobal, I was seated by a medical doctor who moonlights as the maître d'– a common occurrence in Cuba – with highly trained professionals seeking a slice of the increasing tourist money by taking on a second job.
The doctor, who still does his rounds every morning at a nearby hospital, gave me a tour of the restaurant, which is housed in a 1914 art nouveau mansion. Both cluttered and funky, each table is named for the eclectic artwork and items that surround it – the whisky table, the knight's table, the Jesus Christ table. He seated me at the whisky table – a small two-person spot, a little out of the way, which, he explained, recently hosted Jay-Z and Beyoncé on their visit to the restaurant.
After I polished off a big plate of tentacion habanero (literally, "Havana temptation"), thin strips of beef and fried bananas cooked in a signature sauce, the recipe inherited from chef Carlos Cristobal Marquez Valdez's grandmother. Valdez visited my table before I left, telling me, in broken English, that he still lives upstairs and keeps an eye on dirty dishes as they come back into the kitchen.
"If the plate comes back empty," he said. "That makes me happy."
San Cristobal hadn't been easy to find, and a number of chef/owners told me that, until recently, they routinely faced harassment from government inspectors, leading me to wonder if that's why so many paladares are so poorly marked.
Like Café Laurent, for example, the place I just barely found by taxi in Havana's trendy midtown Vedado neighbourhood. Still, I was glad I made the effort the minute I stepped off that rickety old elevator. Occupying the top floor of an apartment building, much of the dining is outdoors. Under the fading early evening sun, I pulled up to a table overlooking the low-rise buildings around us, with the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the shimmering sea just beyond. Here, I heard a familiar story – a chef who started a restaurant in his apartment, which blossomed, and now welcomes an ever-increasing number of patrons. This city is changing – and may be unrecognizable in a few years. But as I ordered some seafood and savoured a mojito, I just enjoyed the moment. Everything felt right, the golden light, the taste of the mint and the breeze from the sea, as the sun sank lower and lower toward the Caribbean.
If you go
A number of airlines, including Air Canada, WestJet and Cubana, offer direct flights from several Canadian cities, to Havana's Jose Marti International Airport.
At Dona Eutimia (#60-C, Callejon del Chorro, Old Havana), order their specialty, ropa vieja, which is made with a time-tested recipe created by the matriarch of the family.
La Carboncita (Avenida 3ra, Miramar) makes some of the best pizza in all of Havana, cooked in a ceramic oven and served up with a thin crust. Save room for a tropical dessert, such as homemade ice cream scooped inside a hollowed-out pineapple.
The offerings at Esto no es un Café (San Ignacio No. 58A, Old Havana) are inspired by art – dig into pollo pollak, a wild mixture of roast chicken with sage and parsley and soy sauce (the latter spread all over the plate with reckless abandon).
San Cristobal (Calle San Rafael No. 469, central Havana) specializes in Cuban-Creole cuisine. The chilidron de cordero cubano, a Cuban stew, is a specialty – and no matter what you order, make sure it includes some creamed malanga and fried slices of plantain.
Café Laurent (Calle M No. 257, Vedado) serves up excellent seafood in a Spanish Basque style – shrimp, clams and, on occasion, paella, all make for a great dinner. Don't worry about the elevator.