People never used to come to Cuba for the cuisine. Rations, food shortages and bureaucratic barriers all contributed to the demise of what was once a thriving food culture. Much like the colonial buildings, it was left to crumble with a lot more pressing concerns on the collective plate than fine dining.
But now with Raul Castro at the helm and his 2010 reform program in full swing, there are new private enterprises opening up every day with the majority in the service industry. Whereas once the choice was between government-run restaurants with renownedly empty pantries, a handful of notable paladares such as La Guarida or eating in your casa particular, now dining out in the capital is a joy.
The emerging culinary scene has all the frisson of the new.
I was in the city to work on a travel guide, so it was my job to find the best new spots in town. For my first night, I decided on a place close to my casa particular. I headed out into the dimly lit streets of Vedado by myself, trying to remember the way without looking at my map too often. I turned a corner, and there was just one lamp in the entire street with a collection of children congregated underneath it, playing football within the circumference of its glow. Other than that the street was empty.
In general, I don’t recommend walking around at night alone in foreign cities, but sometimes there isn’t any choice, especially in a city where blackouts are frequent and light bulbs seem to be a scarce commodity. Nervous, I kept going.
The address led me to a tower block, which I eyed suspiciously along with the lone man sat outside on a wall. I asked him if this was Castasy Tal. He nodded and led me inside where he indicated I should follow him into the elevator. It was small, metal and sinister alerting all my horror-movie instincts. I did not want to get in that lift alone with an unknown man. But he was so insistent that I was hurried in against my better judgement. For the 30 seconds I spent ascending those 11 floors, I played out tragic and terrible endings in my head.
The lift doors opened and I found myself in a kitsch and homely living room, immediately greeted by the utterly charming Fernandez brothers and offered a Caipirinha. Sinister this was not. Castas y Tal harks back to the original paladares when guests were welcomed into people’s home. You very much dine in their front room - the doors to their bedrooms are open and you share their bathroom. I ate a delicious Creole chicken with pineapple sauce and smugly admired the views.
Every paladar I sought out had its own story: I went dancing with waiters; I made pizza dough with chefs; it took me so long to find BellaHabana I ended up dining alone with the owner as the rest of the restaurant was shut.
This is one of the beautiful things about eating in Havana. The peculiar way the restaurant scene has developed means that the most interesting places are tucked away down back streets and inside people’s homes, and each one has found its own way to survive amidst the red tape tangle that is Cuba. You're unlikely to have the same experience twice.
With so much change in the country, the days of seeking out dining spots through unmarked doors and up sinister tower blocks may be numbered. But for now at least, Havana has a completely unique dining culture ripe for exploration.
Tyler Wetherall is a freelance travel writer and editor. Follow her on twitter @tylerwrites