Doctor Café is perhaps Havana´s most non-descript fine dining experience. The name inspires images of sandwich nibbling and coffee sipping on a Parisian sidewalk. The setting, a back patio in the residential neighborhood of Miramar, feels more homely than haute cuisine is accustomed.
The first hint that you might be about to indulge in some serious culinary skill is when the waiter recites the menu. From that point on, it’s all about the food.
When Doctor Café opened in 1996, the owner, Dr. Oscar de la Concepción, wanted to take advantage of Cuba´s new laws permitting private restaurants and offer his home cooking to the general public. Dr. Oscar began with the traditional Cuban creole cuisine: grilled pork, chicken and fish served with sides of fried plantains, black bean stew, and white rice.
Today the kitchen is professionally provisioned and staffed. The international fusion cuisine features rabbit in a selection of reductions, prime cuts of imported Uruguayan beef, and elaborate seafood preparations from ingredients pulled out of the same Caribbean Sea just a block away.
“We had to change our business model a few times because of Cuban law, as well as to meet the demands of our client’s palates,” Dr. Oscar told me after a dinner of roasted rabbit in a reduced malta sauce.
Dr. Oscar retired as a renowned obstetrician/gynecologist a few years back and handed over control of the restaurant to his children the past year. As we talk, I just can´t imagine this attentive and zen-calm man running between the operating room and his kitchen, as he did for 15 years.
But how do you retire from a restaurant located on the patio of your apartment? “This is a family business; we are a family of cooks and doctors so I have plenty of people to continue our success, and they live here too.”
It was during a visit to family in the United States that Dr. Oscar found inspiration for naming his restaurant. “The best Cuban food I have eaten outside of my country was at Victor Café in New York City, so I paid homage to them in our name.”
Dr. Café doesn´t publish a menu. This makes ordering tricky for first timers, since the offerings are extensive and universally appealing.
“Too often menus in Cuba offer food that the kitchen doesn´t have and I never want to give clients false expectations, so we only offer what we can prepare,” Dr. Oscar explains. “Besides, most of our guests are regulars and they know that when they walk in and tell our cook what they feel like eating, we will exceed expectations.” As a newbie, I appreciated the patient and multilingual wait staff.
Looking around during dinner, I couldn´t help but notice that most of the people showing up exchanged pleasantries with the staff and passed comments from table to table. Handshakes followed by embraces, rolling laughing, and back slapping are common sights and sounds.
Indeed, you won´t find Doctor Café by looking for tour busses parked outside the entrance.
“When these big groups come in, the quality of the food can´t be maintained to the standards we have now. Our market is regular guests and tourists stopping by on their own,” Dr. Oscar explains says as he explains his business model.
Perhaps that is why Doctor Café maintains the non-descript name and setting, not afraid to partially conceal itself amongst louder and flashier paladares. They let their food speak for itself, as their many loyal customers quietly spread the word of some of Havana´s finest international cuisine.
Doctor Café is located in Miramar on 28th street in between 1st and 3rd. It serves international fusion cuisine every day of the week until midnight, as it has for the past 18 years. Call (7) 203-4718 for reservations of indoor or outdoor seating.
Written by Graham Sowa.