Over the last few decades Havana Vieja (Old Havana) has been getting a facelift courtesy of the City Historians office. Now the torch is being passed to private business owners such as Yamil Alvarez of Paladar Los Mercaderes, appropriately named for its location on Mercaderes street a couple blocks from Plaza Vieja.
After watching the transformative restoration of their neighborhood that now draws more than a million tourists a year Yamil and his family decided to be part of the change and attempt to renovate Havana´s gastronomic scene.
Just over 10 years ago they moved to Havana Vieja by trading their former home for a fixer upper in Havana´s budding historic district. After three years of renovation work they had a complete house. Just over two years ago they fulfilled their dream and opened Los Mercaderes.
“We wanted to do something better,” Yamil explained to me a balmy spring afternoon before the dinner rush started. “We wanted a restaurant where we would want to go and we wanted to do it as a family project.”
“Family project” turned out to mean that his living room and master bedroom are now where more than 50 clients a night are served dinner. Meanwhile his daughter´s room is now part of the kitchen and bar.
The first thing that makes Los Mercaderes stand out, especially from its state run neighbors, is the quality of service. “All of our employees have profit sharing plans,” Yamil explains. “I get people with zero experience in the service industry and then we train them and they reap the rewards”.
Yamil´s cousin works in the kitchen as head chef, and unlike the waiters he has years of experience in some of Havana´s most well known paladares.
Paladares Los Mercaderes Dining Area
New takes on traditional Cuban dishes combined with the classic comida criolla makes up the menu at Los Mercaderes.
Ropa vieja (literally translated: old clothes) is usually shredded beef and sometimes pork. Here it is being served up as shredded lamb. They even go so far as combine it with grilled vegetables and shrimp stuffing it all into a hollowed out fried plantain. Perfect for soaking up some of those rum cocktails.
Eggplant lasagna and rice pilaf with vegetables and dried fruit are two great options for the vegetarian friendly part of the menu and are standouts as the most non-traditional dishes on the menu.
And if you order fish it might have been brought in by the owner himself.
Yamil is an avid spearfisherman and his catch goes to the restaurant kitchen. It is all part of having a connection with the food.
“We have contracts with organic farms in Guanabacoa (a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana)”. Yamil went on to explain that they are even bringing in seeds to grow cherry tomatoes and iceberg lettuce.
As his business prospered Yamil moved the family out of Havana Vieja a few miles away to the malecòn sea wall. Considering his success with Los Mercaderes it is probably safe to assume that his next paladar will have an ocean view.
Los Mercaderes is opened for lunch and dinner every day of the week with a 3 course “you-pick” lunch special. Directions are easy as it is within walking distance from anywhere in Havana Vieja at 207 Mercaderes between Lamparilla and Amargura. If you want one of the two balcony tables make your reservations well in advance at email@example.com or call at 7861 2437.
Photos and Text by Graham Sowa.