Although the quality of hotel food in Cuba is slowly improving, the best food will consistently be found in paladares—private in-home restaurants. The same chef who formerly worked in a hotel preparing “B” –rated food will often elevate his skills to “A+” when cooking out of his own home. It’s funny how having an incentive improves one’s productivity and attention to details.
Paladares have been permitted in Cuba since 1994. Paladar means “palate.” It is derived from the name of the restaurant of the character Raquel in a popular Brazilian TV soap opera, Vale Todo (shown on Cuban TV). Owners often are very innovative, and the service is usually very good. During the last year, with the marked increase in American visitors, more paladares have appeared in Havana and throughout the country. On our recent expeditions in March and May, we found a nice variety of paladares to eat at. In one instance, travelers from our group looked out their hotel room window and saw a bar-b-q on an adjacent rooftop. It looked intriguing, so they checked it out and then arranged dinner there the following night. I also asked the hotel concierge for suggestions, and he recommended the Paladar Vistamar in the Playa District of Havana.
The next evening our group taxied west from our hotel and found the seaside restaurant. I had also invited a local Cuban couple whom I’ve known for nine years to join us. We were warmly greeted like special guests. We enjoyed a delicious meal at our table overlooking the ocean and the Straits of Florida. The restaurant is located in a private, ocean-front home that had been extensively remodeled. Other homes in the area had been badly damaged by decades of oceanfront conditions without being upgraded. We imagined what this stretch of homes could look like in five or ten years after they’ve been rehabilitated with foreign investment.
New paladares open in Cuba every month. Part of the fun on future trips will be searching them out, admiring the extensive remodeling, and enjoying the best food in Cuba.