Impact of the Revolution
Prior to the Revolution, Cuba had good restaurants. Once Castro took over, however, many of the people who owned or dined in Cuba’s better restaurants fled the island, leaving behind a desert of culinary knowledge. In 1967, the government took over all of Cuba’s restaurants. As government funds became tighter and the food production and distribution system became increasingly inefficient, the quality of restaurants plummeted. These days, food shortages are still common across the island, especially in more rural regions.
Fortunately, since 2011 there has been a boom in private restaurants and a corresponding surge in the quality of food that is available in Cuba. Larger cities now have ample dining options, and even state-run restaurants are getting tastier. The country’s leadership, it seems, has realized that economic improvements can result from promoting a higher-quality culinary culture. To experience this for yourself, consider taking a proper culinary tour of Cuba.
Where to Eat
Private restaurants, known as paladares, typically have the best food in Cuba. Paladares have been around since 1994. Restrictions on these restaurants were loosened up in 2011, and since then the quality of food has skyrocketed. Foreigners and Cuban-Americans financed many of the larger paladares. The types of food offered in these restaurants vary greatly — there’s everything from criolla (Cuban fare) to upscale Italian meals on the menu. The service is often much better in paladares than the state-run restaurants, and the meals tend to be more inventive. In big cities like Havana and Santiago, you’ll have ample options at your fingertips.
Street stands serve up cheap food across the island. These restaurants are mainly frequented by Cubans and have prices listed in pesos (as opposed to CUC). The quality of food in these restaurants is unremarkable. The prices, however, are dirt-cheap. Nearly every street stall sells slices of pizza. The pizza is doughy, cheesy, and simple. It can’t hold a candle to anything from New York or Chicago, but if you’re on a budget and super hungry, it will do the trick. Other local staples include cheese sandwiches, pork sandwiches, and corn fritters. Do note that the hygiene at street stalls is often iffy — you’re much more likely to get sick from eating in these restaurants than in paladares or state-sponsored restaurants.
You’ll find fast food chains called El Rápido across the island. The offerings at El Rápido are basic. Generally, the best food you can find is a simple sandwich or a slice of pizza. The Dimar chain of restaurants sells decent seafood in Cuba’s larger cities.
Grocery stores are almost non-existent in Cuba. The grocery stores operated by the state sell appalling produce. To find better fruits and veggies, be on the lookout for private produce markets known as mercados agropecuarios (or simply agros) — you can get a variety of veggies here, including cucumbers, chard, carrots, tomatoes, and onions.
While eating in a restaurant, there’s a good chance that local musicians will play songs for the entire dining room or cuddle up next to your table for a private set. During a break in the music, the musicians generally go around to tables selling CDs or asking for a tip. If you like the music, buy a CD or leave a small tip.
In most casa particulares, breakfast options tend to be similar. Eggs are cooked over easy or as an omelet. Bread, butter, and jam are on the table, as is fresh fruit and juice. Fruit options generally include papaya, watermelon, pineapple, and bananas. Meats (usually ham) and cheeses are sometimes included. Coffee is served from a thermos.
In hotels, the breakfast offerings are similar but typically a higher quality. Breakfasts may be served as a buffet, and will also include an array of continental options, including cereal and yogurt.
Lunch and dinner have similar offerings. Meat, including chicken and pork, figures heavily into the rotation. Pollo asado (grilled chicken), pollo frito (fried chicken), cerdo asado (roast pork) are all very common. These are usually served along with plantains and a small salad; you’ll also find arroz congrí (rice and red beans) and moros y cristianos (rice and black beans) paired many of these dishes. Beef is expensive in Cuba, and most paladares don’t serve it; you will, however, find dishes like prime rib and filet mignon in more upscale, tourist-oriented restaurants. Along the Zapata Peninsula, you can even find alligator and crab meat.
If you’re not in the mood for meat, you might try seafood. The most common fish include corvina (sea bass), pargo (red snapper), and filet de emperador (swordfish). Langosta (lobster) and camarones (shrimp) are also popular and often served with a red salsa. Do note that the seafood in Cuba is fresh but can tend to be overcooked, especially the lobster.
Few restaurants offer vegetarian fare. Even non-meat food is often cooked in pork fat or will contain small chunks of meat. You can, however, find simple salads in most restaurants. The salads typically include lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Oil and vinaigrette dressing is offered on the table. Plantains are common and are usually served fried. You will also encounter sweet potatoes and yucca in Cuba.
For dessert, you can enjoy flan or sponge cake. The sponge cake is a local favorite and is served on the cheap at local bakeries. The bakeries also sell churrizos, which are similar to doughnut rings, and sweet biscuits known as galletas. In the area around Baracoa, you can find coconut-based desserts, including coconut pudding and cucurucho, which is made from coconut, sugar, and honey. Ice cream parlors, known as heladerías, sell a variety of ice cream.
What to Drink
Water should be purchased by the bottle or filled up from filtered stations in hotels. You can find both carbonated (con gas) and non-carbonated water (sin gas) in Cuba. In terms of soft drinks, you can find Coca-Cola or the Cuba equivalent, Tropicola, in many stores; Fanta, or the Cuban-made Najita, is also available. Malta is very popular with Cubans. This nonalcoholic drink tastes like a mix between root beer and an English stout.
Fruit juice is offered at street stalls and in casa particulares. Guarapo — fresh sugarcane juice — is popular, as is lemonade and other chilled juices. You’ll also likely see prú on signboards. This refreshing drink mixes fruit, sugar, roots, and herbs.
Coffee sold at street stalls is strong and bitter. Known as a cafecito, it’s served in small cups and sweetened with sugar. Café con leche — coffee with hot milk — is offered at more tourist-oriented restaurants. Café americano is coffee mixed with hot water.
As far as alcohol goes, Cuba is famous for its rum. Cuba has about 12 rum distilleries, which produce around 60 different brands of rum. The quality of the rum can vary significantly from one brand to the next. Every brand usually has three types of rum: white rum (carta blanca), aged 3 years; golden rum (carta oro), aged 5 years; and añejo, aged 7 or more years. Havana Club’s rums tend to be the best. White rum is mostly used in Cuba’s classic cocktails, including daiquiris and mojitos, both of which were favorites of Hemingway.
The daiquiri is named for a Cuban town just east of Santiago. The drink consists of shaved ice, sugar, lemon, white rum, and is served semi-frozen in a martini glass. The mojito is another classic Cuban drink. It consists of ice cubes, sugar, lime juice, mint, rum, soda water, and bitters. It’s refreshing and available nearly everywhere. Finally, there is the Cuba Libre, which was named in honor of the war cry once issued by the revolutionary army (the name means “Free Cuba”). This drink consists of añejo rum, Coca-Cola, ice cubes, and lemon juice.
Liqueurs are also available, including those made from coffee, cocoa, guava, and pineapple. In Pinar del Río, you can find guayabita, a liqueur made from guava and rum.
Two beers dominate the Cuban beer market: Cristal and Bucanero. Cristal is a light lager and has a lower alcohol content than Bucanero, which is a stronger lager. Imported brands like Heineken are sold in hotels and CUC stores.