Ever since the travel rules have loosened for Americans traveling to Cuba, Ashley and I could not wait to visit. It took two very patient years to finally make this a reality for us. Ashley and I landed at José Martí International Airport just outside Cuba’s capital city of Havana. Our dream of visiting Cuba, exploring its Afro-Caribbean cuisine, and diving into all the Havana restaurants had finally arrived.
We did not know what to expect out of the cuisine of Cuba or what the Havana restaurant scene had to offer. Friends and other bloggers did not seem to come home and rave about the culinary scene of Havana. Nothing like the praise Cuban-American cuisine gets in the States.
I knew that Cuba was a poorer country and had a notion that the cuisine was going to be unrefined. Nothing fancy, just the basics you need to survive. That was okay for us, some of my favorite dishes to eat from around the globe are unrefined. I spend a lot of time eating street food anyways.
Ashley and I were determined to find the good stuff though. The tables and cuisine away from the tourists and made for the locals. We wanted to find the types of places where the Cubans go with their family and friends to eat. You know, the local Havana restaurants that serve up the best of the best Cuba has to offer.
Sadly, reality of the poverty in Cuba, sank in. As we struggled through the masses of tourists that packed the streets, we could not find any locals sitting at the tables.
Just boisterous rum drunk French, German, and Italian tourists filled the seats that we wanted so desperately to be filled with locals. The menus seemed to have been overrun by Italian cuisine and nothing really seemed Cuban, nothing seemed traditional, and Ashley and I were wondering were the good local stuff was.
Where Are All the Locals?
We found out quickly the reason you do not see many locals sitting in the multitude of Havana restaurants: The average local can not afford these restaurants. The restaurants which are owned by locals, if you are eating at paladares, focus on catering to Europeans which is their largest tourist group.
The largest issue is the two currencies that are in circulation in the country. The locals use a currency called the CUP and the tourist currency is the CUC. All of Havana restaurants run off the the CUC as it is stronger than the CUP and almost equal to the dollar at all times. The locals however, are paid in and live off of the CUP which is 25 CUP to 1 CUC. This makes it impossible for the local population to go out and enjoy the restaurants in Havana. The monthly wage for a Cuban ranges between 400-700 CUP which is 15 to 26 CUC a month.
The average main dish at Havana restaurants is between 7 and 15 CUC, which is affordable for most tourists but the locals are left out in the street because it is not possible to afford a meal at these restaurants.
Ashley and I had a really hard time finding restaurants with a good meal because we tend to look at the clientele and if it is mostly tourists we tend to pass it by (like we do in Barcelona). What do you do then when every restaurant is filled with only tourists? Well, you end up spending your whole trip with hit and miss meals and a sadness that most of the Havana restaurants are not there to celebrate and serve Cuban cuisine but cater to the European tourists.
However, there are a few gems in the Havana restaurant scene and the ones we did find are bursting with flavor, cheap for us anyways, and filled with energy. While they may not cater to locals, they are still focused on serving local Cuban cuisine and not just pizzas and pastas.
Eat Local in Havana – The Best Havana Restaurants
Here are our best places to eat local in Havana and these Havana restaurants all focus on local cuisine and are owned by locals. Even though you may not find any locals here hopefully that will change as Cuba opens up more and allows more locals to have the opportunity to reclaim their restaurants and their cuisine. These Havana restaurants have a lot to offer and hopefully we will see the trend move away from generic international restaurants and start to embrace the cuisine of the island as more restaurants like these pop up!
457 A Bajos Teniente Rey, Old Havana
Out of all the Havana restaurants, El Chanchullero is hands down the best restaurant we had dinner at. If Ashley and I were not writing this eat local guide we would have ate here every night. It is no secret that this place was good as every night there’s a line to grab a table. Do not worry the line moves fairly quick and this place is always worth the wait.
This Havana restaurant is decorated with scenes of the revolution and fascist art but the trendy vibe suggests this is probably a farce especially with the amount of Abba and Beatles played and the main clientele. It has three stories designed around this concept giving the place an edgy vibe. The first two floors are filled with tables and happy patrons eating away while the rooftop is a bar and a perfect place to slurp down there 2 CUC mojitos. If you just want to drink you can skip the long line for food and head straight for the rum and their cocktails are good!
Even though their cocktails are amazing, their food really steals the show. It is reasonably priced and will not break the bank and the proportions here are huge. The main dishes could easily be shared, especially their ropa vieja which is gigantic! There is not a single dish on the menu that is over 6 CUC. This is truly one of the cheaper Havana restaurants and they deliver on flavor as well.
If the staff offer you a chance to wait for a table up on the terrace I would take it. The staff here has it together and will not forget about you. Order one of there amazing daiquiris and relax and enjoy the warm Havana night!
On the Corner of Calle Mercaderes and Calle Amargura, Old Havana
Café Habana is a great lunch spot in downtown Havana. It is a modern looking restaurant connected to a coffee shop. The place was always bustling with happy patrons every time we walked by. The best deal there is the half chicken for a whopping 4 CUC along with a big helping of moros y cristianos which is a staple of Cuban cuisine made up of white rice and black beans cooked together. You can find this side dish almost everywhere in Cuba.
Ashley and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of Café Habana. This would be my top lunch place for Havana Restaurants. Devouring half of a chicken and washing it down with a couple of Cristals, the local beer, made for a perfect afternoon.
They do have other options on there menu. Their burgers seemed to be popular amongst the European tourists eating with us. We are in Cuba though and chicken and pork reign supreme as their local ingredients so it was an easy choice for us to go with the chicken.
La Paladara Familia
65 San Juan de Dios, Old Havana
If you have spent anytime in Havana you have probably run into someone trying to get you into this restaurant. This restaurant probably has the most aggressive street campaign to get tourists in this restaurant.
Ashley and I have a hard rule of not going to any restaurant that hassles people on the street. Somehow, Ash and I were tricked into La Paladara Familia. We, still don’t really know how it happened. In the end it did not matter because we were pleased with our meal. La Paladara Familia is on the higher end, price wise, of Havana restaurants. The traditional and very popular cuban dish ropa vieja is 15 CUC which is pretty pricey for this dish.
Ropa vieja is a staple Cuban dish. The name ropa vieja translates to old clothing. The story behind it is that a poor family were so hungry and that the father decided to cook his clothes in order to feed his family. As he cooked this meal for his family the clothes magically turned into beef, creating this rich and hearty stew.
Do not worry you will not be eating someone else’s clothes. Instead you will be enjoying stewed shredded beef with onions, peppers, and spices. Alongside the pile of beef is usually moros y cristianos.
I would suggest sitting on the rooftop patio where there is music and a bustling atmosphere. Be warned though that they do run out of a lot of their dishes and do not always have their specials and only magically have the more expensive menu options available.
On the Corner of La Compostela and Calle Obispo
La Dichosa is a very popular spot for people to eat and drink while listening to music. There is constantly live salsa music here and you will easily be able to pick out the restaurant by the crowd of people dancing outside. Ashley and I were drawn in by the music one night and could not pass it up the great special they were running. For a low price of 10 CUC you got a tail of lobster, rice, dessert, a cocktail and a coffee. We don’t usually go for dinner specials but this one seemed to be worth a try.
Lobster is the main fresh seafood you will find in Cuba. Due to sanctions Cubans are not allowed to go very far out to sea to fish but they can still catch lobster closer to shore. You will see lobster on the menu throughout Havana restaurants and the rest of costal Cuba
If you are not a fan of lobster like the lovely Ashley (I know it’s weird) you can get the special with chicken marinated in a mojo criollo, or a garlic, salt, and bitter orange sauce, which is also a very common marinade throughout Cuba.
Ashley and I accompanied our meal with two heavy handed mojitos while enjoying their live music. This place has a lively vibe and it was one of the few places we saw a couple locals drinking up at the bar.
La Dichosa is right across the way from a popular money conversion place on the corner of Calle Obispo and Compostela. They have live music all day so head for a bite to eat and wait for the money line to shorten before you send somebody to hop into line. You will be happier waiting once you have a full stomach.
On the Corner of Calle Monserrate and Calle Obrapia, Old Havana
For most Americans when we think of Cuban cuisine we think of the food cooked in a Cuban-American kitchen somewhere in Miami. We think of the delicious grilled cubanos bursting with flavor. In Cuba you won’t really find a cubano sandwich but you will find a plethora of ham and cheese sandwiches, some of which are quite close to a cubano.
Bar Monserrate was the closest place I came to having a cubano in Havana. They serve their version on toasty bread filled with pork steak, sliced ham, and cheese. It is delicious and filling and the sandwich put us back about 4.50 CUC.
The Ropa Vieja was quite tasty as well served along a side of rice, mashed plantains, and veggies for 5 CUC. Along with a couple of beers the whole meal came out to around 18 CUC including service. For Havana restaurants, this is a really reasonable deal for a place to eat. Bar Monserrate also had a high energy vibe with live music made you want to get up and dance, especially after consuming a few beers!
Chicken Sandwiches from Vendor
On Calle Neptuno between Calle Industria and Calle Consulado, Central Havana
We have no idea what the name of this place is and never quite figured out the best time to come however, it is worth searching out. One of our first days in Havana, we walked up to their street counter and saw that they were making delicious looking chicken sandwiches for 2 CUC a pop. We grabbed a couple to go and devoured them. They were the perfect afternoon snack to eat in the nearby Parque Central. The bread was soft, the chicken moist and the vinegar soaked with onions gave it a jolt of brininess.
From that point forward we were never able eat those delicious chicken sandwiches again. Every time we went back they either seemed not to be making them that day or they had run out. We were never really able to figure it out when they had them.
However, the vender is on Neptuno street and worth a quick walk by especially if you are staying in Central Havana and heading into Old Havana. Because if they are making those delicious chicken sandwiches it will be a treat for your tastebuds!
There is quite a lot of street food available in Havana although most of it is snacks. You can always find people selling paper cones of peanuts and you will see most locals pick these up for a small amount of change. We also found cubanitos, which are fried chips that are then dusted in sugar. Cubans love their sugar so a lot of the street foods use sugar. It is common to find churros available on almost every street corner in Old Havana and we also found these lovely molasses cookies being sold out of someone’s home just off Calle Neptuno.
Keep an eye out for these street food because they offer a cheap and wholly local snack options. Just be sure you have small change on you to pay for them or even some CUP!
On Calle San Ignacio, Old Havana
This little cafe is on Calle San Ignacio and it a great pit stop after a day walking around Old Havana, especially since it is located quite close to Plaza de la Catedral. They have cheap sandwiches and beer although the prices on the menu may not be updated, as it was when we visited.
Sandwiches were nothing special like most ham and cheese sandwiches but for $2.85 they were filling and a quick lunch and perfect for us as we were on a very strict budget our last few days. The main dishes looked delicious especially the 4.85 cuc ropa vieja with moros y cristianos and the ubiquitous cabbage salad. While nothing to write home about, this cafe is there when you just need something quick to eat or maybe just a few beers!
Parque Coppelia, Vedado
Coppelia is very popular with the local Cuban population. It is known for their extremely cheap ice cream and if you want to eat with locals, this is the place to go.
Coppelia was created by Castro to bring his love of ice cream to the people of Cuba. Truly he wanted everybody to love ice cream as much as him. The funny thing is that it worked. Cubans LOVE their ice cream. During USSR collapse the Cubans could only serve one flavor a day because of food shortages (as they received most of their food staples from Russia) and that was a big issue for them. Coppelia, however made it through and today it is so popular that there are hordes of people waiting for this ice cream.
This large Cuban ice cream shop looks like a giant UFO and has several lines you can join depending on if you want to sit inside or out or take it to go and how you want to pay.
We ended up in the CUP line and paid just $1CUP each for an ice cream cone of indeterminate flavor. It was somewhere between vanilla and bubblegum. We were the odd ones out as most of the Cubans were ordering two or three for themselves and some people even brought buckets to be filled up.
This also a great place to grab cheap water. We snagged a 1.5l bottle of water for just .45 CUC which is awesome on a hot a blistering day.
Also pay attention to what line you get into. We ended up in the CUP line that only had one flavor but we could have waited in a different line for a different currency and more flavors. It is amazing how big this place is and it definitely seemed like the afternoon activity for local Havanans.
Peña Pobre 114, Old Havana
La Makina is on the edge of Old Havana and has a great rooftop dining space. The menu is small but the food they prepare is superb with an enormous amount of flavor. We tried their ceviche with basil for 5.40 CUC and it was one of the freshest dishes we tried in Havana. The bright citrus flavors and the sweetness of basil accompanied the fish well and was nice and light for the warm night. We had to try their ropa vieja as well and it was seriously THE BEST in town and only put me back 7.00 CUC.
This restaurant is more upscale and has a few items over 10 CUC but the food is well worth it. Beers are only 2.20 CUC allowing you to cool yourself off for a fair price. They also know how to make a balanced and delicious cocktail and if they have their fresh strawberry daiquiri you should order it as there really is nothing more refreshing on a warm afternoon.
La Makina was one of the more interesting (flavor wise) culinary experiences that we had and we would go back to this Havana restaurant any day!
Their dining space is limited and they do take reservations so if you don’t want to wait I would suggest making a reservation.
Havana really challenged us when it came to eating local. We love eating with the locals, but Havana does not really give you a chance as everything is built for tourists and has been for a long time now.
Havana’s culinary scene seems to still be finding its own unique identity. Ash and I hope that next time we visit Havana we will see a growth in this part of their culture. Havana and Cuba in general is so vibrant and full of life, that we would love to see this reflected in their cuisine! We would love to see the local cuisine and the Havana restaurant scene represent exactly that, the locals.
Also we hope to see the money start going to the locals a little more so they can start enjoying a night out as well. This has certainly been started with the locals being able to open their homes up with the casa paticulares and creating their own restaurants, the paladares. Hopefully soon there also will be a system in place for local Havana restaurants to get the ingredients they need from a wholesale source and not just from the local markets.
If Cuba starts to increase their focus from cash crops to local produce we also could see the evolution of Cuban cuisine as well. There are many factors that need to come together to help Cuba and Havana build a local culinary scene and hopefully as time goes on we will see that happening. We believe that once the locals start heading to the restaurants they will not have to cater to the tourist.
There’s a lot of going on right now in Havana and a lot of money is coming in. You can see it with the constant construction of the roads and the buildings. They are growing and one day I can see this city becoming a hotspot for cuisine and we will be there the day it happens. Until then, we will keep supporting efforts to eat local in Havana!
Heading to Cuba soon? Don’t forget to buy travel insurance! Sure you may not use it but its always good to have. We recommend World Nomads which we have been using for years and have always made us feel secure as we travel around the world!
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