Trinidad is almost too pretty. If such a thing is possible. Pink, yellow, green colonial houses line the cobbled streets where children play baseball, and old weathered men sit on doorsteps plucking melancholically on a guitar. No car ever drives faster than a horse and cart could carry you, and in the heat of the day, it wouldn't be surprising if the whole sleepy town ground to a happy halt.Read More
Underground restaurants may be a relatively new trend in the United States, but they’ve been happening for decades in Cuba. Paladares or ‘home restaurants’ have long served the best food in the country, and are now at the heart of Cuba’s newly invigorated dining scene.
Paladares didn’t always exist, and for several years the culinary culture of Cuba was arguably in decline. In 1968, the state assumed governance of all restaurants throughout the nation and many of these were a success. However, in the hard years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba’s main economic partner following the Revolution – and during the Special Period that followed, the country suffered from serious food shortages. Naturally, the priority was to meet the ‘basic needs’ of the people, not keep state-run eateries in good stock. Equally, for the average Cuban, dining out was a luxury they could no longer afford, and many of these restaurants closed down. Despite the rich culinary heritage of Cuba, the country gained a reputation amongst outsiders for poor cuisine.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineties that this situation began to improve. In 1993, amongst a wave of other reforms intended to boost the economy, Fidel Castro announced the legalization of more than 100 self-employed positions, such as in the food sector. Some paladares had probably existed illegally before, but now they were legitimate they could be taxed and regulated. In the mid-nineties, the first wave of official paladares opened up – small family-run operations with a government license to sell food to Cubans and tourists alike. Hosted in family homes, with the law stipulating that staff must be relatives, each paladar offered a completely unique dining experience: the wedding photos on the wall; the abuela rocking in a chair in the corner; and the kids occasionally peeking in from the kitchen or helping to wait tables. From tourists previously only seeing a state-sanctioned view of the food culture of Cuba, these paladares gave an insight into real Cuban life. More importantly, it offered Cubans the chance to supplement their state salary and run their own business legally and with a degree of independence.
Most paladares were simple mom-and-pop affairs serving up delicious comida cubana while some were more adventurous or glamorous. However, they were subject to certain conditions such as a limit on the number of seats and ban on ‘luxury’ foods such as beef and shellfish, reserved for the ongoing state-run operations.
It wasn’t until Raul Castro’s 2011 reform program again loosened the laws on private enterprise that the restaurant scene could truly flourish. In the months that followed more than a quarter of a million entrepreneurs applied for licenses, an estimated 22% of which were in the service industry. By 2012, new ventures were opening up every week, and today, there are close to 2,000 private restaurants.
Paladares have come a long way from simple family-run operations. Restaurants like Le Chansonnier with its high design interiors and chic French-inspired cuisine could compete with its Parisian counterparts and Casa Miglis could well be the only Cuban-Swedish fusion restaurant in the world. In the last few years, the dining scene has completely revolutionized to rival its capital city counterparts without losing its distinctly Cuban foundations. Better still, it is largely Cubans benefitting economically from these improvements, despite ongoing issues over taxation and bureaucracy. But there is further change on the horizon, as more than 20 state restaurants are about to become employee-run cooperatives, as part of a pilot experiment, with hundreds more to follow if successful. The pace of change in Cuba, in the dining scene and beyond, doesn’t look set to slow for some time.
As published in Insight Cuba, leading experts in people-to-people travel between US and Cuba.
"I've only got two weeks in Cuba; what should I see?" This is a question I get asked from a lot of holidaymakers wanting a taste of the country on a limited time schedule. So I thought I would share a recent itinerary I devised for one such traveler, which incorporates city, culture and beach. Days 1-3: Havana
Habana Vieja | Tyler Wetherall
Base yourself in Centro so you can just as easily explore the stunning colonial architecture of the old town, as you can head into Vedado, where you will do the most fulfilling eating, drinking and playing. Check out the best of your accommodation options in my previous blog here.
Spend at least a day getting lost in Habana Vieja, dodging bici taxis and cat calls to ogle the beautifully restored buildings of Calle Mercaderes and Plaza Vieja. I recommend the Preservation and Social Programmes Tour with San Cristobel travel agency (Calle Oficios #110 bajos, e/ Lamparilla y Amargura) to learn about the way funds from tourism are channelled back into restoration and social programs. This includes a visit to the Convento y Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Belen, a former ruined 17th-century convent turned active community center for the needy, which is always a moving and educational experience.
Castas y Tal | Tyler WetherallEat at any one of the many new paladares currently forging a contemporary Cuban culinary culture out of the previously dire dining scene. Castas y Tal (Calle E #158, e/ 9a y Calzada) and San Cristobel (Calle San Rafael # 469, Lealtad y Campanaro) are two of my personal favourites.
Music pulses through these streets, rattling out of vintage car radios or streaming from open windows, and you need to spend at least one night dancing till your eyes sting with sweat. Go for Miramar's El Diablo Tun Tun (Calle 20 esquina a 35, upstairs from La Casa de la Música) -- especially on a Thursday -- to get your hips swinging to the sweet beats of live salsa, though the dance floor gets hot with hip-grinding when the reggaeton starts up.
There are many potential sights, but the Cuban part of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artesgave me another perspective on Cuban cultural history through artists I had never encountered before, such as the deeply moving work of Antonia Eiriz.
Day 4-6 Trinidad
Trinidad | Tyler Wetherall
There are more casas here per square kilometer than anywhere else in Cuba, so you can have your pick of colonial residences, most dripping in antiques. Spend one day exploring the cobbled streets and churches of this 19th-century Spanish colonial settlement -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 -- ending with an evening drinking mojitos at Casa de la Musica. I woud take another day to explore the lush surrounding countryside of the Sierra del Escrambray diving into waterfalls and hiking up overgrown trails, or, for those with a higher tolerance for tourists and touts, do the beach bum thing on Playa Ancon. Make sure to dine at the hidden gem La Ceiba (#263 Pablo Pichs Giron) at some point during your stay.
Day 7-8 Santa Clara
Casa Hostal Florida | Tyler Wetherall
If that intellectual revolutionary has always fascinated you, come here for mass indulgence in Che hero-worship. With a museum dedicated his life's work, his mausoleum and the site where he ambushed an armored train in 1958, you'll come away with a better understanding of the man himself, or at least his legacy.
Santa Clara also has some of the country's most interesting and edgy night scenes thanks to the many students here. Although taking to Parque Vidal with a bottle of rum is just as satisfying: sit beneath one of the mighty palms, listening to a man strumming his guitar and watching the youth of the town dance their modern day courtship. Book into the Hostal Florida, one of the most beautiful casas in Cuba. If you can't get a room, have dinner in the on-site paladar located in their overgrown tropical garden terrace.
Day 9-13 Cayo las Brujas
Momo on Flickr | Some Rights Reserved
There are countless beaches full of tourists brandishing their all-inclusive wristbands, who spend their holiday in the air-conditioned sanctuary of tour buses or the sanitized resort bar. No matter the beauty of the beach, I find it an uncomfortable pleasure, and would much rather somewhere shared by locals. While you really need to get further afield, away from the well-developed, state-controlled cayos to find such a beach, Cayo las Brujas is one of your best options within reach of Havana. Public beach Playa Salina is little more than a strip of white sand, with wind-battered tattered palm shades, under which Cuban families on holiday enjoy picnics and loved-up honeymoon-ers splash about smugly in the shallow, turquoise waters, while at the other end is the average yet affordable Villa las Brujas.
Caibarién | Tyler WetherallI chose to stay in Caibarién, a study in precarious architecture and surreal small town idiosyncrasies. This is a place where horse and cart is still the most viable form of public transport, and by the afternoon you can't purchase a loaf of bread in the supermarket. It was an hour's drive to the beach by day, but by night we got something closer to real-life Cuba.
An alternative to Cayo las Brujas is to head back towards Havana through the Viñales region, and check out the lesser-explored coast of the Pinar del Río province such as the three kilometers of sandy beaches on Cayo Jutias or the more developed Cayo Levisa.
Although, as much as you plan, it's the unplanned adventures -- hitch-hiking along dusty streets in the midday sun, barbecuing freshly caught lobster on the beach, getting lost and finding yourself somewhere completely unexpected -- that makes any trip to Cuba worth taking.
Since Raúl Castro relaxed the laws on private enterprise, a new generation of restaurants is redeeming Cuba's bad food reputationRead More
You don't come to Cuba for the food. Well, you never used to come to Cuba for the food. Strict rationing, food shortages and far more serious issues on the collective plate for the last fifty years than fine dining led to the slow demise of culinary culture, and Cuba's reputation for serving up some of the lowliest fodder in the name of food. But last year, after Raul Castro opened up the laws on running private businesses such as paladares - home restaurants - a new generation of gastronauts emerged, and currently leading the pack are the men in white hats behind Havana's Café Laurent.
Even its physical presence is elevated. On the top floor of a Vedado apartment block, I spotted the twinkling lights long before I reached its door, though I never anticipated the problems I would have getting in. There was no visible sign street level, but a young smartly-dressed man with a clipboard asked if I was looking for Café Laurent. I nodded.
"Do you have a reservation?"
"No, do I need one?"
He made an apologetic face, and told me they were fully booked.
"It's only me," I said feeling disappointed and hungry. "I'm happy to sit at the bar."
We spoke for a few minutes about options, and then he recommended I try another restaurant around the corner. But Café Laurent was high on my list of tips to review for the GuidePal Havana City Guide I am working on, and I had little interest in going elsewhere. I explained the situation to him, but he wouldn't budge.
"You see, this other paladar is run by the same management. The food is just as good, so it's the same experience. Really atmospheric, authentic..."
As he spoke, he was encouraging me down the street with a persistant press in my lower back that made me instantly uncomfortable. It was that, as well as his eagerness to leave his post outside Café Laurent that made me realise what he was doing. He was clearly on commission from the other restaurant to poach Café Laurent's customers by pretending they were fully booked.
I politely declined, and walked away feeling foolish, while he returned to his perch just outside the gate. Scoping him out from the other side of the street, I was now certain he was a jinetero - a Cuban hustler - and I just needed to find a way past him to get to my dinner. Short of a run and barge tactic, I had no idea how to achieve that. Entering a restaurant doesn't normally require an exercise in subterfuge.
At that moment an elderly gentleman in uniform appeared from inside the building. He exchanged friendly words with the young man, and I wondered if I had judged him unjustly. They certainly looked like colleagues. I felt a momentary guilt for having slandered him, and nearly went to eat elsewhere, before deciding I had to trust my instincts. I approached the elderly gentleman.
"Excuse me, your colleague told me you were fully booked. Can you check there isn't space for one more?" I asked feeling deeply uncomfortable that the young man was stood right there listening.
"Fully booked? Not at all. Come with me!"
As he spoke the young man skulked away into the shadows, and I shot him an evil glare over my shoulder while making my way inside, victorious.
"Do you know he's trying to hustle your customers?" I asked once inside the adorable antique elevator.
The old man shrugged. "What can I do? If I tell him to go, others will come. Customers will get in or they won't. It's just what happens."
I was bewildered by his nonplussed attitude. I wanted incredulous outrage. But here in Cuba jineteros are an omnipresent part of every interaction, which might possibly involve foreigners, or more precisely, foreign money. They are Havana's mosquitoes; the daily irritant that buzzes about you incessantly.
Four floors up, the doors opened, and instantly I was brought out of the fugue of contemplating the dismal downsides of life in Cuba as a foreigner, because from the jaws of a jinetero, I had escaped into the most enticing of Cuban restaurants, like nowhere I had yet seen.
You read about cozy mom-and-pop paladares with home-cooked arroz y pollo or stiff government-run restaurants with tablecloths and soggy spaghetti, but not boutique Basque bistros buzzing with beautiful people.
Café Laurent has that bohemian chic aesthetic so in vogue right now, or something close to it. The 50s furnishings and walls papered with old newspaper cuttings gave it a retro vibe, and with the corner home-style bar and casual atmosphere there was a definitive dinner party atmosphere, especially on the terrace, full of raucous group parties.
The lighting was warm and atmospheric, the music trendy yet melodic, and the service superb placing it clearing in high-end territory. But then there were red herrings, like the bathtub in the toilets - a remnant of its former guise as someone's home - and the comedy translations on the English language menu such as fish strips instead of fish cakes, which reminded you happily that this was still Cuba.
I opted for a tall stool in the bar area, which looked out over the night lights of Vedado, and ordered myself a mojito to celebrate my perseverance. The menu has a strong European influence with a leaning towards Spanish cuisine in the jamon serrano starter or pargo con almejas y gambas en salsa verde (red snapper with clams and shrimp in green salsa). It was ominously all-encompassing however, stretching from meatballs to russian salad via tuna carpaccio, which goes far beyond the remit of what is possible in Cuba. This is a country in which finding ingredients is an exercise in miracle-making. I had my doubts.
I opted for the waiter's suggestion and had cordero lechal a la tabaca - lamb slow-roasted with a garlic, cream and mint reduction. It arrived perfectly presented with swirls of green, white and red over a lamb castle with a decorative crisp protruding at a jaunty angle. It had all the elements of nouvelle cuisine, just twice the size. The lamb was perfectly tender falling away from my fork, and the flavours complemented each other deliciously without being over complex. I struggled to finish the plate, which at CUC 11 seemed like a good enough deal.
A collaboration between Lorenzo Enrique Nieto and José Figueroa, their previous management of Havana Vieja's one time star paladar El Templete fades in comparison to what they've done here, with a lot of thanks to chef Dayron Aviles Alfonso, who has worked in both San Sebastien, Spain and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Every table was full with the stylish, dining-set of Havana, and no doubt tourists will be hot on their heels. With the gastronomic trend well in motion, since Café Laurent's opening last year, dozens of other paladares have followed in their path, testimony to the culinary revolution currently sweeping the city.
Cafe Laurent, Calle M, e/ 19 y 20 # 257 Penthouse, Vedado; Daily, 12noon - 12midnight; +537 831 2090