Cuba - Overview & Restaurant Recommendations

We had a fabulous time in Cuba and were charmed by so much of our experience; the architecture, people, the history and style. However, in Mexico City we met someone who hadn't enjoyed Havana. We were baffled, why hadn't they liked the city that we had enjoyed so much? Well, it seems Havana can be a difficult place to navigate. It's a city where you need to know where to go to get a good meal and you'll need to make your plans before you get there - after all you may not have access to wifi once you arrive. You'll need reservations for the best places and you'll need to call them directly. 

I guarantee there are two things you will find consistently and without any effort in Cuba ; music and excellent rum based drinks. Here we are enjoying a pina colada and a limonada at the  famous Nacional Hotel in Havana. I confess I drank a lot of daiquiris too!
Yes there are some hassles in Cuba. If you don't know where you're going, and even if you do, you'll run into jinteros - slick hawkers or hustlers who will strike up conversation and quickly steer you towards an establishment where they are paid a commission. They come in several different varieties; the aggressive street callers, thrusting menus into your hands and the more subtle new "friends" you'll meet who soon switch from complimenting you for coming to Cuba, to requesting money often in guise of milk for their children. It helps to know that all Cuban children get milk at school and as you know already know it's always best to make donations through recognized programs - of which there are many. These hassles didn't bother us,  and the Cuban jinteros are in no way the worst hucksters we've met in our travels. They reached neither the heights of persistence of the touts in India, nor the levels of aggression  of those we encountered in Senegal. But, such experiences  are subjective, if you've never encountered these kinds of street hustlers it can indeed be disconcerting, and  indeed disheartening to find a that a connection you've made was really just a way to make money. However, I'd caution you not to take it too personally. Given  disparities of wealth between visitors and the locals, and the desperate need for many Cubans have to generate additional income, these petty "scams" shouldn't be altogether unexpected.
So, what else do you need to know? Well, it's important to understand that Cuba is a society with a dual economy and a dual currency which also means you're going to encounter two different types of restaurants. The CUP is the standard Cuban currency. This is the currency within the state system. If you're a state employee ( and most employed Cubans are) you'll be getting your salary in CUP and you probably aren't making much more than $30 USD per month. Yes, doctors, lawyers, economists and university professors $30 per MONTH. Hard to believe but true. This currency can be spent at government run establishments, markets, cafes and restaurants and most importantly this is the currency Cubans use to buy their monthly ration of subsidized food stuffs. Over the last few years the Cuban government has opened up the economy to allow for small private enterprises which include but are not limited to privately run restaurants called "paladares" and bed and breakfasts known as "casa particulares". These industries  (and everything in the non-government sector) runs on the CUC or the "convertible peso" which converts at around one CUC for one USD. This is the currency you'll be using for everything as a tourist. Though it's a one to one exchange with the dollar  you'll be charged a 10% tax for converting US currency so it's better to bring Euros - all very complicated! You don't get a great exchange rate on the Euro but it beats the dollar!
This move has allowed locals to benefit from tourism - though the scale of the differences between the currencies has upset a fragile economic equilibrium. Hence we met a cardiologist who has quit medicine to run a bed and breakfast. By renting two rooms for one night, with breakfast, he can make three months of his previous salary. But it's a vicious circle, teachers at his children's  school are not showing up daily as they've taking additional employment in the private sector, and he is having to hire tutors to make up the difference.
The photo above and below give you an idea what a good meal at a casa particular might look like. We were often served a soup, salad, a main, rice, beans and fruit, in addition to bread and the main course, above in Vinales I had fish and D. had ribs. You'll find simple, plain cooking and you shouldn't expect spicy food as Cubans don't seem to be fans of hot peppers! Below is a beautiful fish we shared in Trinidad.

Where does all this leave you? Well you're probably going to want to eat at one of the new paladares. By local standards they are outrageously priced and you're going to find yourself eating predominantly with foreigners but you'll also be eating the best food available in charming surroundings. Some of the restaurants are stunning and several were very memorable in their location and style. You need to be flexible and happy to take a taxi as these restaurants are scattered throughout Havana. Outside of Havana we ate primarily in the case particulares, but in Havana we took full advantage of the restaurant scene so I have several recommendations.
Dona Eutimia - Recommended by the lovely people at Estancia Bohemia (where we stayed) this is a comfortable, small restaurant  where you can try  traditional Cuban cuisine with dishes like Ropa Vieja (below). Photographed above, it's a cozy rather small place and you'll need to make a reservation is it's incredibly popular. The staff are incredibly friendly and they insisted we try some local rum as a digestive on the house. 
Our meal with drink ran around $35. Down at the end of a small street near the main cathedral square you'll have to pass a gauntlet of hawkers on the way to this incredibly popular and cozy place. On the same street Esto No Es Un Cafe was also recommended and we were delighted by their sign which announced, "we do not support the muggers on the corner".
La Guarida - If I could only recommend one restaurant in Havana this would be it. La Guarida (above) is one of the most atmospheric places I've ever eaten. The international food was excellent and the service was professional. Located in the Centro neighborhood of Havana this is a fascinating place. When you arrive in you think perhaps you've made a mistake but the bouncer at the door tells you to head up the  elegant marble staircase. The building is magical, it's a perfect blend of elegant, dilapidated charm, and if it looks like a film set that because it was the backdrop for "Fresa y Chocolate". Just when you think it's nothing but a crumbling ruin you find yourself in the restaurant which is situated in a series of elegant historic dining rooms. After dinner we made our way up the surprising glass encased staircase up to their roof deck. It reminded me bars of Bangkok or New York with beautiful staff and sophisticated lighting. The whole place was stunning so make sure you make it up there after dinner.
Cafe Laurent - Located in a rooftop flat in Verdado and photographed below, Cafe Laurent is well worth searching out. We had a charming,  seafood meal on the outdoor terrace with the unusual experience of taking a lift up there in what is  a residential apartment building. The  modern food was superb and  the views lovely, I'd highly recommend this restaurant. Our meal with drinks was around $60.
El Cocinero - This restaurant in Verdado was recommended  for its proximity to Fabrica del Arte a stunning converted warehouse that is  a fascinating music and arts venue. I highly recommend visiting it for the fun, club like atmosphere but note it's only open on Thursday through Sunday evenings. El Cocinero is right next-door and it's a sophisticated place, we ate outside on their beautiful terrace pictured above. The food was good, but overall I thought there was a little more style than substance. I wasn't wowed by the grilled octopus appetizer  and thought my lobster was overcooked, but D. liked his main course very much. However I liked the style, including a hip rooftop bar which was filled with a happening local crowd. Rather like the bar at La Guarida this is a space that wouldn't be out of place in Miami or New York.
CervecerĂ­a Antiguo AlmacĂ©n de la Madera y Tabaco - I'm not a fan of beer so why am I recommending a craft brewery? We passed this place on the way in from the airport and it looked charming. I'm recommending  it for the great  dockside location in a converted lumber and tobacco warehouse. Even if you don't like beer it's a delightful, casual place to have something to eat along with a mixed local and tourist crowd. The food is straightforward but rather good and we enjoyed sitting  outside overlooking the water. Our meal with drinks was just over $20.

Several more Havana restaurants were recommended to us that we didn't have time to try, including; 304 O'Reilly, El Litoral and Rio Mar, all of which are highly rated on Trip Advisor. 

Sol Ananda - In addition to the restaurants in Havana I think it's worth mentioning  Sol Ananda  where we ate in Trinidad. This is an extraordinary place and it's hard to describe. 
The restaurant is housed in a beautifully restored colonial building on the Plaza Major in Trinidad. The work of a architect with a great sense for interior design the restaurant is quite unique in that the owners have restored the rooms regardless of the fact it's a restaurant! We ate in a room decorated in a French Empire style which (as you can see) featured a bed! This isn't the only bed in the restaurant as the wine cellar is set up as a spectacular Art Deco bedroom. The whole place has the feeling of an art installation. The food is equally eclectic with Indian influences and some excellent vegetarian options. While I enjoyed the food I'd recommend this place primarily for the overall experience.
Overall Cuban food can't compete with the sophistication or flavor of Mexican cuisine but you can eat well in Havana and elsewhere and it's well worth doing a little research to make sure you do!