If you thought that all you were going to eat were black beans and plantains on your trip to Havana, guess again and get ready for an epicurean adventure. The restaurant scene is hopping with a burst of new paladares (privately owned restaurants) as well as the tried and true, which continue to captivate. The Cubans cook with culture, with necessity and a know-how on how to treat produce to bring out maximum flavour and texture. Havana is now a world city and all nationalities are represented here: think top-notch, Italian, Japanese and Lebanese plus excellent revisited Cuban fare. Don’t forget to make a reservation and buen provecho.
Havana's Japanese brasserie par excellence oozes urban chic. The name phonetically shouts Japanese, but actually translates to 'food' in Cuban slang. Grab a seat on the jet-black bar that spans the entire space and admire the scarlet mural of Godzilla and the Super Mario dragon spitting neon fire at each other while lounge music draws you into the fusion restaurant’s fold. The most sumptuous piña coladas on this side of the bay pair in tropical harmony with green curry prawns in coconut milk and snapper ceviche tostadas topped with marinated beetroot and onion. Classic Japanese dishes on offer include gyoza, sushi and chicken karaage with tamarind sauce.
Address: Aguiar #261B, between San Juan de Dios and O'Reilly
Contact: 00 537 864 2252; Instagram page
This café/boutique, owned by Cuban designer Loypa Izaguirre, is the stylish new kid on the block. With high ceilings and two large open doorways to view the city marching by, this cosy hotspot is where you want to be. Just a few years back Havana did not have a breakfast culture, but that has all changed and at Color Café you can find your quintessential morning meal (think waffles and seasonal fruit) plus excellent fare until midnight (try the entire baked red snapper with vegetables). On the second floor, up a staircase of giant blocks, is a tiny clothing and jewellery shop with irresistible unique pieces. The staff's infectious enthusiasm about the space and concept makes coming here twice the fun.
Address: Aguiar #109, between Chacón and Cuarteles
Contact: 00 535 909 7707; Facebook page
Havana’s first true breakfast spot is the place for everything fresh and local. Owner Nelson Tamayo Rodriguez, who brought his barista skills from London, turns out the perfect cup of coffee in this intimate Spanish Colonial row house. On offer is freshly squeezed juice, be it guava, pineapple, carrot, ginger, beetroot or a combination, plus delicious brunches with fried eggs, artisanal bacon and homemade sourdough bread. Vegans will eat up the grilled sandwich filled with roast peppers, aubergine, greens, avocado (when in season), hummus and a harissa-style spicy sauce. Be careful not to miss it – there is no sign outside.
Address: Amargura 358, between Aguacate and Villegas
Contact: Facebook page
El del Frente
For creative cocktails head to El del Frente, which serves incredibly ornate passion-fruit mojitos and guava daiquiris. Most renowned for their gin cocktails, there are a dozen to choose from, four of which are not on the menu. Try the Red Point made with aji cachucha (a slightly spicy aromatic pepper), orange bitters and lime. As for the food, for starters share the ceviche with avocado on plantain and be sure to try their inspired chicken tacos. The best vibe is on the rooftop bar. Ask for Wilson the manager, the embodiment of effortless cool.
Address: O’Reilly #303, between Habana and Aguiar
Contact: 00 537 867 4256; Facebook page
La Corte del Principe
Known by locals as 'Sergio's', after the unassuming superstar chef/owner, this alfresco Italian restaurant is a class act. There is no menu at La Corte del Principe, simply dexterous waiters dishing out the best Italian fare in town. Only the finest and freshest ingredients are found here. Everything, including the tantalising mojitos, are on point. Start with the refined and mouth-watering parmigiana di melanzane and follow up with tagliatelle ai funghi porcini or carbonara with pasta made in-house. For pudding, the tiramisu is a must.
Address: Avenida 9, corner Calle 74
Contact: 00 535 255 9091; Facebook page
If Havana becomes the next foodie destination, it will be due in great part to the innate skill of TocaMadera chef/owner Enrique Suárez. Located in the quirky home of an artist friend, Havana’s first gastropub serves up dishes new to Cuba, including torched tuna with Madagascar pepper, truffle risotto and lamb and mozzarella tartine. Food is sourced from three local farms, including agronomist Fernando Funes's organic farm project Finca Marta on the outskirts of the city. Much-loved Cuban contemporary artists display their work amongst the vintage typewriters and recycled paraphernalia that abound, giving new life to abandoned objects.
Address: Calle 38 #118, between Avenida 1 and 3
Contact: 00 535 281 2144; Facebook page
Have a seat on the sleek 1957 Bel Air sofa right next to the Wurlitzer jukebox and order Belview ArtCafé’s newly listed menu item 'El Gordo y El Flaco', which consists of shakshuka combined with a ham and cheese crêpe. The chocolate cream and banana crêpes are also a good bet as the bananas often come freshly picked from the trees in the backyard. The walls are lined with inspiring Cuba-themed photos in lightboxes by internationally acclaimed German photographer Sven Creutzmann. The café is now open evenings (Fri-Sun) so you can sit on the wraparound porch under the sultry Caribbean sky until late.
Address: Calle 6 #412, corner 19
Contact: 00 537 832 5429; Facebook page
To satisfy your next Lebanese food craving head to Beirut, the city's first Middle Eastern restaurant. This casual seafront spot serves up no-nonsense chicken shawarma sandwiches with garlic mayo and fresh veggies. For a more outlandish menu item, try the shawarma sushi made with Arabic rice and chicken wrapped in pita with garlic dipping sauce. Built on the success of Beirut, a second Lebanese restaurant, the elegant Amir Shisha (Facebook page), launched one neighbourhood over in green leafy suburban Miramar, where you can kick back on the expansive garden terrace, shisha in hand, while belly dancers swirl around.
Address: Calle 1ra #237, between A and B
Contact: 00 535 592 4333; Facebook page
Raulito Bazuk took the city by storm when he opened up a restaurant in his mother’s Vedado mansion, which soon became everyone's new favourite spot. For authentic Cuban cuisine at its best, try the pescado en blanco (grilled swordfish with yucca and garlic coconut emulsion), a dish that will ensure repeat visits. If you're feeling adventurous order the house specialty cocktail, Bazuk No1, which mixes garamango (a fermented drink made of mango peel), aged rum, sugar cane syrup and coconut liqueur. Raulito’s aim is to develop drinks, alcoholic or not, with natural products that are rich and intriguing.
Address: Calle E #562, between 23 and 25
Contact: 00 537 833 7882; Facebook page