Eating in Havana
Less than a decade ago, in what Cubans refer to as the “Special Period” after the fall of the former Soviet Union, food shortages were so severe in Cuba that people were virtually starving. There is still a food ration system, and beef is so scarce that the prison sentences for killing a cow are greater than those for killing a man. Nor is fish plentiful since fishing is strictly prohibited. (Too many fishermen headed to Florida.)
So it’s not surprising that not too long ago Havana was as famous for its grim food as for its glorious architecture. With the recent loosening of restrictions on free enterprise, though, the culinary scene in Havana has had a real revival with dozens of paladares (in-home restaurants) opening each month. The first paladares appeared in the ’90s. As tourists began arriving in Havana, some enterprising families decided to cook traditional Cuban food and invite guests for dinner—for a fee, of course. The warm atmosphere and surprisingly good meals offered a wonderful alternative to the state-run restaurants. Apparently, the name paladar was given to these hot spots because a Brazilian soap opera that was popular in Cuba during the ’90s featured a chain of restaurants called Paladar, and the term has stuck.
Now that some restrictions have eased so paladares can have more then twelve diners an evening and may employ non-family members, there has been a veritable boom in the business with new, super-sophisticated places opening weekly. Unfortunately, it can be tricky securing a spot at some paladares as concierges in hotels prefer to steer guests to state-run restaurants or those where they are given free meals. The best way to assure that you eat in top paladares is to go through our connected guide who knows the restaurateurs.
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