Eating Out / Fernando Damaso

clip_image0021In Cuba, where the average monthly salary does not exceed 22 dollars (or 20 CUC), eating in restaurants, paladares and cafes amounts to a major economic sacrifice. They are out of reach for the average Cuban. Access is available only to a small number of people who can get in through legal, semi-legal or illegal means, or to resident foreigners and tourists. In other words, the number of potential clients (let’s not use the word “users”) is very limited, so both state-run and private restaurants compete to attract them.

State-run restaurants and cafes – with their characteristic inconsistency in quality, quantity, variety and level of service, not to mention their inflated prices – are the losers. Their employees spend most of the time worrying about the effect all the empty tables will have on their wallets.

In contrast private restaurants and cafes – generally noted for theirquality, quantity, variety, range of prices and good service, as well as their own unique identities – are the winners, packing people in both day and night. Things are not rosy for all of them, however. Some are only marginally successful, while others have had to close shortly after they opened due to financial problems.

Undoubtedly, those enjoying the greatest success have been establishments belonging to members of the Spanish and Chinese communities. They have been able to combine quality, quantity, variety, fair prices and good service with a pleasant atmosphere and unique style.

Close behind are those restaurants which have followed the same principles. These places always seem to be full and getting in to them can be difficult because of the high demand.

There are also some specialty restaurants – frequented primarily by members of the diplomatic corps and their guests, or by foreigners and tourists – which have maintained a culinary tradition going back many years.

In the rear you will find those places which, at great risk, have opted to go with so-called haute cuisine in a country in which the necessary suppliesfor this type of cooking, to say nothing of the potential clientele, are in short supply or do not exist. They stand empty, awaiting pending guests. Nevertheless, the variety is a healthy change, especially after years during which it was possible only to find “more of the same.”

Unfortunately, both state-run and private restaurants, paladares and cafes have begun imitating a practice common to other countries. They now routinely add an unfortunate “10% service charge” to the total bill as an obligatory tip. This ignores the healthy Cuban custom of allowing the customer to give the server a tip as a reward for good service. When not done as an obligation, it creates a degree of competitiveness among employees, raising the prestige of the restaurant. People seem to have adopted this undesirable practice, however, so I suppose we will have to learn to live with it.

Some private paladares and cafes, perhaps as a result of longstanding inertia, apply “socialist gastronomy management practices – cordoning off areas, halting service during a change in shift, charging for disposable containers to carry the food – without bearing in mind that with this option they are not offering table service, and they should amortize its cost, and announce lower prices on the menu items, which in reality are raised on having to pay for an accompaniment or garnish, added to a steak, pizza, or hamburger, just to name a few examples.

It is true that there are some, the few, priced in Cuban pesos (CUP), but the prices are equivalent in convertible pesos (CUC): It’s the same to pay seventy-two pesos (CUP) for a pizza or three convertible pesos (CUC). It’s just the same dog with a different collar.

There is no doubt that this whole culinary world here is very new, after half a century of its exercise being prohibited to individuals, but it would be advisable to set aside the schemes and focus on originality, both price and the quality of the dishes, which would be more competitive and, perhaps, help to increase the number of clients and ensure profitability, while not raising the purchasing power of ordinary citizens.

March 4 2013