Ivan Garcia 25 January 2017 — In the poor and mostly black neighborhood of San Leopoldo, cradle of the picaresque, clandestine businesses and the sex trade in Havana, is found La Guarida, probably the best private restaurant in Cuba — which are known as “paladares.”
The business is run by Enrique Nunez, a telecommunications engineer converted into an empresario of the ovens, and dinner for four people, wine included, is no less than 160 dollars, from the wallets of some tourists dazzled by the opening of small family businesses on the part of the Communist regime.
Folklore, poverty and glamor at times click. La Guarida is flanked by a rundown tenement of narrow rooms and an ostentatious central staircase with hints of art deco.
On the same street, where the neighbors sit in iron armchairs and on little wooden benches in the doorways of their houses, brand new cars with diplomatic plates park, with tourists or government heavyweights.
Romello, 65, born and raised on Virtudes Street, very close to the prestigious paladar, remembers when “the Queen of Spain, Maradona and a ton of famous people have come here to eat.”
But asked if he has ever dined or had some drinks in La Guarida, the guy smiles and shakes his head. “What it is man, this paladar is for millionaires. They tell me a beer costs five bucks and a plate of shrimp is no less than 15,” he says, while walking over to the wall of the Malecon with an improvised fishing pole.
Reservations at La Guardia can be made on the internet. “But it’s a hassle to book a table. It’s always full,” says a Spaniard. In paladares like San Cristóbal, La Guarida or La Fontana, recommended by international haute cuisine magazines, and where a family dinner can cost more than 200 dollars, it is almost mission impossible to reserve a table the same day.
There is a route in Havana, inserted into the usual tourist itineraries, whether it is the area of the old city, El Vedado or Miramar, where lunch in a private restaurant is at least 25 dollars a person.
The success of the paladares on the island is a combination of the tenacity and creativity of their owners. Despite the scarcity of supplies, traditional or international cuisine is given a touch of the gourmet with a certain level of quality.
They have been catapulted to success thanks to the thunderous failure of the state food service, full of idlers and thieves who are profiting from the food they can steal from the diners.
Thomas, a Swiss tourist, says that in the Parque Central Hotel restaurant, supposedly five stars, “a dinner for four people, with tomato soup and sirloin steak which did not stand out in its presentation, cost me 120 dollars. So when I visit Cuba I prefer to eat in the paladares. Although the prices go up every year and sometimes the quality doesn’t. But it is always preferable to the state restaurants.”
According to information published on 20 October 2016 in the state newspaper Granma, in Havana there are more than 500 private restaurants. But around 150 of them would be classified in the category of most demanding and successful paladares.
And it is precisely in this category where the prices have increased by 30 percent in the last six years. “And if we compare the prices to 15 or 20 years ago, then it’s an increase of 50 percent. In 2000, a person could eat in a good quality paladar for 8 or 10 dollars. Now there’s nothing under 20 or 25,” says an Italian married to a Cuban.
If a segment of tourists, businessmen and diplomats complain about the rise in prices in the private restaurants of the capital, imagine the Havanans. Most have never sat at a table in a five-star paladar. Many can’t even go to the smallest cafe. In Havana there are private food businesses in classes A, B and C, depending on one’s wallet.
Anselmo, retired, sells loose cigarettes in a nursing home just a stone’s throw from Villa Hernandez, a paladar next to Parque Córdoba, in the populous neighborhood of La Viñora. “I’ve never bothered to look at that paladar. What for, with my shitty pension I could never eat there. What remains for us old people and those who earn miserable wages is eating bread with a speck of fish or death-like pizzas from the little stands run by the state.”
In state coffee shops, almost always dirty, with poor service and poorly prepared food, a pizza costs five Cuban pesos (about 20 cents US) and it’s fifteen pesos for a serving of congrí rice with a chicken thigh. “That’s the food bought by beggars, alcoholics, the old and retired. Quality leaves a lot to be desired,” says Mildred, a high schoo student.
In the food businesses further away from Old Havana, Vedado or Miramar, the areas most visited by tourists, the menu is usually cheaper but the choices are very limited.
In general, plates are based on smoked chicken and pork. “But it is common that the waiter, taking your order, tells you that ‘off the menu’ there is seafood, beef, good fish, lamb and even loggerhead,” says Dianelis, a hairdresser, who usually eats at paladares in Santos Suarez, Lyuano and Lawton — Havana neighborhoods farther from the center.
And there is a wide sector of private businesses, who, to improve their profits, use double bookkeeping or financial tricks as a way to avoid taxes.
To eat even medium quality food in Cuba it is recommended you visit a private restaurant. At special dates — birthdays, weddings, quinceañeras, families go to paladares to celebrate. If they are short of money they go to the cheapest ones or places that serve more food.
“Gourmet food is for foreigners. When we Cubans have to eat on the street, we want to fill our bellies,” says Ignacio. But there are not many who can afford to do so.