14ymedio, Luz Escobar & Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, October 9, 2021 — Rey & Gaby is fully booked until sometime in November. Currently, it is impossible to reserve a table at this privately owned restaurant in El Vedado. Before the pandemic set in, the place always had empty tables. Now that restaurants in Havana are reopening, it has become a go-to place, in spite of its prices. “Rey’s pizza is 150 pesos, which would have been about six convertible pesos. It used to cost three,” remarks a customer who was checking out the menu at the entrance this weekend.
It is not an isolated case. Reservations at the nearby Cocina de Esteban are also up. The place is large and the staff plan to seat anyone waiting in line. But since restaurants reopened on September 24, the number of reservations has exceeded all forecasts, even at state-run establishments.
At the pizzeria on the corner of 23rd and I streets there were five people waiting in line. “We can take your name and, if something opens up, we can seat you but everything is by reservation,” says an employee. She points to the menu board.
“Everything has gone up a lot. Before, you could get a pizza for six or ten pesos. Now it costs forty,” complains a man in his sixties as he waits in line with his two teenage granddaughters.
Not all restaurant and cafe owners are thrilled, however, at the prospect of reopening. Barbaro Dominguez claims that, during the quarantine, he learned a lot about how to do business. That is why he is not planning to continue selling pizzas from the covered entryway of his house near the Vía Blanca.
“When I closed, there were 1,000 cases of Covid a day in the country. At the time that seemed like a lot. Now they tell us we can reopen but I’m not sure my family will be safe under these conditions,” he admits. “This is where we live. The bed where my daughter sleeps has a window that overlooks the area where I sell pizzas. If someone sneezes outside, coronavirus could get under the sheets.”
Dominguez does plan to keep operating but will focus on home delivery, which he believes will be much safer. “It’s better for me. I doubt that by year’s end I will still be behind the counter on my front porch,” he says. But not all the changes are driven by the pandemic. “I’m on various websites where people who live overseas buy food in dollars for their relatives who live here. They pay in real money.”
Operating under the names Mercadito XL and Hasta Tu Casa (To Your Door) Dominguez has turned his cafe into a small supermarket that delivers anything from a package of sausages to a bag of prebaked bread rolls to a pack of beer. “It solves a ton of problems like the obnoxious drunk on my front porch and the inspectors who always want more and more money.
“People are complaining about the prices at all those terrace restaurants because, of course, they charge in Cuban pesos and have to exchange a dollar for 70 or even 80 pesos. Every day they have to write the prices on the chalk board because things are constantly changing. I only accept dollars. The people who buy from me are those who have greenbacks,” he says.
Dominguez has posted a classified ad for several items in his cafe. “I am selling a bar, refrigerator with a glass display door, tall wooden stools and a sink with a drain for kitchen work,” the ad reads.
But a beer does not taste the same at home. At least that is what Dayana and Monica think. It has been a year since the two young women sat face-to-face at a restaurant. As soon as restrictions were lifted, they headed to the Maximo Bar, a privately owned establishment near the entrance to the Havana harbor.
“Between the two of us we spent 3,000 pesos but it wasn’t just for the items themselves. We wanted the experience of eating and drinking in a public space,” admits Dayana. The couple met in March 2020 and their relationship has been marked by the pandemic, which is why they want to finally enjoy being in a restaurant together.
“Yes, it’s expensive but we are willing to pay for the experience. We’ve spent months thinking about it. Even if it had cost a fortune, we would have figured out a way to do it, though I don’t know if we would be inclined to do it again tomorrow. Today is the first time but next time I’ll be checking the prices first and maybe we’ll have to settle for some other place,” one of them admits.
There are also those who are frightened by the growing number of zeros on restaurant menus. At the Malecon’s seawall, some carry their thermoses of tea or coffee, their hidden tankards of rum almost rusted out after months of not being used.
“Before, there used to be other problems,” says Lazaro, a fisherman from the outskirts of La Punta. “You were Cuban or you were a tourist. You paid or you didn’t pay… but now everybody is afraid. No one dares take a sip from a stranger’s bottle.”
The drunk guy who used to come here every day died of Covid in March. And the fisherman that I used to share soup with passed away in July. I’m the only one left around here. I used to worry about people bothering me. Now I wish people would come over. No one is fishing and no one goes near anyone else.
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