14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodriguez, Havana, 17 September 2022 — The glory days of La Roca, a restaurant at the corner of 21st and M streets in Havana, only lasted for a few years. Inspired by Art Deco architecture and designed by Modesto Campos and Hugo D’Acosta Calheiros — two then-young architects, one of them still a student — it opened in 1957. With its multi-colored glass windows and live music, it was an immediate sensation.
It remained a required stop in the early years of the Castro regime, and even after it was nationalized, for Cubans and foreign visitors alike. Its main attraction was its location in the heart of the Vedado neighborhood. Its neighbors include the Focsa building, the giant Coppelia ice cream parlor and hotels such as Habana Libre, Capri and Nacional. But for a long time it was also known for having decent food.
Eventually, however, it began to decline and, like so many other state-owned restaurants, became known for bad service and questionable food. There was little incentive for eating there.
The same cannot be said today. At lunchtime, people wait in line outside before it opens, an auspicious sign. An employee at the door graciously greets customers and leads them to their tables.
The newly remodeled interior is a gloomy, impersonal setting but the food is good, inexpensive, and customers are not required to pay in hard currency.
For 150 pesos they can order tuna salad, chicken croquettes, ajiaco criollo or spaghetti alla Napolitana. The most expensive dishes are the grilled lobster (800 pesos), bacalao pil-pil (600 pesos) and a fish filet. More moderately priced dishes include ropa vieja (230 pesos), pork chops (200 pesos) and herbed chicken (350 pesos).
The side dishes — rice, salad, beans — cost between 40 and 120 pesos. At 80 pesos, the soft drinks are much cheaper than at other state-owned establishments, which charge up to 150 pesos.
La Roca is not immune to the shortages affecting the rest of the island, however. On Wednesday, for example, there were no shrimp on the seafood platter and the only dessert item on the menu was rice pudding.
The dishes are presented with grace and, unlike other places, are served very hot. The service is prompt, the wait staff is friendly and the food is good. Add to this a live pianist who plays boleros and other popular pieces from the international repertoire.
Why is La Roca able to do what other state-run restaurants cannot? According to regular customers, it has a new cook who is “spectacular.” That alone cannot explain it but what is clear is that there is at least one place run by the state that manages to do things right.
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