Cuba is a quirky place in more ways than one and with such a mind-bogglingly diverse mix of cultures, historically controversial past and uncertain, ever-changing present; it's full of rather peculiar and unique places and contrasting sights. And if you want this to be part of your dining experience during your visit to the largest of Caribbean isles, there are a number of places where you can live Cuba's "quirky uniqueness" while tucking into delicious fare, on this blog I'll help you find seven of what I believe the quirkiest, most distinctive and atmospheric places to eat around the island.
Unsurprisingly, most of these are privately owned restaurants, some housed inside formidable colonial mansions, some are actually part of the owner's homes and the minority are government owned. Regardless of ownership they're all outstanding in their culinary offer and in the atmospheric vibe they create.
Some of these places look like real museums converted into restaurants, adding a unique cultural and historical dimension to the dining experience. Many feature local Creole cuisine, but many offer more innovative and adventurous twists, classical Cuban dishes with contemporary touches, authentic French gourmet dining and even Soviet-inspired dishes as well as Swedish. Read on to find out who makes my list of my top seven quirky restaurants in Havana.
San Cristobal – Colonial and Creole at the heart of the city
We start with a Cuban classic, offering classically Creole fare with some typical dishes that will bring you right to the heart of Cuban cuisine in a family setting, but not just any family setting though; a grand colonial home of high ceilings, marble columns and original 19th century decorative art pieces, from wall paintings, to antique clocks, velvet upholstered chairs and ornate chandeliers. Everything here is in-keeping with its original colonial heritage and you're sure to love the dishes as much as the setting.
Named after its owner and chef, Carlos Cristobal Marquez Valdes, but also carrying the original name of the capital, which in its foundation was first known as "San Cristobal de la Habana", this restaurant is every bit as eclectic as its cuisine. The fare is strictly Cuban-Creole and includes popular ingredients used frequently featuring in their daily meals, such as roasted pork, cassava, malanga, plantain chips, fresh fish, lobster, and of course, the obligatory basic accompaniment of rice and beans. The dessert menu is surprisingly expansive too. It includes original delicacies such as the house's very own San Cristobal pudding, a simple yet delicious sweet treat made of eggs, milk, almonds and fruit).
The most quirky part of this restaurant is not its unique vintage decor and colonial atmosphere, but the fact that this is a space that is actually lived in, on the ground floor of an early 20th century mansion. Prices are reasonable for this type of private eatery, and while the food can by no means be called exceptional, the atmosphere and waiter attentiveness more than makes up for it. The owner himself often comes out for a chat with diners, which makes for a lively addition to the meal and adds yet another touch of authenticity to the experience.
The location might be a little removed from downtown and while not on the quiet and leafy residential areas of Vedado or Miramar, the restaurant it's still centrally located at the heart of the city, at the most humble heart, next to old, dilapidating houses, in an authentic, albeit rundown, Cuban quarter known as Centro Habana. This is the closest you will get to venturing into.
Nazdarovie – Soviet-inspired food with magnificent sea views
Probably the quirkiest of all venues on this list, Nazdarovie is also the newest of them all. Having just opened three weeks ago, on 22nd August 2014, to become the only one of its kind in the island, evoking the nostalgia-ridden Soviet years as a gastronomic reminder of the strong ties that once united these two communist nations, this is Havana's new and only retro-Soviet restaurant.
With eye-catching Soviet propaganda posters lining the walls and Russian memorabilia adorning the bar area (from cute matrioshkas dolls to a more sober bust of Lenin), even the mojitos here have a Slavic twist; they're made with vodka instead of rum!
Privately owned and envisioned by 45-year-old Canadian-born entrepreneur of Ukrainian descent, Gregory Biniowsky, along with three Cuban partners, the idea behind this restaurant, all politics aside, was to rescue the culinary traditions from the Soviet era in Cuba and remind Cubans of the authentic flavours of Mother Russia during a time when Cuba received many Russian subsidies often in the form of food supplements.
The cooks here are authentic Soviet-born "babushkas" many of whom after marrying Cuban students that did their degree in various Soviet states, came to live in their newly adopted Caribbean land and never went back. Now they recreate genuine recipes from their mothers and rescue a part of themselves they thought they had lost.
Here you will most definitely not find any rice and black beans, but instead you can dig into some delicious borscht, hand-rolled Ukrainian varenyky dumplings, pork Stroganoff (in case you weren't aware of it already, beef is an extremely scarce item on the island) and savoury-sweet blinis for dessert. Yum!
To add another quirky twist, all the waiters speak Russian and in order to be able to order from the menu you'll need to read the items in Russian, but don't worry, the menu comes complete with pronunciation instructions to help you along. Also adding to the atmospheric experience is the long communal table with amazing views over Havana's skyline and the Malecon. The million-dollar view alone will make the experience worthwhile, but it's definitely about so much more than that.
About the food, it's simple and homely. Nothing too fancy but definitely hearty. Not many can comment yet as its newly opened, it's not even listed on TripAdvisor yet! But it will soon be I bet and in the meantime I race you to be the first to review it! Its website it's still under construction.
This is also the cheapest of all restaurants listed here, but the restaurant is still on a launching phase, so depending on popularity and demand the prices could go up, so the time to grab a one-of-a-kind bargain is now.
Atelier – Daily changing menu and decor
For a place as eclectic on decor as the ever-changing menu, there's nowhere quite like Havana's Atelier. Located inside a grand mansion built in the 1800s as a one-story building and then re-built in 1930 with a second floor extension, this place still keeps all original features, such as the authentic beamed ceilings. Both floors and outdoor areas, including patios, balconies and a panoramic rooftop have been entirely converted into a homely restaurant. There's no other place quite like it in Havana and you'll soon find out why.
From the breezy and spacious terraces fitted with plush day beds and cushions during the day (these are replaced by dining tables of all sizes at night to make for romantic moonlit dinners), this place has a multiple identity that changes to delight and surprise each time.
The menu is never fixed and it varies so much from day to day that it is always handwritten and to add to the quirkiness and originality of it all, it comes presented on government-issued ration cards. The loopy handwriting will show you the daily options according to what is freshly available on the day of your visit and the cuisine is decidedly Cuban with a strong French accent, lovingly prepared by in-house Chef Liuyen Gallego. Whatever you order and whatever features on the menu, you can rely on the food being consistently delicious albeit a little unpredictable, but that was the whole idea behind the creation of a place like this. You can tuck into plates such as duck confit, roast pork and sirloin steak with shrimp and celery mousse. There might be nothing innovative or special about dessert that would make them worth writing about (the usual flan, tarts, ice cream, etc) yet they're still very good.
But the fantastic food on the menu is not the only thing that changes daily here. Decoration is also altered, replaced and moved around often so that diners never find the same things after repeated visits. From changing the eclectic artwork on the walls to daily rearranging the number and size of tables according to the number of customers, if there is one thing you can count on is that you'll always get to experience a new side of this multifaceted privately owned eatery.
The style is a mix of various worlds. On the outside you have a grand early 20th century mansion and on the inside you find many elements that help the place look as though taken out from a 1950s movie set. There are numerous old typewriters everywhere, carelessly positioned here and there, even hung by one of the ironwork fans on the rooftop, there is antique hob on the outside to greet diners, and an old sewing machine also to further enhance the overall retro feel. The house's sheer size and the many differently decorated indoor and outdoor spaces allow for many different ambiances and unique experiences.
Its location is centric and beautiful, in a quiet and residential area of the pretty Vedado neighbourhood, on the corner of Calle 5, between Paseo and Calle 2. Atelier is conveniently close to the Melia Cohiba hotel (just a block away in fact) and within walking distance to the Malecon promenade.
Nao Bar – Eat in a naval galleon setting at the heart of Old Havana
In-keeping with its perfect location right amidst the historic part of town, and practically facing the sea, the theme here rightly reflect the surroundings. Small, cosy and intimate, at Nao Bar the beautiful food only adds to enhance what is always guaranteed to be an interesting experience.
Aptly named Nao, from the Latin navis, which means ship, this restaurant boasts a magnificent galleon-like setting near the waterfront. With plenty of vintage colonial touches, from the eye-catcing Arabic arches, the beautifully aged brick walls to the antique furniture, the numerous ship memorabilia adorning the walls and dim-lit ambience, the atmosphere here is decidedly inviting and romantic.
Inside the decor faithfully imitates an old Spanish colonial taberna with brick work and striking oak beams on the ceiling. With clear nautical touches, you'll love to be wined and dined at such an atmospheric hideout while the long list of international wines available will add to the experience.
Plush seating is provided in the form of some exquisitely upholstered chairs, some of which are authentic antique replicas, featuring on some (but not all) of the tables) and adding to the theme.
Downstairs you'll find the bar and the outdoor seating area, perfect for enjoying a long list of tropical cocktails while admiring the views. You'll be facing the waterfront and pretty cobblestone streets. Upstairs the setting is decidedly cosier and more intimate with dark woods, red hues and a dimly lit ambience.
The food is a mix between traditional Spanish and contemporary Cuban. The chef himself says that the cuisine here harks back to the time of Spanish conquistadors, with a blend of Spanish, African and Caribbean ingredients. From the always popular and authentic ropa vieja, an old Cuban classic, to traditional Spanish croquettes, there's plenty of delicious plates to choose from, all full of flavour and character. Seafood is prominent as are a variety of tasty fritters.
You can come here for a full hearty meal at any time of day or for a more casual tapas-style snacking and mojito sipping.
The menu, as we said earlier, is tasty and varied, featuring popular and authentic Cuban classics as well as delectable hybrids between Spanish and Caribbean cuisine.
Welcome aboard is their slogan, and you'll certainly feel as though you're in an 18th century galleon with an authentic and charming nautical theme.
Cafe Madrigal – Dine in a filmaker's home
In terms of setting, decor, atmosphere and original layout alone, the next one I'll be introducing you to, Cafe Madrigal, could easily rank as the quirkiest of them all and perhaps the most unique. Its design and decor throughout are more than inviting and eye-catching, each corner has something to draw your attention; no detail has been overlooked to make this the most special of trendy hideouts in Havana.
This is a Cuban filmmaker's eponymous creation, his very own gastronomical masterpiece, with a name that takes after his most acclaimed movie, Madrigal, which screened in 2007 and which he co-directed with Fernando Perez.
With a name that also stands for a sung poem from the Italian Renaissance and Baroque eras (madrigal is a type of musical composition that often expressed the words of celebrated poems), you can easily see how the whole atmosphere here has been created as a metaphorical, physical poem; the whole place is poetry itself.
From the minute you step in, you'll feel as though you're in a movie set or in some old French quarter from the 1920s, and you wouldn't be too far from the truth either, as the building in which this bar is set was actually built in 1919. Much has been done to preserve its original aged glamour and the original brickwork on the walls remains intact.
As you can already guess a place as artistic and Bohemian as this attracts an artsy crowd of poets, intellectuals, musicians, actors and industry people. They say most nights it's very lively and packed but nevertheless it never feels crowded.
The food here by contrast is nothing to get too excited about, but not because it's bad or average, but quite simply because there isn't much of it. In fact this is not a place to dine, this is a Bohemian bar with a long list of cocktails and drinks and a small selection of snacks and tapas. You don't come here to eat really, you come here to light up cigars, sip on daiquiris and snack on tasty savouries such as fried plantains stuffed with cheese, prawns or tuna.
If you really want to eat something a bit more substantial and filling, there is also a selection of omelettes and sandwiches as well as the house's very own empanadas.
After all this is a list of the quirkiest, most peculiar and atmospheric places to eat in Havana, not the top fine dining venues. So, to this one you don't actually come for the culinary experience but for the atmospheric one. This is not a dining venue or a bar even, it's actually a cultural centre where you come to appreciate the eclectic art on the walls, soak up the electric ambience and admire the surroundings.
Out of all the ones listed here this is the one with the most artistic ambience, it's truly a feast for the eyes, every nook and cranny your eyes scan will have some interesting detail for you to peruse on. Out of them all, to me this the most atmospheric and visually striking. It's also the one with the sleekest website design, modern, edgy and with wonderfully large photos proudly showcasing what you can look forward to. it even features a live Google map to help you find it (something quite avant-garde for Cuba considering internet there is almost non-existant and painfully slow).
On the downside some people complain about the waiters who seem aloof and stick strictly to closing times, but many others are quick to complement how hard-working they are, even if a bit slow at times. But who's watching the clock when you're having a great time? This is certainly no place to experience in a rush.
With artsy film memorabilia lining the walls, weird and wonderful objects adorning every nook and space, poetic touches here and there, Cafe Madrigal is one of the most scenic locations in the trendy Vedado neighbourhood to enjoy a drink or two. The place opens from Tuesday to Sunday at 6 p.m. and usually stays open until after midnight.
But then again, on the plus side, this place is buzzing with energy and prices are very cheap. You won't find any savoury treat or snack being more than 2 CUC. Equally, cocktails are amazingly well priced with most ranging between 2 and 3 CUC, there's only one that's priced at 5 CUC, the Negroni, and I'm curious as to why, I guess on my next trip I'll have to pop down there and find out.
Casa Miglis – Swedish chic in Havana
The most exotic and rare of all on this list, due to its faraway Nordic roots in the middle of a tropical city, Casa Miglis brings authentic Swedish chic to the heart of hot and hazy Havana.
Managed and operated by Swedish-Cuban owner Michel Miglis, who is also a music producer and film director (not hard to see why this place turned out so whimsically artistic), this space, heavily influenced by avant-garde cinema with a somewhat surreal, yet elegant outlook, is a magical place in which to dine, wine and be merry.
As is the case with the above Cafe Madrigal, the intention when designing this place was to create an atmosphere in which people would feel cosy enough to spend their whole evening. Or, at least, this is how the owner envisaged it. He said of his restaurant:
"You start with cocktails at the bar, and then after dinner the lights go down, the music goes up, and you can stay until the early hours. It may be normal in Europe, but somewhere like this just didn't exist in Cuba before."
Too right, somewhere like this doesn't exist anywhere in Cuba, nor before, nor now. It is simply unique, from the suspended furniture hanging from walls, to 3D art popping out from the walls, this place is one of the most photogenic you'll encounter in the city.
And speaking of unique things in Cuba, this restaurant also features a waterpipe lounge area in the courtyard patio, another first in the country!
When it comes to the menu, it is decisively Nordic too, something even rarer to find in Cuba. Put together by Swedish cook Jonas Anderson, in Casa Miglis you can tuck into fine Scandinavian dishes, some even featuring a local twists, such as the "nuggets a lo cubano". There are flavoursome seafood casseroles and delectable starters, such as the Skagen entree plus a wide array of other equally great tasting crossover items blending both cuisines, Cuban and Swedish. The result is a fantastic mouthwatering fusion that is hard to resist.
The ingredients are fresh, locally sourced and the restaurant's team are always on the lookout for the freshest, most innovative items to create their array of eclectic dishes.
You will most certainly fall in love with the decor, as unique as the restaurant's concept and the menu. In a place when even the loo has its quirky twist, you won't stop being mesmerised.
However, this experience it comes with a pretty hefty price tag, eating at Casa Miglis is certainly an experience, but not a cheap one. It's also the rarest and most unique, as it's the only place in the island where you can sample authentic Scandivanian fare, so many say, it's more than worth its price tag.
Le Chansonnier - Fine dining French style
The most elegantly refined and classy of them all, Le Chansonnier presents authentic French cuisine in exquisite palatial interiors of a grand colonial mansion. And, before you think, you've read it all before in Atelier's description, think again. The mansion may be old and colonial like the one at Atelier's, but that's where the similarities begin and end.
Le Chansonnier is not eclectic, it's not busy with endless, interesting paraphernalia everywhere, its walls are not lined with numerous artefacts and striking paintings... yet it has some pretty unique and strong features that captivate your heart upon entering.
First, there's the visually imposing hallway leading you to the Ladies' and the Gents', where you're faced by metal-like walls and a centric mirror. Its look takes you back and is somewhere between shabby-chic and avant-garde. It could look as if made from metal scraps or it could resemble some medieval from or art expression. I don't know quite how to look at it yet, but like it, yes I do!
Romantic, artsy and timelessly beautiful, this restaurant is always dimly lit to provide you with the warmest ambience. You'll take time to appreciate the differently coloured floor tiles across different rooms, the high ceilings and marble columns, as well as the differently sized and furnished tables, where the assortment of chairs is also quite varied.
The rest is decisively classy and nothing stands out too much, regardless you can find quirkiness here and there if you have an eye for it.
It's also probably one of the few privately-owned places in Havana where you can sample quality nouveau cuisine.
This place was once cluttered with antiques but it then passed hands to a new owner in 2011 and its reinvention has been nothing less than spectacular. The house where it stands dates all the way back to 1860 but the fresh air of contemporary chic creates the perfect blend between old and new. The lighting is atmospheric, the waiters attentive, the music follows the theme to create a mellow ambience, and the place has the coolest toilet façade, as I mentioned earlier, created by artist Damian Alquiles.
The food is simply to die for, strictly fine dining and although accordingly, the portions are rather small, the quality is outstanding.
Also the priciest of them all together with Ivan Chef Justo (you'll find out more about this one future posts), with a difference, the skyrocketing high prices may put you off after glancing at the menu, but once you get over this and actually tuck into the many delights you'll feel the price to be well justified...after all, it's all part of the experience, you don't go to a high end restaurant expecting "cheap as chips prices", and neither should you come and expect this here, at one of the finest, classiest private restaurants and paladars in Cuba.
Other places worth visiting
The list of quirky restaurants is longer and growing longer each day, so I could not devote as much time to many other equally outstanding restaurants that are often less talked about. In fact, I plan to follow up on this post with more unique, rare and quirky places to eat in Cuba, including maybe one or two outside of Havana (which is a very daunting task).
I already know of a few more I haven't mentioned here but might do in a future article. The ones left out on this occasion are still good contenders that deserve a visit If you love the idea of a fine meal in a modern classy home at the heart of Havana's upscale residential neighbourhood of Miramar, Bella Habana, is a must. On the other end of the scale in terms of location and decor, Dona Eutemia is a slightly more humble-looking eatery that never fails to rank up top reviews due to the amazing quality of its cuisine and its cosy, homely feel (one of its main features includes a wall full of old clocks). There's also the rare vegetarian restaurants in Cuba, such as El Bambu, inside the National Botanical Gardens, the first vegan of its kind in the country, and the Finca Agroecolica El Paraiso in Vinales, all carrying a big eco-label and promising a very alternative experience. So keep yourselves posted if you soon want to read more about Havana's most unique, artistic, inspiring and quirky dining hotspots.
In the meantime if you find yourself in Havana, take the time to check these ones out and judge for yourself, you can even drop a few comments here and update me on some of them.