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Paladares: Cuban private restaurants

by WNC

Only a few years ago almost all restaurants in Cuba were owned by the government. This resulted in Cuban food often being labeled by foreigners as lacking both variety and quality of products. However, now things have changed, and it is hard to imagine a trip to Cuba without a dinner at a Paladar – one of Cuba’s privately-owned restaurants.

Paladares first emerged in Cuba in the year 1993, during a time in Cuban history called the Special Period. It was an economic crisis that followed the fall of the USSR, and heavily affected the lives of all Cubans. During this period the government was pressured to legalize, to some extent, small private businesses, in order to help the country to improve its economic situation, and the quality of life of the people in general. Thus, the first Paladares came to be.

The name Paladar came from a TV series that was aired in Cuba at the moment. The literal meaning of the word is “palate”, but this is not where the term comes from. Instead, it comes from a Brazilian soap opera “Vale Tudo” (“Anything Goes”), that featured a chain of restaurants with the same name. Being broadcasted on Cuban TV during the same period when the first privately-owned restaurants appeared in Cuba, it became the inspiration for the name that is still used nowadays.

The first Paladares operated under constant supervision and very strict rules: there could be no more than 12 seats in a paladar, and no less than two employees, and they could not sell beef and seafood. In the following years, however, the number of restrictions applied to Paladar owners increased. First there was a remarkable increase in taxes, then the government stopped providing work licenses for new Paladares, and, finally, many restaurants either forced by the government to close, or sanctioned for “illegalities, indiscipline and abuse”, as the official reports put it.

The repressions against self-employment lasted for more than a decade, until 2010, when Raul Castro’s economic reform program allowed private entrepreneurs to start their own businesses, and a wave of new private restaurants opened all over the country. Now Paladares are a very common occurrence in Cuba, and the owners are now free to decide the number of seats that they will have, and the type menu that they will serve.

So, what do the menus of the Paladares look like? It is hard to imagine a Cuban restaurant without typical Cuban dishes, such as black beans, banana chips (known as mariquitas) or smashed fried bananas (tostones), lobsters, ripped beef in tomato sauce (ropa vieja), and countless other special dishes. However, not all Paladares specialize in Cuban food. You can find restaurants providing international food, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and a variety of other specialized restaurants. There is also a growing vegan scene in Cuba!

Still, there is one thing about Cuban Paladares, that makes them different from restaurants in other countries, no matter how modern and classy they may look. Cuban restaurant owners have to work in such conditions, where even the basic products are in constant deficit. Cubans never know what will be the next product to disappear from the shelves of the stores, and very often the ingredients to go lacking are as simple as butter, eggs, milk, potatoes, etc. This is the reason why many Paladares, instead of printing their menus, have them written on chalkboards: thus, they can make changes to the menu easily, depending on what products are available. It also strongly links the owners of the restaurants to the black market, where they often go in search of missing essential ingredients.

Nevertheless, the effort that Cuban entrepreneurs make in order to keep their businesses going, pays off. Some Paladares have reached such popularity, that they are known not only in Cuba, but abroad, and tourists visiting the island have a visit to these restaurants as a part of their bucket lists. Here you have a list of some well-known Paladares in Cuba, that are worth a visit during your next stay on the island:

La Guardia

Address: Calle Concordia nº 418, entre Gervasio y Escobar, Centro Habana

Working since 1996, La Guardia is one of the most famous restaurants in Cuba. It owes its popularity not only to the excellent quality of the food and the service, but also to the fact that some of the scenes of the famous movie “Strawberry and Chocolate”, the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Oscar, were filmed here. Since then it has been visited by many of the celebrities and important political figures that have visited Cuba. Situated on the third floor of a very old building, it not only serves excellent food, but gives a feeling of antiquity and luxury.

El Cocinero

Address: Calle 26 S/N e/ 11 y 13, Vedado, Plaza de la Revolución

Situated in the Vedado area, in the same abandoned factory as the famous night club/art gallery La Fabrica this place is only available for those who have booked a table in advance. It provides a variety of dishes of international cuisine, and a choice as to where you want your seat to be: in an air-conditioned area, or in the open air.

San Cristobal

Address: Calle San Rafael No. 469 e/ Lealtad y Campanario, Centro Habana

This restaurant, situated in an old mansion, and decorated in the style of the early XX century, is another excellent place to spend an evening. It provides delicious traditional Cuban food for those who want to taste special dishes of the country. However, if you prefer standard international cuisine, you will also have a vast variety of choices for a meal.

La Fontana

Address: Calle 46 No. 305, esq 3ra A, Miramar

The restaurant, situated near the famous 5th avenue, is working since 1995, providing its customers with some of the best examples of Cuban cuisine. The place is very well decorated in an authentic Cuban style, with both an indoor and an outdoor spaces. It is an excellent choice for those who want to feel immersed in the Cuban lifestyle and culture for an evening.

Cocina de Liliam

Address: Calle 48 No. 1311 e/ 13 y 15, Playa

La Cocina de Liliam, which translates as “Liliam’s Kitchen” is a place that totally matches the definition of a Cuban Paladar: a small family business. The owner is the main Chef at the same time, and the dishes that she prepares are totally unique and personalized. The soft piano melodies that are played live in the restaurant will make you feel even more at home.

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