EATING OUT

7 02 2011

The latest edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook says of Santiago de Cuba’s restaurants: “For a city of such fine cultural traditions, Santiago’s restaurant scene is surprisingly lean.” This is fair comment, as far as restaurants for visiting tourists are concerned. There are only a couple of restaurants that cater predominantly for tourists which are worth visiting, in my opinion (El Barracon and La Zun Zun).

 I have had some terrible restaurant experiences in Santiago in the past, including one billed as an Italian restaurant, that had no pizza or pasta available; and another where after leaving us with the menu for 10 minutes or so, the waiter returned to inform us that not a single item from the menu was available; only something else costing more than twice as much as anything that was listed.

 At the time the guidebook was written there were only two paladares (private restaurants) in the city. This is now starting to change, with the recent relaxation on the establishment of private businesses. I have seen two new ones in the last few weeks and suspect that there will be at least several more in the weeks and months to come.

 However, one of the major changes in recent years that has pleased the people of Santiago is the opening of several new restaurants that are priced in moneda nacional (MN), the currency in which most Cuban people receive their salaries and pensions. This means that eating out to celebrate special occasions is no longer beyond the reach of local families. The quality of these restaurants ranges from below average to good. I have tried three MN restaurants here in the last few weeks. The first was La Fortaleza, situated in the poshest district in Santiago, Vista Alegre. La Fortaleza is built in the traditional ranchon style, open-sided buildings with wooden pillars and roofs made from palm fronds. It has a band playing at nights. The service was good; the ambience was very good; and the food was excellent. I had leg of pork roasted in juice, which was very tender. This cost the princely sum of 20 MN (about £0.60). My partner had the restaurant’s signature dish, a huge platter of steak, which also was tender and nicely cooked. This was more expensive (75 MN, about £2.25), but was easily enough for two.

 The next that I tried was the restaurant on the 17th floor of a tower block near the city centre (below the ice cream parlour). This has a separate bar, which is a very atmospheric cocktail bar, with barmen in suits and ties, where the excellent daiquiri frappe cost 5MN (about £0.15), the same as the sangria. Unfortunately, the restaurant is not as good as its bar. The wait for the food was the longest that I have experienced in my life and the food was very poor. The only good thing about it was the night-time view of the city.

The final one was the recently re-opened 1900, in the city centre. This is a beautiful old colonial house, with a range of dining rooms with high ceilings and huge chandeliers; plus a very smart outdoor patio. The service here was excellent; the food was average. The bill for food for four people came to 168 MN (about £5). The drinks bill for four mojitos, a sangria, one beer and two bottles of sparkling water came to roughly the same amount. Although the food was nothing exceptional, it is worth visiting again for its wonderful ambience and its central location.

The eating out scene has changed and is changing here, for the better, I am glad to say, although the quality of the eating establishments varies widely.

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6 responses

7 02 2011
John Abbotsford

I’ve had good meals a few years apart at the restaurant on one corner of Plaza de Dolores. Last time a bit over 12 months ago. 2 storey place built around a courtyard. CUP and CUC menus. Live music there some days. Anyon else know it/name?

8 02 2011
leytono

La Taberna de Dolores? Only tried to eat there once, about two years ago, when my daughter was visiting with me, but the toilets were overflowing into the courtyard, so we beat a hasty retreat.

8 02 2011
John Abbotsford

Yes think you are right thanks Leyton.
Do give it ago sometime and do note the 2 menus.

17 02 2011
Rene

Were you ask to show your students card? I thought that tourist/foreigners are prohibed from eating in MN restaurants. Some time ago I was ask to pay 5 CUC for a 5 Peso moneda national cheese sandwich.

17 02 2011
leytono

No, I did not have to show my card. The fact that I was with other Cubans may have helped. It’s not unusual for tourists to be asked to pay in CUC, but it should not be 1CUC for 1CUP – that is an increase of 2400%!

3 06 2011
Sierra Maestra « Tales of the Heroic City

[…] plantas” (eighteen floors). On the top two floors of one of these blocks is a restaurant (see review from February) and an ice cream parlour (see picture and review from […]

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