The Basics

  • Private restaurants Although slightly pricier than their state-run equivalents, private restaurants nearly always offer the best, freshest food and the highest quality service.
  • Casas particulares Cuban homestays invariably serve a massive breakfast for around CUC$5; some also offer an equally large and tasty dinner made from the freshest ingredients.
  • Hotels & resorts The all-inclusives offer buffet food of an international standard but after a week it can get a bit bland.
  • State-run restaurants Varying food and service from top-notch places in Havana to unimaginative rations in the provinces. Prices often lower than private places.

Where to Eat & Drink

Government-Run Restaurants

Government-run restaurants operate in either moneda nacional or convertibles. Moneda nacional restaurants are often pretty grim and are notorious for handing you a nine-page menu (in Spanish) when the only thing available is fried chicken. There are, however, a few newer exceptions to this rule. Moneda nacional restaurants will normally accept payment in CUC$, though sometimes at an inferior exchange rate to the standard 25 to one.

Restaurants that sell food in convertibles are generally more reliable, but this isn't capitalism: just because you're paying more doesn't necessarily mean better service. Food is often limp and unappetizing and discourse with bored waiters can be worthy of a Monty Python sketch (whatever you do, don't complain about a dirty fork). That said, things have got progressively better in the last seven years. The state-run Palmares group manages a wide variety of excellent restaurants countrywide from bog-standard beach shacks to the New York Times–lauded El Aljibe in Miramar, Havana. The government-run restaurants in Habana Vieja are some of the best in Cuba, and Gaviota has recently tarted up some of its old staples. Employees of state-run restaurants will not earn more than CUC$20 a month (the average Cuban salary), so tips are highly appreciated.

Private Restaurants

First established in 1995 during the economic chaos of the Special Period, private restaurants owe much of their success to the sharp increase in tourist traffic in Cuba, coupled with the bold experimentation of local chefs who, despite a paucity of decent ingredients, have heroically managed to keep the age-old traditions of Cuban cooking alive. They have proliferated since new business laws were passed in 2011, especially in Havana. Private restaurant meals are generally more expensive than their state-run equivalents, costing anything between CUC$8 and CUC$30.

In the last five years or so, private restaurants have become more adventurous, plying an increasing array of international and fusion dishes. Italian-themed and, to a lesser extent, Spanish-themed restaurants are popular all over the island. Havana has recently sprouted places specializing in Korean, Russian and Iranian food.

Vegetarians

In a land with a recent history of rationing and food shortages, strict vegetarians (ie no lard, no meat bullion, no fish) will have a hard time. Cubans don't traditionally understand vegetarianism, and when they do (or when they say they do), it can be summarized rather adroitly with one key word: omelet – or, at a stretch, scrambled eggs. However, things are changing. Cooks in casas particulares, who may already have have had experience cooking meatless dishes for other travelers, are usually pretty good at accommodating vegetarians. The same goes for private restaurants, many of which have started to develop menus with vegetarian sections. Havana and Viñales have recently sprouted Cuba's first decent full-blown vegetarian restaurants.

Staples & Specialties

Cuban cuisine – popularly known as comida criollla – has improved immensely since new privatization laws, passed in 2011, inspired a plethora of pioneering restaurants to take root, particularly in Havana. Travel in rual areas, however, and Cuban food can still be limited and insipid.

Cuban meals are characterized by congrí (rice flecked with black beans), meat (primarily pork, closely followed by chicken and beef), fried plantains (green bananas), salad (limited to seasonal ingredients) and root vegetables, usually Yuca (cassava) and calabaza (pumpkin-like squash).

Pescado (fish) is also readily available. Though you'll come across dorado, aguja (swordfish), and occasionally octopus and crab in some of the specialist seafood places, you're more likely to see pargo (red snapper), lobster or prawns.

Cubans are also aficionados of ice cream and the nuances of different flavors are heatedly debated. Coppelia ice cream is legendary, but ridiculously cheap tubs of other brands (440g for CUC$1) can be procured almost everywhere, and even the machine-dispensed peso stuff ain't half bad.