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Eating Out in Cuba

Your eating options, like your accommodation options, are state-owned or privately run establishments. State-run restaurants take dollar payments and feature spruced up menus, ambience and fairly high-quality meals. The posh lots are often part of hotels and some even have Chinese and Italian cuisine on their menu. The state also runs cafes, which vary a great deal in quality. While some, definitely those in the more touristy areas, are clean and bright and offer a selection that includes sandwiches, burgers, fries, batter-fried chicken, hot dogs, there are others that are dismally grubby. You won’t find any Cuban food at these since rice and bean soup isn’t fast food at all.

Peso-stalls and privately run paladares are the other option. Dotting the sides of streets all over Cuba are small stalls that provide inexpensive snacks on peso payment. You can grab a quick bite of maize fritters, sweets and other typically Cuban titbits at these. Paladares are usually run from the homes of Cubans who have taken the initiative to get government sanction for their small enterprise. The food is always good and here’s a chance for the visitor to get a taste of Cuban home cooked food. Restrictions such as the prohibition on beef and seafood apply to these places, which are also not allowed to let in more than 12 customers at a time. But those who run these are invariably accommodating people and will bend a few rules whenever possible. So you may place a special request for items that are not on the menu; vegetarians may ask for all-veggie meals, and seafood buffs may try their luck. Paladares are strictly a tourist town phenomenon; you’ll find several in tourist hotspots, at least one in every big town and none in smaller towns.

This is entertainment overdrive zone! The land of party jives to the latest salsa, bolero, and swing every evening and there’s any number of salsa, rock and hip hop clubs, live music clubs, discos and bars in Cuba. Casas de la trova are the best for authentic Cuban sounds; these music halls continue to feature the mellifluous sounds that became all the rage in the West with the release of Buena Vista Social Club. Even the smallest town will have some kind of do where hard working Cubans gather to spend the remainder of their energies at the end of the day. The evening’s activity begins around 8 and winds down by 1 in the morning. The Cuban street party, if you can find one, is a sizzling affair.

Theatre (at a Casa de la cultura) and cinema, though predominantly in Spanish, is such a spectacle that non-Spanish speakers will find that language is not a barrier for entertainment. Cinemas run their shows continuously and if you’ve missed the first bit of the show, please, by all means, catch the beginning of the next. Movies are screened in cinemas and video parlours called salas de video. The bigger hotels usually organise a variety show for every evening when cabaret professionals and other hot steppers kick and jive with consummate grace. Look out for these; they really are very enjoyable. The renowned national ballet is based in the Gran Teatro at Habana Vieja in Havana. The ballet has two seasons, one in the summer and the other in the winter.

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