Eating Havana (and Drinking the Mojitos)

Westerners familiar with travel in Latin America are often surprised by the high prices of restaurants in Cuba. Here are some suggestions for gourmet meals worthy of the price, along with cheaper alternatives that are just as unforgettable, for a romantic dinner, dancing and drinks (the mojito is mandatory), or a late-night snack at the following Havana favorites. It is some consolation that top-notch, live music abounds at no extra charge.

Café del Oriente (53-7-860-6686) Oficios 112 at Amargura in Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. This gourmet restaurant features dishes stunning in both presentation and taste. And best of all, it’s located on the romantic, harborside Plaza San Francisco de Asis, featuring the historic Basilica and statue and exquisite lion-head fountain. Everyone loves the smoked salmon, caviar and avocado appetizer, and the ladies can look forward to a romantic gift of a single gladiola stem as they exit the restaurant. Cuban jazz musicians perform live on weekends.

La Lluvia de Oro (53-7-862-9870) Obispo No 316 at Habana. This is a convenient stop for an inexpensive dinner of carnitas (tender pork), black beans and rice and a full bar. The real draw, however, is the fine selection of cigars and a supremely talented house band (Thursday to Sunday). The music starts up during dinner hours, but the party doesn’t get started until 10 or so, when a good mix of locals and tourists take to the dance floor for salsa, meringue and the occasional amateur maraca-playing. Sample a Cohiba at the bar or cut a rug with the locals. You are guaranteed one incredible show, and likely some friendly conversation to boot.

Hotel Ambos Mundos (53-7-860-9529) Obispo No 153 at Mercaderes. Famed for Hemingway’s lengthy stay while writing “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” this hot-pink hotel on historic Obispo Street boasts an open-air, rooftop bar and restaurant with a breathtaking view of Havana Harbor. The Ropas Viejas (old rags) is a delicious favorite of pulled pork cooked to tender perfection in a tomato-and- onion sauce. Enjoy the view, a refreshing evening breeze and the national drink, the mojito: Havana Club rum, muddled mint, sugar, lime juice and a dash of bitters. If you tire of the breeze, move downstairs to the piano lounge, where the house pianist will play from memory any song you suggest on his sleek grand piano. <>

Hotel Nacional  (53-7-5500-004) Calles O & 21. Another of Havana’s luxury hotels, the Hotel Nacional is a relic from the glory days of Havana. It has framed pictures of international politicians and celebrities who have frequented the beautiful building, expansive grounds and the best mojitos in Havana. Bar service is available indoors, on the patio, poolside and throughout the manicured property, which is situated on a high bluff overlooking the picturesque Malecón (the seawall that spans Havana’s shore and attracts a lively crowd of musicians, peddlers, tourists and amorous teenagers). A cool, fresh breeze from the ocean rustles the long fronds of the royal palms, Cuba’s national trees, which line the stunning walkways. <>

Peso Pizza. Calle San Rafael, just off Infanta. If you’ve had enough of the glitz and glamour of Havana restaurants, and are hungry for a bit of the familiar with a shot of local color, I suggest what is commonly called “Peso Pizza” or “Bucket Pizza”—and rightly so. This cheap alternative to pricier Havana menus features a team of pizza makers on the third floor of an unremarkable downtown building. Shout your order to the roof and they will lower a pizza in a bucket on a pulley; take the pizza, replace with money and watch as they reel it in.