The best food is to be found at the paladares, unofficial restaurants in private homes, which are not endorsed by the government. However, recommendations about specific venues are not reliable, because they open and close (voluntarily or otherwise) frequently. The following restaurants have been around for years and look set to stay:
A PRADO Y NEPTUNO
Prado 408, on the corner with Neptuno, Centro Habana, Havana (00 53 7 860 9636). A happy mix of tourists and Cubans and performances by local ensembles give this excellent pizzeria an informal and occasionally frenetic atmosphere, making it ideal for a group night out. The pizzas are some of the most authentic in the city; the pasta, though less good, is better than the Cuban average.
Tacón 4, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 633 3560), in a beautifully restored 18th-century mansion just off the Plaza de la Catedral. Despite all the competition, it can reasonably claim to offer the best pizzas in Havana.
EL PATIO PLAZA DE LA CATEDRAL
Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 867 1034). A good place to try the Cuban standard of chicken, plantain, and moros y cristianos (literally ‘Moors and Christians’, a combination of black beans and white rice).
Avenida del Puerto 12-14, on the corner with Narciso López, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 866 8807). A relatively recent and very welcome addition to the restaurant scene in Habana Vieja. The platters at this seafood specialist are prepared with a professionalism that’s rare around here: there’s no coincidence that the head chef is not from Cuba but the Basque Country, and dishes such as Galician-style octopus and dolphin fish with houmous and capsicum oil are dripping with flavour and a break from the national norm. The roadside location is nothing special, but who needs a colonial courtyard when the cooking is this good?
Calles Bernaza y Teniente Rey, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7867 1029). A hangover from the days when virtually every restaurant in Havana was named after the capital of a socialist soulmate, Hanoi has survived by offering good-value Cuban cuisine, as well as the odd Vietnamese variation.
LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
Calle Empedrado 207, Habana Vieja, Havana (00 53 7 571375). Even in the ‘Special Period’ (Fidel Castro’s term for the economic meltdown following the collapse of Communism elsewhere in the world), this was one of the few places that continued to serve palatable food. Its most arresting feature is the graffiti covering the walls and tables. Drink the health of Ernest Hemingway, who started each evening with a mojito in the bar below.
LA COCINA DE LILLIAM
Calle 48 1311, between 13 and 15, Playa, Havana (00 53 7 209 6514). A fantastic garden restaurant bursting with tropical plants and a sense of exclusivity, particularly for a paladar. The intercom entry system adds to the feeling that you are entering a private club, one whose visitors have included Jimmy Carter. Among the flora you’ll be served dishes such as the excellent ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban dish of shredded stewed meat (usually beef, but here they use lamb). Open Tues-Sat, and closed for the last two weeks of December.
Calle Concordia 418, between Gervasio and Escobar, Centro Habana, Havana (00 53 7866 9047; www.laguarida.com). A ramshackle 19th-century residential neighbourhood in Centro Habana is not the place you’d expect to find some of the tastiest, most expertly prepared cuisine in the city, but La Guarida is not your average paladar. Scaling the winding staircase to the third floor of this withered apartment building, the set of the award-winning Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d got the wrong place, until a door opens into the atmospheric and idiosyncratic family-run restaurant. Dine on dishes such as sugar-cane tuna glazed with coconut, or fish salad with crunchy vegetables and peanuts in one of three intimate, moodily lit dining rooms, as you take in the eclectic wall displays, from abstract art and cigar labels to pictures of Castro.
Edificio FOCSA, Calle 17, on the corner with M, Vedado, Havana (00 53 7 838 3088). It may be hard to concentrate on your food when the view from your table is this stunning, but the seafood-and-steak menu does its best to match the wonderful vista from this 36th-floor restaurant. An unforgettable dining experience.