Food in Cuba
The restaurants are owned and operated by the government and the food ranges from bland to spicy. Generally, the spicy dishes are not as hot as the hot peppers found on some other Caribbean islands. The Cuban national dish is rice and beans (moros y cristianos), and the best food is usually found in your casa particular or in paladares (local restaurants in private homes).
Black beans are one of the most important staple foods in Cuban households. For meat, Cubans eat mainly pork and chicken. Beef and lobster are controlled by the state, so it is illegal to sell them outside hotels and public restaurants, but there are many lunch and dinner specials with lobster for tourists. You may see turtles on menus in Paladares, but be aware that they are endangered and not allowed to be eaten.
There are many paladares, even in small towns. Seating is often limited, so come as soon as they open, usually around 5 or 6 pm. If you are staying in a casa particular, ask your host to recommend paladares to you, as the quality of the food can vary greatly from one paladare to another. Only eat where there is a printed menu with prices, otherwise you may end up paying two or three times more than you should. Nevertheless, many have taken to printing two different menus, one with local prices and the other with prices for foreigners. Eating in paladares is perfectly legal, but be aware that if you are taken there by a Cuban, you may have to pay extra to cover the commission of the person who brought you. Dinner will cost around 7 to 10 CUC per person.
Food in public hotels and restaurants is much more expensive and comparable to prices in many first world countries. An average dinner of soup, dessert and a glass or two of wine can easily cost you 20-30 CUC per person. Note that in these establishments, most of the staff’s income comes from tips (their monthly salary is often less than the cost of a meal), so a generous tip for good service is a kind and welcome gesture.
In the larger towns you will also find some public restaurants that cater mainly to Cubans and accept the local currency. Prices are extremely low (e.g. 10-15 CUP for a sandwich and ready meals for 30-60 CUP), but the quality of food, service and atmosphere is usually relatively low. You may get better food if you offer to pay in CUC. However, this may be an option if you are on a budget or looking for an ‘authentic’ Cuban experience. If you decide to tip, do so in CUCs, as anything else would be an insult to the staff.
Most casas particulares serve their guests a hearty breakfast for about 2-5 CUC per person if you ask for it (you can tell them what you want for breakfast). However, make sure you get your money’s worth – often you can buy the same fruit, coffee, bread/omelette etc. on the street for much less (in national pesos), for which the owner of your casa particulares will want four times as much from you, just to present it to you more conveniently. However, if you are saving, you can easily “build” your own breakfast for national pesos. In every small village there are sandwich shops where you can get a ham, cheese or omelette sandwich for 5 to 15 pesos depending on the size. Most of them also sell Cuban coffee (sweet!) for 1 to 2 pesos or a fruit juice for 2 pesos called “refresco”.
Some casas particulares can also serve their guests large dinners for 7 to 10 CUC per person.
Sometimes, if you ask nicely, the owner of your casa particular may let you use their kitchen to prepare your own meals. In fact, they are usually very accommodating if you have special dietary requirements or small children, etc.
You can also find small street vendors selling a variety of food, usually sandwiches, fruit (1 banana 1-2 pesos), pizza (10-20 pesos), spaghetti with tomato sauce, ice cream and sweet treats like cream pie. The quality varies from vendor to vendor. Many of these shops are run from people’s living rooms, and buying from them is a good way to help a Cuban family earn extra income. While these meals are filling and inexpensive, be aware that long queues are common and vendors are rarely in a hurry for everyone to eat quickly.
There are private restaurants that welcome Cubans and may only take national pesos. You will recognise them by a board showing the daily specials and prices. A tasty portion of rice, vegetables, plantains and pork or beef will cost you about 30-50 national pesos. In some places they will even sell it to you in a cajita [“little box” in English].
Bottled water is sold throughout the country in CUC, with one litre costing around 0.80 – 1.20 CUC. You can buy a 5-litre bottle for 1.90 CUC and decant it into smaller bottles.
If you’re looking for Chinese restaurants, visit Havana’s little Chinatown, a few blocks west of the Capitolio. The food is neither spectacular nor authentically Chinese, but decent enough if you can’t stand another serving of rice and beans. The street food here can also be a step up, try the area around the intersection of Avenida de Italia and Avenida Zanja.
Drinks in Cuba
The Cuban national cocktails include the Cuba Libre (rum and cola) and the Mojito (rum, lime, sugar, mint leaves, club soda and ice).
If you ask for rum in a small country restaurant, don’t be surprised if it is only available in bottles. Havana Club is the national and most popular brand. Expect to pay $4 for a three-year-old white rum or $8 for a seven-year-old dark rum.
Cristal is a light beer and is sold in “dollar” shops where Cubans can buy with CUCs and visitors. Cubans prefer Bucanero Fuerte, which is a darker strong beer with 5.5 % alcohol (hence the term “Fuerte”). Both Cristal and Bucanero are brewed by a joint venture with Labatts from Canada, whose beer is the only Cuban beer sold in CUC. A stronger version, Bucanero Max, is also available – mainly in Havana.
There are also smaller brews that are not available everywhere, such as Hatuey and Corona del Mar. They are sold in cups.
Note that, as with restaurants, there are two types of establishments where you can have a drink in Cuba: Western-style bars using CUC, with prices close to Western prices, a good selection of quality drinks (and sometimes food), nice decor, reasonably motivated staff and often live music, usually found near tourist hotspots like Old Havana and tourist hotels. You will mainly meet other tourists, expats and some Cubans with access to hard currency, but don’t expect a “local” experience.
The alternative is to go to local bars where you can choose from a selection of good quality but limited drinks (mainly locally produced rum by the bottle, beer and soft drinks, very rarely you will get cocktails like mojitos), cigars of dubious quality and cigarettes of only slightly better quality, and sometimes snacks. Local bars accept UPCs and are very cheap, although bartenders will often ask you for CUCs instead – it’s up to you to negotiate an acceptable price, but remember that the local bar staff are government employees and are paid (literally) a pittance. These bars are also a good way to meet locals who might even open up a bit and tell you about their lives after a few drinks.
Local bars are not hard to find, although they are usually not signposted. Just ask or walk around and look for a bare, neon-lit room with no decoration or furnishings other than a bar and a few rickety chairs and tables, surly staff and downcast, bored or drunk-looking patrons, almost always men. Contrary to Cuba’s reputation as a music- and entertainment-loving nation, the local bars are not rowdy affairs – they are quiet, almost discreet, the music is rarely played (and when it is, it comes from a radio but is never live) and have the charm of Third World railway station waiting rooms.
They are nevertheless a fascinating experience (especially if you make the effort to talk to the locals – the offer to pay for a drink will get a conversation going, not surprisingly), and they give a good insight into what life must be like for ordinary Cubans without access to hard currency. As a foreign visitor, you will usually be welcomed. Discussing politics over drinks is a delicate matter that usually does not end well: if you speak negatively about the Cuban political system, you risk putting your Cuban drinking buddies in a very difficult position, as they could very well be accused of consorting with subversive foreigners.