“Prepare to have a lot of ham and cheese sandwiches!” is what a friend who lives in Cuba told me just before I was about to travel to Havana. Lucky for me, I’m quite fond of the classic ham-and-cheese combo, although I guessed they probably wouldn’t taste exactly like the ones I pick up at the local Pret here in London.
The view from the terrace of the Hotel Nacional
During my stay, I was situated at the Hotel Nacional—which, at this point, is probably more heritage site than hotel—but more on that later. Given the awkward arrival (10.45pm local time by the time I was settled), I met the EGM team on the terrace of the hotel to have a mojito and, you guessed it, a ham and cheese panini. Fair play to my friend for the heads up, I just didn’t expect it to happen quite as soon as it did. The rest of the trip, however, though full on with editorial shoots and cigar factory visits, was broken up by some of the finest dining establishments you’re likely to find. Here are some of the culinary highlights.
4H9H+RG5, Avenida 7ma, La Habana
El Aljibe, Havana
When you walk in, you can’t help but feel as if you’ve gone back in time, to the American midwest to be specific. The saloon-like interior, hardwood flooring and mahogany furnishings is only emphasised by the insanely leisurely service. Whilst perfectly pleasant, you may be standing around Travolta-style until you eventually get waved towards a table in the far corner. It’s certainly worth the wait, however, for the minute you’re seated, the carved roast chicken takes centre stage followed swiftly by an unlimited offering of rice and frijoles. The latter dishes are subsidised staples that were provided to the people by the government, and proves to be one of the many constants this place has to offer. Usually served alongside plantain chips and pickled cucumbers, wash it down with a cerveza and cancel any plans you may have for the rest of the day.
Pollo asado El Aljibe (350g), con arroz y frijoles
Cha Cha Chá
4JRV+7C3, La Habana
As you can probably guess, Cha Cha Chá is very much musical-themed. From the front of house gentleman who looks like an ‘80s Crooner to the vinyl disc table mats, you’re enveloped in good music and vibes from the moment you step in — provided you call ahead for a table. Offering a selection of fresh-fruit cocktails (mango mojitos are the perfect accompaniment to a strawberry daiquiri, FYI), incredible local cuisine as well as international favourites, it’s a place to hang with friends morning, noon and night. I’m very vocal about my disdain for ceviche (it’s just not good in London), but Cha Cha Chá’s offering could make a ceviche-lover out of me yet.
4H48+GPC, 70, La Habana
Located a couple blocks off of 5th Ave., Sensasioones is exactly that: sensational. This ended up being a place we visited twice, and is definitely an occasion-worthy spot. The grand dishes, be it the steak, or the cacio e pepe (which has ‘show’ next to it on the menu to indicate that the waiters will make the dish table-side) are melt-in-the-mouth delicious, hearty and recommended. With an incredible wine selection to accompany it, it’s an easy way to spend an evening. Or early morning, depending on how the night goes…
3612 e/ 36A y 38,, 3ra, La Habana
The finest ingredients can be found at the Amalfi restaurant in Havana
You’d be forgiven if you walked by and assumed you were passing someone’s house, such is the discrete facade. A narrow outdoor seating area with steps leading down and inside, you end up having some of the best, authentic Italian food this side of, well, Italy. Owned by Gianni, an Italian native who was unimpressed by the quality of local vegetables when he moved to Cuba, he decided to plant his own tomatoes and wider vegetables and even set up a small dairy farm to make true, rustic Italian mozzarella. I could genuinely close my eyes and picture Amalfi whilst eating the delicious aubergine-based pasta of the day. However, it’s definitely worth keeping the scheduled district black outs in mind. We found out the hard way, dining in 30-degree midday heat with only the ice cold Birra Morettis keeping us from melting. It was 100% worth it, mind.
La Corte del Principe
3J7X+RQ5, Pjea, La Habana
Another incredible Italian restaurant in Cuba. I never expected to eat more Italian food in Cuba than actual Cuban food at this point, let alone more Italian than when in Italy, but stranger things have happened.
La Corte del Principe
This place makes quite possibly the best focaccia I have ever tasted. The light and crunchy-yet-soft base, the sharpness of the cheese, the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth (there’s that phrase again) cured meat. I could’ve had the whole sharing plate to myself.
Oh, and, of course, all of these locations are designed to accommodate a post-lunch or dinner cigar. We’re in Havana, after all.