We will be staying at the Hotel Riviera. For food at the hotel, we will be provided with a buffet style breakfast every morning. From what I have read about the buffet, it is nothing special, but there is a possibility of a good omelet if one is lucky. For us, the possibility of finding great cuisine will be outside of the hotel. We have various places included in our trip for lunch: El Templete, La Mina, El Palenque, El Aljibe, and at the UBPC Organopónico Vivero Alamar. All of our evenings are free except for one so hopefully we will also find a few opportunities for a good dinner in Havana. The night we are not free, for our farewell dinner, we will be dining at El Mercurio. All of these restaurants will provide unique dining opportunities even though many of them serve similar dishes, and hopefully, our evening meals will be unique as well.
El Templete is an upscale state-run restaurant located on the bay in Old Havana near El Templete temple, the temple for which it got its name. It is popular with the Havana elite as well as with tourists. The restaurant is known for its seafood because they make dishes based on seafood prepared by Basque Spanish chef José Carlos Castillo. These meals are more expensive with a range from about US$20-40. Many online reviews say the price is worth it and that it is a good break from the typical Cuban fare of chicken, rice, and beans.
La Mina is a state-run restaurant located right on the Plaza de Armas and it serves Cuban traditional food. The restaurant is a popular tourist location. It has a central courtyard as well as caged exotic birds that add to its atmosphere. There is also a café and an ice-cream parlor attached to it. They serve many traditional dishes with chicken, pork, rice, and black beans. For a meal expect to pay about US$10-15. A lot of online reviews say that the restaurant has a charming atmosphere and is a good place to take a break after walking around Havana.
El Palenque de Los Cimarrones is a state-run restaurant that is located in the mouth of a cave in Viñales Valley. The restaurant is a popular tourist location because it is located in this very unique setting. Patrons enter through a short cave that was at one time a refuge for runaway African slaves to get to the other side where the restaurant is located. They serve criollo, local cuisine, dishes such as roasted chicken, yellow rice, and black beans. The location is also a popular dance club/disco on the weekends. It is an inexpensive place to eat with prices varying between US$5-$10. Many online reviews say that the caves themselves aren’t impressive, but that the atmosphere and food are good, and that the information presented about slavery and religion is interesting.
El Aljibe is a state-run restaurant located in Miramar that serves criollo dishes. The restaurant is popular with foreign businessmen and with the Havana elite because it serves some of the best Cuban cuisine in Havana. It is also popular with tourist groups and is often very busy. The house dish is pollo asado el aljibe, which is roast chicken in a sweet orange sauce served with fried plantain chips, French fries, rice, and large portions of black beans. The food ranges in cost from about US$10-20 and deserts, bread, salads, etc. cost extra. Many online reviews write that the service is quick and that the house special is fantastic.
Organopónicos are urban organic farms that are found in urban areas all over Cuba. They usually have raised beds or long concrete containers that hold the compost and soil for their crops because the soil is not great in many parts of Cuba. Organopónicos grew out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba had depended on imports from the USSR for years and when they collapsed, there was a huge shortage of food and produce. This forced Cuba to adopt new methods of agriculture to be able to feed its population. Some of these gardens are run by the state and others are run cooperatively by the farmers, but the government always provides the land to farm. The gardens produce many different types of vegetables, such as beans, tomatoes, cabbage, etc., medicinal plants, and ornamental plants. These gardens are helpful to Cuba because they provide much needed food and add extra jobs. Today, there are thousands of organopónico all over Cuba and their numbers increase daily. The organopónico we are visiting, UBPC Organopónico Vivero Alamar, is the largest, most successful in Havana and is about 11 hectares or about 27.2 acres. The farm also has a number of animals including goats and oxen. The cooperative that owns this farm has around 160 members and some of the workers earn a large salary by Cuban standards, sometimes more than three times what the government pays. The workers also have access to fresh produce, a rarity for most urban Cubans. Most of the produce from the farm is sold directly to the community or to other farms and no pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used. I am not entirely sure what a lunch here would entail, but with all of the fresh produce grown, it surely would not be a letdown.
Finally, El Mercurio is a state-run restaurant in Old Havana that serves a variety of sandwiches for lunch and a variety of more luxurious items for dinner. It is an inside and outside dining establishment that is a good place to rest after exploring Old Havana. They specialize in food like sandwiches, hamburgers, fish, and fries but also serve food like lobster and pasta dishes. A meal might cost anywhere from US$5-25 depending on if it is lunch or dinner. Many online reviews write that it is an elegant restaurant with great food and a great atmosphere.
For our trip to Cuba, I hope to see if these restaurants are as they are described. I would also like to see if there is some truth to any of the good reviews I have read about them online or if the food is truly bad everywhere in the country as many say. Most importantly, I want to sample their cuisine and see what they make and, maybe, how they make it.