(Bloomberg) -- Everyone who plans a trip to Cuba gets the same advice: you’ll love the country but hate the food. Between ingredient shortages, import restrictions, and a lack of Internet connectivity to help people find local gems, the Cuban food scene is legitimately difficult to navigate. But just like everything else on this arresting island, access to the government’s inner circle can unlock the country’s gastronomic treasures.
With that in mind, we asked one of Fidel Castro’s private chefs, Ivan Justo, to open up his little black book to Havana, where restaurants are most plentiful and travelers more likely to visit first. These are the places, he suggests, that will redeem his home town’s culinary cred once and for all.
Call a week ahead to get into this hotspot in Vedado because it’s unusually busy by Havana standards. Seating is on the open roof, where the vibe gradually shifts from breezy to blingy as the night goes on. Join a young crowd of affluent expats and sophisticated locals for grilled lobster and cocktails (there’s no menu—just tell the bartender what you like), then head next door to Fabrica D’Arte, a peanut oil factory-turned-contemporary art gallery that Justo frequents for its range of up-and-coming Cuban artists.
A Swedish-inspired restaurant in Central Havana? Believe it. This whitewashed spot a few blocks from the shore serves dishes from both countries: Think Swedish meatballs and Cuban lamb stew. To drink: strong, well-made daiquiris, always served with a smile by young, good-looking bartenders.
The setting feels as authentically Cuban as they come: a chandeliered dining room on the third floor of a crumbling mansion, with original tile and mismatched antique chairs. Request a table on the new rooftop deck, which overlooks the entire old city, and order the roasted chicken. The Cuban classic is elevated with a drizzle of honey, an ingredient that’s hard to come by in this corner of the world.
Justo likes this spot—tucked down a side street in Old Havana—for its unique mix of dive bar vibes and top-quality food. You wouldn’t expect, for instance, to find citrus-flavored grilled seafood salad or rich, butter-laced chicken fricassee in a bric-a-brac space with no air conditioning. But the food is good enough to warrant regular lines out the door. Grab a table before 7 p.m., when locals start packing the place elbow-to-elbow, and cool down with frozen rum drinks and fresh fruit cocktails.
You don’t need Justo to steer you towards this Old Havana icon, but his validation is worthwhile in light of how touristy the place has become—you likely already know it was Hemingway’s bar of choice. Make the pilgrimage and you’ll find daiquiris on tap, a full rumba band, and plenty of visiting salsa fans slaying it on the dance floor.
Café de los Artistas
There are three things you can expect from this Old Havana café: strong coffee, even stronger drinks, and a crowd of passionate artists with poor volume control. Make a beeline for the quieter, jungle-like outdoor dining room (covered end to end with plants and palms); all you need is an order of ham and cheese croquettes and a Cuba Libre to make it the perfect urban oasis.
In a city not known for its fresh produce, this bilevel, brick-walled space has incredible natural juices and cocktails, all served in tall glasses with towering garnishes. Just call ahead to make sure they’ll be open; the restaurant keeps odd hours.
Ivan Chefs Justo
Justo’s restaurant in Old Havana proves that Fidel knew how to pick his staff. He makes the best paella on the island—perfectly cooked saffron rice, piled high with local seafood—and serves it in a brilliantly hued dining room overflowing with flowers and plants. Just as good is his less-formal spot next door, Al Carbón, where pork is king. The deep-fried suckling pig draws the most raves. Plus, the two restaurants have the most extensive wine lists in all of Havana. (Call a week ahead for reservations, regardless of which you choose.)
Don’t be fooled by the American name and saloon-style décor: This Old Havana restaurant is as Cuban as they come. The walls are lined with vintage photos of Havana in the 1930s, the Cuban sandwiches are filled with ultra-flavorful roast beef. Order one of the bar’s signature mojitos, which are made with 11-year-aged Santiago Rum. During the 1940s and 1950s, it was a magnet for American celebrities, as well as tourists wanting to mingle with them.
It’s worth noting that food shortages still exist in Cuba, and although tourism is crucial to Cuba’s economy, visitors to the island absorb a large share of the local ingredients, leaving some Cubans with little to buy. The World Food Programme (WFP) is an organization that is doing amazing work to address food-related issues in Cuba. Donate here to help offset these food shortages.
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