The rise of the paladar…..the what???
Paladar is a uniquely Cuban word and it simply means privately-run restaturant. To American ears, this might sound kind of strange because we only think of restaurants as being privately owned. However, in Cuba this is a relatively new phenomena because previously all restaurants were owned by the state. The majority of restaurants are still state-owned but the paladares are giving them a run for their money and in most cases they are winning. The best Cuban food you can taste nowadays is always at the paladar.
In the early 90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government was forced to make some economic reforms which allowed some private enterprise. That is when the first paladares appeared. These establishments were usually run by families in their own homes. At that time, the paladares were under a lot of restrictions as the number of seats available, had limitations in dishes they could offer and hiring labor was banned.
The paladares had a very simple formula as entrepreneurialism was so new at that time. I remember when we visited Havana for the first time, we were led by a young person to a paladar, which according to him was the best one on the island, and suddenly we found ourselves sitting in the living room of a family home. It was an austere place of very unique style, with 3 tables and a menu with a few dishes. The homeowner took our order, a timid man who went out of his way to attend to us including telling us some anecdotes that had us laughing. The food was not Michellin-starred but the service and the warmth of the owners were exceptional. We went back a couple of times during our stay in Havana.
Paladars started to blossom in 2010 when Raul Castro reformed the program and lifted many of the previous restrictions for private businesses. It is this new generation of paladares that has grown not only in Havana but throughout the island in places like Trinidad and Baracoa where they have drastically changed the dining experience in Cuba. Dozens of new individual entrepreneurs and families have opened establishments with a wide range of styles from trendy cafes and hamburger stands to luxurious mansions with bohemian atmosphere and cozy home environments. The varied culinary offerings are based on delicious traditional Cuban dishes like fresh fish, shrimp, lobster, yuca, roast pork, and other recipes from the regions. In addition, you can findfusion food such as with Basque, Italian, French, Japanese or Chinese cuisine. All made with fresh and quality ingredients.
The initiative has also prompted businesses to take advange of their terraces and bars to serve incomparable tropical fruit juices or cocktails such as the classic Cuban mojito, daiquiri and pina colada, and of course accompanied by good music.
Cuban Food at its best
Today paladares are at the same level as some high-end restaurants in any other country in Latin America. What’s even more, in 2012 Doña Eutimia, a paladar in Havana was selected by the magazine The Daily Beast-Newsweek, among one of the top 101 restaurants to eat around the world. And in 2014 TripAdvisor included the San Cristobal paladar on the Travelers’ Choice list awarded as the “best restaurants” on the planet. Cuban cuisine has come a long way in a short period of time. Join one of tours and you will almost exclusively dine at these charming places.