Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

Cuba in a Time Warp

After a trip to the Havana Bienal art exposition, the authors discover that the best Cuban food isn't in Cuba anymore--it's in Miami and New York. Will scaling back Communism help Cuba reclaim its flavor?

zagats cubanew post.jpg

Photo by zedzap/Flickr CC

Hola! Our four days in Cuba for the Havana Bienal art exposition were, in an odd way, like a return to our childhoods. The cars in the streets were the kind that we learned to drive back in the '50s. Big old Buicks and Oldsmobiles being held together not by mechanics but, as the locals say, by "magicians" were prominent among the few cars in the most lightly trafficked city we have ever seen. No parking problems here--on most blocks no cars. At least there's hardly any congestion getting around, and little smog.

The bones of the city are elegant and European, but most buildings look like nothing has been done to them in 50 years--no paint, no repairs, courtyards without gardens. Frankly, the housing stock is a wreck. When you walk down the streets and look into buildings, you see mostly dark, empty caverns--retail stores are virtually non-existent. What would be fantastic waterfront locations elsewhere in the world are simply abandoned or in total disrepair. Still, Havana is a gorgeous city, right on the water, with the prospect of an exciting future.

We filled our short stay with walks around Old Havana (lots of churches and lovely squares), daiquiris at the Hemingway-made-famous Floridita, sitting at cafes while drinking beer from tall cylinders with containers of ice up the center, visits to artists' homes, plenty of Bienal exhibitions, and, naturally, eating.

Cuba is still Communist, of course. But it doesn't feel like the Russia we visited in the '70s. In Havana we felt comfortable saying anything, and the locals were friendly, speaking to us freely about their lives and how they earned money. Sure, just about everybody works for the state, and we assume the state owns all the property; but people seem surprisingly happy (even though they still have rationing), and are planning for the future with universal optimism about Obama.

zagats apr 21 cuba inside.jpg

Copyright Nina and Tim Zagat

As for the art world, most artists we met through the Bienal were well established, with their prices tied to the world art markets. Artists who can sell a painting for $5,000 to $10,000 are among the richest people in the country.

In comparison, Cuban doctors and engineers generally earn $18 a month. They supplement their government incomes by moonlighting in any job where tips in CUCs (convertible currency worth 24 times the local pesos and complicated to exchange) are available. One doctor we met said he makes more money from tips as a waiter in one night than he does as a doctor in one month. On the other hand, we continually heard how good and available Cuban medical care and education are.

"The greatest achievements of Communism are health care, sports, and education. The greatest failures of Communism are breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

And what about the food? We expected to find exciting Cuban cuisine with dishes we've never had before. We didn't. What we ate pretty much boiled down to rice and beans and pork and chicken, with salad being "too risky." The best restaurant we visited was a relatively new Spanish place, Templete, which was attractive and fun. The best Cubano we had was at the great old hotel of Havana, the Nacionale, where we stayed--but it lacked the spicy tang of the best Cubanos we had tasted previously.

Some of the places we tried were charming, such as Paladar la Guarida (the site of the movie Strawberry and Chocolate), but there was no cutting-edge food. A few other touted stops are El Alijibe (just chicken), El Palenque (pork), Los Nardos, Ambos Mundos, and La Dominica. Overall, we'd stick to the Cuban food we have in the U.S. (see, especially in NYC or Miami.

zagat apr21 zagats.jpg

Copyright Nina and Tim Zagat

The food letdown was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that every meal was supported by nonstop mojitos. Tim's problem was that he doesn't like mojitos--Nina's problem was that she does, and skip the bitters. This led to an unusually large number of naps.

We asked other members of our group to rate the food, decor, and service at the restaurants we visited. The ratings on our 30-point scale averaged 17 for food, 16 for decor, and 14 for service. Given that tips play such a large part in the economic life, we were surprised that service wasn't more "hospitable" or "attentive."

To sum up, here's what one local said: "The greatest achievements of Communism are health care, sports, and education. The greatest failures of Communism are breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

Once local ingredients become plentiful from Cuba's rich land and entrepreneurship returns to fashion, a return to Cuba should be a great experience. Havana is there, just waiting to be revived! And it's only a 35-minute flight from Miami. Hola.