America,  Cuba,  During the World Tour,  TDM,  Tips

Where to eat in Cuba: state restaurants, private restaurants or casas

Having lived in Vietnam at the time of communism, when every family had a food book, I thought that in Cuba we also risked starving to death. But no!
I offer you this guide in the form of Questions/Answers to reassure even the most greedy among you.

Will I starve to death?

Gone are the days when each person is entitled to x bananas and x apples. If food is still not plentiful, it can be bought at the supermarket or on the street, where vegetable vendors park their carts full of fruit/salad/onions. Cuba now has the right to import food and medicine. One can even drink Coca-Cola imported from Mexico at 1.75 CUC/can in restaurants.
There is everything in the supermarket, even if the choice is a little more limited

Where will I be able to eat?

There are many restaurants, especially in the big cities. There are state restaurants, and private restaurants. In Havana, in any case, it is impossible for me to distinguish between the two types of restaurants. In general, the restaurants where you will be have prices in CUC (convertible). But it isn’t uncommon to come across small signs displaying prices in CUC (moneda nacional).
Know that you have the right to eat where you want… whether the price is in CUC or UPC, whether it is a state restaurant or not, whether it is at your casa or not.
You also have the right to buy food on the street from private vendors. Moreover, I advise you, it isn’t expensive (in the 0,2€ a cone of churros). Always have pesos (CUP – moneda nacional) to enjoy these cheap products and street food. I’ve talked at length here about how to have moneda nacional, and how not to get ripped off because of this double currency.

I’m in a local restaurant. Prices aren’t displayed. My Cuban neighbor pays 20CUP (moneda nacional), isn’t that a good plan?

No, when the prices are not displayed, the servers set the price at the customer’s head. Always ask for the price before you order and ask for clarification if it is in pesos (moneda nacional) or convertible (CUC). You are a tourist, so it will be at least twice as expensive for you, and you will probably pay in CUC. Life is unfair! But Cubans earn 20€/month, not you.
Warning: if prices are displayed, in general they won’t be able to lie to you and make you pay the tourist rate. Just hand over the ticket in moneda nacional.
Warning 2: even if the prices are displayed in moneda nacional, sometimes the seller will still try to charge you double, triple or 25 times more. It’s up to you to be firm, to negotiate… or to give in.

Am I obliged to have breakfast and dinner at the casa?

NO. This is why these options are offered separately. 5 CUC/person for breakfast in general and between 10 and 15 CUC for dinner.
The quality varies from casa to casa. I recommend that you read the comments on TripAdvisor before booking dinner or breakfast at your casa.
Make a reservation ? Yes, it is always necessary to inform the owners in advance. You can’t decide 15 minutes in advance that you want breakfast or dinner at your casa on the spur of the moment. All this requires a reservation, usually the day before for lunch, and in the early afternoon for dinner. You will also be asked at what time you want to eat.
I don’t recommend dinner at the casas, I think that once or twice it’s good to get a preview of what Cubans eat. But I find that the quality/price ratio is better in restaurants.
Note: Dinner at the casa includes a soup (or black bean sauce), a simple salad (cucumber, tomato, cabbage), lots and lots of rice, meat, or fish/shrimp/lobster and a dessert (often fruit salad). All this is between 10 to 15 CUC/person. Drinks aren’t included.
At the restaurant, for a (huge) main course + a mojito, it costs between 8 CUC and 10 CUC/person. But you have to add 10% tip as well.
WARNING: In the lost cities, dinner at the casa may be your only option. So don’t be too much in “I’m not planning anything” mode otherwise you risk sleeping on an empty stomach.
Examples of dinners at the casa

I read that it is difficult to find bottled water?

This may have been the case a few years ago. Nowadays, almost all casas offer small bottles at 1 CUC, and the large ones at 2 CUC. Type mercado on your application and you will find large, fresh 1.5L bottles between 1 CUC and 1.5 CUC. In Cienfuegos, I even found a bottle of 5L at 1.5 CUC. Look carefully if it is sparkling water/ aqua con gas or not.

What dishes will I find there?

Cuban cuisine is OK but the choice is quite limited outside of Havana.
You will soon realize that the offer always revolves around beef/pork/poultry/shrimp/langoose served with a simple salad (without lettuce) and rice (white rice or rice with black beans). Avoid anything grilled(asado, asada) as it is super dry. Ask for meat with tomato sauce.
You will also find spaghetti, but the sauce is never very good.
On the other hand, seafood paella is always a sure value.
Another national dish to try: ropa vieja, slender beef bathed in a good tomato sauce, it’s great when it’s well done.
Restaurants in moneda nacional often sell great take-out pizzas (to eat folded in half like tacos), hamburgers, paninis and croque-monsieur.
Tipping isn’t mandatory, but we always leave a 10% tip – and nobody complained ahahah 😀
If you like this guide, check out our article: Ultimate Guide: Cuba in 27 days
Cuba in 27 days: Itinerary, assessment, guide (budget, transportation, accommodation, Internet, practical advice)

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