I find myself returning time and again to El Aljibe (7ma Av., e/ 24 y 26, tel. 07/204-1583, daily noon–midnight), my favorite state-run restaurant in Havana . It serves the best Cuban fare in town and is popular with tour groups, the Havana elite, and foreign expats showing off their trophy Cuban girlfriends.
You dine beneath a soaring thatch roof. The superb house dish, the pollo asado el aljibe, is glazed with a sweet orange sauce, then baked and served with fried plantain chips, rice, French fries, and black beans served until you can eat no more.
It’s a tremendous bargain at CUC12; desserts and beverages cost extra. Other criollo dishes are served (CUC10–20), but you really should order the house chicken. The bread and side salad delivered to your table will be charged to your bill even if you didn’t order it, and a 10 percent service charge is automatically billed. The wine cellar has almost 27,000 bottles! Service is prompt and efficient.
Restaurant 5ta y 16 (5ta Av., esq. 16, tel. 07/206-9509, daily noon–1 a.m.) is acclaimed as one of Havana ’s best restaurants for traditional Cuban cooking, notably grilled fish and meats (the grilled pork chops are particularly good) from a churrasquería. More creative dishes include a delicious appetizer of stuffed red peppers with tuna, plus a daily special, from roast beef to lamb chops. The food is well prepared and the portions are huge. Choose from a downstairs buffet or à la carte upstairs. Budget CUC10–25.
The Communist elite can often be found dining at El Rancho Palco (Av. 19, esq. 140, tel. 07/208-9346, daily noon–11 p.m.), set in jungly surroundings in the heart of Cubanacán . It’s a handsome, open-sided bohío with terra-cotta floor, Tiffany-style lamps, decor featuring saddles, and wooden toucans and parrots on swings. You can opt to dine on a patio or beneath thatch, or in an air-conditioned dining room. It serves meat dishes (CUC10–30), seafood (CUC12–26), and the usual criollo fare. Quality is hit or miss, depending on your timing; on a good night it serves the best filet mignon (CUC11) in Cuba. It has floor shows at night. Scan your bill carefully as scams are frequent.
Pretending to be a paladar, Doctor Café (Calle 28 #111, e/ 1ra y 3ra, tel. 07/203-4718, daily noon–midnight) has some of the most creative gourmet dishes in town, courtesy of Chef Juan Carlos. Every dish I’ve eaten here was sublime. Try the crab ceviche and smoked salmon appetizers, and the filet mignon, venison, lobster, and rabbit entrées. Choose patio dining or the atmospheric air-conditioned interior. Reservations required.