Decades of socialism, isolation, and hard economic times have taken their toll, often leaving Cuban food (and service in restaurants) uninspired and uninspiring. Many of the country's best chefs and restaurateurs followed their upper- and middle-class clients into exile after the Revolution, and even local comida criolla (Creole cuisine) isn't as good as the Cuban food served in the exile communities of Miami, New York, or Puerto Rico.
As the economy has become increasingly reliant on tourism, the government has made efforts to improve the quality of both the service and the food in state-run restaurants. Foreign management of hotels and their restaurants, through joint ventures with the Cuban government, is also helping matters.
Most hotel restaurants serve buffet-style breakfasts from 7 am to 10 am and dinners from 7 pm to 10 pm. Good, interesting meals—sometimes only dinner—are served in paladares, tiny eateries in private homes that are allowed a maximum of only 12 seats and must be staffed by family members. (It's the dining equivalent to a casa particular.) Although there are restrictions on what can be served (seafood, for example, is officially forbidden at paladares), the food is usually fresh and relatively inexpensive; a full meal with generous portions can cost as little as CUC$8. Unfortunately, the government has closed many paladares in recent years, so most towns have only two or three; some have none at all. There are also a number of illegal paladares, toward which jineteros (street hustlers) will likely try to steer you. Although the food in these establishments can be good, in general you're better off avoiding such recommendations.
Cuban cuisine is a fusion of African, Spanish, and Caribbean fare, and generally only very lightly spiced. The best criollo fare can actually be found at the many paladares that have sprouted up throughout the country. Dining in what is literally somebody’s home will give you the most authentic experience. Small private restaurants are also increasingly popular among locals. Typical criollo fare includes rice and beans, pork, beef or fish with potatoes, plantains and a simple lettuce and tomato salad.
Convertible pesos (CUC) are almost always required in places frequented by tourists. Local establishments generally take only local pesos. Credit cards are accepted at government establishments but not in paladares.
Reservations and Dress
Cuban meals are relaxed affairs, and reservations are rarely required. Note that some restaurants frown on shorts for both men and women; beach attire is usually acceptable only on the beach.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Cuba's three signature rum libations—the mojito, the daiquiri, and the Cuba Libre (referred to in North America as a rum and coke)—appear on the drinks menu at every tourist joint. A "rum and coke" is actually a "rum and cola" here, as Coca-Cola is not available anywhere in Cuba, thanks to the embargo. Cristal, Bucanero, and Mayabe are the most widely available beers. Don't count on finding any imported brands at local watering holes. Wines are a hit and miss—maybe a Chilean or Argentine vintage or two—and rare is the restaurant that boasts an extensive wine menu.