Back in Havana we checked into the Hotel Nacional, the pre-Revolution rendezvous for mobsters and movie stars meeting to share the spoils of Batista’s playground. The hotel throng was swelled by a film crew so we opted for “eating out” . The Concierge was a busy, patient man. We asked for restaurant recommendations and he was pleased to help and make arrangements. A tip lubricating the transaction.
We were collected by a smart Mercedes cab as darkness shrouded the city. There are many Mercs in Havana. How Mercedes Benz circumnavigated the Economic Embargo is a wonder for another story. The streets were already quiet as we left the city centre and headed for the suburbs. We had no idea where we were going or, in peering through the window, where we were. After about 10 minutes we were pulled over by the police. Our driver left us in the back as he was questioned and chastised for at least 20 minutes as he presented one set of papers after another. We stared through the window at the proceedings, the only movement in this neon-lit street. Fi and I exchanged silent glances.
Presently, our driver was “released” and he climbed back in behind the wheel apologising profusely, explaining that apparently he’d run a red light. An excuse, perhaps. I hadn’t noticed any red lights.
We wound through suburban streets for another 10 minutes or so until we finally came to a halt on a quiet dark housing estate on the edge of the city. There was no sign of life and definitely no restaurant.
“Is this it?” , I asked.
“Si,” said our driver, “there.” And he pointed to a high wall, it’s foreboding barrier interrupted by a single, solid wooden gate. “Knock on that door. Tell them to call me when you are ready and I will come and get you.” He said.
We rolled out of the back of the car and he drove away. We stood on the pavement for a few seconds and looked at each other. Maybe our adventuring had gone too far this time. It was dark. We were on the outskirts of Havana and we felt definitely exposed.
“I guess we better do as he says.”
We were decidedly uncomfortable as we approached the walled garden gate. This was an ordinary housing estate – as ordinary and unassuming as you’d find anywhere in the world – and in darkness, just as threatening as any city suburb.
I knocked timidly. Then a little harder. Suddenly the door was opened by a smiling young man who invited us inside. I rarely carry my camera at night. It is asking for trouble. But this night I wish I had.
We stepped into someone’s back garden. Most of the garden had been roofed over. Tropical fish swam back and forth along under-lit glass-topped waterways weaving through the lawn. Exotic palms provided cosy shelters for croaking frogs and crickets. Candle-lit tables stood on plinths. Wine glasses glinted in the pretty light. The whole effect was superb. We were in an outdoor restaurant in someone’s back garden and the effect was stunning. You cannot imagine the smiles of relief and wonder. An experience we’ll never forget………….and from the outside……….absolutely nothing.
This was our experience of a paladar – a family run restaurant operated within the family home. The atmosphere was friendly, homely, and the cooking of traditional Cuban cuisine quite excellent. Literally, just as Momma makes it.
This is a short documentary on the subject of paladares in Havana. Atmospheric, and if you have the time, worth watching.