A Cuban Speakeasy
Paladares in Cuba were, and some still are, Cuba's speakeasies. They're where you should eat when visiting the country as they provide a way for the people to run small businesses.
In 1995 the Cuban government decided to "legalize" the private food service industry. This wasn't because they were moving away from their communist ways, but instead, a way to control the illegal restaurants that were popping up all over the country. Fearing they were losing control, they decided to "legalize" with many conflicting restrictions.
While visiting Cuba, I made it a point to eat at paladares over hotel restaurants to help support the people. The food was wonderful, and they were all so different, with one sticking out amongst the rest.
I had a chance to visit La Guarida, once by day and twice by night. Dinner was delicious. The restaurant was on par with fine-dining establishments in the US, but the ambiance was like no other. Located in Habana Central, the streets lack the touristic feel found in La Habana Vieja. The neighborhood has a rougher vibe, though entirely safe in comparison to most dimly lit city streets anywhere in the world.
As you approach the building your gaze climbs, and you're greeted with the typical tall door found all over the city, but your eyes keep scanning the walls as the facade jumps out and begins its intricate design. The sunlight beams through the broken windows and open doors in the day, allowing for you to appreciate the details of the building. The marble staircase and railing are falling apart in places, but as you tour the high-ceiling rooms, you can't help but imagine what it would be like to attend a party there before it started falling to ruins.
Built in 1913, this space was formerly known as the Camagüey mansion where it hosted some extravagant parties. In 1993 it was used in the film, Fresa y Chocolate, about a gay artist attempting to seduce a straight man. As the film grew to international popularity, Japanese tourists starting appearing to see the remains of this gorgeous structure. Having grown up in this multi-family building, Enrique Nuñez, realized the potential for a restaurant and La Guarida opened its doors on July 14, 1996.
The early days were slow, with no more than 12 diners at a time. This was by no means a reflection of the food but of the Cuban government's restrictions on these private restaurants called "paladares." Limitations required that at least two immediate family members work in the restaurant, no meat or fish could be served, and it was prohibited to pay a salary to employees. Sounds like a recipe for failure if you ask me. La Guarida pressed on against these challenges. Restrictions lightened, the food was enhanced, and it evolved into one of the most popular restaurants in Havana where celebrities and high-society figures, from all over the world, flock.