Have you ever seen a restaurant appear in a movie and think: I have to go there one day? For my Mom it’s the restaurant Serendipity, where she has unsuccessfully tried to enter on two occasions. Each time there was a minimum wait of two hours. And there is so much to do in NYC in two hours rather than sit around and wait that we just left… (We’ll go there some day, Mom, I promise.) I, on the other hand, have wanted to visit a famous restaurant since I watched the movie Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate). The movie was filmed in a building that now holds the paladar La Guarida. The movie debuted in 1993 ands depicts Diego and David: two Cubans who differ completely in their political spectrum and sexual orientation but still manage to build a friendship. The film garnered so much success, even an Academy Award nomination, that the owners of the building decided to turn Diego’s apartment in the film into a privately-owned restaurant. La Guarida quickly became an emblem of culinary delight for tourists and has had visits from Kevin Spacey to Jay-Z and Beyoncé. In sum, you can go and eat where the Queen Bee has eaten herself, but you definitely have to book with anticipation.
**Nerdy Translation Sidenote: These privately-owned restaurants aren’t actually called restaurantes in Cuba but paladares. They became legal in the 1990s and it is a way for some Cubans to set up a “restaurant” from their homes and make some extra income.
The booking process was annoying. I emailed La Guarida from their website on May 10th and received the message: your reservation request is awaiting confirmation. No response after that. I emailed them on May 19th to ask them again if the reservation was confirmed. Nothing. I finally received a confirmation email on June 12th, more than a month since I had sent the initial request and when I was close to calling them from the U.S. The email with the confirmation actually stated that I had to RECONFIRM that I would be going a day before the reservation. Super weird, but necessary I guess? Maybe they’ve had a lot of no-shows in the many years they’ve been open? I’m not sure. Thankfully, the AirBnb host where I stayed at helped me call them a day before and I was able to reconfirm for a second time. I can’t imagine how it would have been if I had just emailed some weeks before the date I had in mind. I might have received a response after my trip was over…
The entrance to the building can be deceiving. The actual restaurant is located on the third floor, up flights of stairs, but instead of going straight to the top, my brother and I took in the architecture on the first floor. Three tourists arrived right after. They took one look at the entrance and had no reservations in regards to showing their disgust. It was obvious they had heard about the restaurant through the grapevine but had not done any research. They left to go eat somewhere else and missed out on a great view and dinner.
Entrance of La Guarida
The second floor is painted a lukewarm yellow, with clothing lines hanging around but then contrasted by huge chandeliers. Is rustic elegance a thing…? Because I will go ahead and make that oxymoron work from now on… BUT although this might sound nice, I had to check myself and acknowledge that most paladares don’t actively choose to have a rustic elegance vibe as a marketing initiative. They simply do not have a choice. This is something that needs to be at the forefront of foreign travelers’ mind when they arrive to Cuba, and should not just be present when going through a culinary experience, but the entire trip. The image right below of an area in the second floor shows the reality of many buildings in Havana. Decaying wood, partly painted walls, dirty floors, clothing lines. This is one very real side of Havana.
And then an evidently renovated section of the building:
The Third Floor
Once you get to the third floor, you realize that the renovations conducted in 2009 and 2010 were most likely all on this floor. There is a host waiting to ask you the obvious question: Do you have a reservation? If not, you can go up to the rooftop and enjoy some drinks, but you most likely won’t get a table, unless you know someone that knows someone…. or you are just plain lucky.
When I emailed all the way back in May, I asked to sit by the balcony. Not on the rooftop with everyone else, but a place where I could see all the local people walking by the entrance of the restaurant. And that´s exactly where we were seated after a few minutes. I was with my brother, and solely did this so I could have a direct view of the city. But I can definitely see how this could be the perfect spot for a romantic dinner. The following picture is the view of the balcony, but you can check out a picture of all the people eating below. You also have the opportunity to be seated inside, but I wanted to avoid this.
Once we sat down and started looking at our menus, my brother and I were talking about what we were in the mood for. He mentioned a dish that he thought I would like and I searched the menu everywhere. At one moment he couldn’t believe how blind I was and decided to reach over and point to it. Turns out, we had been given two different menus. Some of the dishes on my menu were not the same as his and vice versa. And this turned out to be a shame because my menu was the old menu, so some of the things I had in mind were no longer available. This also made me skip dessert. My menu had a dessert I really wanted to try, something I felt was unique and could not have anywhere else, but alas, it was no longer being served. This is a picture of me trying to fight between my feeling of annoyance of getting the wrong menu and not getting what I wanted but also acknowledging that I shouldn’t bitch about insignificant stuff like that when people around me have not had it as good as I have. **LEARN HOW TO CHECK YOURSELF.** I’m still learning every day!
I ordered an avocado shrimp salad. I had booked the reservation at 6:30 p.m. and imagined I would have lunch at 1 or 2 pm, but we ended up having lunch at 3 something, almost 4, and I wasn’t extremely hungry. The avocado was ripe. It was soft but not bordering on old-left-out-avocado that sometimes happens to me at home, and the lemony sprinkles with the shrimp was just what I needed as the day was winding down. For me, the portion was fine but if it had been three hours earlier, I would have ordered 2 more dishes to go with it. My brother, who considers himself a chegan (a cheating vegan) when he is on vacation, ordered a three beef plate. After he had dessert wine to end our dinner. I wasn’t expecting to see a dessert wine menu… and it was a welcome surprise. If you are wondering what the current menu looks like, unfortunately you’ll have to keep on wondering until you arrive there. Even though there is a link to a menu on the La Guarida website, it doesn’t take you anywhere else but the homepage…
After the Meal
I had planned the meal at a time when I knew we would be able to watch the sunset. Once you walk up to the first roof, you can look down and see all the tourists eating. But just look at that for one second because you can turn around and see the rest of Havana. It’s a colorful view to behold. You can also take out a map and locate other emblematic locations. Or car and people watch the streets below. If you walk up to the second roof and look towards the ocean, you´ll get to enjoy the sun setting in hues of pink and yellow.
Bueno, volemos en alas de la imaginación, ya que en otra cosa no se puede. – Diego – Fresa y Chocolate
When I got back home, some people asked me if La Guarida is worth to visit or just pure hype. I don’t care if I eat lunch at a fancy location or a kiosk on the street. My best meals and memories are from the latter. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t say La Guarida is just hype. I had a savory meal in Havana and the view exceeded my expectations. I would go again, and I would still book at the same time to watch the sun go down. Just cross your fingers that when you go, the 10-minute-flash rainstorms Havana is known for never occur. Enjoy a mojito at the bar, and don’t forget to spend some time appreciating the architecture of the building on the other floors.