News and Facts about Cuba

What, Reserve a Table? Cubans Confront a New Dining Culture

What, Reserve a Table? Cubans Confront a New Dining Culture

HAVANA — Cubans sometimes joke that of all the lessons living under
three generations of communism has taught them, by far the most
important is learning how to wait.

So it’s a little surprising that as capitalism creeps in — the
introduction of private ownership has created a thriving
scene — people here are discovering, to their dismay, that they need to
book reservations to get into their favorite places for dinner.

It’s just one of many dislocations that restaurateurs and diners are
facing as two economic worlds collide in the new, more American-friendly

“Until six months ago, I was able to show up with two people and eat
somewhere that’s considered one of the fancier restaurants in Havana
with no problem,” said Imogene Tondre, 34, an American-born cultural
coordinator who has lived in the city for six years and is married to a
Cuban. “Now the ones that take the big tour groups are always booked.
And even the restaurants that are geared more toward the Cuban
population are often very full.”

Many Cubans are shocked. “They arrive and say: ‘What? I need a
reservation from a day before? That’s ridiculous!'” said Amy Torralbas,
31, the owner of Otramanera, a gated ultramodern restaurant that serves
a blend of Cuban and Mediterranean cooking.

At first glance, the problem wouldn’t seem to be a shortage of places to
eat. Antonio Diaz, a of Havana economics professor, estimated
that several hundred viable restaurants have sprouted since 2011, when
the government loosened crippling restrictions on privately owned
restaurants, or paladares. With that has come a much wider variety of
cuisines, from Spanish-style seafood to Japanese sushi, reflecting the
desires of a public with an increasingly cosmopolitan palate.

But demand is also growing exponentially, thanks to a flood of
international tourists — 3.52 million in 2015, among them 161,000 from
the United States, or nearly double the number of Americans in 2014,
according to Reuters. And though restaurateurs have freer rein than at
any time since the 1950s, they still have to grapple with the byzantine,
sometimes nonsensical rules that come with owning a private enterprise
in a communist country. By law, for example, restaurants are limited to
50 seats or fewer.

The island’s runs on dual currencies: the Cuban convertible
peso, or CUC, meant primarily for tourists, and the local peso, or CUP,
which Cubans use for most day-to-day transactions. Restaurants must run
on a mix of both, accepting payment mostly in CUCs but using CUPs for
supplies and wages.

A restaurateur wishing to expand to a second location runs smack into
restrictions on property ownership that limit an individual to one site
in Havana and another elsewhere in Cuba. (Entrepreneurs with dreams of
empires get around those laws by exploiting loopholes and shuffling
deeds among siblings, parents and children.)

Then there’s the constant struggle of running a food business in a
country that lacks capitalist institutions as basic as a wholesale
market, and where staples are often in short supply.

“If I want to buy a kilo of coffee, I need to go to two, three, six
stores all around Cuba sometimes,” said Renan Cesar Alvarez, 74, an
owner of La Cocina de Esteban, a brightly lit restaurant serving
Italian, Spanish and Cuban cuisine a few blocks from the University of
Havana. “It’s the same with sugar, , the drinks, everything.”

At the same time, restaurateurs strive to meet Western-level
expectations. State-run cafeterias are still notorious for plodding
service that consists mostly of glassy-eyed waiters informing diners
what isn’t available on the menu. Modern paladares typically employ
enthusiastic young servers, often college students or recent graduates
attracted by the possibility of making a relative fortune in tips. (The
average Cuban’s monthly earnings total about $25.)

“I prefer people with no experience,” said Niuris Ysabel Higueras
Martínez, 41, an owner of Atelier, which sprawls through several
art-filled rooms and the rooftop of a mansion in the Vedado
neighborhood. “I prefer teaching my own service.”

At Otramanera, servers are educated about the menu, wines and the
startling fact that some foreigners abstain from meat.

“In Cuba, there wasn’t a culinary culture, and so now we are learning
about the first dish, the main course, about the wine that comes with
the food,” Ms. Torralbas said. “For example, in Cuba, there weren’t many
vegetarian people; we didn’t know anything about that. So now we’re
learning how to be prepared for these types of people.”

Some North American and European dining habits are evidently rubbing off
on Cuban diners as well: Cellphone-toting food fanatics can download
apps like AlaMesaCuba that allow them to look up and rate Havana’s
newest restaurants.

“It’s a complete shift in consumer culture,” Ms. Tondre said. “Some of
these restaurants have been around for 25 years, and there’s never been
a way to rate them before. And people are starting to recognize the
power they have.”

For average Cubans, the notion of rating or even reserving tables
remains hypothetical, as the new CUC-based restaurants are simply
unaffordable for nearly everyone. For them, eating out means a visit to
a CUP-based state cafeteria or a tiny takeout place — often someone’s
kitchen window — where croquette sandwiches or doughy pizzas cost about
12 local pesos, or 48 cents.

And even those Cubans who can afford a restaurant meal are quickly
learning that there’s no guarantee they can book a table days or even
weeks in advance in several of the most popular restaurants.

“We’re a spontaneous country, but the people will just have to get used
to it,” said Delia Coto, 48, a Havana theater director having lunch at
Otramanera. “People will have to learn to plan ahead.”

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