Cubans have a saying: “There are three things the Revolution got right: Sports, Education and the Medical System, and there are three things the Revolution does wrong: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner.”
Food in Cuba is bad, scarce and bland and can be expensive for a tourist considering what’s in the menu. Most restaurant are state-owned but nowadays Cubans can open their own in-house restaurants called paladars. They can have a maximum of 6 tables and in theory they can only employ family members. (don’t worry, the state still takes a cut). They tend to be cheaper as some of them cater to the cuban-middle class – those that are not that poor to eat at home, not that rich to eat at state-run restaurants. Some of the paladars accept payment in CUP. I wouldn’t say the food is better in one compared to the other, it’s bad both ways.
Never mind the establishment, at most places, they don’t even serve half the things that are written on the menu because of availability. If the local fisherman had a good catch today then we serve “today’s fish” – whatever he gets. If we can find eggs in the shop then you can have omelet, etc.
The portions are medium sized, it’s not fashion food, but it’s enough to keep you alive. Look at the brighter side, you’ll probably get fitter in your Cuban vacation. Also, the dishes are 75% meat, 25% garnish. This is probably because meat is an expensive element of the food platter, and it’s consider high-class, so you as a tourist should get to eat lots of meat, to see how good they have it in Cuba
Everything comes with rice and black beans – arroz morro. In true honesty, most things you can get are pork, chicken, fish, or lobster grill. These come with a side of white rice, some beans. If you’re lucky you might also get some slices of tomato/bananas/cucumbers – Cubans keep trying to call this salad. It’s not.
If you have a craving for fries you should wait until you get home, Cuban fries are nothing like the fries you know. They are thin sliced, dry, and thoroughly fried, resembling potato chips more than actual fries.
Tip is usually around 10% which you should round up in their favor, don’t be cheap, it’s pennies anyway. At some Habanaguex restaurants (the state company that caters to tourists) tip is added on the check by default but it is reported that the servers don’t usually get it – it goes to the state – so you should leave and extra tip.
A word of advice: If you’re easily impressed you should probably look away when someone in Cuba prepares your food, usually the word sanitary does not come to mind and you’ll just end up hungry all the time.
Most restaurants and bars have a local band playing. This band will usually go for about 3-4 songs then on guy will come asking for you to buy their CD, usually 10 CUC. Try to resist the temptation or shame that you might feel for listening to them for free and save your money for a well know band’s CD like Buena Vista Social Club. If they keep pestering you or you really enjoyed them, put 1 CUC in their basket, it’s the usual fee.
By the time that you’re ready to leave Cuba, you’ll start having dreams about that sweet, tasty, airplane meal J and you’ll be anxious to get on the airplane just so you’ll have some decent food. But wait, the culinary nightmare isn’t over. Most planes are catered by the dreadful Cuba Catering, obviously a state run company, so on your return trip home you’ll have the pleasure of being delighted with bland rice and beans one more time. If you see their truck come by your plane before takeoff, you know what’s for dinner.
Here’s an interesting documentary about food in Cuba by Antohny Boudrain: