Of all the places I eat at, I miss a few that happened to be someone’s home. Of all the dresses and jewellery I buy, I end up treasuring my grandmother’s brooch passed on to me. Of all the bars and clubs I go to, I remember a high school house party the most. And of all the people I meet, I’ve lately been missing a friend called Leana in Cuba.
A rattling lock on the door, leaves from the previous evening’s flowers, casual carefree clinkers of plates, curtains smelling of carefully picked home fabric softener, pictures of a family of five framed in monochrome, a diary next to a telephone- seemingly a directory, the sound of La Vie En Rose from a piano in a room upstairs. We’d walked into our first paladar in Cuba, a culinary window into the local culture of this magical country.
Traditionally, a paladar is an actual home that converts into a cafe, restaurant or a bar. Not a pseudo eatery trying to look like a hipster speakeasy- but really a home that has made part of it’s space into a homegrown, humbly organized and plated eatery. In order to support its locals to start business in the early 1990s, the Cuban Government legalized small privately owned businesses as restaurants, now fondly called paladars. The service is homely and personal, almost like being professionally served at a friend’s house, the menu is unique and depends on who’s running it, not necessarily restricted to a cuisine or a type, and the result is a lovely juxtaposition of eating out in a “professional” home, somewhat a restaurant version of an Airbnb. As time has passed, paladars have evolved to now range from tiny house cafes to bigger ones in gardens and backyards, some more professional than the others, but nonetheless warm, welcoming and authentic.
Later that evening, we were chatting with Lleana, the bartender at the smallest bar in Havana Vieja. Over a 120ml Havana Club cocktail, she invited us to go out with her at night. When I asked her to point out the bar on Google maps, she laughed and said- “Roma es una paladar”. At midnight, we walked to the street and turned into the building she’d described, pretty much thinking she’d led us on as a tourist prank, and then saw a girl walk out of there, asked her for Roma, and she pointed us to the stairs. It was impossible to imagine music coming out of that building. We climbed up 6 flights of stairs, silent as a church till the 4th floor, and then the smell of cohibas and an unfamiliar hypnotizing beat led us to Roma, a paladar bar, on the roof of a torn down building. With lamps and cocktails and music that move your steps to dance, beautiful people and their fingers busy with cigarettes, their hair bigger than their dreams, we got a feeling that we’d finally found Cuba.