New rules usher in a tasty comeback for Cuban food
HAVANA – Ramon Menendez went to his grave in the 1980s believing that his family grocery, shut down by Fidel Castro's revolution, would one day rise again. In January it finally happened.
La Moneda Cubana, which sold groceries, snacks and liquor, is back in business in the heart of Old Havana. But now, under the management of grandson Miguel Angel Morales Menendez, it's an elegant restaurant, one of dozens that have sprung up as the country struggles to adapt its communist system to modern economic realities.
"My grandfather would be proud," Morales said. "I kept telling people it's not a dream! It's not a dream! One day it will be possible. One they have to let us."
After years spent working in dreary state-run restaurants and hush-hush culinary speakeasies, restaurateurs and chefs are operating under a set of new, less exacting rules that allow their talents freer reign. There are brand new places such as La Moneda Cubana, and splashy reopenings such as La Guarida, made famous by the Oscar-nominated 1993 movie "Strawberry and Chocolate."
The boom runs the gamut from La Pachanga, which serves guava shakes and towering $4 burgers, to Cafe Laurent, a converted penthouse where the mostly foreign clientele can easily drop $30 a head — more than Cuba's average monthly wage.
If the restaurants are successful, they could generate badly needed tax revenue and provide a model for how to shrink the bloated state-employed sector by absorbing hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats into the private sector.
"This was long overdue," said Jose Antonio Figueroa, 39, a partner in Cafe Laurent. "This is a chance to achieve what we always wanted."
After six years working at El Templete, one of the more highly regarded government restaurants, he, another manager and an assistant chef quit to start their own place as soon as the rules were announced last fall.
At Cafe Laurent, they have the freedom to set their own prices, experiment with the menu, handpick employees who care about service — and pay them enough not to pilfer food for their families.
The new eateries are a boon for well-off residents and tourists tired of the bland fare at many government restaurants.
"It's a lot better food, better service," said Simon Castellani, a 21-year-old visiting student from Copenhagen who was dining on fresh shrimp at Cafe Laurent.
Authorities first let private restaurants open in homes in 1993 during the austerity that followed the collapse of Cuba's lifeline, the Soviet Union. But just months later they slammed on the brakes. In 1995 they rolled out strict rules: Paladars (the word is Spanish for "palate") were limited to 12 seats and prohibited from serving steak or seafood. Live music was banned. Employees had to be family members or registered as residents of the home.
The restaurant scene peaked in 1996-1997, when the government decided the economic crisis was easing. It sharply raised the restaurateurs' taxes and stepped up enforcement.
"They began to phase this experiment out," said Ted Henken, a professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch college in New York. "I think that was mostly due to Fidel's ideological aversion to this kind of thing."
Only a handful of the most successful survived. Even La Guarida, whose A-list of past guests ran from Jack Nicholson to Queen Sofia of Spain, shut down in 2009. Its owner was quoted as saying the laws made it too tough to operate.
The new rules allow the independent restaurants to seat up to 20 people. Gone is the ban on seafood and steak, as well as the rule on hiring only family members.
"That was always absurd," said Morales. "No family is entirely made up of gastronomes and chefs."
Since then 60 to 100 restaurants have been launched in Havana, including new, reopened and clandestine ones that went legit. They're also opening in lesser numbers in cities on the tourist route. In blistering hot Santiago de Cuba, the island's second largest city, a number of homes now have improvised ice cream and fruit shops.
In interviews with The Associated Press, the new restaurant owners said getting a license is now quick and easy, and government inspectors are professional and helpful.
While Fidel Castro admitted that he opened the economy in the 1990s only grudgingly and out of desperation, his brother and successor, Raul Castro, stresses that the island must change its ways.
"They really feel like this is different from Fidel," Henken said. "There is a new sheriff in town, and that sheriff sees these people not as illegitimate but as legal, honest workers — who should follow the rules and be controlled."
Still, running a restaurant can be brutal even in a thriving economy. In Cuba, there's an array of taxes that one restaurateur estimates will take at least 60 percent of his earnings this year. Supplies of fresh ingredients are unreliable and credit is often unobtainable. The government is developing plans to extend loans, but for now, many entrepreneurs have gotten startup capital from relatives overseas.
Foreigners and well-heeled Cubans are too few to support all the new restaurants that have opened, and some restaurateurs are already scaling back operations or giving up.
Raul Castro has said he has no intention of dismantling socialism or letting individuals accumulate too much wealth, and there's no guarantee that the rug won't be yanked out again.
"They've been through this before," said Rafael Romeu, president of the Washington-based nonpartisan Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy. "Cuba has a flexible boundary that moves back and forth in terms of the public sector's tolerance for private sector activity."
So restaurant owners are tempering their expectations for now.
"We don't anticipate people lining up outside the house to eat," said Niuri Ysabel Higueras Martinez, 36, one of a trio of seasoned restaurateur siblings. They operate stylish L'Atelier, perched on the top floor of an 1860s mansion in El Vedado district and serving experimental Cuban-fusion fare, everything from ceviche and clams au gratin to falafel and babaganoush.
"We're not trying to get rich or become millionaires," added her brother, Herdys Higueras Martinez. "We just want to have a good time with the customers and have something left over for ourselves without making a big show of it."
That could change if there is further economic opening — and if Washington lifts its decades-old ban on travel to the island. Some here consider the latter an inevitability, and say the paladars can absorb the flood.
"At some point there will be brand new tourism from America." said Figueroa of Cafe Laurent, "and it's good to be prepared."