The first stop in Cuba is usually Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. As the vibrant and historic hub of the city, Old Havana is known for its striking colonial beauty, art galleries and museums, and countless restaurants offering authentic and traditional Cuban meals. In Habana Vieja, this almost always means meat or fish.
Restaurant staff linger outside their establishments, trying to draw you in by tapping their menus and describing their dishes with an almost feverish passion. Mention you’re vegetarian, however, and even the most enthusiastic waiters usually give up. Sometimes they’ll try to act as though the rice and beans accompanying the meat are the real draw of the meal, but usually the response is just defeated disappointment. I actually started to feel quite bad for them.
After bypassing many restaurants without a vegetarian main course, I wandered into O’Reilly 304. A tiny, trendy restaurant specializing in gin cocktails and contemporary Cuban cuisine that’s unassumingly sandwiched between two shabby buildings on the outskirts of Habana Vieja, it’s easy to walk past altogether. But it’s clear from first entry that here is something quite different.
Framed glowing reviews from the Miami Herald hang proudly on the walls, cool bartenders shake up incredible-looking cocktails, and the menu offers several meat-free plates. From pumpkin soup with Cuban blue cheese and cilantro to soft veggie tacos stuffed with beans and seasonal vegetables, O’Reilly 304 reflects the slowly developing restaurant scene in Cuba.
The food choices picked up, unexpectedly, in Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site at the foot of the Escambray Mountains. Walking through this beautiful town, with its cobbled streets and perfectly preserved colonial buildings, really is like stepping back in time. The prospect of getting any good vegetarian food in a town that wasn’t even connected to the rest of Cuba until the 1950s didn’t seem too realistic. But I was wrong.
At Giroud, a bizarrely cool place where you sit on old TV sets and beer crates and chairs hang upside down from walls, there was a whole variety of meat-free, tapas-style dishes: stuffed peppers and tomatoes packed with cheese and sautéed vegetables, pumpkin cream, vegetable bruschetta, diced pumpkin with onion and herbs, and cooling gazpacho. Serving beautiful and great-tasting dishes, Giroud is another example of Cuba’s emerging avant-garde food scene.
The standout in Trinidad for me was Taberna La Botija, a lively 24-hour restaurant where the country’s Spanish and Latin influences seamlessly merge with traditional Cuban cuisine. The sweet corn fritters, served with a creamy garlic dip with a hint of dill, were lovely, but the fried Cuban cheese balls were incredible. I had two portions, one right after the other.
In the beach resort of Varadero, finding vegetarian-friendly meals got harder. In most restaurants, the only vegetarian option was spaghetti napolitana. Now, I love all forms of pasta and honestly never thought I could tire of it, but when you’ve had spaghetti napolitana three times in 24 hours because it’s the only vegetarian main dish on the menu, things can get dull. Thank goodness, then, for the prevalence of Cuban street pizza.
While we’re still talking about carbs, cheese and tomato sauce here, Cuban pizza is actually quite different from most pizza. The dough is thicker, softer and squidgier, the sauce sweeter and smokier. Rather than only using mozzarella cheese, Cuban pizza usually involves Gouda — a staple in the Cuban diet and the backbone of the celebrated Cuban sandwich.