A short steep stairway leads up to the restaurant on Calle Aguacate No. 9 at the threshold of La Habana Vieja. As soon as you enter, you see the kitchen, completely visible, where customers can pry into the secrets of the chef or thank him for some delicious meal. A few more steps inside, on a lovely piece of furniture, hats, walking sticks and umbrellas invite us to set down our bundles and make ourselves at home. To the left is a small dining room with three tables. Three steps ahead is the main dining area. Beside the kitchen, another narrow stairway provides a route for waiters and clients to go to the bar and the terrace. Upstairs you can dine under the stars protected by a red awning. Everything is small and cozy. The house dating back to the eighteenth century has preserved some of the original mosaic floors and it is the only building left in the colonial part of Havana to have a hip roof.
They say that the writer Cirilo Villaverde may have used it as a setting for some of the scenes in his novel Cecilia Valdés, which told a story of love, and social and racial interaction in the Cubans of the early 1800s. But the interior decoration tends to drift towards the 1940s and 50s with photos of actors, and theater and movie posters. Sara Montiel is smiling near Marilyn Monroe and just a few inches away, dancers from the Tropicana cabaret seem almost ready to jump out of the frame and strut their stuff. Antique furniture, clocks, a bonsai. Each table is set up with different colored tablecloths. On the wall, close to the ceiling, hangs an old cart that may have once served as a children’s toy.
When we asked Iván Justo how he would like his restaurant to be described, he simply states: “That our food is excellent.” It isn’t difficult to make his wish come true because everybody going to Iván Chef Justo recommends the place. Proof of this are some people from Andalusia in Spain that we met on the terrace—they are raving about how they have found the best squid on this side of the Atlantic. And the newly-weds celebrating at the bar invite us to have a fruit daiquiri to beat the July heat, or a tropical lemonade tempered with sweet coconut.
The chef proudly uses only fresh organic produce. Coming out of his kitchen are incredible salads, tacos, fish, meat and seafood. He recommends the caldereta (fish stew) and the paella. I have my eye on the fish filets and the suckling pig. Of course, Iván chef Justo’s food is not for just writing about. You have to enjoy it in person, so it requires your visit. Stroll around Iglesia del Ángel (Angel Church), take in the Granma Memorial commemorating the boat that brought the expedition of men who started the Cuban Revolution, visit the Museo de Bellas Artes and the former Presidential Palace. And then, have your meal at Calle Aguacate No. 9. You will be more than pleased that you did.