La California Restaurant

It’s 7 o’clock, in the evening and I’m standing on the corner of San Lázaro and Crespo Streets in Centro Habana. From here, I can make out the spot where Paseo del Prado begins and a portion of the Malecón. Some kids are playing in the street under the dim, yellow light of the street lamp. Except for the kids, there’s hardly a sound—quite unusual considering the music that you almost always hear coming from most houses in Havana. Suddenly, this strange peacefulness is disturbed by the honking of a car. Then some more honking.

And still some more. “It’s a wedding,” most people will say, given the newfangled custom of exhibiting the bride in a vintage American convertible around town. A vintage convertible does arrive, but sans bride. Instead, the passengers are La California Restaurant customers, who before dining, are taken on a tour around town for an hour. Experienced drivers pick them up at their hotels or casas particulares (private accommodations) and drive them to important sights in Havana before dropping them off at La California, which is situated only twenty meters away from the well-known former solar of the same name.

The Cuban solar of days gone by were tenement houses which featured a central courtyard surrounded by an infinite number of rooms. These courtyards were very often the scene of impromptu music and dance meets and La California was no exception. But La California had one special attraction: around the 1930s and 40s .it was the place where the musicians who created the basis of Cuban Latin jazz, including the legendary conga player Chano Pozo, used to hang out. This is why restaurant owners Charlie and Mapi decided to christen their place La California and take their customers on a journey in time. If you askj for a cup of coffee, for instance, you will be served in a vintage cup with a silver spoon.

The Green Room is presided by the small statute of a virgin, an apparition of Mary while an old phonograph lets out tunes from yesteryear. “We want our customers to feel as if they were visiting their grandmother’s home: comfortable, welcome, loved,” I am told by the couple while I admire the over 100 labels of wines in the house. Here and there hang bunches of tobacco leaves, which give out a subtle aroma that goes well with the surroundings.

The beautiful garden of hanging ferns with a skylight grabs my special attention and I would have loved to just sit there having a cocktail in this heavenly place but the staff has been busy joining tables for a group of tourists. The waitresses have served the welcoming cocktail and are hurrying the guys in the kitchen for the entrees. I follow them into the kitchen and meet the chef. He tells me that La California serves stylized Cuban Creole food with healthy eating in mind. This is why they go easy on pork fat or refined sugar, so very typical of Cuban dishes.

I take a look at the dishes being served: pumpkin cream topped with parmesan; traditional ropa vieja (shredded meat); grilled lobster with sweet potato in caramel & cider; grilled fish with fine herbs; lamb in red wine; curry chicken with apples… Some of the customers have gone Italian and enjoy pizzas made in coal-fired ovens. The desserts are the typical ones made at home: boniatillo (pureed sweet potatoes to which sugar, butter and cinnamon have been added); flan, or caramel custard; cookies from a special recipe… A typical Cuban music quintet have come to play for the guests today while they are also taught the steps to the cha-cha or salsa by two experienced dancers.

For lovers of Spanish culture, one of the rooms resembles a tavern complete with bull-fight posters and large, heavy mahogany doors and French windows. There’s a basket filled with toys and fancy hats for restless little kids.

The evening is over, and as I step out into “the real world,” I take a last look back to the neon sign of La California—sole indication of a very special restaurant that allows you to time travel while you enjoy delicious typical Cuban food within a beautifully restored 19th-century colonial building.

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