La Guarida: a Royal Feast

Today I dined like royalty. This is neither an exaggeration nor a metaphor because today I dined at the same table where Queen Sofia of Spain once did. I was treated with the same stellar courtesy and pampered as if I too was a member of the royal family.

Climbing up the Carrara marble staircase guarded by two headless statues, I breathlessly reached the reception area where a lovely woman offered me a drink. Then I entered what some call “Havana limbo”, a place which discerning customers have described as Havana’s best restaurant: La Guarida.

La Guarida opened in the 1990s when it was one of the first privately-owned restaurants that came into being during the crisis that occurred at the fall of the socialist bloc in Europe. The need to find a way of making a living in the midst of an impossible economic situation motivated an engineer and an actress to embark on an adventure that many branded as madness. Enrique and Osdaysis Nuñez have stayed together since the beginning. The name is fitting: in English, La Guarida means “hideout” and that is exactly what it provides, a safe refuge.

At the beginning, more than one visitor would come to the door looking for the place where the well-known Cuban Oscar-winning movie “Fresa y Chocolate” was filmed. These people would leave disappointed because once the film crews left, Enrique and Osdaysis’ apartment went back to being a regular family home. But this gave birth to an idea that would use the magic of La Guarida (that’s what Diego called the place in the movie).

But La Guarida is much more than the location of a famous film. Over the years, the owners’ efforts have turned it into a first class restaurant whose menu features the best of Cuban cooking and the latest trends of nouvelle cusine. Two new dining rooms have been opened, their walls hanging with work by Cuban artists in an attempt to delight both the palate and the spirit. The small well-stocked wine cellar is excellent. Although the menu is not extensive, the dishes have been carefully selected in order to please a wide range of tastes. The entrées and desserts come highly recommended. Not only is the food exquisite, but the drinks thrill, such as their café Guarida with condensed milk, Havana Club Añejo and a zest of lemon with whipped cream and sprinkled with cinnamon. For the smokers among us, there is a small smokers’ room where they can enjoy an excellent Cuban cigar accompanied by their liqueur of choice.

The service at La Guarida is another plus: it is just the right blend of friendliness and discretion; of elegance and informality that truly makes one feel very comfortable. Perhaps that is why many celebrities like to visit. Besides the Queen of Spain, the restaurant has welcomed Jodie Foster, Pedro Almodóvar, Sting and Beyoncé…So we stay some more, tempted by the mojitos they bring us from the bar. After visiting the elegant restroom with its marble sink and immaculate white towels, I blow out the candle on the table and we depart.

We walk out into the San Leopoldo neighborhood in Centro Habana. This is a very modest neighborhood, the location of what once was the luxurious Camaguey Mansion, first the residence of a prestigious doctor, then a rooming house and finally a tenement shared by a bunch of Cuban families. So if you want an amazing meal and an essentially Cuban experience, look for this restaurant at Concordia 418. La Guarida: the ideal place to invite a woman, to celebrate a friendship, to surprise someone. This is a restaurant that offers you tradition and sophistication; it is a refuge and a palace where you will indeed feel like royalty.

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