Enrique and Odeisys Nuñez first opened what has become Cuba’s most celebrated paladar on July 14, 1996. During 2009, it closed its doors out of what may be determined as an abundance of caution before reopening during late 2010. For those who have lived in Havana for many years, there was a palpable sense of loss at first when what had become an old friend was no longer around.
Anyone who has been to La Guarida will find it difficult to disagree that Enrique and Odeisys have managed to create their own magical place. It oodles a cosy atmosphere with soft lights, fine table linen, German silver cutlery, candles, Cuban music and good jazz. The entrance from a run-down Central Havana street magnifies the effect. The building, originally known as La Mansión Camagüey, shows its former grandeur from the magnificent wooden entrance door through the marble staircase up the two flights of stairs to the restaurant itself. Fidel’s famous explanation of [why he said] Patria o Muerte (country or death) is a photographer’s dream on the way down.
Today the mansion has been subdivided in many parts and you see ordinary Cubans watching soap operas as you climb the stairs. Unfortunately, as the fame of the restaurant has spread, so has some begging from young children both outside and on the way up. This is mild compared to other countries but disconcerting for first-time visitors.
Inside you are thrust into an exclusive New York style ‘the place’ atmosphere. Busy, hectic, professional. Although the accent is on charming ambience, bookings are a must. Two sittings mean that you will be expected to vacate your table on time and may expect a wait in the anteroom if you are on the later sitting. There are three rooms each of which has its own attractions although regulars generally find their favourite spots. Ceilings are high, broad balcony doors open even with subtle air conditioning, which lets the place breath even when Cuban cigars are being smoked. Space is at a premium and you may feel a little squeezed around a table especially as part of a larger party.
In terms of food, La Guarida is good, it is consistent and it is reliable. How good, I blow hot and cold. Although the kitchen has been refreshed over the years with international experience, [currently the head chefs are Manuel Cio & Pedro Rodriguez] there is a practical reality to serving two sittings every night from a very small kitchen. Things have to be prepped, dishes have to be standardised, and the show must go on. I am therefore slightly down on the food at present. It is still good; it is simply not great.
Try the seviche, gazpacho or their signature appetizer of eggplant caviar. Caimanero (fresh grouper) might come in a white-wine, orange, or sweet-and-sour sauce–all are good, as is the honey-mustard chicken and pork medallions in mango sauce. The new menu has introduced many new dishes including an eggplant tart with parmesan cheese, seafood lasagna, watermelon with grilled shrimps and chicken curry amongst others, which have refreshed what had become a little predictable fare. The lunch menu features a varied selection of rice, pasta and salad dishes. Daytime light gives the place a different feel, less intimate but still full of charm.
The wine selection features an extensive list of international offerings. Cocktails are excellent (in season, the strawberry daiquiris are a favorite) and desert a staple obligatory indulgence (chocolate fondue, tres leches (three milks), lemon & chocolate-special recipe tarts). Cigar lounge upstairs.
For visitors to Havana, La Guarida has become a must experience. This is deservedly so for while it may be busy, expensive and has been discovered before, it retains its intimate (somewhat formal) charm and provides a quality dining experience with sensitivity and professionalism.
Origin of La Guarida (Fresa y Chocolate film)
“The year 1993 was a very difficult one for Cubans as we were in the middle of what is known as the “special period.” During this time, the late film director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Titón) and his crew decided to film a version of Cuban writer Senel Paz’s short story “El Lobo, el Bosque y el Hombre Nuevo” [The Wolf, the Forest and The New Man]. Senel Paz had just been awarded the Juan Rulfo award and the play based on the story was very successful with the critics and audiences.
“The movie was to be called “Fresa y Chocolate” [Strawberry and Chocolate], a brilliant metaphor to show the intolerance that reigned in some sectors of Cuban society.
“As luck would have it, I got a hold of a copy of the script and that evening, while I read it, I thought that my parent’s home would be just the place for Diego’s Guarida, as it matched many of the features described by Senel and with no ulterior motive in mind, just to help a friend who was hunting for a location for the film, I told him to tell Titón about the house.
“When Titón came and saw the place he was delighted and after convincing my family, he decided that La Guarida would be located in “La Mansión Camagüey,” aristocratic name by which the building is known.
“The main character in a Brazilian soap opens a small catering business which she names “Raquel’s Paladar.” The popularity of the show was such that many Cubans began calling their small restaurants “paladars.”
“The internationally success of the film motivated many people to come and have ice cream at Coppelia and know Diego’s Guarida. However, when they saw that my parents had restored the house to its original condition, decorations included, they would leave disappointed.
“One day, while visiting my mother, we were interrupted by many such visitors and that’s when we decided to open a paladar and keep alive the wonderful story of Diego, Nancy and David.” After eight months of preparations, the La Guarida paladar opened on 14 July 1996.”
Celebrities who have eaten at La Guarida
– Cuban artists (Juan Formell, Mirtha and Titón, Carlos Varela, Luis Alberto García, Pablo Milanés and many others); Alejandro Robaina
– Queen Sofia of Spain
– Prince Albert of Monaco
– Jack Nicholson
– Oliver Stone
– Steven Spielberg
– Matt Dillon
– Naomi Campbell
– Ralph Fiennes