Complete coverage of last week’s trip to Cuba requires some additional digestion on my part; the full impact of this enigmatic country is much more confounding than I would have imagined based on others’ posts or my pre-trip reading. One place in particular, though, captured the range of impressions Havana leaves on the uninitiated: the fresh new ideas bursting from ruin, the colors, tastes and sounds that thrive amid decay and neglect, an ambience that is not easily explained or understood.
We’ve been told by numerous friends and other tipsters about an amazing restaurant housed in an older building in central Havana. Unable to book a table for any evening we are in town, we persevere by showing up at the place at lunchtime opening hours. We approach the address on shabby streets and pull up short at a door that exposes a scene of extreme disarray. Scaffolding, piles of bricks and boards, sunlight streaming into cavernous rooms open to the sky, and a staircase that looks as if it might or might not bear our weight. We’re going to eat food here? my sister asks, incredulously.
The building, a former mansion subdivided into what is now a partially abandoned tenement, unfolds from an entry flanked by two thick wooden doors crackling with dried paint.
Greeted by a headless goddess and a view of a forsaken hallway, we take our first steps upward, turning to view our progress from time to time.
At the second level, we stop, mouths agape at a surreal scene of row upon row of flapping white fabric in a vast room of open windows. We feel as if we’ve stumbled on an art installation of some sort, perhaps an entry in the Whitney Biennial, not the simple airing of tablecloth and napkin laundry from the restaurant above, as we discover on closer inspection and a stroll through the fluttering cloth.
We continue our ascent slowly, savoring each surprise as it reveals itself. Ornate curlicues on the banisters (part with handrails, part without), an opening to an atrium, a bulky thing (sculpture?) on a landing, columns and arches, graffiti and water tanks.
On the third floor, we finally reach the restaurant, as surprising in its elegance and finished state as a pearl in an oyster. We are in luck; we can have a table if we finish in less than two hours. We are fast-eating Americans; this is not a problem!
The meal is excellent, the surroundings beautiful and relaxing. But this story is not about the establishment; it is about the unveiling of it. Like Cuba itself at this moment in history, the restaurant rises from long neglect to newfound stardom, from Communist-era living space to privately-owned paladar. The old-new friction can seem raw, and I found myself wanting to keep parts of Cuba covered up, protected from what is coming, preserved in its imperfect, faded, messy splendor.
But that’s not my call, any more than it is to want the opposite – for parts of this inefficient, maddening place to get it together at times throughout my week there. After a week, Cuba is more of a mystery to me than it was before I went, and this building and restaurant epitomize the unpredictable dual nature of the travel world’s new darling. More to come as I try to make sense of my feelings about this bewildering place.
It has long been my practice to avoid naming specific places of business in my blog posts. If you are headed to Havana and simply have to see this marvelous place, please send me a message at my blog email address (in the About section) and I will happily respond!