06 Oct Havana, the restaurant that never sleeps
Palm Beach Post staff writers
Photography by Thomas Cordy
Miami may claim to be the capital of the diaspora, but its most famous Cuban restaurant shares its name with a palace in France.
Tampa may claim to have the best Cuban sandwich, but its most famous Cuban restaurant shares its name with an American university and an obscure form of rumba.
By those standards, West Palm Beach may be the most Cuban city of them all. Travel to the southwest corner of South Dixie Highway and Forest Hill Boulevard and find not Versailles, not Columbia, but Havana. Havana, like the capital of Cuba.
You’ll come to a café window that’s open all day and all night. Beam yourself through this ventanita and you might see Yadira “Yaya” Rodriguez, a 28-year-old Cuban-born server working her first and only job, brewing up foamy shots of Cuban coffee for regulars. Follow the aroma of garlicky toast inside, where busboys blur past a quarter century of memorabilia. Glimpse the palomilla steaks so large they extend beyond the plate, the bright-yellow rice, sticky plantains, stewed meats dripping with the great, sofrito-based mother sauces of Cuba, crispy shavings of green plantain, creamy flans, all of it.
Havana, the restaurant brought to West Palm by the Reyes/Perez family in 1993, is celebrating its 25th birthday this month with all the requisite frills of a Cuban holiday – croquetas for days, themed specialty plates, throwback references and café, café, café.
But like the city that shares its name, Havana doesn’t need the hoopla to preen – the place is most lovely when it shows its soul and its people. Sure, the restaurant sports a newish, colonial-style facade that reinforces its iconic Cuban image, but there’s more. There’s the real-deal that happens when an institution melds with its diverse community and their roots intermingle.
To many of the regulars, the place is just incidentally Cuban. It’s more West Palm than anything else. Despite its often tricky parking and proximity to a busy intersection, the restaurant is a neighborhood magnet powered by a force of crispy empanadas, flying croquetas (see below) and dressed-up country fare from the homeland.
Watch Havana transform from night to day:
That fare is essentially the same now as it was on opening day. It was Havana’s late patriarch Roberto Reyes who wrote the menu based on the dishes of his childhood. Reyes, who died in 2014, opened Havana with his daughter Martha and her husband, Rafael Perez.
The idea, recalls Martha Reyes, was to open a window – literally and figuratively – through which the community could experience her father’s Cuba.
“What you see today is exactly the concept my dad wanted,” she says. “God has blessed us in such an amazing way – we did what we set forth to do.”
In the process, a million stories happened.
Pre-dawn pit stop: Cafecito seekers line up at Havana’s 24-hour window in the early morning hours.
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