HAVANA TIMES — A year ago, I ate at La Buena Vida (“The Good Life”), a restaurant located in Havana’s neighborhood of Playa. I had been invited by a foreign friend, as in practically every occasion, since the 1990s, that I’ve eaten at a classy restaurant.
This particular restaurant wasn’t only classy; it was a gourmet, vegetarian eatery that also offered seafood entrees and specialty drinks. The place made such a deep impression in me that I devoted two articles to it, Qué nos ofrece La Buena Vida (“What The Good Life Has to Offer”), published in Diario de Cuba, and La Buena Vida en Cuba (“The Good Life in Cuba”), published in Havana Times.
I confess that, for months, I fantasized about returning to that place. At first, I fantasized with going there with my family. Then, I began to be a bit more realistic and contented myself with dreaming about returning by myself to try some of the menu items whose names had stayed with me.
I finally put my feet on the ground. In Cuba, we have a saying that goes: “The good life is expensive. There is, of course, a cheaper life, but that’s anything but life.” “The Good Life”, like any other restaurant in this country (even the cheaper ones) is out of my reach.
As chance would have it, however, a foreign friend of mine read one of my articles on the restaurant and, even though she’s not a vegetarian, it piqued her curiosity. And what better company could she hope for than me, a vegetarian who, in addition, knows the place?
A song by Joaquin Sabina says that “you should never try to go back to the place where you were once happy.” I, however, have always believed that the second time’s the charm. It’s been my experience with many films. It could happen that, on seeing them again, I will start to find flaws and the whole movie could fall apart on me before I reach the end. But, if the movie stands the test of this second viewing, it means that it is really good and I enjoy it even more.
This is what I experienced when I went into La Buena Vida the second time in the course of a year: it struck me as more elegant, more cozy, more clever in terms of design. My friend, like me, prefers to eat out in the open, so I again found a table out in the terrace. My friend loved the view and took some photos. The waitress welcomed us with the utmost courtesy and professionalism.
It was time to have a look at the menu and experience the sweet torture of trying to choose from all those dishes prepared with exotic ingredients, most of them imported. None of the re-heated food served at many places around town here, no sir. It was then that I had my moment of disappointment. It was my friend’s first time at La Buena Vida and she didn’t notice, but I, who had enjoyed it so much the first time and made the mistake of returning, did.
The menu at La Buena Vida continues to offer a selection of home-baked buns seasoned with sesame seeds and aromatic spices, wines, herbal infusions, vegetarian pizzas and lasagnas prepared with parmesan and mozzarella cheese and other exquisite vegetarian dishes…and meat entrees – and not only seafood (for which I was already prepared), but also poultry and pork.
When I asked the waitress what had happened to the restaurant’s strictly vegetarian seal, she explained that they were losing many non-vegetarian customers and people who didn’t like seafood – and that, regrettably, they were the majority.
Days later, I ran into the other three people who had gone to La Buena Vida with me the first time and told them the news. One of them, a vegetarian like myself and a Rastafarian, decided she would not go back there. “It’s no longer ‘The Good Life’,” she said to me, and I agreed…at first.
I barely had time to think about the situation calmly. I recalled another occasion, in 2012, when I went to a different restaurant (invited by foreign friends, as always), where there were simply no options for vegetarians. Not even the rice and beans I am always willing to eat, nor pizza, nor spaghetti. They offered me some oven-cooked vegetables that turned out to be big bits of nearly-raw vegetables, less charming than any old salad I could throw together at home.
The meat dishes were very well prepared, according to my friends, but it was clear the place was not in the least bit prepared to receive vegetarian customers. The next day, I went with them to another place in Old Havana, a very cozy and cleverly designed restaurant. The salad was really good. But, if it wasn’t for the fact I eat eggs on some special occasions (like that one), I would not have had any other option beyond the salad and some bits of bread (they had had run out of cheese).
I suppose a Vegan would have had even less options. These recollections made me see the changes at La Buena Vida in a different light. It is no longer a strictly vegetarian place, but it is still a place where vegetarians have many options to choose from, as do meat-eaters. The friend who invited me this time enjoyed her fish filet, and I was happy with my plate of stuffed vegetables.
In Cuba, offering fresh vegetables and a la carte dishes (with parmesan cheese and imported spices) requires a significant investment. Though the owners were very creative in terms of recycling things that once belonged to their predecessors (keepsakes of a once elegant and glamorous Havana), the ground floor of the house had to be adapted to house the restaurant.
Located far from the city center and more difficult to reach than other restaurants, in a country where vegetarian food isn’t the first choice on most locals or foreigners list, La Buena Vida had two options: to disappear (and throw its entire investment out the window) or adapt to the circumstances, maintaining something of what set them apart.
We can draw a certain analogy between the changes implemented at La Buena Vida and those introduced by our government to bring our economic model “up to date”, a euphemism used to describe what is, in practice, a transition from socialism (more hardcore than pure) to capitalism.
What La Buena Vida took months to do, our country has taken decades to accomplish. Reality is showing us that the price of delaying the changes our society was pleading for has been very high, and it is also clearly showing us who had to pay for this.
For some, it will be disappointing to find out La Buena Vida isn’t a strictly vegetarian restaurant anymore, just as the changes taking place in our country might be disappointing to many of those who unreservedly applauded the elimination of private property in 1968, with the advent of the “Revolutionary Offensive”, and today are forced to acknowledge that it is precisely that property that can resuscitate the country’ economy.
Many, myself included, are frightened by the “slow but sure” disappearance of the ration booklet, at a time when things are becoming more expensive, and market products, such as eggs and potatoes, are vanishing. Changes, however, are inevitable. The first who are becoming aware of this, begrudgingly, are the country’s leaders, who took so long to put them into practice (though not all that society demands).
Joaquin Sabina was right: “you should never try to return to the place where you were once happy,” if you expect everything to remain the same, static, frozen in time, and aren’t capable of looking at reality with an open mind, that is. Those who left Cuba fifty years ago will not come back to the same country, nor can they ever expect it to be what it was again.
“The Good Life” continues to be good…and expensive. As such, I don’t believe I will be going back. But I do wish them success, and, most importantly, hope they will retain the ability to adapt to circumstances and to change when these demand changes.