Photos: Alain L. Gutiérrez y Cortesía de La Guarida
One of the many Havana buildings built at the turn of the 20th century, 418 Calle Concordia, is home to La Guarida restaurant.
Enrique Nuñez tells us that more than 15 years ago, he and his wife had the idea of turning his mother’s apartment into a “paladar,” or private restaurant, to take advantage of the fact that this home had become a very attractive place for people who were visiting Cuba.
A few years earlier, Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and his crew had rented the apartment to shoot Strawberry and Chocolate, one of the most celebrated Cuban films ever.
“After the movie’s success, a lot of people came to see my mother’s house. We viewed it as an opportunity and decided to set up a restaurant in the living room. At first there were just four of us: a chef, a friend of the family, my wife and I. We all did a little bit of everything. One day I would be the bartender, the next I would receive customers at entrance to the building or set the tables right before opening.
“Little by little we recovered our investment. But La Guarida was still not a remarkable place. It occurred to us that we could link it to some type of cultural project, because art had been involved with that space in one way or another since long before.
“Almost a year later, in December 1996, we opened an exhibition of photographs by Korda and prepared a special dinner for business people and diplomats based in Cuba. We also took advantage of the fact that the Havana Film Festival was underway, and we invited actors, filmmakers, producers and critics…who were participating in that event. I remember that we had used almost all of our earnings, to the extent that a lot of people thought it was a completely crazy idea. Sixteen years later, everybody admits it was a very good idea.”
Enrique Núñez is a successful man. Today, La Guarida is one of the most-frequented restaurants in Havana. Enrique does not work the bar anymore, because he does not have time; he has too many other things to do every day.
“I’ve always enjoyed hearing what people want to tell me. When we opened La Guarida, we had no idea about how to run it. In Cuba, we had very little experience, so we always pay very careful attention to every single one of our customers’ opinions.”
From July 2009 to November 2010, Enrique closed his restaurant because he thought a break was needed, he said. “It was a time when restrictions had been increased for those of us who had small businesses. That didn’t last long at all, because a few months later, a number of laws in Cuba were adjusted. And we – my wife and I – decided to open up La Guarida again. Some people don’t even realize it was closed. Even we forget sometimes.
“It’s true that a lot of people viewed me as some sort of alien when I wanted to open a restaurant in San Leopoldo neighborhood, but in this apparently hostile and deteriorated area, my restaurant flourished What I say is, first I dreamed it, then I believed it, and my only formula continues to be to work to achieve what I still consider as an unfinished project.”
As a hybrid of the informal economy and private small businesses, self-employment today is an irreplaceable alternative in Cuban society for providing employment and services. As of February, it included more than 371,000 people in a range of 178 activities.
After 16 years, La Guarida is an important restaurant located in the densely-populated Centro Habana municipality. In 2009, it received the Excellence in Service Prize in the Madrid Tourism Fair.
Its most distinguished diners include Queen Sophia of Spain and celebrities from the world of film, theater, fashion and literature, such as Jack Nicholson, Arthur Miller, Naomi Campbell and Gabriel García Márquez, along with a wide range of business people and diplomats, who have made La Guarida into a cult establishment for good food and exquisite service.