Restaurant Review: Havana Central, Union Square New York Cuban Cuisine

by Brian Willett

New York City is a place full of interesting sights, all-night entertainment, and endless eating options.  It’s safe to say that you could eat at a different restaurant every time you visited NYC and never hit the same place twice.  So that’s why it’s such a big deal when you do make a repeat trip to one restaurant – it means that the food is so good, you’re willing to sacrifice the discovery of another one of New York’s plethora of killer culinary destinations.  When you’re dining at Havana Central, however, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.

Havana Central is on East 17th Street, nestled between the insanity of 5th Ave and Broadway and providing a bastion of sanity and supreme Cuban cuisine.  Havana Central is just a few blocks from the chaos of Union Square, but it feels like another world.  The atmosphere is fun and fresh, with a bar on your left as you enter and a staff that is just as likely to be dancing as the patrons.

To be technical, Havana Central is casual Cuban dining, but the term “comfortable” seems more applicable.  This isn’t a Taco Bell; you’ll find a complete Cuban atmosphere, with Cuban jazz punctuating, not overwhelming, your conversation, a friendly staff that doesn’t sneer at your Spanish skills (or lack thereof) and a fun, inviting decor that is festive but not flashy or corny.

The menu presents a problem though; inevitably, your decision will come down to two or three dishes that all seem equally inviting. And frankly, it’s a tough task whittling things down to that many choices, with an array of classic Cuban dishes (from Churrasco and Guava-Glazed Havana-Style Ribs to a Grilled Portabello Burger or Cuban Sandwich), inviting appetizers, salads and side dishes.

And then, there’s the paella. Whether you choose the seafood, vegetable or classic (chicken, chorizo, fish, clams, mussels and shrimp), be prepared for a plate packed with flavor and a portion that would cost double the price anywhere else.  Thankfully, the taste is as big and bold as the portion, with perfectly seared seafood, and perfectly seasoned rice.

It’s not just the paella that shines, either.  The salads, which are all to often an afterthought at most restaurants, are surprisingly robust, bursting with zesty seafood and almost excessively large servings of seafood (the Mango Salmon Salad featured an absolutely behemoth fillet).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Havana Central can get quite crowded, but that just plays into the party atmosphere at Havana Central.  At absolute peak times, service does slow a bit, but the staff remains attentive and you’re not going to be ignored.

Havana Central is a perfect place to settle between overly stuffy, expensive eateries and hole-in-the-wall restaurants and dives.  In addition to its Union Square location, Havana Central has locations at Times Square – 151 West 46th Street – and on the Upper West Side – 2911 Broadway, between 113th and 114th Street.