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O’Reilly 304; a journey from Ireland, via Spain, to your dinner plate in Cuba

February 29, 2020 | by James Corporal

When a paladar in Old Havana has such an interesting story behind it, it’s never going to be a run-of-the-mill kind of place with drab décor and bland food. In fact, O’Reilly 304 is the polar opposite to the word “uninteresting”. This is a fascinating restaurant whose story doesn’t even start within its four walls, but the street on which it’s located.

If you’re thinking that it’s a strange name for a street in a country where Spanish is spoken, and that O’Reilly doesn’t sound very Iberian, you’d be right. The street is in fact named after Second Corporal Alexander O’Reilly, an Irish marshal of the Spanish army who was sent to the island by King Carlos III to oversee the defensive situation after the British occupation of 1763.

For his much-appreciated services to the Crown of Spain, O’Reilly was ennobled as a Spanish count, granted a coat of arms and honoured with two historic streets, one in Cádiz and the other in Havana.

So, in all its historic grandeur, it’s here we find ourselves in Calle O’Reilly to sample some of the delights of paladar O’Reilly 304, to find out why it’s one of Cuba’s best places to eat and drink.


The customer is always right

There’s something very authentic about O’Reilly 304 and it goes beyond the honest buzz of merry chatter and laughter, which must just seem white noise to the staff here. With only eight tables available, they’re always at full capacity for the full twelve hours that their doors are open. Don’t dismay though, turnover of clientele is high so make sure you hang around and before long, you’ll be beckoned to your table.

No, it goes beyond the ambience, electric though it certainly is.

Despite all the hubbub of people’s conversations, despite the fact it’s perpetually full up, despite the pressure the staff are under to produce some of Cuba’s finest gastronomy for twelve consecutive hours, it’s the fact that here, the customer is always right.

How? Wilson Hernandez, the 28-year-old head bartender explains;

“You want to know who developed our cocktails? The customers. I’d introduce them to something, and they’d like it, but say, ‘If you did this or that it would be better.’ The power is with the customers. We are not gods here. You’re not in a temple, you’re in a bar.”

It’s not just the cocktails that people find refreshing, it’s their whole philosophy.

So, what’s on the menu at O’Reilly 304?

There are two options when it comes to how you want your food; the full dish or in tapas format. This ensures that whether you want a full meal or are just popping in for a nibble, you won’t leave O’Reilly 304 hungry.

The tapas options are innovative and delicious. There’s crab curry, tacos, croquettes, bruschetta, empanadas, fresh seafood and O’Reilly 304’s pièce de résistance; ceviche. If you’ve never had ceviche, here’s the place to try it for the first time. O’Reilly 304 is gaining a reputation as the best ceviche restaurant in all Havana, and that could well mean all of Cuba.

Ceviche is typically made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, such as lemon or lime, and spiced with chili peppers or other seasonings including chopped onions, salt, and coriander. It’s fresh, it’s good, and we recommend trying it.

If you’re feeling really hungry, the full dish options are based on hearty and traditional Cuban stalwarts; rice, beans and pork (this is Cuba after all!). What makes O’Reilly 304 stand out however, is the fact that they’re well-presented and high quality as well as experimental with the accompanying side ingredients that can sometimes be hard to get hold of in Cuba.

The cocktails here are magnificent too. The menu is original and exciting, and they’re made to perfection by bartenders who are at the peak of their game.

There are both alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, which are flavoursome and enticing. Many establishments tend not to put as much effort into the non-alcoholic list, leaving designated drivers dejected, but O’Reilly 304 bucks the trend.

There’s the pineapple and ginger juice that’s worth a mention as it’s fruity, tangy kick will provide you with all the energy you require to get around the city on a warm afternoon, and if you do fancy something strong, the mango and chilli daiquiri kicks like a donkey – in a good way!

Bewitched by sprites

This article couldn’t do justice to O’Reilly 304 without a designated section on the cocktails that are produced here. It’d be like compiling a Cuban version of Autotrader and not mentioning one 1950s Cadillac.

When you think about it, it’s a fairly unorthodox move in itself to set up a bar specialising in gin on an island so completely famed for its rum. That’s why O’Reilly 304 is a special place. It mixes science with what they call “duendismo”, or bewitchment. If that sounds interesting, read on.

There are no signs of any spirit measurement thimbles behind the bar. There exists only the wonderful juxtaposition that is prevalent on this island where beauty exists wherever there’s no order. Maybe that’s Cuba’s charm on a larger scale too.

Bartenders invent and indulge, finding whatever they can to slosh spirits and fruit juices into glasses, creating art in their disarray. It’s a chaotic science but it’s bewitching too.

Although far from pretentious, the bartenders take pride in each cocktail made – each one a singular creation of the person who makes it, a gift-like offering for the lucky recipient.

For example, there’s the Jimmy Hendricks which contains cucumber and rose petals, the Sweet Jabalí which consists of cherry and cinnamon, and something called a “Muévelo Muévelo” (literally “Move It Move It”) which is a mint-pineapple sorbet served atop chunky watermelon juice.

Julio Cesar Imperatori, one of the brothers who set the bar up in 2013 believes in the witchcraft involved in their unique cocktail making process.

“Why would I make my own drink? A drink named after me? Every cocktail I make has my name on it. You’ll choose it again at another place and it will not be the same because it won’t be mine.

Everything I make here is mine. And you’ll like it because you have never had your cocktail the way I make it. Look, mixology is great for chemists, but it’s science. It’s exact. It’s maths. And, in truth, it’s cold and mechanical. Why would I want this place to be a factory when what it needs to be is an oasis?”

At O’Reilly 304, it’s clear there’s something supernatural in the air.

Need convincing? Here’s what other people say about O’Reilly 304!

We recommend you visit this great place if you’re lucky enough to be in Havana, but don’t just take our word for it! If you still need convincing, here’s what some other happy customers have said in TripAdvisor;

“Luck of the Irish to find this small friendly place for great tacos and drinks in Old Havana. We were seated on the second floor, where there were maybe 8 tables overlooking the small but active first floor bar and the even smaller dining area there. We struck up a conversation with a couple from New Zealand who were seated next us.

The staff was great and eager to please. We enjoyed a really well-made plate of tacos with salad, some sides and the staff even allowed us to order a taco off menu. Great drinks with fresh fruit and homemade lemonade.

A nice find that’s great to walk for lunch while touring the street or go for dinner after returning to your hotel and we didn’t make reservations. Like all meals in Havana, its less than what you would expect to pay for a similar meal at home. Not fancy, but well decorated, friendly and busy. Excellent meal.” – Bolskyontheroad (May 2019)

 

“The Beef Tacos are to die for! Amazing, somewhat small but a quaint atmosphere, friendly wonderful interaction with staff and patrons, great service, their Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc white wine is decent and you get a very good portion in a large wine glass for the price. A must try when you’re in Havana.” – Silvia R (January 2020)

 

“Small casual Cuban restaurant with delicious local food. I had a seafood soup, it’s very good made with small lobster, clams and small peppers, fried dumplings and a Havana special cocktail made by rum of course. Their homemade salsa sauce is amazing, spicy and super good.” – 992cecic (December 2019)

 

“Great Find! 304 O’Reilly. Doesn’t sound quite right for Havana, does it?! However, 304 is the number of this cocktail / bar / bistro on Calle O’Reilly, Havana. The ambience is great. The cocktails are great – many Gin based – and, the food is really tasty! We had the O’Reilly Tacos – brilliant! Friendly, smiley service and they were full both times we went. One of the best we found in Havana. Drop in for a drink – but book for Dinner. Check them out!” – TCSunbounce – December 2019

O’Reilly 304 – A recipe for success

They say that word of mouth is the best way to gain popularity. It’s honest and authentic, and people recommend good things because people are searching for good things. That’s exactly the case with O’Reilly 304. This is a story which was born in County Meath, Ireland in 1723 but came to life 290 years later in one of Old Havana’s charming old crumbling streets under a tropical sun.

The upwards trajectory of O’Reilly 304 has been staggering and the more people that visit here, the better its reputation.

TimeOut has listed it as one of the best 21 restaurants in Cuba, stating;

“Imaginative cocktails and innovative Mexican-accented dishes have fast made this bijou venue one of the city’s most popular hangouts.

The garnish game is strong, with lime peels spiralling elaborately from cocktail glasses and rose petals floating in the G&Ts. Food-wise, the ceviche has been voted the city’s best by Havana Insider, and the tacos are top-notch too. Whether you’re seated by the bar or on the mezzanine, this place is always buzzing.”

This is an ambitious bar-cum-restaurant serving up top-notch food and delectable cocktails. If you’re in Havana, make sure you become part of O’Reilly 304’s long journey, because you certainly won’t regret it.

Written by

James Corporal

James Corporal - Avid cyclist and cubaphile.

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