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By Michael White
I’ve had a tendency to defer too much to the superior wisdom of The New York Times when I write for Jewkarta, and I had no intention of doing so again today. But then, mere hours ago, as if it had prophesied what I was struggling to articulate in the sentences that follow here, the Gray Lady published an article that provides a perfect framing for why Kley and I are so fond of Havana right now.
In the Times piece, California restaurant critic Tejal Rao ponders the increasingly lopsided balance of power in the relationship between servers and customers. During a time when all of us should be hyper-aware of the stress and sadness roiling inside our fellow humans — including, if not especially, those struggling to maintain a livelihood preparing and bringing us meals — instead we learn that public-facing workers, from restaurant staff to supermarket cashiers to Amazon drivers, are being subjected to more disrespect and outright abuse than ever from the masses.
This, needless to say, is some bullshit. Not only does it fly in the face of basic social decency; it lays bare a grotesque lack of gratitude toward people whose job is to risk their own health for no reason other than to provide us comforts we want but don’t need, perhaps even to pierce our year-plus bubble of loneliness with a warm-seeming “Hello,” an attentive “What can I do for you?”
What does this have to do with Havana? Frankly, everything.
Havana has been a fixture of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive for more than 20 years. If ever it was considered one of the city’s crucial restaurants, it was before I lived here. It isn’t among the best, nor the most creative. Its menu is more Cuban-inspired than Cuban in practice. (I doubt any bona fide Cubanos consider carnitas tacos or pulled-pork eggs Benedict to be signatures of their homeland’s cuisine.) But none of this matters in the least. Because what Havana seems to want to be more than anything is A Great Hang: an environment in which we have an opportunity to not feel the rough edges of everyday life for a short time; where the food and drink are reliably good (at times great); where, if not everybody knows your name, at least a few staff are likely to remember it if you’ve become a familiar enough sight. Havana is where, lately, Kley and I have most consistently been able to forget — despite our servers’ masks and the sanitizer dispenser at the door and the plexiglass partitions hanging behind our backs — that we currently live under profoundly fucked-up circumstances. This is no small feat.
“Unlike service, which is technical and easy to describe, hospitality is abstract, harder to define,” writes Rao. “It doesn’t hinge on the quality of the glassware, or the folding of a napkin while you’re in the bathroom…. Hospitality is both invisible and formidable — it surrounds you.” The individual components of the hospitality we’ve routinely experienced at Havana are nothing remarkable. In an ideal world, they would be par for the course. But, of course, this isn’t an ideal world, and hospitality workers are performing their duties under such pressure nowadays that I don’t take it personally if they don’t seem receptive to my pathological politeness. I understand their inertia: I’ve had it up to here with people, too.
So, I don’t know to what I should attribute the happy hum of energy that the staff at Havana have consistently brought to our table — long before they discovered we were unimportant food bloggers with a three-figure following. They’ve brought the sort of genuine (or else very impressively faked) engagement and kindness that make people like us become regulars, even though Havana isn’t remotely close to either of our homes.
But I don’t mean to suggest Havana is worth your time and money simply because chances are the person taking your order will be nice. I’d cross the city again just for the Cheesy Poblano & Corn Dip ($15), a gorgeous sludge of niblets and molten herb-garlic Oaxaca cheese, crisped and blistered from the broiler. Grilled octopus ($19) is among the best I’ve had in a long time, imparting beautiful smoke and perfect texture, mingled with other good things including chorizo and charred shishito peppers in a smoked Romesco sauce. And we both quietly lost our collective shit over Mariquitas ($7): long, curling strips of fried plantain served with a chimichurri aioli that I implored the manager to bottle and sell. (He’s considering it.)
At brunch recently, Kley made best friends with the Governor Sour ($12), a pretty and bracingly — but not cloyingly — sweet cocktail of pisco, passionfruit, coconut, lime and egg white. I tend to skew bitter (ask anyone) and so was very taken with the Cuban old fashioned ($14), which builds upon an unlikely base of brown-butter Havana Club rum dosed with Angostura and cacao-coffee bitters. Our glows thus stoked, we sat further back in our patio chairs and watched the Drive’s bohemian and hipster-parent hordes parade past. Against all odds, life seemed sweet.
Speaking of patios… at the time of this writing, British Columbia’s indoor-dining ban continues, and so the covered patio is the only seating at Havana for the time being. This is no bad thing. Spring has sprung, and everyone seems all the more content (for reasons of both public health and general happiness) to be here next to the benign din of the sidewalk. As I write this, I wish I were there.
(Photo: Kley Klemens)