Any business that manages to keep its head above water for 15 years must have something good going for it, and so it proves with Havana Tapas Bar, a cosy place bang in the centre of Dublin’s Restaurant Row. Havana hasn’t always been in this location, however. Back in the innocent days of 2000, it was located in Camden Market, and pitched no more and no less as a cheap and cheerful tapas joint (Dublin’s first, apparently). At that time, it proactively hustled for attention, and it slowly built up a reputation for a style of food that Dublin had previously been unaccustomed to. Come 2005, with its character confirmed and with the roar of the Celtic Tiger drying the collective hair of a nation of estate agents, Havana moved to its current location.
We have been here a few times before, so unlike some previous restaurant adventures we know what to expect. We also know from experience that tapas is food for sharing, and so the more people at the table the better you’re able to reach out for this, steal that, and eat the other. Which we do.
Starters, as such, are redundant, so we just go for what seems like the right thing. Among four people, we select two platters, and then each select one tapas dish. The platters chosen are Havana (a selection of cured Spanish meats, artisan cheeses, with dried fruit, honey and olives) and Vegetarian (Spanish omelette, goat’s cheese & spinach filo wraps, cream mushrooms, with fig dip and berenjena (aubergine). Tapas choices are patatas gratinadas (potato gratin with cream and garlic), dip selection (homemade hummus, red pesto and olive with breads and crostini), berenjena con queso (fried aubergine & goat’s cheese in breadcrumbs, with fig and mixed berry sauce), and escalibada con casablanca couscous (pan-fried peppers, aubergine, courgettes, spinach, with roasted pine nuts, honey and spicy couscous). To accompany the plates of food – which, despite a restaurant that throbs rhythmically, arrives with sensible time delays – we select a bottle of Riscal Temprillano (Castilla y Leon), and when this is beaten into submission, a carafe of Rioja (Campo Viejo).
Desserts of flan (gluten free) and banoffi pie sign off a meal that is uniformly excellent. Everything we eat is fresh, brimming with flavour, crunchy and tender where applicable, and more than enough for four hungry people. Of course, the brilliant aspect of a tapas restaurant is that if you are always peckish you can choose something from an extensive menu that won’t add to the bill in any significant way.
Throughout the bustle of food delivery, highly efficient service from all of the young staff (none of whom hassle obviously for more food or drink), and visits to the very pragmatically signed toilets (‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ – really, what more do you need?), there is an overriding sense of customers having a good time eating terrific food. The décor is as you might expect: colourful, pertaining to geographical location, not exactly revolutionary (cue groans that are more stereotypical than political). We also like the fact that selected wall space in certain areas of Havana are used as message boards. This nicely ties in with the restaurant’s valuable sense of community; we’re not saying that we’ll visit every Monday for Spanish language lessons, but this ‘drop-in’ aesthetic perfectly matches egalitarian sensibilities that ooze from the place.
As you can see from the information below the damage for four people came to less than €130, which in any language is value for money. We also admire and respect the fact that, unlike other restaurants, Havana didn’t mind that we commandeered a table for three hours (we had booked the table for 7.30pm, and were not asked, when booking, to leave by 9.15pm; this is a sign of good, generous restaurant manners, and should be adopted by less money-hungry eateries).
As we prepared to walk out into the breezy but balmy night, there was a cool-looking dude seated near the bar counter tapping out snazzy jazzy sounds on a pair of bongos. Ordinarily, this kind of activity would bring your reviewer out in a rash that would take weeks to disappear, but it seemed fitting, right and proper that the smooth rhythms of the restaurant would accompany us all the way home. Havana ball? Havana blast? Havana lotta fun? Do I need to make it any more obvious how good this place is?
Havana Tapas Bar, South George’s Street, Dublin 2, 01-4005990, website here
THE TAB: Dinner for four, with wine, came to €127.55, tip extra.
HOW TO: Sun/Mon/Tues/Wed, 11am-10pm; Thurs/Fri/Sat, 11am-11pm (closing times vary according to customer numbers)
(This review first appeared in The Irish Examiner, November 8, 2014.)