Doña Habana opened on Sept. 1 at the Hampton Inn in Newmarket Square, occupying the space of the now-closed Rudi’s Resto Café. The owners, couple Hector and Nivia Pina, also have been successfully running Vejigantes, a Puerto Rican restaurant in the South End, since 2012, as well as Merengue, a Dominican restaurant and catering business in Roxbury, since 1994.
The couple has been working in the restaurant industry for 25 years, and now with Doña Habana, their restaurants cover the cuisines of the three major islands in the Caribbean.
Although Cuban cuisine resembles that of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, it also incorporates its own spices and zests to traditional dishes like chorizo and papas fritas. The head chef, Roberto Nobeo, was born and raised in Cuba and previously headed the kitchen of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, the island’s historic luxury resort in Old Havana.
“It is really the success of Merengue and Vejigantes [that inspired me],” Hector Pina said. “People from those different countries try our food and identify with it. They say, ‘This is real. This is Cuba.’”
Hector and Nivia pride themselves on opening the first Latin restaurant in a hotel in the state of Massachusetts. With two other Cuban restaurants in the area, both of which are in Jamaica Plain, Hector and Nivia Pina recognized the need for a greater Cuban presence in the Boston area.
The couple has always been fascinated with the music, food, and culture of Cuba and view the restaurant as a symbol of their appreciation for the Cuban culture. According to Hector Pina, the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba has augmented the demand for Cuban food.
“I saw the opportunity of opening a Cuban restaurant because of what is going on with Cuba now with the opening of the United States [tourism], which is bringing more tourists into Cuba,” he said. “People will come back [to Merengue and Vejigantes] raving about the Cuban food.”
Considering its proximity to Boston Medical Center, Northeastern University, and Boston University, the restaurant’s location certainly appeals to the younger crowd that the Pinas are targeting.
The restaurant is an ideal destination for a merienda, Spanish for snack, with a tapas-style menu and a cocktail menu that includes 53 different variations of the mojito. Among its most popular items are the lobster, arroz imperial, a rice-infused Cuban twist to lasagna, and caldo de mariscos, a seafood stew.
The menu also features items that can appeal to those who are less familiar with Cuban cuisine, such as assorted soups and pulled pork sandwiches. Doña Habana is a good fit for those who are looking for an authentic Cuban meal in New England.
The décor adds to the island aesthetic, where customers can truly forget that they are, in fact, in South Boston and not sipping on their mojitos along the Havana beaches. The restaurant plans to use the separate room with a vast bar and nearly 20 dining tables in the future to host Cuban artists and guests.
Hector genuinely believes that the name of a restaurant is immensely important and communicates its overall message.
When the Pinas began the process of brainstorming their plans for the restaurant, they researched pictures of Cuba online, where they stumbled upon a picture of a traditional Cuban. They then developed a fictional story behind the woman in the image through which the Pinas derived the name of the restaurant, “Mrs. Havana.”
The couple hired Arturo and Gloria Velasquez from the Boston-based graphic design company Imagix to design the logo. The Velasquez actually traveled to Cuba and captured over 5,000 pictures of the Cuban scenery, food, garb, and population as inspiration for the logo. The logo that they designed synthesized the restaurant’s name and the Cuban style that the Pinas and the Imagix team wished to share and communicate with the customers.
This image provided the vision for not only the restaurant’s décor but also its message, and it is now displayed on the wall in the main dining room and on the menus. A vintage convertible protrudes from a wall, and white drapes and fairy lights suspend from the ceiling. Murals depict the bustling activity characteristic of the Havana streets.
After two years of renovations, planning, and design work, Doña Habana is excited to open its doors and fill the plates of avid foodies.
Despite only being open for nearly a month, the prospective future of Doña Habana is promising, with Hector Pina alluding to undisclosed plans for other business ventures in the Boston area.
“I see Dona Habana in five years on the Waterfront and in a couple of more cities,” he said “It is great branding, and we have a great product to bring.”
Featured Image by Margaret Bree