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absolutely AWFUL cuba libre experience

  • b

the following review is *long* so in a nutshell; my cuba libre findings:
-too crowded
-failed to advise me that the late-night menu would be served at the time i made my reservations
-rude, touchy-feely security guards
-extremely rude, unaccommodating waitress
-weak drinks
-food... half good, half horrendous

now on to the gory details...
after a pleasing visit to cuba libre during restaurant week, i decided to try it out again this weekend.

so i didn't plan ahead, my fault, i called for reservations late friday afternoon for dinner later that evening. the earliest they had was 11pm; fine. i arrived at 10:30 to a bar that was filled so far over maximum capacity you couldn't get to the hostess' table. after asking drunkards nicely to move (P.S. it doesn't work), i had to resort to pushing and shoving. they said my table would be ready in a few minutes; fine.

in the meantime i decided to hit the restroom, which i'd remember from last time was upstairs. on my way through the doorway to the dining room and stairs, i was physically stopped rather rudely by a security guard. what...??? security guard at a restaurant? come on, it's not *that* nice a place. he told me to head to the restroom in the back of the bar. OK, so i chalked it up to learning something new and pushed and shoved my way past the entire overcrowded bar to a unisex single bathroom with a huge line and another security guard who guided us by the shoulders to the appropriate places to stand in line and dictated the pace at which we moved forward. not a big deal to some, but i do NOT like being touched purposefully by strangers.

by the time i made it through the line and then back across the length of the bar, our table was ready and my company had already been seated. the hostess pointed upstairs and left me to find my own way. i had to explain to another overbearing security guard that we were supposedly already seated. finally i find my table in the back room, which was much quieter than the rest of the place, and i pick up my menu which looks more like a brochure. first thing i noticed was "late night menu" printed across the top. i should have noted the disgust of the patrons at the table next to us, who promptly tossed the menus down, got up and left. i'll bet they weren't told they'd be getting the sandwich menu when they made their reservations, either.

after fifteen minutes of impatiently looking around for some sign of a waitress, she appears with a 'give me trouble and i'll kill you' look about her. i ignore the look, and ask for a regular menu. i mean, the other tables around us were still being served hot entrees - i figured it wouldn't kill anyone to serve me a hot entree. i don't make the trek down to old city for a sandwich if i want a real meal. she promptly denied me, and i shot back with the fact that there were no meatless entrees on the late-night menu (so there's only one on the regular menu; so what?). she said i could have the black bean hummus and the kitchen still had some yucca fries left over. so, whatever... i order both appetizers and a mojito. my company ordered steak (the only non-sandwich entree on the menu) and a mojito.

the mojitos arrive a cool fifteen minutes later, which made me wonder what took so long - there was absolutely no trace of alcohol in them (though i vaguely remember this little fault from last time i'd dined there, too, after downing six of them). i noticed the other tables had all received bread, so i asked our waitress if we could have some, too and again my request was denied. 'we don't serve bread with the late-night menus,' apparently. at that point, we were pretty close to throwing down $3 for our glorified sprite with mint leaves and stalking out; but our dinner (yes, my chips and french fries) arrived immediately afterwards.

i do have to admit, the black bean hummus is fantastic, even though you can tell it had been prepared hours before as the parts of the plantain chips that were artfully placed in the hummus were soggy. still, delicious. also delicious was the herb aioli that is served with the yucca fries; though the fries themselves tasted like they'd been sitting under a heat lamp for 3 days. i guess for food served long after their executive chef has probably left for the day, i really couldn't complain. on the other hand, after starving myself from lunchtime to midnight, probably anything i ate would have tasted good. maybe i shouldn't give too much credit, then. my company's steak was 'fatty' and apparently made her violently ill later on in the evening.

so, long story short, avoid cuba libre at all costs after 10pm or so. i wish i'd gotten my waitress' name, so i could advise you to avoid her at all costs as well.

good point of the evening: before dinner we'd strolled old city (i think it's old city, anyway, i'm new here... 2nd/3rd and market area) to find a good spot for pre-dinner drinks. i'm almost ashamed to admit i like an overpriced martini in a trendy lounge while my company prefers a good beer at a gritty sports bar. after passing multiple bars that appealed to one of us but not the other, we stumbled upon Charlie's (or something like that) on 3rd street - which we immediately dubbed the multiple personality bar... it was equally inviting to each of our opposite personalities. chic little curvy booths with a modern fabric print, dark swanky atmosphere with little halogen lights and tealights lighting the bar... and then several televisions playing a basketball game (i thought cartoon blinking eyeballs would be more fitting!) and a not-so-chic view into the kitchen, which, from the smell, served decent bar/comfort food. there was a fabulous sound system which played black sabbath, then gwen stefani, followed by more black sabbath. it was hilarious, but it confused my senses; i wasn't sure if i should order a glass of wine or a jack and coke. so i ordered both. even the patrons looked confused about their own identities. great little place for people watching, friendly servers, *strong* (reasonably priced) drinks and what a little conversation-starter of a place! i'll definitely go back.

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  1. n
    Newgirlintown

    Wow !
    Sorry about your experience.
    In all honesty 98% of the "restaurants" in olde city are just bars that serve mediocre food.......and drinks.
    Let me assure you, the time sensitivity issue isnt the reason, the food and service there always blows.
    The food at Cuba Libre is about as cuban as Taco bell is Mexican.
    The Non alchohol Mojitos are frankly a crime and its really sad that they dont care at all and deliberately rip off customers.
    You wont be the first to complain about it.
    On any day , I would rather open a can of catfood than eat there.

    9 Replies
      1. re: gemini

        Have to agree cuba libre is not the best place, but when you have there kind of money to market the restaurant in every hotel in the city with a five minute intro soon as you turn your tv on, that's why they rip customers off with the food, drinks and staff. The place just sucks. And also why would you want to walk along old city at night, it's not a place where i would take my wife or family. It's like south street was years ago at night, nothing but kids drunk. All the club and restaurants that serve alcohol in old city promote that kind of behavior.

        1. re: Harry Strov

          I actually like Cuba for what it is. It is a Bar with few nice dishes, apps and a restaurant setting and seating. I have never expected a gourmet meal there. Just good drinks and atmosphere. The Philly Elitist Chow Board is so cathected to BYOBs that they forget how to have fun.

          1. re: Carlos

            They're not just awful about food, but about rum, too. I ordered one of the "select" rums from the list, served neat. The check had a $1 surcharge. Why? Because, if it's not mixed with coke, it costs extra. I asked the waiter: Who is it that would mix an 18 yr old Barbancourt with soda?

            1. re: gn
              p
              Philly girl back in Philly (formerly stuck in Lancaster)

              I do have to admit I like their brunch, though. But, I am only 26 and I am already over that kids drunk in old city scene, including cuba.

              For a great mojito, try Pasion. I had a great one there the other night. Dinner, not as good as usual.

            2. re: Carlos

              I shouldn't be replying, because I don't like Cuban food. But the one thing I noticed when I got dragged there one evening after being outvoted by my tennis group was that there's a higher % of alcohol in the average Giant TGIF Bloody Mary (that is, about 1/2%) then in the drinks at Cuba Libre. Not a "BYOB snob" - just hate feeling ripped off.

              Thought the atmosphere (early in the evening) was kind of cool in a stage-set kind of way.l

              1. re: Patiod

                yes, i know exactly what you mean. my first dinner (with a group of 8) was early in the evening, before things got crowded, and it was great dining on that balcony. i did feel like i was on a set.

                as for the person comparing phila vs NYC restaurants; i am fairly new to the area from DC and i've never seen anything like that. a restaurant is a restaurant, a bar is a bar, a nightclub is a nightclub. maybe i should have turned and run when i saw the 'bouncers' in every doorway. i do realize it's tough to find good food that late at night, but i'd also think a real meal should be provided at any place asking for reservations, regardless of time. no excuses.

                this place charlie's - i'll have to go back for the food! it sounds great. cool little bar; if anyone hasn't been there you should check it out. it's on 3rd street, a block north of market or so, i believe.

                i may have to swallow my pride and head back for the lunch you all recommend, though... because that black bean hummus is so damn tasty.

            3. re: Harry Strov

              OK, I admit to having had some great meals at Cuba Libre, but they were all "special" family style dinners. In particular, they offer a special Christmas dinner that is just spectacular -- plenty of really good home-style food. I've also had awful service at times, mostly later at night and/or on weekends. But do go there for the Xmas special.

          2. re: Newgirlintown

            I disagree with that statement a little bit. Mandolin(yes a byob) and Serrano are both in Olde city and I have eaten at both in the past three weeks. Both meals were fantastic. Mandolin was a little small but the food was terrific. Serrano seems to being doing something different, by no means detremental, with their menu than what I have experienced there numerous times before. It almost seems like both are trying to fit into that Neighborhood theme that we are starting to see become so popular and succesful in the Art Museum and N. Liberties areas. I would not give one dime to most of the restaurants in old city ie...Cuba libre, Continental, Amada etc.

          3. I don't mean to be difficult, and I understand that you're new to the area, but a little asking around before making 11 PM friday night reservations at Cuba Libre would have saved you from that terrible experience. Even if you didn't know that the place turns into a drunken party on weekend evenings, I'm surprised that you'd accept an 11 PM friday reservation with the expectation that the menu or the atmosphere would be the same as during a restaurant week dinner. In New York, 11 PM reservations are a legitimate way to eat at a popular restaurant on short notice; in Philly, a late-night reservation at a restaurant with a full bar usually means you'll be getting the short end of the stick.

            1. You're lucky you found Charlie's--it's a great Old City spot, and out of the way of all the weekend insanity. The food is pretty good, too. Try their hummus and dolmas platter, and their spinach salad with spicy orange dressing.

              Cuba LIbre is one of the many restaurants in Old City that turns into a drunken weekend nightclub after about 10PM. I am surprised to hear that they serve any food at all that late, let alone sign a customer up for an 11PM dinner reservation. I think the best time to go to Cuba Libre is for lunch or brunch--drinks are nice and strong that time of day, too. :)

              4 Replies
              1. re: gina

                I am not sure what happened with others, but my experience at Cuba Libre this weekend was amazing. The food and service was delightful. It's worth another try!

                1. re: Adorable Girlfriend

                  wow... you've just dug up my post from years ago before i guess we picked static usernames with this new board format! yes, that was me, when i first moved here, facing my first of many old city disappointments! :) thanks for digging up some memories!!! i've come a long way!

                  went back to cuba libre once, in summer of 06 when friends were visiting... just ducking in from the heat for an expensive flavored water passing itself off as a mojito (i knew what i was in for, but we were HOT). the bartender was so stuck up and rude, it was the icing on the cake. the tiki bob's spillover can lay their claim to cuba libre for all i care. i won't be back!

                  thank goodness charlie's is still good (and i'm somewhat of a regular now) and i've discovered the pagoda noodle cafe as well.

                  1. re: rabidog

                    You might want to go back and try Cuba Libre for brunch sometime in the future. My significant other and I went a few weeks ago and it was AMAZING. Honestly, the hazlenut encrusted marscapone stuffed french toast was probably the best breakfast type food that I have ever had, and the cafe cuba libre (cuban coffee with steamed coconut milk) was far and away the best coffee I've ever had.

                    Granted their savory dishes may be lacking, but it really is a unique and fun place. I haven't been there later in the evening, so the bar scene there hasn't turned me off yet. I also had a mojito with my brunch - not the best I've ever had, but definitely not the worst.

                    1. re: AlissaMichelle

                      AlissaMichelle - seems as if we've had very similar experiences at Cuba Libre. I had the same hazelnut encrusted french toast that was awesome along with a fresh cuban coffee w/ coconut millk. excellent! The service was nothing to brag about though. I asked for more mango butter (yum) and never got it. Also barely saw the waitress after our food was delivered till check time.

                      I've also been to dinner there (around 6pm or so) and the crowd appeared to be mostly couples or small groups of folks so i didn't have to endure a noisy bar scene. The dinner was good - appetizers were just average but my entree was great!! And i like the ambiance of the place. My husband though - didn't like his food and wasn't interested in going again. So - i guess it just depends. Our waitress seemed was a complete snob though and this makes for a not so pleasant experience anywhere...