We were delusional,” Michael Boland says of 1999, the year he and his wife, Deidre Swords, opened Havana, on Bar Harbor’s Main Street. “We shot too high. For the entire first summer, we decided we’d change the menu every single night.” And while using local, organic produce is so commonplace these days that “it’s almost lost its meaning,” Havana has done that since its early days, hosting special dinners with no ingredient from more than 100 miles away — no olive oil or pepper and only salt harvested in Lubec. Plus, that was all at a time when a nice night out in Bar Harbor probably meant a lobster dinner or steak and potatoes. No matter. For legions of locals and travelers alike, Havana became the go-to for upscale eating on Mount Desert Island, and the restaurant counts some notable somebodies among its guests — President Barack Obama has stopped in for dinner, as has Martin Scorcese. Martha Stewart, a seasonal resident of nearby Seal Harbor, comes in multiple times every summer. In the first year of the pandemic, when restaurants across the country were in crisis mode, Esquire published a list of 100 restaurants that America “can’t lose” — Havana was the only place in Maine to make the list.
Despite its name, Havana isn’t really a Cuban restaurant, but rather, per its website, “American fine dining with a Latin flair.” Brazilian, Mexican, and Spanish influences produce dishes like paella with local seafood or rack of lamb with chimichurri. “Ironically, we’ve never been to Cuba,” Boland says, “but we joke that Havana is a much better name — more evocative, more romantic — than Guatemala City or one of the many other destinations we’ve been.”
Boland attributes much of the restaurant’s early success to an exceptional opening chef and lucky timing — another fine-dining establishment went out of business just as they opened, and Havana swept up both its general manager and much of its clientele. As for staying power, Boland credits his staff’s “unrelenting focus” on hospitality, even as the restaurant has far outgrown its original, intimate 35-seat footprint (and added a casual outdoor Latin grill next door). Plus, silver-bearded bartender Mark Duffy still serves the impeccable mojitos and caipirinhas he’s been whipping up since the day Havana opened — Boland estimates they sell as many as 10,000 of the former every year. Another fixture is Bob Lombardi, a bassist who plays in a jazz duo every Saturday night at Havana. This year, he turns 95. What’s more classic than that?