Good thing we didn't have to pay full fare for the food. The descriptors that immediately come to mind: loud, beyond over-the-top themed (crossing way over the line into tacky); mediocre, overpriced food; excellent mojitos.
Let me start with the decor. They say the restaurant is designed to look like Havana in the 1950s with fake Spanish-style balcony facades along the wall and indoor street lamp replicas. Not being alive in the 50s coupled with never (sadly) having been to Cuba due to ridiculous US restrictions, I cannot speak to the authenticity of the design. But the whole setup did bring to mind Disney World's Pirates of the Caribbean ride--I kept expecting anamatronic figures pop out of the windows above. If that weren't itself over the top, blasting Cuban music muddles with the dining room noise to such an extent that you have to yell across the table to converse. Some of the kitsch is OK--soap in the restrooms dispensed from rum bottles and the check arriving in a cigar box--but, good God, most of the rest is headache-inducing.
While the restaurant gets kudos for a well-trained, efficient staff, our waiter was easily the most annoying waiter we have ever had in DC. Sadly, we are no stranger to his antics, we remembered his verbosity at an experience at an otherwise good restaurant (and will thus remain nameless) a few years ago. He has been in the city a while, and half way through his six (!) minute recitation of the wonders of each and every appetizers, certain signature phrases reminded me of him and his aforementioned antics. This guy did not stop. The entree overview was closer to seven minutes, followed by the dessert introduction which I could not even bring myself to listen to. With eyes glazed over, B and I shuddered every time he said he would be back, because we knew what was in store. A for effort--someone payed attention in server training--and A+ for annoying!
I will say that the mojitos were extraordinary--the sugarcane is scraped in-house--and would be the only thing that would pull me back into this establishment.
All drinks are made with house cane sugar, and this Pyrat Mojito had such a refreshing taste, that I could forget the manufactured surroundings for a minute.
Appetizers regularly range from $6 - 13 (when they say small, they mean it) and entrees from $18 - 32. The food itself is decent, but in no way tastes as though it was inspired by a James Beard award winner (as the waiter reminded all of his tables many times) nor is it commensurate with the full-freight prices. And certain unseasonal accouterments were just perplexing; to wit, the arroz con pollo was topped with tasteless tubes of asparagus.
The best options of our six courses of the night,were the big eye tuna ceviche, with coconut milk and jalapeno...
...and the ropa vieja, which was traditional and tender, served with plantains over white rice, though it could have used a bit more spice.
I should also mention that the toasted Cuban (it was actually closer to French) bread with mango butter was addictive and delicious. But in my experience, Cuban food, like arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, and the trademark Cuban sandwich are often best enjoyed at local, hole-in-the-wall type restaurants. While, again the food at Cuba Libre is not bad, the prices are way out of whack. This horrified B as a Tampa native, since he was used to the massive flavorful $5 sandwiches of Ybor City, which, by the way, are made on bona fide Cuban bread.
Bottom line? Cuba Libre provides a themed dining experience in DC, and I have no doubt that tour buses, bachelorette, and birthday parties will soon descend. But this not a dining experience I for one want to remember.