It's happy hour again at Sloppy Joe's saloon, a celebrated Cuban bar that has reopened after a hiatus of nearly half a century and which is sure to become a must-see for tourists eager to drink in the flavour of Havana's freewheeling past.
Pictures lining columns in the bar bring the city's colourful history vividly to life, reminders of Sloppy Joe's popularity with US tourists in the Prohibition years of the 1920s and early 1930s when they made Havana, just 90 miles from Florida, their party-time playground. One photo shows Ernest Hemingway, Noël Coward and Alec Guinness together when Guinness was in town to film Our Man In Havana, which included a scene shot in the bar. The film was showing on twin flat-screen televisions above the bar on Friday.
The bar was closed in 1965 as Fidel Castro's Communist government nationalised nearly all private enterprise, and left to decay until the City Historian's Office, a government agency, started to restore the building in 2007. Historians, architects and designers pored over archive photographs and interviewed old-timers in the attempt to recreate Joe's as faithfully as possible, down to the delicate plaster moulding, dark wood panelling and multi-hued bottles of alcohol displayed behind glass. The mahogany bar, once reputedly the longest in Latin America at about 59 feet (18 metres), was polished to a high shine.
In Our Man In Havana, Graham Greene wrote: "No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe's because it was the rendezvous of tourists." That will no doubt be largely true during Joe's second lease on life. The bar stands between several high-end tourist hotels and is mere steps from some of Havana's most important museums. A Sloppy sandwich and a cocktail will set you back US$13 (£8.50) plus tip, far too pricey for Cubans who scrape by on government salaries averaging $20 a month.
But tourists in search of a piece of history are sure to flock here to have their picture taken at the joint patronised by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to Nat King Cole. They will include increasing numbers of Americans, tens of thousands of whom are travelling to the island each year on cultural exchange tours that are tightly scripted but usually include some free time in the evenings.
Tangy Sloppy Joe sandwiches were purportedly first dreamed up here, although others also claim to have invented them. They arrive with the tomato-and-green-olive-spiced ground beef piled high and spilling out of the bun, looking more like a tiny hat. Best to skip breakfast before ordering one, and multiple napkins are recommended.
Waiters in black and orange shirts and matching ties shook up round after round of the Sloppy Joe cocktail on Friday, a refreshing blend of brandy, port and Cointreau, with a fruity pineapple finish, while about two dozen customers took a break from the spring heat and enjoyed tapas such as ceviche and marinated shrimps.
"Finally, the big day, after so much waiting, and I think it's been worth the pain," said Ernesto Iznaga, manager of the reborn Joe's. "May all our clients... upon entering, breathe in that 1950s atmosphere that characterised the place."
Barbara Bachman, a New York book designer, was one of the first to order a drink. Bachman, who was on her annual trip to the island to visit family with her Cuban-born husband, said she learned about the bar from photos she found at Havana flea markets. Curious, she asked around and finally managed to track it down several years ago. Peering through holes in the wall, she said, it was just a pile of dust and a few sticks of furniture.
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