Round 2 for Sloppy Joe's bar, a Havana original

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

HAVANA -- A half-century later, Jose Rafa Malem remembers the balmy breezes blowing through the bar's arching porticos, the grain of the tall wood stools, the whiff of Pedro Domecq brandy on his father's breath.

And how could he forget the tangy ground-beef-and-tomato-sauce sandwiches synonymous with what was then one of Havana's hippest hangouts, playfully dubbed Sloppy Joe's?

"I ate so many, I got tired of them," said Mr. Rafa, a 59-year-old Havana native who grew up to become a bartender.

Soon, Mr. Rafa will be able to relive those boyhood memories as the original Sloppy Joe's reopens in Havana's historic quarter, giving residents and tourists from all over the chance to belly up to the same bar that served thirsty celebrities such as Rock Hudson, Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway.

It's part of an ambitious revitalization project by the Havana City Historian's Office, which since the 1990s has transformed block after block of crumbling ruins into rehabilitated buildings along vibrant cobblestone streets. The effort has helped finance Cuba's socialist present by drawing tourists fascinated by its pre-socialist past, from colonial palaces of the 18th century to celebrity hangouts of the 1950s.

Sloppy Joe's was founded in 1918 by an immigrant Galicia, in northwest Spain, named Jose Abeal Otero. He purchased a grocery store in Old Havana after years of tending bar in New Orleans and Miami. Legend has it the sobriquet comes from the place's grubbiness and Abeal's American nickname, Joe.

Abeal's affable personality and familiarity with English from his years in the States helped make Joe's a favorite among tipsy Yanks as far back as the Prohibition era of 1920-1933, along with the nearby El Floridita bar, the reputed birthplace of the daiquiri cocktail, and La Bodeguita del Medio, home of the minty, rum-infused mojito. As much as any other place in Havana, Joe's exemplified the island's lure as a playground for Americans.

"No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe's," novelist Graham Greene wrote in "Our Man in Havana," his 1958 spy-farce, "because it was the rendezvous of tourists."

Last call came in 1965, as Fidel Castro's communist government was nationalizing nearly all private businesses, and Joe's has been shuttered for nearly five decades.

Construction setbacks have delayed the re-opening from Mr. Iznaga's original target around New Year's, and the first fingers of Havana Club rum will likely flow sometime in February.

Across the Florida Straits, where rum-runner and speakeasy operator Joe Russell named his own bar Sloppy Joe's in the 1930s, at the suggestion of his friend Hemingway, operators are delighted that the original is being reborn.

"It's exciting because, obviously, our history is tied into their history," said Donna Edwards, brand manager at the Key West Joe's, which recently celebrated 75 years at its current location. "Hemingway and Russell, they would frequent Sloppy Joe's when they were in Havana. It's a piece of history, and our history is now coming to life again."

world - food


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here