Sloppy Joe’s is a taste of old Havana

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Street scene: Across from Sloppy Joe’s in Havana, a woman hangs clothes to dry. The iconic Cuban bar reopened in 2013 after a nearly 40-year hiatus and has become a must-see. (AP)

HAVANA – Jesus Escandel’s brown eyes lit up like two Cuban cigars as he walked along the uncommonly smooth stone pavement and felt the fresh orange tile on the newly renovated building. Pushing open the swinging doors on Calle Animas, he stepped into a past when American gamblers, Hollywood stars, pro athletes, Mafia bosses, local politicians, and homegrown revolutionaries all once shared a legendary saloon called Sloppy Joe’s.

The first thing Escandel noticed was the bar to the left, 59 mahogany feet, once billed as the longest in Latin America. Behind it were wall-to-wall glass-and-wood liquor cabinets; in front, shiny glass showcases mounted on pillars five feet square.

Escandel soon found himself sitting in the same corner he had haunted in the 1950s, near the stairs to the restrooms below. Then an angry young office worker, he and fellow rebels gathered there in the afternoons to conspire against the brutal regime of Fulgencio Batista, the noisy conversations of American tourists providing good cover for their anti-government plotting. Uniformed police didn’t frequent Sloppy Joe’s, and secret police could be spotted, easily.

“We hated Batista because he created a military dictatorship,” recalled the balding septuagenarian, his white mustache curling around his upper lip and into the sides of his mouth. “He killed almost 3,000 persons in the city.”

Escandel hadn’t been inside Sloppy Joe’s since it closed four decades ago, or since it reopened in April 2013, its heyday trappings recreated.

Although once integral to the bar’s success, Hollywood did not have a hand in its resurrection. The Office of the Historiador of Havana was responsible, part of a large-scale remake of a city preparing for the near-inevitable return of long-gone guests.

An embargo against Cuba imposed by President Eisenhower in 1960 has kept Americans away, for the most part. But now, President Obama is working to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and reopen an embassy in Havana. That’s good news for the bar that was once the mother of all watering holes in an exotic setting 90 miles from Key West.

“To restore Sloppy Joe’s is to return to Havana the place where artists, baseball payers, tourists all met,” Historiador director Eusebio Leal wrote on the website Visit Cuba. “. . . The final objective is not commercial, it’s not to exploit a name. The opportunity it brings is to recover an important memory of Havana.”

Nonetheless, the Castro government, through the Historiador’s Habaguanex Tourist Co., expects to recover its investment in the project and make a profit for years to come, to plow into other enterprises in the old city where Christopher Columbus once walked – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Capitalism is breaking out in small doses all over the city, from families selling drinks and candy through the open windows of rowhouses in Central Havana, to trendy restaurants opening along the Malecon, the ocean boulevard, to kiosks in the suburb of Miramar offering iPhones, to tents under which beer, rum and soda are dispensed along the rocky beaches in Playa.

When the reclamation of Sloppy Joe’s started in 2007, the intent was to salvage not only the 3,100-square-foot bar-restaurant, but the entire three-story edifice. The saloon closed in 1976 due to its deteriorating condition, but the upper floors still held about 20 apartments, and the occupants were at risk. Beams supporting the building had rotted.

Originally a warehouse with a grocery store, it was purchased in 1917 by Jose Garcia Abeal, a Spaniard and a bartender.

When Prohibition created a wicked thirst in the United States starting in 1920, he remade the store into a saloon. It became a gold mine, as more and more Americans hopped boats bound for the tropical haven where they could swill rum cocktails and beer without fear. A newspaper called the place sloppy. The name stuck. Sloppy Jose’s? No. Sloppy Joe’s? Yes. This was an American bar. And so it stayed, for decades after Prohibition ended in 1933.

By the fabulous ’50s, Americans were ferrying their cars from Miami to “the Paris of the Caribbean” for extended vacations. Showgirls, casino gambling, horse-and-dog race tracks, jai alai, baseball, beaches, Montecristo cigars, and music were huge draws. The sexually charged rumba and its offspring, the mambo and cha-cha-cha, originated in Cuba and created a dance fever in the U.S.

Those who chose to fly in for the weekend could catch charter flights from Miami. Cubana Airlines removed the first eight seats from its Lockheed Constellation to make room for musicians and dancers, who led uproarious, in-flight conga lines down the middle aisle.

Sloppy Joe’s was restored with the help of old photos and the memories of old-time habitues.

Escandel, now a retired railroad union boss and not among the consulted, seemed mesmerized by the newly burnished shrine, where the disparate likes of mobsters Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Meyer Lansky, writers Noel Coward and Ernest Hemingway, singer Frank Sinatra, and baseball star Ted Williams once elbowed their way to the bar for a beer, a good sandwich – and a choice of 80 types of cocktails.

Looking at the white plaster ceiling, Escandel noted that it was lower than before (to accommodate central air conditioning, it turns out). Studying the cream-colored tile floor, he remembered it as darker. But the yellowish, domed ceiling lights, he said, looked like originals.

The bar is another story.

It once was made of caoba, the Spanish word for mahogany, a dark, durable wood found on the island by Spanish explorers and used to build galleons, according to Ciro Bianchi, a well-known Cuban columnist, TV and radio host. Now, none of the bar is original, despite Internet accounts claiming otherwise. The mahogany is from Africa, and only a veneer over concrete.

Lucky Strikes are on display behind the bar. But smoking is prohibited because of the air conditioning. The fumes in the old joint were chased by four 12-inch fans. The windows, always wide open in Escandel’s recollection, now don’t budge.

In the Sloppy Joe’s of yore, the music came from an RCA Victrola, he said.

In the new saloon, Cuban music from the 1950s is piped in courtesy of Havana Radio. Havana TV provides continuous black-and-white film and music clips on two flat-screen TVs, one at each end of the bar. Scenes from the 1959 Alec Guinness/Burl Ives film Our Man in Havana, which has a sequence shot in the bar, play daily. Nat “King” Cole can be seen at the piano singing “Unforgettable.” In the another clip, Elvis shakes it to “Hound Dog.”

Escandel recalled paying the equivalent of $1.20 for a large sandwich, 40 cents for a Hatuey beer, and $1.50 for a bottle of Bacardi rum in the 1950s.

Today’s Sloppy Joe sandwich – described on the menu as tomato-and-green-olive-spiced ground beef – is worth the 6 CUCs (about $6) it costs in a country in which hamburger, typically mixed with soy beans, lacks the meaty flavor of its American counterpart. Bigger than a Burger King Whopper, shoveled into an oversized bun, an abundance of tangy ground beef spills out in all directions onto crinkle-cut fries.

Most of the patrons seem to be Cubans from Miami, said house photographer Andrès Riusech. The locals, who on average earn about $17 a month, couldn’t afford 4 CUCs for a cocktail, 4 to 5 CUCs for an appetizer, and 4 to 6 CUCs for a sandwich.

The glass showcases don’t house as many guest photos as in the 1950s. Most of the glossy black-and-whites vanished when the bar closed. Ernesto Iznaga Coldwell, 42, the energetic manager, is working on getting the pictures back.

The images spoke to a celestial celluloid history. Sinatra, who didn’t want anyone to know he was in Cuba, was snapped in Sloppy Joe’s wearing a checkered tie and white shirt under a dark suit jacket with wide lapels.

Cameras caught actor Tyrone Power, cigarette in hand, draining a cocktail next to fellow thespian Cesar Romero, holding an empty shot glass and leaning on a counter across from American sailors in white uniforms. Actress Barbara Stanwyck, in a wide-brimmed black hat, also cigarette in hand, shared a snack and drinks with chic friends at a knee-high round table.

Why was Ted Williams smiling? Perhaps because on the stool beside the Splendid Splinter was a saloon fixture – the gigantic plastic bottle bearing the Sloppy Joe’s label.

Nobody dresses elegantly in Sloppy Joe’s anymore. Iznaga theorized that the weather in 1950s Havana was not as hot and humid, so patrons could wear suits, ties and hats without discomfort.

Debunking the climate-change theory are Bianchi and his wife, Mayra Gómez Fariñas, a cookbook author.

“We are more casual,” she said. “Life has changed a lot. Cubans have lost their elegance.”

Maybe so. But they’ve regained a piece of their history that is bringing back precious memories for Jesus Escandel, the prospect of cash for Cuban entrepreneurs, and the promise of a minty mojito for the rest of us.

Bill Iezzi, The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 26, 2015

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