Legend reborn recalls old-time Havana


Havana - A half-century later, Jose Rafa Malem remembers the balmy breezes 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 Rafa, 59, a Havana native who grew up to become a bartender.

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FILE - In this Feb. 15, 1946 file photo, the exterior of the famous Sloppy Joe's Bar stands opposite the reporters club in Havana, Cuba. Sloppy Joe's will be reopened in February 2013 by the state-owned tourism company Habaguanex, part of an ambitious revitalization project by the Havana City Historian's Office, which since the 1990's has transformed block after block of crumbling ruins into rehabilitated buildings along vibrant cobblestone streets. Sloppy Joe's was founded in 1918 by a Galician immigrant named Jose Abeal Otero who 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. (AP Photo, File)American novelist Ernest Hemingway, left, chats with actors Alec Guinness, center, and Noel Coward in Sloppy Joe's Bar in Havana, Cuba, May 12, 1959, during the making of Sir Carol Reed's film version of "Our Man in Havana". "Our Man in Havana" is based on Graham Greene's best seller. (AP Photo)

Soon, Rafa will be able to relive those boyhood memories as the original Sloppy Joe’s reopens in Havana’s historic quarter, so residents and tourists can belly up to the same bar that served celebrities such as Rock Hudson, Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway.

It’s part of an ambitious revitalisation 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 18th century colonial palaces to 1950s celebrity hangouts.

Sloppy Joe’s was founded in 1918 by a Galician immigrant, Jose Abeal Otero, who bought 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.

Rafa’s father was a close friend of long-time bartender Fabio Delgado and took his boy there on Sunday afternoons beginning in the late 1950s. During the day, Rafa said, Joe’s was a mellow family joint where kids slurped ice cream and Coca-Cola while mom and dad chatted over more potent spirits.

Employees made sandwiches to order behind the black mahogany bar, polished to a high shine and purportedly once the longest in Latin America at about 18m.

After dark, the place filled up with Americans on holiday.

Abeal’s affable personality and familiarity with English from his years in the US helped make Joe’s a favourite among tipsy Yanks as far back as the Prohibition era of 1920-33, along with the nearby El Floridita bar, the reputed birthplace of the daiquiri, and La Bodeguita del Medio, home of the mojito.

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 his 1958 spy farce Our Man in Havana. “It was the rendezvous of tourists.”

It was a stylish clientele compared with the flip-flop and tank-top tourists who swarm Cuba and other Caribbean islands today. Frank Sinatra. Ava Gardner. Nat King Cole. The list of patrons reads like a who’s who from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Rafa said his own brushes with celebrity included Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and Cuban crooner Benny More. Swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, who reportedly got in a fistfight at the bar with an overly admiring fan, was enough of a regular that Joe’s named a cocktail for him.

Ownership later passed to another “Joe” – Jose Garcia.

But last call came in 1965 as Fidel Castro’s communist government was nationalising nearly all private businesses, and Joe’s has been shuttered for nearly five decades.

When restoration work began in 2010, workers discovered that the wood floors, rotten from humidity and years of neglect, had collapsed into the basement. The bar had splintered into three pieces.

Iznaga and his crew have spent two years bringing Joe’s back to life, and to keep it as faithful to the original as possible they’ve examined historic photos and talked to old-timers like Rafa who remember the way it was.

Messy ground-beef sandwiches will be on the new menu, naturally. Iznaga said they apparently originated as an Abeal family recipe, though others have also claimed they invented them.

Also on the menu will be the Errol Flynn, an icy vodka and tomato-juice concoction garnished with a celery spear. Among the few changes is air conditioning.

At the intersection of Animas and Zulueta streets on a recent morning, dozens of workers buzzed about painting and finishing the bar’s wood surfaces, a Sloppy Joe’s sign, wrapped in plastic, ready to be unveiled for opening day.

Construction setbacks delayed the reopening, and the first fingers of Havana Club rum will likely flow sometime this month.

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. – Sapa-AP

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