Sloppy Joe's is Back in Business
By: Ciro Bianchi Ross / Photos by Prensa Latina
Sloppy Joe's stands on a centrally-located street corner in Havana: just 100 meters from the legendary Paseo del Prado promenade, 200 meters from the Parque Central, very close to the Granma yacht monument and the Museum of the Revolution, and surrounded by major hotels. It was one of the best-known and popular bars of the era when celebrities like Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Rod Hudson, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams pulled up their chairs to enjoy a Sloppy Joe's cocktail—a mix of brandy, Cointreau, port wine, and pineapple juice—or to order the emblematic Sloppy Joe's sandwich: ground beef and tomato sauce garnished with olives.
After a hiatus of nearly half a century, Sloppy Joe's is back in business. It earned a place in the imagination of Havana's residents with its 18-meter long black mahogany bar, considered the longest in Latin America in its time, and which mysteriously disappeared in 1965.
“Not only was a Havana corner restored, but also the extensive documentation preserved made it possible to save the bar's cocktail tradition and its sandwiches and other light fare from oblivion,” says Luis Sotolongo, president of Habaguanex Tourist Company, which oversaw the bar's long restoration in coordination with the Havana City Historian's Office, and which now operates it. Ernesto Iznaga Coldwell, the bar's manager, said that the revival of a place with so much history and interna-tional fame was “a real satisfaction.” And the disappearance of its bar was actually not a mystery at all, he said.
“We found this place in ruins. Its wood floors rotted from humidity and neglect and collapsed into the basement, causing the bar to splinter into three.” One of those pieces is now in the Museum of Rum in the historic Habana Vieja district, he explained. Sloppy Joe's is open from 12 noon to 3 a.m., unusual in a city where the after-hours nightlife had been shrinking, Iznaga Coldwell said.
“Havana needed something like this. I hope that places full of history and tradition like this will proliferate; we're not afraid of the competition,” said Andrés E. Arencibia Mohar, manager of the celebrated El Floridita bar/restaurant. And Donna Edwards, brand manager at the Key West Joe's in southern Florida, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, described the reopening of Havana's Sloppy Joe's as “exciting, because obviously our history is tied into their history.” “[Ernest] Hemingway and [Joe] Russell (founder and original owner of the Key West bar), 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,” she said.
The Key West Sloppy Joe's first opened its doors in 1934, some years after the Havana Joe's opened, in 1918. The Havana bar's founder was José Abeal Otero, a Galician immigrant. After learning English and working as a bartender in New Orleans and Miami, he returned to Cuba with enough money to buy an old grocery store on the corner of Zulueta and Ánimas streets. It was rough going at first, but things changed for the better when he decided to go from being a grocer to a bartender. He made José into Joe, and because his establishment had a reputation for being unkempt, he added an appropriate adjective: sloppy. It soon became a favorite spot for visitors from North America. Until 1959, few Cubans frequented Sloppy Joe's, and it was not necessarily a favorite among the northerners who lived on the island, who preferred the now-defunct bar Mes Amis, on the corner of Séptima and 42 in the Miramar district.
A wide range of cocktails is available at Sloppy Joe's, which also serves 40 bands of whisky; 17 brands of rum; 50 of liqueurs and creams, and nearly 20 brandies and cognacs, and an appetizing list of tapas. As a place that gained its popularity for sandwiches, its version of the authentic Cuban sandwich is commendable.
The air conditioning is a real novelty at Sloppy Joe's, which traditionally was a saloon with open doors and windows. The original mahogany bar was not recovered, but the new one is wonderfully alike, and all around it, history meshes with the present as celebrities and visitors in general enjoy a drink in this clean, tranquil and well-lighted place.