02/11/13 - Independent Online - Legend reborn recalls oldtime Havana
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.
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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.
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
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.
iol travel feb 11 cw Travel Sloppy Joe bar Cuba 48
American novelist Ernest Hemingway, left, chats with actors Alec Guinness
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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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