10/15/13 - Havana Times - El Toledo Bar: A Last of its Kind in Havana
Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES Whenever I can, I spend part of my afternoon at El Toledo,
a small bar and restaurant located at the intersection of Barcelona and
Aguila streets, a stones throw from Old Havanas Capitolio, the beautiful
building where the phone company is currently located, the San Rafael
boulevard and other emblematic places in Havana.
As a child, I enjoyed talking with adults. This is one of the reasons I
came to love the bohemian scene. Today, I miss those special times one
had in Havana (perhaps lost forever), which began when most people went to
Evoking the days of Nat King Cole and Nicolas Guillen, two important
cultural figures, tourist guides say that the bohemian scene was most
lively at La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Havanas most famous bars and
The walls of this renowned establishment are covered with the signed
comments of many celebrities that have visited Cuba in the course of
years, from the honest, democratically-elected president of Chile Salvador
Allende, through famous soccer and baseball players, gangsters and
filmmakers to the renowned Judge Garzon.
Bohemia was also the name of a weekly Cuban magazine which, during its
golden age, was considered Latin Americas best publication of its kind.
On its pages, Fidel Castro eloquently and courageously condemned the
excesses of Fulgencio Batistas dictatorship. The magazines editor in
chief, Miguel Angel Quevedo, proved just as courageous for allowing the
publication of those statements.
Today, we have lost these two bohemias. The renowned Bodeguita is a
State-run restaurant with a rather dull night scene, devoid of the
innovative spirit inherent to times past, and the once-acclaimed magazine
is today something resembling a bulletin, a bi-monthly publication as
boring as any other contemporary Cuban State periodical.
Toledo Bar, Havana
Toledo Bar, Havana
This is the reason I go to El Toledo, where I can reconnect with the old
days by looking at the bars two beautiful stained-glass windows,
incredibly well-preserved after half a century of revolutionary history,
accompanied, as though in a doll-house, by old Spanish tiles and
engravings showing bull-fighting scenes and the waters of Spains famous
Tajo river, flowing beneath a roman arch, in the city that lent its name
to the establishment.
The barmen (and one exceptional bar-woman) are quick to serve you,
skillfully negotiation the many orders of the customers, boisterous (as
Cubans tend to be) and a tad spoiled, being regulars at the place, as well
as the inefficiencies of the States commercial system, which denies them
basic supplies such as lemons and ice.
Here, you can sit back and enjoy free shows, staged by a veritable
abundance of unexpected performers. As the popular song goes, Havana is
full of nut-cases. Dont be surprised, therefore, to suddenly find
yourself before amateur singers and dancers that stage performances in
exchange for a few drinks, people willing to engage in all kinds of
conversations, and inveterate, silent loners dwelling on their problems at
This is the kind of place where a pensioner will come in, with money for
only one drink, and will be asked to stay by his grateful compatriots who,
evoking the past, will pay for their second round (or third or fourth,
depending on the number of people at the bar, the day of the week and the
As in many other places in Havana, the winning numbers of a Miami lottery
(announced on a Spanish-language TV channel), are repeated in a low tone
of voice by the bar-goers. This is a lottery popularly known as la
bolita. If an El Toledo regular wins the lottery, well, everyone at the
bar simply rejoices.
Claribel (the bar woman) and her faithful canteen companion skillfully
ride out the storm of a bar disputed by Cubans. They smile, calm down
those who get a little excited, add the bit of ice theyve bought
themselves, the lemon juice (similarly procured) and cunningly wink at
you, reminding you of the tip.
Toledo Bar, Havana
Toledo Bar, Havana
Most prices at the establishment are in regular Cuban pesos. Some canned
beers and drinks are sold in hard currency, at the lowest market price but
still too expensive for us Cubans, who, even with a few drinks on us,
cannot forget we are paid in a currency that is one twenty-fifth the value
of the currency those products are sold in.
That said (hold on to your hat) you can get a small plate of shrimp or a
steak for 25 Cuban pesos, that is, a little over one US dollar. These
dishes are served at the bar by waitresses from the neighboring cafe. From
time to time, they offer pork cracklings for 5 Cuban pesos the serving.
Also: the establishment is air-conditioned, a magnificent gift in Havanas
hot, humid afternoons.
At this point in my story, I must be coming across as the classical Cuban
liar. Believe me: this place exists, and my fear is that it will one day
disappear, like any broom does after a long time of sweeping away the
filth that accumulates before us every day.
Unfortunately, despite its many pluses, El Toledo closes its doors early
(at nine at night). There appears to be a rather perfidious official
maneuver, impossible to confirm beyond mere conjecture, aimed at
preventing the reemergence of a bohemian scene in Havana.
These popular establishments, with prices in Cuban pesos, all close before
the late hours of the night. What are left are tourist locales, with
International prices, where foreigners (and their Cuban companions) reign.
Next to nothing of Havanas former bohemian scene survives today. A
vestige of it can perhaps be caught sight of in the domino games some play
late into the night, beneath the light of a streetlamp, boastingly
announcing their victory over their rivals with a vigorous slap on the
At the much-advertised Bodeguita del Medio, one can still find a picture
of Ernest Hemingway, drinking a mojito, and the chairs where Nat King Cole
and Nicolas Guillen, with a lot or little money, once savored their drinks
into the early hours of the morning. The rest is an undecipherable mass of
signatures penned by celebrities.
Vicente Morín Aguado: firstname.lastname@example.org
Original Source / Fuente Original:
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