Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Cheers! Havana's Sloppy Joe is back

A waiter serves drinks at Sloppy Joe's Bar during its reopening in Havana, Cuba (AP/Franklin Reyes)
A waiter serves drinks at Sloppy Joe's Bar during its reopening in Havana, Cuba (AP/Franklin Reyes)

It's happy hour again at the original Sloppy Joe's saloon, an iconic Cuban bar that reopened after a nearly 50-year hiatus.

The bar is sure to quickly become a must-see for tourists eager to drink in the flavour of Havana's freewheeling past.

Waiters in black and orange shirts and ties shook up round after round of the Sloppy Joe cocktail, a cool, refreshing blend of brandy, port and Cointreau, with a fruity pineapple finish, while about two dozen customers took a break from the spring heat and noshed on tapas like ceviche and marinated shrimp.

"Finally the big day, after so much waiting, and I think it's been worth the pain," said Ernesto Iznaga, manager of the reborn Joe's. "May all our clients ... upon entering, breathe in that 50s atmosphere that characterised the place."

Historic pictures lining columns in the bar bring that era to life most vividly, and are keen reminders of how Sloppy Joe's was one of the most popular places among American tourists who made Havana, just 90 miles from Florida, their party-time playground as far back as the prohibition era.

One photo shows Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward and Sir Alec Guinness when the latter was in town to film Our Man In Havana, which included a scene shot in the bar. Mr Iznaga had the movie showing on twin flat-screen TVs above the bar yesterday.

"Everybody had to have their picture taken at Sloppy Joe's, whether they were basic American tourists or movie stars," said Barbara Bachman, a New York book designer who was one of the first at the bar for a drink.

Ms Bachman, who was on her annual trip to the island to visit family with her Cuban-born husband, said she learned about the bar from photos she found at Havana flea markets. Curious, she asked around and finally managed to track it down several years ago. Peering through holes in the wall, she said, it was just a bunch of dust and a few sticks of furniture.

The bar was shut in 1965 as Fidel Castro's communist government nationalised nearly all private enterprise and it was subsequently abandoned to decay over the decades until the City Historian's Office, a government agency, began looking at restoring the building in 2007. Historians, architects and designers carefully pored over photographs from long ago and interviewed old-timers to recreate Joe's in its original location as faithfully as possible, down to the delicate plaster molding, dark wood panelling and colourful bottles of alcohol displayed behind glass.

Tangy sloppy joe sandwiches are synonymous with the saloon - and were purportedly first dreamed up there although others also claim to have invented them. They arrive with the tomato-and-green-olive-spiced ground beef piled high and spilling out of the bun. Best to skip breakfast before ordering one, and multiple napkins are recommended.

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