December 4, 2000

Best bar in Havana found hidden inside the Bacardi building

By Jay Amberg Bloomberg Lifestyles. Mon, 04 Dec 2000, 12:35pm EST

Havana, Dec. 1 -- Sometimes it pains me to be a journalist because occasionally I have to write about things that selfishly I'd like to keep a secret.

It's no use though, because we are bound by duty to report what we hear, see or stumble upon.

This brings me to my story about the best bar in Havana. I've been to and heard all the tales about Cuba's three most popular and mythic watering holes, El Floridita, La Bodeguita del Medio and Sloppy Joe's, the latter no longer in operation.

All popularized by writer Ernest Hemingway, these were the bars you visit for classic Cuban cocktails like the Daiquiri, Mojito, Cuba Libre and Havana Special.

Then there are the less popular but no less well-known hangouts like Bar Dos Hermanos in Havana Vieja and the Monserrate Bar on the edge of Havana Vieja and Central Havana.

The only problem with these is that as tourism in Havana increases, they become more crowded and the quality of the service and drinks seems to decline.

Bacardi Bat

Looking to get some photographs of the Havana skyline, I ventured one morning to the pool deck atop the Parque Central Hotel.

From this vantage point is a commanding view of the historic Capitolio Nacional (the old capitol building) and the Paseo de Marti, one of the city's main tree-lined thoroughfares that runs from the Capitolio to the Malecon, Havana's seaside promenade.

Up on the roof I bribed a hotel employee with a roll of film to take me through a locked door so I could get a better view of the city's northeastern skyline.

Walking out to a narrow patio and a brick ledge I looked up and saw a familiar building, Havana's famous Bacardi building with the trademark "Bacardi Bat'' at the top of its Art Deco tower.

I'd never visited this historic building and was determined not to let this opportunity slip away.

Based on the bitter "Rum War'' now being waged between Bacardi and the Cuban government over the use of the trademark "Havana Club,'' you might think the very mention of the name Bacardi in Havana would illicit frowns, but that wasn't the case.

When I told a Cuban friend I wanted to visit the Bacardi building, he asked if it was to visit the bar.

"What bar?'' I said.

"The bar inside,'' he said. "The one that was the private bar of the Bacardi family.'' My friend said he didn't know anybody who goes there. "In fact, most people don't even know it exists.''

Located just inside the terminus of Havana Vieja (old Havana) at Monserrate 261 Edificio Bacardi, the building is to Havana and the Havana skyline what the Chrysler building and the Empire State building are to New York.

A marvel of Art Deco architecture, the building, I'm told, has been undergoing a very slow and laborious restoration.

Frozen In Time

Entering the building through the main doors, you take a quick right and then a sharp left up a small flight of stairs.

There's a reception desk where a person can direct you (providing someone is working). If not, you'll know you're in the right place when you see a small collection of photographs showing celebrities and members of what I presume are the Bacardi family on the wall.

As you climb the stairs and enter the bar, time suddenly comes to a crashing and silent halt.

Miguel the young bartender and Rebeca, his mother, preside over this old shrine to the Bacardi rum empire.

Rebeca, who lives in nearby Havana Vedado, said the bar was in its heyday when Bacardi could still call the cities Havana and Santiago de Cuba its home.

The bar itself is small, more like what you'd call a service bar inside a small American hotel. Done in black wood with large gold diamond reliefs, the area is brightened by old mirrors and squared Art Deco ceiling lights. The walls are made from large wooden panels that give the place a sense of privacy and seclusion.

On all the walls, set into floor-to-ceiling black columns, are frosted glass light sconces etched with the famous Bacardi Bat.

Large and artistically forged iron grates frame the windows and allow Havana's afternoon sea breeze to pass gently through the lounge. The steel also protects the numerous windows that look out on the adjacent street.

To keep out the elements, wood and glass shutters can be closed from the inside.

The floors are made of large brown, white and black stone tiles laid out in an Art Deco pattern. The tables in the lounge are jet black and the chairs are upholstered in red leather with gold colored tacks. The arms and legs are black, matching the tables.

Each table sports a small glass vase with fresh pink rose inside.

Having the feel of a private club that's right out of the 1920s, it's dark and subdued even on the sunniest of days and on the three occasions I visited the bar, I had the whole place to myself.

Snacking Menu

You won't be served any Bacardi rum here, but Miguel makes sure your glass of Havana Club is never empty. For cigar smokers, this is probably one of the great bars in the world today because it's so undiscovered.

Besides beer, rum and specialty cocktails, the bar also serves a limited selection of food, mostly sandwiches or plates of Cuban cheese and pepperoni.

Miguel, who doubles as cook when his mother isn't working, recommends the "Pollo Bacardi'' for $3. It's grilled chicken served on Cuban bread with whatever condiments are available, usually mustard, ketchup or a Tabasco-like sauce.

He also recommends "Sandwich Marino'' at $2, which is canned tuna served on a roll; the "Sandwich Boxeador,'' $2, of Italian mortadella, ham and cheese with a topping of ketchup or mustard and the "Emparedado Jamon y Queso,'' a simple ham and cheese sandwich at $3.

As in any Cuban bar, cafe Cubano is always available and the cup served here (using Cubita coffee) was well prepared.

"We try to serve simple food here so if you come in for a beer or a cocktail you can get something to eat, too,'' Miguel said.

No Cigars

The bar doesn't keep a supply of cigars but within two blocks you'll find legitimate Cuban cigars for sale inside the Casa del Ron (adjacent to El Floridita) and at the cigar shop in the Parque Central Hotel. Even the Partagas Casa del Habano is only a five- or 10-minute walk from the Bacardi Building.

What I especially like about this bar is there's no rush. You can bring a book, notepad and cigar here and linger over a drink for hours.

If your Spanish is good enough, Miguel and his mother will answer any questions you have about Havana and they enjoy practicing their English, too.

The bar is usually open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, though this schedule seems rather fluid, even by Cuban standards.

Besides a great place for a libation and a cigar, the Bacardi bar and lounge is like taking a step back into world that reflects Havana's past as well as its future.

If the Bacardi bar is too bourgeois or colonial for you, then I recommend you go down the street and visit Cuba's Museo de la Revolucion. Admission is $3, but it's worth the contrast.

©2000 Bloomberg L.P.


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