A historic bar with a beauty that never ages and an old gem that continues ranking high among the world´s top bars, El Floridita turns two-centuries old this year and it´s certainly marking the event with a big bang. But more on that later. For now, let´s take a look at what made and continues to make this centric Havana bar and seafood restaurant so very special, so much so that in 1953 Esquire named it as one of the world´s top 7 bars. I kid you not. Few other bars in the world can claim a story as long, varied and rich as this one. Believe me.
Cradle of the Daiquiri and symbol of a golden era
Now the favourite tropical libation of many around the world, the daiquiri was born here, precisely on these premises and it was Catalan emigre Constantino Ribalaigua (affectionately nicknamed “El Grande Constante”) who invented it. He was a hard-worker and extraordinary man who started as a bartended and worked his way up to eventually own the bar and went on to successfully manage it for many years, passing on the secrets of his concoctions to his disciples, who religiously maintain the rituals to creating his world-famous cocktail today.
And Constantino, it must be said, didn’t just stumble upon the daiquiri’s recipe by accident. It was a work of perseverance and art that resulted in the birth of his beloved drink. In the 1930s he played around with three different recipes before striking gold with the fourth. For its preparation he had imported a Flak Mark crushing ice machine from the U.S. that crushed ice. He also built a metal box with a pierced bottom (many tiny little holes) that kept the crushed ice in optical, cool condition. Indeed, quite the innovator.
But perhaps his invention wouldn’t have achieved such massive worldwide fame had it not been tried and enjoyed by Ernest Hemingway on one of his many frequent travels to Cuba. It was him that propelled it to international celebrity status and put the Floridita firmly on the world map of bars.
Thus, it became the King of Daiquiri, the proud winner of the title of “Best of the Best Five Star Diamond Award” granted by the American Academy of Restaurants and Hospitality Services in 1992.
To the day it remains as glamorous as ever in the changing Cuba of today. Retaining its Regency-style decor of the 50s and maintaining its ultra-high standards of service and cocktail-mixing, every day is as good as any to pop into this legendary bar-restaurant with a perfect location right at the heart of Old Havana, tucked in a corner between the city´s most popular shopping street, Obispo and the splendid Museo the Bellas Artes, with the gleaming first ever five-star boutique hotel in the city, the newly opened Kempinski Gran Hotel Manzana, just a few steps away, a bit further in front.
Sophisticated and never crowded or loud, this place feels upscale and distinguished, peaceful and soothing, a welcome break from Old Havana´s hustle and bustle and a place that inspired many a literary genius as well as members of the Hollywood elite – from Papa Hemingway, to British novelist Graham Greene (author of Our Man in Havana), Ava Gardner, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, the Duke of Windsor, Gary Cooper, Tennessee Williams…the list goes on and on.
The mood is decidedly elegant and mature. The drinks are always flowing and if you stop by before lunchtime you´ll find it at its most intimate and crowd-free (which is not to mean boring, as frequent jazz bands and piano players play live. The only downside? The steep prices of the restaurant´s seafood selection. But again, most don´t come here for the food, they come down for the drinks, the daiquiri, in case you were still wondering!
Humble beginnings and the Hemingway intervention
It was already popular in Cuba with an untarnished reputation for serving up good drinks in a good atmospheric setting and even better location, but it was Hemingway that ultimately catapulted El Floridita to worldwide fame.
El Floridita was born in 1817, only it wasn´t known by that name then, instead it was called “La Pina de Plata” (The Silver Pineapple). During its first hundred years it was a popular meeting place for “habaneros”, where some of the island´s most distinguished members of the aristocracy and the arts gathered. From musicians to artists and even soldiers, this bar´s reputation for good drinks and a good ambience kept the clientele coming. Only, it wasn´t as elegant as it is now.
A hundred years after its foundation, Americans escaping the Prohibition law flooded Cuba in search of good drinks and good weather. Their arrival resulted in a considerable extension of the cocktail menu, bar lists were updated and modernised with new alcoholic concoctions brought by the northern neighbours. Allegedly, it was a group of American tourists who suggested the bar change its name to El Florida, and so it did. Only people never called it that, and instead used its diminutive form “Floridita” and it stuck. Fast-forward to a century later and its name has become a signature brand, with so much prestige others have tried to profit from it. There´s a replica of El Floridita bar in London, another one in Miami and another in Hollywood, and no doubt many more pop up around the world, trying to cash in on the famous Cuban bar´s success. But there´s only one Floridita really, and only one.
The Hemingway intervention
It´s said that after Hemingway first stumbled upon El Floridita (we don´t know if by accident or by choice) and tried the daiquiri he was instantly spellbound, both by the drink and the setting. Ever since, he would come back time and time again to become the bar´s most regular customer. He grew so fond of the bar in fact, and the people that frequented it, that he would make the short walk to and from his room at the nearby Ambos Mundos hotel (where he resided on and off between 1932 and 1939 and partly wrote “Death in the Afternoon”, “New Green Hills of Africa" and “To Have and to Have not”) every day, and not for a nightcap precisely.
Hemingway was an early drinker and word has it that he made his way to the bar at around 10 a.m. but not just for his morning tipple. He himself declared that his love affair with El Floridita was more about its ambience than for the daiquiris, which by the way he had custom-made: double rum, no sugar (since Hemingway was a diabetic). In Hemingway’s own words, he came to El Floridita “to meet the tempestuous current of his countrymen who passed through the city”. It was the heyday of Havana’s glorious and wild days, a time where American mobs and mafia kings ruled the city, owning half of its hotels, bars and clubs to cater to an affluent clientele of American tourists in search of alcohol, casinos and showgirls. Yet El Floridita had no mafia boss, its owner was a charming self-made Catalan who lived for his business. But he didn’t need mafia influence to attract customers, when word got out that his was Hemingway’s favourite drinking spots, all stars followed. From Clark Gable to Spencer Tracy, it wasn’t about who came here, more likely, during this time, who didn’t?
There are various myths and legends surrounding Hemingway´s presence in El Floridita. One story goes that he once drank 16 double daiquiris here while another maintains that he never actually sat down to drink, he stood and leaned in. Now there must be some truth to this story as the life-size bronze statue of Papa Hemingway placed here in 2003 shows him standing up, casually leaning against the bar, ready to strike up a conversation with the next customer to sit on the stool next to his. There are also numerous photos of Papa gracing the bar’s walls, mostly of his time in Cuba and including one with Fidel Castro.
Oh, and it case you require a bit more name-dropping; other famous celebrities who popped in here during Hemingway’s time also included Ezra Pound, Rocky Marciano, Jean-Paul Sartre and John Dos Passos. In more recent times the A-star guest list has included the likes of Jane Fonda and Ted Turner, Naomi Campbell, Matt Dillon, Pacco Rabanne, Giorgio Armani and Pierce Brosnan.
Activities lined up in 2017 to celebrate its 200th birthday
With a story as long as theirs and as richly coloured as you’ve just read, El Floridita indeed has much to celebrate.
Back in January, the bar’s current manager, Ariel Blanco Rodrigo, told press that to mark the occasion of its 200th anniversary a series of activities showcasing El Florididta’s historical and social riches would be taking place all throughout 2017, but more particularly in October.
It’ll be this October when about 200 members and representatives of the International Bartenders Association get together for a sound party with El Floridita’s staff members. Also in October, a competition will take place right on El Floridita’s premises to declare the "Rey de Reyes" (King of Kings) and be bestowed the prestigious title of “El Rey del Daiquiri” (The King of Daiquiri).
On 7th October, a special date on the Cuban barman’s calendar, as it marks “El Dia del Cantinero Cubano” (Cuban Bartender’s Day) a series of surprises, as of yet unveiled, will kick off at the bar to the delight of staff members and clients alike.
As the year unfolds and we get closer to October perhaps more activities will be announced. We’ll update this space if they add anything new to the birthday festivities, so check back in a couples of months’ time to find out whether you could be witnessing any of these special events at El Floridita on your next Cuba trip.