Just picture it. Glittering city lights illuminating a caravan of gleaming 50s cars rolling down the Malecon Avenue under the watchful eye of a crescent moon with the not-so-distant echo of drums beating somewhere near. Bellboys hurry to open doors for the elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen as they come out of their vehicles in a hushed excitement and step inside the newly-opened Havana Riviera. Or is it the Seville-Baltimore? The Nacional? Hotel Capri? Or, could it be the Tropicana nightclub…?
Fast-forward to half-a-century later and all of the above places remain in place, little changed by the relentless passage of time and as representative of the 50s era of exuberance and decadence as they ever were. It’s true that, some may show some visible signs of aging and neglect in some areas, but the vast majority of these shine as brightly as they once did. All are 50s icons that were owned or frequented by the American mafia in Havana´s golden era of luxury, cabaret feathers and Hollywood stars. Each of these places has a unique story to tell and we’re here to tell it, so if you want to fully immerse in the spirit of the Havana of the 50s, this is the post to read.
Brace yourself as we take you on an eye-opening journey of fast-paced living, music-fuelled partying, alcohol-induced merriment, mobster show-downs, feathery acts by talented Cuban showgirls and plenty of Hollywood glamour.
50s Havana – the playground of the rich and famous
Some time has passed since then. People might no longer wear the high etiquette attire that was once the norm in casinos, elitist member-only clubs, swinging bars and hotels. Nowadays in Havana it’s highly unlikely that you’ll spot any mobster-style fashion like freshly pressed tuxedos, gleaming two-tone oxford shoes shined to perfection or elegant swing dresses with full skirts ruffling against polished marble staircases. But apart from what the rich, young and wealthy of the times wore, you don´t need to work your imagination that hard to travel back in time, Havana hasn´t changed all that much since the roaring 50s. Mobsters might no longer roam its streets and own its most profitable properties, the city may not be as flamboyant, hotels may not be as decadently luxurious, yet many of the physical places where it all happened remain as they were, virtually untouched by time. The same way that 50s cars continue to noisily (but majestically) clank along the streets – the Havana of the 50s remain very much alive within a certain group of closed walls.
Wait a minute - how did the American mafia land in Havana?
It all started with the era of prohibition in the U.S., when between 1920 and 1933 a constitutional law forbade the production, importation and sale of alcoholic beverages anywhere in the North American country, with Cuba standing as an obvious choice for escapists seeking a taste of liqueur. It presented an opportunity that the American mafia was quick to profit from, with the smuggling of illegal rum from Cuba into the U.S. being a highly successful venture that gave way to new ideas for squeezing the potential of the little tropical island next door. In the midst of it all, some high-ranking members of the New York and Miami mafia were being hunted and the lucrative business of setting up a more permanent base in Havana to escape inspections and prosecutions from U.S. authorities presented itself.
That’s how the likes of Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante Jr, along with several other important members of the New York and Miami mafia, gathered in Havana to discuss business and open a long line of casinos, bars, nightclubs and hotels, offering the finest luxury and the most refined recreational options to create the ultimate revelry haven for fun-seeking American tourists, who arrived in throngs to the island, mainly in the form of actors, singers, writers, aristocrats and all kinds of celebrities from Hollywood and beyond. Havana became the ultimate unashamed paradise for the young, the beautiful and the wealthy.
In the eyes of outsiders, mainly American tourists, Havana was seen as a hedonistic destination for indulging in one’s most sinful pleasures. From gambling to drinking, partying hard until the early hours and, yes, visiting high-end brothels – nothing was too much to ask for, Cuba would facilitate it, no strings attached. Havana became the Las Vegas of Latin America, and much like Vegas’ famous saying “What happened in Havana, stayed in Havana”. Cuba was a sunny playground in which they could safely wreak havoc in the know that no one back home had to find out… unless they of course wanted to brag about their Havana adventures, which many, in fact, proudly did.
A phrase published in Cabaret Quarterly, perfectly coins how American tourists viewed the Cuban capital:
“Havana is a mistress of pleasure, the lush and opulent goddess of delights!"
Havana’s Famous Mob Hotels – an impressive sextet
The list of hotels that the American mafia of the 40s and 50s frequented in Cuba was a long one, yet four stood out for attracting big numbers of mafiosos, be it for the fact that many gangsters set up home in one of their rooms for long periods of time, because they had personal business interests in the hotel (like opening or owning an onsite casino or nightclub) or, because they actually built the hotel up from scratch with mafia money.
The Seville- Baltimore
This hotel is the oldest in this list and also the first to be frequented by the American mafia as they first arrived in Cuba looking for fresh business opportunities. Built in 1908 with a distinctive Andalusian-Moorish style, the Seville-Baltimore (now called Hotel Sevilla) quickly warmed up to the presence of mobsters, who were attracted to its elegant and airy interiors, with intricate mosaics and colourful tiles, grand columns and arches. But more precisely, they were drawn to its stunning rooftop restaurant; where whilst enjoying prime views over the city and tucking into fresh lobster washed down by vintage champagne, they plotted and planned to expand business in the island.
And with such loyal and well-paying customers the Sevilla was only happy to oblige and entertain such wealthy (and potentially dangerous) guests. Gangsters came in throngs to enjoy the Sevilla’s hospitality, with Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky being among the first to frequent it. It is known that during his often-extended stays in the late 1930s, Al Capone would occupy the entire sixth floor and party there, whilst also engaging in negotiations and planning mob moves (who said business and pleasure couldn’t be mixed?).
Yes, the Sevilla definitely witnessed many a gangster’s reunion and a testament to this are the hotel’s walls, now displaying a rare and ample collection of black-and-white photographs of famous past guests, including long list of notorious American mobsters. You can check it out today and transport yourself back in time instantly – not much has changed since then at the Sevilla, not décor-wise or otherwise – it remains a 50s gem through and through.
This luxurious and iconic hotel was famous for many things and for hosting many distinguished guests, both related and non-related to Cuba’s mafia era. After its opening in 1930 it attracted a varied mix of showbusiness stars, political personalities and gangsters, with the likes of Walt Disney, Ava Gardner, Winston Churchill and Frank Sinatra all being past famous guests (to name but a few). Reportedly, Errol Flynn was a frequent guest, who, according to hotel staff of the time was a notorious drunk.
But getting back to the Nacional’s mafia link, let me just say that out of the four mentioned here this one became worldwide famous for hosting a very important mafia reunion, attended by the highest-ranking, most notorious names in American mafia history. It is and will be remembered in history books for being the meeting that consecrated the mob’s involvement in the island, spawning a number of new business deals that ranged from nightclubs, to casinos, bars and hotels. But the issues discussed in the meeting went far beyond the mafia’s stronghold in Havana and touched on global mafia affairs. In fact, this is considered to have been the most important mob summit since 1929 and the decisions resulting from it had a direct impact on U.S. crime families in the decades to follow. Held in December 1946, hosted by Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky and attended by Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Santo Trafficante Jr and Albert Anastasia, the meeting saw the reunion of members from the United States Mafia and the Cosa Nostra leaders in the Cuban capital. It came to be known as the Havana Conference and was of such importance that it was dramatised and forever immortalised by Francis Ford Coppola in his film "The Godfather" Part II (regrettably it was actually filmed in the Dominican Republic and not in Cuba´s Hotel Nacional).
But its mob connection didn’t end here, a decade later and with the full backing of Cuba’s corrupt president, Fulgencio Batista (and despite strong opposition from American expatriates in Cuba such as Ernest Hemingway) Meyer Lansky took over an entire wing of the Hotel Nacional to create luxury suites for high-stake gamblers. Such a move had a ripple effect on a wing of the grand entrance hall, which as a result underwent a refurbishment process that would add a bar, a restaurant, a showroom and a spanking new luxury casino.
Such a casino would open alongside the famous Cabaret Parisien with a performance by Eartha Kitt, who coincidentally at the time also became the hotel´s first black guest, instantly making headlines as the exclusive Hotel Nacional had previously refused other black celebrities like Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Josephine Baker and Nat King Cole, with the latter being now paid its respects by the hotel with an onsite statue in remembrance of his performance at Parisien. The cabaret had Wilbur Clark as front man and was famous for its Dancing Waters, a feature that, regrettably no longer exists.
After the introduction of Hotel Law 2074, an initiative put forward by President Batista in 1955 to lure the American upper classes to the island and boost the already booming tourism industry, while increasing hotel room standards for the discerning crowd of successful businessmen, movie stars and American gangsters keen to take advantage of Cuba’s lax gambling laws, the resident mafia in the island wasted no time in taking up the government’s tax incentives offers to build hotels and nightclubs. Also seeking to profit from the casino licenses that were easily granted to anyone wishing to invest in building recreational spaces, Cuba’s mobsters soon took up the job of refurbishing Cuba’s hotel scene.
Just two blocks from the mafia-controlled Hotel Nacional, the formidable Capri was built on the corner where Calle 21 meets Calle N, a tall and elegant structure rising over 19 floors and with a famous panoramic pool that made instant history for being the first rooftop pool of its kind in the city (and once upon a time you could look at the swimmers inside the tank from the bar located on the last floor thanks to a glass panel). It opened to guests for the first time in November 1957 and soon captivated the heart of many a movie star. Fronted by Hollywood actor George Raft (famous for interpreting mafia roles himself) the hotel was owned by Santo Trafficante, Jr and day-to-day operations were in the hands of notorious mobster couple The Blade and Sonny the Butcher (Charles Tourine and Santino Masselli) as well as Nicholas di Constanzo.
Beating the Havana Riviera by just one month, the “Hotel Capri de Havana” as it was first named, hosted celebrities like Errol Flynn, famous for frequenting its next-door casino, then known as Casino de Capri and later re-baptised as the “Salon Rojo” cabaret that still stands today. The Capri enjoyed unique prestige in its heyday, even when it was shortly followed by the even taller, swankier Havana Riviera that opened just a month later. It didn’t lose an ounce of its appeal to wealthy guests, including resident frontman, Raft, who even on the day the Revolution triumphed, after being startled by gunfire as he entered his penthouse suite on the 19th flooor, still managed to calm down the rebel mob so that they did very little damage to property and walked away having only done “some lightweight looting” in Raft’s own words. His recounting of the incident was later published in T.J. English’s Havana Nocturne.
After years of decay and neglect the Capri shut down for good in 2003, only to be rescued a decade later by the Spanish NH Hoteles chain, who vowed to restore it to its original glory and renamed it Hotel NH Capri La Habana. Meticulous care was taken to keep as many original features as possible, including the art-deco granite floors and the copper-coloured chandeliers in the lobby. All rooms have been refurbished with modern furniture evocative of the 50s era and the hotel is now classed as a chic four-star property where much of its yesteryear essence can still be felt and admired. Faithful to history the Capri’s swooping original logo has been kept and modern furniture in 1950s, low-slung style graces the lobby to keep the era of mobsters alive (without none of the gambling and drug trafficking). Oh, and George Raft’s penthouse suite is now a fine dining restaurant with crisp table linen and lavender paisley chairs.
The pinnacle of mob-financed opulence and glamour, Hotel Habana Riviera (originally called Havana Riviera) was Meyer Lansky´s ultimate dream-come-true: a hotel specifically designed to lure guests to its onsite casino and thus contribute to the mafia´s lucrative gambling business. But not only was the dome-shaped onsite casino grand (think gold-leaf walls, Mayan-style jewellery ornaments, a and suspended ceiling from which several custom-designed crystal fixtures hung) the entire hotel´s acoustics were crafted so that they would carry the sound of poker chips everywhere, sending the subliminal message to guests to come and try their luck.
It took a year to be built and mobster Meyer Lansky, its original owner, oversaw every detail of its construction after being inspired by the Riviera Casino on the Las Vegas Boulevard. The newer and improved version in Havana was intended to rival the contemporary luxury and comforts of any hotel in Las Vegas of the time. And indeed, it did, at least for two years, after which time Castro´s Revolution took hold of the island and stripped Lansky off the hotel´s possession. Regardless, the hotel continued enjoying a reputation for being the swankiest, most luxurious and most avant-garde in the city, even when Americans were no longer welcome.
The Havana Riviera opened in December 1957, boasting a total of 352 modern and elegant rooms, all of which were designed to overlook the sea and the Vedado neighbourhood – Havana’s downtown and the city’s chicest part at the time. Each of the hotel’s features were carefully thought out to make it the city’s swankiest, most avant-garde hotel. The pool instantly became the largest in Havana and the only one inside a hotel to have a three-level diving platform. It was enveloped by 75 pool cabanas, each of which had two dressing rooms and telephones for added comfort and convenience. Other exclusivities included valuable pieces of arts in the forms of sculptures, murals and reliefs by famous artists of the time – most notably sculptor Florencio Gelabert, whose outdoor and indoor lobby sculptures can still be admired today and muralist Rolando Lopez Dirube, whose folkloric wooden mural dominates the wall facing the Copa Cabaret Room (which had a theatre-sized stage equipped to adapt to any production of the famous “Extravaganza” shows, attracting movie stars with stellar performances from top orchestras and singers). And all that goes without mentioning the swanky restaurants, scenic bars and cocktail lounges…if you want to find out more on what makes the Hotel Habana Riviera a living 50s gem like no other, read my previous blog on it.
One of the newest hotels in the list, not much is said or written about The Deauville, in fact it’s hard to come by an exact date of construction on the internet. Most sources seem to agree that it was built as a casino hotel by a consortium owned by Santo Trafficante Jr. somewhere between 1957 and 1958. It was done in Art Deco style and despite having suffered years of neglect and looking the least glamorous in the list nowadays, many original features prevail and it´s currently in the process of receiving a major overhaul to convert it into a luxury St Giles Signature hotel by early 2019.
For many years it served as the official base for the business operations of the American mafia, and its casino was one of the most famous in the city. It enjoys a privileged location, half-facing the Malecon and thus offering some spectacular sea views, and half-poised in Galiano, a street of Centro Habana that serves as the gateway to this more run-down but surprising part of Havana, home to the only Cuban Chinatown and celebrity haunts like La Guarida and San Cristobal, two “criollo” restaurants famously visited by stars of today like Beyonce, Natalie Portman the Kardashians, Madonna, and yes, Barack Obama!
Nowadays known as the Habana Libre, or Tryp Habana Libre, this is the newest of all hotels in the list and the last to have had ties or have been partly owned by the American mafia in Cuba. Having opened its doors to guests on 22nd March 1958 and run by the famous Hilton Hotels International group, this was the last cry in 50s-style luxury and glamour and as such welcomed a long list of celebrities of the time. If you want to find out who, most of them are forever immortalised on the hotel’s lobby walls in a series of black and white photographs known as the Hall of Fame.
Designed by famous Los Angeles architect, Welton Becket, the man responsible for having previously been behind the Beverly Hilton’s design, the 27-story Habana Hilton opened with a big bang, introducing no less than five joyous days of festivities (from 18th to 22nd March), which saw the legendary Conrad Hilton heading down to Havana himself in the company of actress Ann Miller along with a list of 300 invited guests that included socialites, journalists, actors (such as Terry Moore, Dolores Hart and Linda Cristal), dancers like Vera-Ellen, radio hosts and even ABC network President, Leonard Goldenson.
At the time of its debut, the Habana Hilton was the tallest and largest hotel in all of Latin America, with 630 swanky guest rooms, an elegant casino (the rights to manage it were fiercely fought and resulted in the death of mafioso Albert Anastasia from the Gambino family, with the murder attributed to Santo Trafficante Jr. although the crime was never solved by the police), six restaurants and bars (including a scenic rooftop bar and a Trader’s Vic), extensive convention facilities, a huge dinner club, a shopping arcade, a large outdoor pool with cabanas and two underground garages that could fit up to 500 cars. It also featured amazing art, commissioned to important artists of the time like Amelia Pelaez, whose largescale mural dominates the hotel’s façade, and Rene Portocarrero, who did the tiled walled mural found in the Antilles Bar, overlooking the pool terrace.
Immediately after the triumph of the Revolution, the hotel became the official headquarters of Fidel Castro’s new government for three months. The Cuban leader stayed in the hotel’s Continental Suite, room 2324 during his time residing here. His first ever press conference was given in the hotel’s ballroom (along with many other press conferences and interviews to follow) and it was also here that the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, held a press conference in 1964. There are many more, countless anecdotes surrounding the hotel, including the fact that the Castellana Suite is now a museum with original furniture and artwork from 1958 as it was the room Fidel Castro stayed at during his every visit to the hotel after Tereshkova’s press conference.
If not yet convinced of the greatness of these hotels, just consider this for a second, by the end of 1958, the Habana Hilton and Habana Riviera were bigger than any hotel-casinos in Las Vegas.
Of the trio of spectacular cabaret-style nightclubs of the 50s only the Tropicana remains, authentic in style and format. Whilst some like the Montmartre or the Sans Souci (Tropicana’s biggest rival) are long gone and their premises have either been completely abandoned or now lie in ruins, the most spectacular of all is very much alive and kicking.
The Tropicana, the newest of the three, has prevailed and survived against all odds. It remains the symbol of Cuban tropical exuberance and the home of the island’s original 50s showgirls, back then known as “Las Diosas de Carne” (Flesh Goddesses). Famous globally for their voluptuousness and their sensual moves, their sequin-and-feathered productions were copied in New York, Paris and Las Vegas.
Not only that, the style of Tropicana’s live entertainment featuring scantily-clad ladies provocatively dancing in a flurry of colours, served as the template for the Las Vegas shows that followed after the collapse of Batista’s corrupt government and the triumph of the Revolution, with Fidel Castro ousting all notorious mob-related figures who ran the most famous of Havana nightclubs. Yet, he stopped short of closing down the Tropicana in its entirety, and although its casino soon became history, the showgirls and the legendary orchestras remained. To this day, tourists enjoy its exuberance from Tuesday to Sunday. It all kicks off at 9 p.m., lasts to, giving you the chance to enjoy decades of 50s-inspired music and dance tradition with a modern twist.
Back in its heyday, the Tropicana was an international symbol of class, wealth, opulence, debauchery and extravagance.
Cabaret Guide described it thus in 1956:
“The largest and most beautiful night club in the world”
The list of stars who came to enjoy performances was long and varied. It included names like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Humphrey Bogart, Betty Grable, Marlon Brando, and yes, even 50s goddess, Marilyn Monroe. The rich and famous rubbed shoulders with gangsters and mobsters in a place that was the epitome of carefree fun and indulgence.
Dubbed a “Paradise Under the Stars” the Tropicana show didn’t leave anyone indifferent and became known for its conga beats, flashy productions, beautiful showgirls, and even domino tournaments. Headlining acts ranged from Tito Puente to Celia Cruz, Josephine Baker, Carmen Miranda and Nat King Cole. And, speaking of the latter, his wife Maria had nothing but praise about this open-air cabaret:
“It was breathtaking! My mouth just fell open...there was so much colour, so much movement...and the orchestra! The house band had forty musicians...I said to Nat, ’that's the house band? (Are there) that many showgirls?”
Impressive it was, in countless ways. Oh, and there also was a casino, of course, the mafia held sizeable stakes in it after all.
But the best part is that you can still enjoy it all today and little has changed from the productions of yesteryear to the magnificent shows put on today. The Tropicana continues giving nightly entertainment to guests from all corners of the world and continues to be a favourite tourist attraction in Havana.
There’s nothing in Cuba like the Tropicana, nothing comes close to evoking that era of flamboyance and showgirls and although there’s a smaller version of it in Varadero, nothing tops the original.
On the subject of nightclubs with 50s ambience and decor there’s also Le Parisien in Hotel Nacional and the Copa Room at the Riviera, both continue providing cabaret style performances on occasions (especially Le Parisien) and live entertainment with frequent salsa acts.
The famous “Salon Rojo” next door to the Capri also continues providing live entertainment on most nights, nothing quite like the 50s extravaganza, but still worth it for the 50s ambience and quality performances (reggaeton acts also frequently to the stage here so if you’re not into that sort of music it’s worth checking the line-up of performers before committing to the 10 CUC cover price).
The Restaurants & Bars
Of the many popular 50s restaurants and bars in Cuba that once existed less than a handful remain or have been recently rescued, yet they are the most famous and legendary - the true survivors worth visiting today!
Most in this list have no mafia connections whatsoever but are true 50s gems nevertheless.
La Bodeguita del Medio
An emblem of the 40s and 50s like no other, this legendary pint-sized bar in Havana may indeed feel cramped but that’s only because as the most famous in the city, crowds never leave it alone – there’s a constant flow of customers sipping a drink at its bar at any time of day or night.
It first opened in 1942 and due to a combination of factors that included its centric location at the heart of the old part of the city and the confluence of bohemian characters that frequented it, the small bar soon became the place to be in the old town. There was also the fact that Cuba’s most international drink, the “Mojito” was born here also helped the reputation of this atmospheric restaurant-bar, though this claim has been disputed by some historians. The author of the drink may remain a mystery but regardless of who created it and when, most agree on the where. It’s widely accepted that Cuba’s most famous cocktail was either done or perfected here. La Bodeguita del Medio is the crowned birthplace of the Mojito…or the cradle, as a plaque in its interior indicates.
It was initially known as Casa Martinez, named after its first owner, Angel Martinez who bought the premises that had previously belonged to “Bodega La Complaciente” on Empedrado Streeet, but later on, due to people referring to it as “la bodeguita del medio” (“the grocery store in the middle”, in a nod to the fact it had previously been a “bodega” which translates as grocery store) the name stuck and it was officially renamed thus on 26th April 1950.
In its heyday numerous celebrities frequented it, especially in the form of writers, poets and journalists – from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Pablo Neruda, singers like Nat King Cole, Joan Manuel Serrat and Agustin Lara. But perhaps its most famous alleged customer of all was American author, Ernest Hemingway, whose inscription on the bar wall reads “My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridita”.
The writing bears his signature, but some experts dispute the authenticity of this handwritten quote, and according to some records of bar owner Angel Martinez, Hemingway was not the regular visitor he is now claimed to have been. Notwithstanding Hemingway’s presence here or lack of it, after the Revolution this place and its décor remained forever stuck in the 50s so you can still literally drink in the ambience today.
This amazing gem only reopened in 2013 after being closed for 48 years. Preserving its original 50s décor after extensive renovation, it was the Prohibition Law in the United States that prompted its original owner to switch the emphasis from food to liquour at a time when Cuba was flooded by American tourists looking to enjoy the city’s vibrant nightlife where gambling and alcohol run wild and free.
All throughout the 40s and 50s this place was a tourist and celebrity magnet, having been described by the Los Angeles Times as:
“One of the most famous bars in the world with almost the status of a shrine”
Indeed, it quickly became a place of cult, with star customers that included Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and the legendary John Wayne.
After falling into neglect and oblivion after the triumph of the Revolution if finally closed doors in 1965. But in 2007 local authorities started a major renovation project that saw a complete overhaul of the premises and the historic building the bar sat on, with a careful refurbishment that aimed to bring back its original layout and décor with the help of period photographs and materials donated by people associated with the bar both in Cuba and abroad. Today it stands as a proud timepiece that welcomes back tourists from all corners of the world with its original 50s ambience and vibe.
Well, this one was built long before the other two, nowhere even close to the decade we’re focusing our attention on, but its fame peaked in the 40s and 50s, in no small part due to famous frequent visitors like Ernest Hemingway, who significantly helped in turning this restaurant-bar into the landmark it is today.
The bar itself dates back to 1817, when it opened under the name of “La Pina de Plata” (The Silver Pineapple) but after much insistance from American tourists, the bar’s owner was finally persuaded to change its name to “El Floridita”. In true Cuban fashion, they soon gave the name a diminutive form and so it became known as “El Floridita” soon after.
It enjoys unique fame for being the true, proven birthplace of the “daiquiri” cocktail created by bartender and subsequent bar owner, Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, nicknamed “Constante” and who created a reputable school of highly-skilled bartenders specialising in cocktails with rum as a base and fresh fruit juices. The traditions of his disciples are preserved until this day with a tribute having been paid to Constante in his grave during the annual celebration of “El Rey del Daiquiri” compe to honour the man responsible.
El Floridita preserves its original 50s décor, layout and even waiters’ uniform with the red coats matching the Regency style decoration that dominates throughout. Beyond cocktails it serves gourmet meals with an emphasis on seafood. Eating here is not cheap though, so many stick to the drinks and sit at the bar next to the life-size statue of Papa Hemingway erected in his honour in 2003 and sculpted by Cuban artist, Jose Villa Soberon.
Hemingway was a die-hard fan of El Floridita, and not an alleged one but a well-documented one who came either alone or in the company of his wife and famous friends like Ava Gardner and Spencer Tracy. There are photos of him and his friends at the bar (including Fidel Castro), forever immortalised and displayed on frames hanging on the walls. El Floridita was his favourite haunt and he continued coming here even after moving to the outskirts of the city, driving for 45 minutes to enjoy his custom-made version of the daiquiri (double rum, no sugar).
But Hemingway wasn’t the bar’s only fan, famous past visitors also included Tennessee Williams, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, the Duke of Windsor and British novelist, Graham Greene, author of the book “Our Man in Havana”.
This beautiful restaurant once owned by the American mafia is the embodiment of 50s elegance and glamour. It may not be the coveted dining venue it was in its heyday and very few tourists know about it or even venture here. It doesn’t appear in any Cuba guides and is seldom recommended by tour guides or even Cubans, yet looks-wise it hasn’t changed a bit which makes it perhaps the most atmospheric 50s restaurant in all of Havana.
The décor makes you feel as though you’ve just walked into a 50s gangster movie, with marble columns, ornate wall lamps and impeccably dressed tables with deep red linen and original period chairs. This is where Bola de Nieve – a talented Cuban singer and pianist who performed for the elite in sophisticated venues with an ample repertoire of songs in a variety of languages - used to play the piano on many occasions. It’s not a coincidence a massive portrait of his adorns one of the restaurant’s walls. The piano continues to be played every night by a resident pianist, adding to the restaurant’s ambience.
Sadly, the food is another matter and some diners complain of the poor quality while others praise a few items on the menu depending on what you choose. The reality is this restaurant could do with some new management on the somewhat neglected food department, but the few TripAdvisor reviewers who have commented on it (there’s only 18 reviews) have all positively remarked on the authenticity and beauty of this relatively unknown 50s gem and considering it was partly owned by the all-powerful Meyer Lansky, you know you’re in for a real visual treat. Its location is very centric took, right across the street from Hotel Nacional.
Havana - an immersive 50s paradise like no other
One of the things that makes Havana so entrancing and unique in the world is its many contrasts in terms of architectural style (from Baroque to Gothic, Neoclassic and Art Deco) and the many places where it feels as though time forever stopped, especially after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959. This in turn means that some of the 50s most swinging venues froze in time to the point they remain much in the same way they once were. Everything minus the casinos and some nightclubs is still in place, which means you can soak up Havana’s 50s splendour in all its glory over half-a-century later. The places listed here are the most iconic, internationally famous and grand, but no doubt there may quite a few more 50s gems hidden away in this city of endless treasures.