For long, a myth has been perpetuated (and often sold as fact) that one of Varadero’s most imposing and unique houses once belonged to the notorious American gangster Al Capone. However, historical data of the time fails to confirm this, and as such many historians and locals question or downright negate this purported fact. But whether Al Capone ever set foot here or not, one thing is for sure, this grand mansion now turned into an emotionally atmospheric restaurant showcases one of the most impressive collections of Al Capone and mafia-related memorabilia in the island and a visit here is most definitely worth it. Especially for those who want a full immersion into the mob-controlled Cuba of the 30s, 40s, and 50s.
With a privileged location just a few metres from the glistening Varadero waters, this picturesque chalet entirely built of natural coral stone (a rare and resilient material, as tough as granite yet as light as pumice) and with striking wooden features painted in a bright blue hue, the beauty of this grand residence is impossible to ignore. Never mind, whether Al Capone ever actually set foot it in, it´s worth admiring for a myriad of other reasons.
The not-so-humble abode - its origins
Comparable in grandeur only to Varadero´s other famous house, Xanadu, which belonged to the French-American magnate, Irenee Dupont, and which was one of the first construction to ever be built in this previously-deserted beach enclave, this mansion stands out for its design, its material and its style, with low galleries, wide stone arches, intricate beam work on the ceilings, French windows and balconies with precious wood balustrades.
It was one of the first homes to be built in the emerging Kawama district and the most well-preserved of all the ones still in existence today, many of which are privately owned (some are rented out to tourists, most notably Casa Menocal, which is also made of coral stone and as such is the most similar to the one named after the infamous American mafioso) while others dotting the shoreline do show varying degrees of neglect or the effects of weather battering.
This rough-hewn gem is full of delicate touches, from the decorative tile work on the fireplace to the vintage lamps hanging from the ceiling and the brightly-coloured tiles on the floor. In many ways, it feels like a medieval castle, in others it feels refreshingly quirky and modern. The contrast of coral stone and vivid blues make it look like a cottage in the middle of the forest rather than a breezy beach house, but breezy it is, with plenty of open spaces, terraces, and balconies.
Its first owner was also its first resident, Colonel Eugenio Silva Giquel, who also bought the plots of the Kawama neighbourhood he himself founded. A lucky and profitable move, as the terrains were bought in 1931 for just five cents per square metre and by 1942 they were being sold for over ten pesos. Soon after some of the island´s wealthiest businessmen and politicians bought properties here, from former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista to millionaire pharmacist Sarra, or sugar baron Julio Lobo.
The myth - a legend that lives on
How the rumour started that Al Capone took up residence in this beautiful chalet during brief periods of time (allegedly as a holiday home during his visits to Cuba), no one knows for sure. No one is able to pinpoint when the rumour started or identify those responsible for perpetrating it, but the fact remains that its echo has resonated for quite some time, long enough for many people to hold this to be a true fact and not the result of someone´s imagination going a bit wild.
Quite likely, it was all a clever marketing ploy by the restaurant´s managers in an attempt to make it all the more appealing and unique. By naming it “La Casa de Al” (Al´s House) and filling its walls with photographs and all manner of anecdotal paraphernalia documenting the mobster´s life, the restaurant aimed to create a singular dining space with historical features. A cosy ambience infused with rich history notes. And the smart trick has worked so far as tourists line up to enjoy a fine meal surrounded by Al Capone´s memorabilia.
It´s not unusual to see a foreign holidaymaker get off the car to ask for directions to “Al Capone´s house”, probably in the naive belief that he will get to inspect where the infamous American mobster resided, only to be faced with a plaque at the entrance that confirms he actually didn’t...Well, that is, if they notice the sign at all, as many don´t and happily leave thinking they´ve experienced the real deal, the home of America’s most famous mob boss.
Don´t get me wrong. Al Capone visited Cuba. On more than one occasion, and as a matter of fact he actually lived there for months at a time, but Varadero wasn´t in his itinerary. Not that we know of for sure. At least, there´s no written or oral record of him ever being here.
How did it become so “true” for so long?
Beyond the fact that the most famous of the Prohibition-era gangsters living the high life in Varadero makes for a good story and an amazing opportunity to capitalise on a legend, especially given Cuba´s very real and notorious mafia-infused past, there was the interest of local tourism authorities and restaurant managers to generate curiosity and attract clientele.
It was not just local hear´say and a name paying tribute to one of American history´s greatest crime lords, there was a rich backdrop story that fed into this long-held belief and a series of guidebooks, travel brochures and online articles to perpetuate it. From reviews of past visitors duped into this cute little story to tour guides keen to tell an interesting tale (whether they themselves believed it or not), there are many ways in which this fabrication has been fuelled and cemented as a fact.
Only a year ago, the online portal of a government-backed newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, published an article dismantling the truth behind the myth and condemning those who helped maintain what they deemed to be an incongruous myth that helped encourage a cult for negative and criminal personalities.
According to the article, from 1978 until 1984 the house´s rooms (property of the government by then) were used as offices of the new School of Sports Initiation “Luis Augusto Turcios Lima”. Later, it was ceded to the Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR) until it passed hands again, this time to the government-owned tourism group, Palmares S.A, which owns the restaurant until this very day. Someone in the group´s management must have thought up of the genius idea of converting the property into a restaurant and naming it after Al Capone..but no one knows who.
The facts - Al Capone probably never set foot in Varadero
No one can say for sure whether he did or not. But virtually all historians agree that Al Capone visiting Varadero, let alone buying or renting a house here, was a highly unlikely event that almost certainly never happened. There´s no anecdotal evidence to retrace Al Capone´s steps in Varadero and no record of him ever making it to the emerging Cuban beach resort, which by the time this house was built was nowhere near as popular or populated as it is today. In fact, there are many discrepancies between Al Capone´s recorded visits in Cuba and the house´s construction, which happened almost a decade later.
The one fact that most convincingly debunks the myth of Al Capone living here is a clear discrepancy of historical events. The official documents held by the provincial Office of Heritage refer to the construction of the house as taking place somewhere towards the end of the 1930s (reportedly, it wasn´t ready until 1942) and as it happens by 1931 Al Capone was being prosecuted for tax evasion and subsequently jailed in May 1932 for a total of 8 years. He died six years later when his health rapidly deteriorated after a stroke. Therefore, Al Capone being imprisoned both before and during the Varadero house´s construction makes his ever living here ultimately impossible.
Plus, to further dispel the myth in a more official and direct way, there’s now a sign at the restaurant’s entrance stating that Al Capone never lived here. Perhaps, due to the outrage of some historians in recent years, the managers have finally felt a pang of guilt at so many tourists claiming to have dined at Al Capone’s Varadero house in Cuba and now want to set the record straight.
Such a cold hard fact kills the magic of the mystery and I´m sorry about that. But I wouldn´t want you to hang your hopes on dining in Al Capone´s Cuban home to later discover it was all a farce. The food is truly delicious though...which takes me to my next point: why you shouldn´t skip a visit here, despite the place’s untrue claim to fame.
Why you should still make it here
Before you mourn the loss of the magic that dining at the real Cuban Al Capone’s house would have been, let me tell you why should still stop here during a holiday in Varadero. Not only does this place feel blissfully off the beaten path while being easily accessible (the double-decked Varadero Bus Tour stops here) but it still has plenty to seduce worn travellers seeking a respite from the all-inclusive hotel crowds lining most of Varadero.
Truth or debunked myth about Al Capone’s presence (or lack thereof) in this imposing beach house, the mafia atmosphere here is very real. Never mind that Al Capone was never at his namesake Varadero restaurant, his spirit can still be felt everywhere around and his presence permeates the ambience. Numerous photographs of the famous mafioso line the walls, including a rather large one that is the main focal point of one of the restaurant’s rooms, there are framed historical documents about the life of Al Capone and his presence in Cuba (he visited the island on numerous occasions, but his destination was always Havana, never Varadero…that we know of) and all kinds of mafia-related memorabilia. Enough to make you immerse in a mobster-infused trance that takes the edge off so much sand and sea. A welcome break that feels sophisticated and vintage at the same time. But fear not, you might not be right on the beach, yet from this restaurant, you’ll still enjoy the most amazing sea views. There’s also a replica of Al Capone’s car outside (albeit not a very good one), further signalling
Now, about the food. The menu consists of surf and turf specialties mainly, with a strong focus on the fresh catch of the day and an extensive wine and cocktail list. TripAdvisor reviews speak well of the quality and freshness of the food served, while most walk away believing they actually dined in Al Capone’s summer house. Some only claim to have popped in to check out Al Capone’s house and describe feeling disappointed that it’s very quick to go through. This shows that the myth is well and truly alive and the vast majority of tourists either don’t read the sign at the entrance or are duped by unknowledgeable or opportunistic guides. One recent reviewer even states that upon arrival staff will give you a tour and show you what room Al Capone slept in when he lived here! That’s either an incredibly grabby tactic of waiters hoping to earn an extra tip or someone misinforming them in the first place. Either way, we’ve set the record straight here - don’t fall into the trap!
In terms of where the restaurant is, you´ll find it on Avenida 1ra (First Avenue) of the Kawama district, and, has I said earlier it’s one of the stops of the Varadero Bus Tour.
Where to follow in Al Capone´s real footsteps in Cuba
If you really want to get a feel for a place not only visited by Al Capone in Cuba but also inhabited by him for long periods of time, you should head to the Hotel Mercure Sevilla in Havana, his not-so-humble abode for months at a time. Actually, he was the first of the American mobsters to arrive in Havana, later on followed by the likes of Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, who set up permanent business here and, in the case of Lansky, took up permanent residence in the island, taking over nightclubs and casinos as well as opening glitzy hotels like the Havana Riviera.
But Al Capone made it to Havana first in 1928, kicking off decades of mafia dealings in the city that begun with rum smuggling to the U.S. and culminated in the gangsters taking ownership of several profitable businesses, from casinos to cabarets with scantily-clad showgirls, hotels and bars. They turned Havana into the Caribbean version of Las Vegas - a party city that had no limits for foreign, wealthy tourists. And they came down in hordes, from Hollywood celebrities to magnates, everyone liked the thrill of Havana’s no-expenses-spared luxury and party vibe, perpetuated by the American mobsters with the backing of Batista’s corrupt government.
As the rows of neatly arranged photos on Hotel Sevilla’s wall of fame demonstrate, Al Capone lingered here for a while, taking up the entire sixth floor where he would hold meetings, coordinate mob activities and hold raging parties. If you want a taste of the swinging Havana of the 50s with a heavy dose of mafia influence, this is the place to go. And if you’re still thirsty for more check out these top places to experience the glamorous Havana of the 50s under mafia rule.