There's more to the Bodeguita than it seems
Ask a civilian (i.e. someone who’s not as much into cocktails as we are) if he knows any drinking spot in Cuba and he’d probably mention La Bodeguita del Medio. It’s so popular and its mojitos so famous that many other Bodeguitas have opened around the world. Whether in the Czech Republic, Venezuela or Spain, they either reproduce the original Bodeguita or use its name as a byword for “come and have some good time, Havana-style”.
But what exactly draws people to the Bodeguita del Medio? It’s of course the myth that has been built around Hemingway and the drink he is supposed to have had there. It’s also the photos, known by everyone, of the decrepit walls covered by signatures and short dedications, or the dozens of mojito glasses filling the bar, waiting for the last touch before they are finally allowed to clench your thirst. This, however, would mean that people go to Bodeguita because, well, it’s something one just has to do in Havana. There’s more to it.
Bodeguita is a word used for small shops, where one could buy goods, foodstuff and drinks. Your typical corner shop, in a sense. And that’s precisely what this place was for years. First called La Complaciente, it was bought by Ángel Martínez in 1942. He changed the name to Casa Martínez. The legend says that the owner served meals to family and acquaintances. It acquired a reputation, and publisher Félix Ayón would send friends to “the little bodega in the middle of the street” – “la bodeguita del medio”. Martínez turned his shop into a fully-fledged restaurant in 1949 and changed the name one year later.
For the following years, the Bodeguita was not on any tourist map of the city – they were too busy losing money in casinos or dancing in nightclubs – but it was busy with some of the most renowned Cuban artists. Cuba’s national poet Nicolás Guillén attended the tertulias (talks) held by Martínez and wrote a few verses about them while novelist Cabrera Infante sang the praises of his mojitos.
So how did the Bodeguita made the jump from a place for locals to a bar known everywhere? Apparently, Sepy Dobronyi, a Cuba-based Hungarian sculptor known for having dated Anita Ekberg and Ava Gardner, had much to do with it. In 1956, he gained international fame after sculpting a nude statue of Ekberg for Playboy Magazine. He instantly became an attraction. Wealthy American tourists and celebrities flocked to his studio and then went for a meal at a place just round the corner: The Bodeguita. Sensing an opportunity, some say Martínez hired journalist Fernando Campoamor, a friend of Hemingway’s, to do his PR. Unsurprisingly, the first lengthy article about Bodeguita appeared in the US press the following year. The author was taken in by its rustic charm, its abundant food and its “mohitos” (wrong spelling included). The rest, as they say, is history.
Although much has changed and it’s sometimes hard to find charm in scores of tourists getting off a bus for a quick drink and a couple of snaps, Bodeguita del Medio remains an important place to visit. Its modest and bohemian roots haven’t quite gone, and it reminds us of another Cuba: a Cuba far from the shining lights of more glamorous establishments from the 50’s, peopled by real Cubans. So try and visit the Bodeguita at a quiet hour (it still exists), have one of the famous Mojitos and listen to the band (it’s usually quite good). Dance a little if you can. In between songs, when the breeze is just right and the drink perfectly cold, you could just about hear the ghosts of Martínez and his friends chatting about Cuba’s latest cultural events.