« First port of call, out where the wet begins » : Whoever wrote copy for Sloppy Joe’s was a genius — fresh out of the boat, hordes of American tourists, parched by their country’s prohibition would indeed swarm the old bodega turned world famous bar and have, at last, their first legal drink of the year.
Sloppy Joe’s was the house José Abeal built. Like most cantineros of the time, Abeal was a Spaniard who had come to Cuba from his native Galicia in search of a better future. His ship moored in Havana’s harbour in 1904 and soon enough, he found himself working in bars. Three years later, he headed for the United States, where he remained for twelve years, bartending in New Orleans and Miami. In 1918, maybe sensing the impending doom (or golden opportunity) of the Volstead Act, he went back to Havana where he soon bought a dilapidated bodega off a street corner, a few minutes’ walk from El Floridita and the Sevilla Hotel.
When prohibition started, Abeal was in a good position. First, his time in the United States gave him a unique advantage over other Cuban cantineros — he knew what the Americans liked, had worked in bars over there and spoke the lingo. Second, his Cuban experience gave him the upper hand over the countless American bartenders who were about to flock to Cuba to open their own bars or work at American-owned hotels — unlike them, he could give the Caribbean touch tourists actually craved for. His bar would be Cuban enough to look exotic while remaining American enough for tourists to sort of feel as safe as home — the thrill without the danger.
The name, of course, also played a part. It sounds counter-intuitive at first (who wants to go to a ‘sloppy place’) and the history of its coining remains disputed. It seems to have involved an American — either a newspaper editor or the New York Giants manager — who, for one reason or another, got angry at Abeal and accused him of running a sloppy, dirty place. The curious thing is that no contemporary testimony complained about the place’s hygiene. In any case, the name had a ring to it and it stuck. Tourists probably found it funny, and it helped business to grow.
For years, Sloppy Joe’s remained THE place to be for most tourists uninterested in the authentic Havana experience — some of them, it was said, would spend their entire stay between the bar, the club and their hotel room. Abeal was a very canny operator. He kept the looks of the Cuban bodega, but served drinks with American names. He always had a band playing, offered a welcome drink « on the house » and even served as a banker for under the weather client, safekeeping their money until the next day. It didn’t matter that the drinks were less good than at other places such as Floridita (known then as the bar for Cubans). People came to Havana to drink. They were happy with OK.
According to Jeff Berry, Abeal sold out in the early 30’s and went back to Galicia with a small fortune. The new owner didn’t change a thing and Sloppy Joe’s remained central to the American experience in Havana. They hired foreign bartenders but also gave their start to young Cuban promises, such as Fabio Delgado, who would become a legendary cantinero in his own right. Sloppy Joe’s was also featured in Carol Reed’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, filmed on site right after the Revolution. Shortly after, the shutters closed for good. And in the 1980’s, the place burned down. It was the end of Sloppy Joe’s.
Or so we thought, because after years of rumors followed by even more years of work, Sloppy Joe’s reopened its doors in early 2015. The place looks sort of the same, with its bottle lined shelves and (extremely) long bar — it was once the longest in the country. The menu features the food typical of the original place and even has some of Fabio Delgado’s drinks. It also remains a spot geared towards tourists. Maybe one day, soon enough, a new generation of American visitors will find their way there to enjoy Havana, Sloppy Joe’s style, just like their great-grandparents before them.