HAVANA (AP) — It's happy hour again at the original Sloppy Joe's saloon, an iconic Cuban bar that reopened Friday after a nearly 50-year hiatus and is sure to quickly become a must-see for tourists eager to drink in the flavor of Havana's freewheeling past.
Waiters in black and orange shirts and ties shook up round after round of the Sloppy Joe cocktail, a cool, refreshing blend of brandy, port and Cointreau, with a fruity pineapple finish, while about two dozen customers took a break from the spring heat and noshed on tapas like ceviche and marinated shrimp.
"Finally the big day, after so much waiting, and I think it's been worth the pain," said Ernesto Iznaga, manager of the reborn Joe's. "May all our clients ... upon entering, breathe in that '50s atmosphere that characterized the place."
Historic pictures lining columns in the bar bring that era to life most vividly, and are keen reminders of how Sloppy Joe's was one of the most popular places among American tourists who made Havana, just 90 miles from Florida, their party-time playground as far back as the Prohibition Era.
One photo shows Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward and Sir Alec Guinness when the latter was in town to film "Our Man In Havana," which included a scene shot in the bar. Iznaga had the movie showing on twin flat-screen TVs above the bar Friday.
"Everybody had to have their picture taken at Sloppy Joe's, whether they were basic American tourists or movie stars," said Barbara Bachman, a New York book designer who was one of the first to belly up to the bar for a drink.
Bachman, who was on her annual trip to the island to visit family with her Cuban-born husband, said she learned about the bar from photos she found at Havana flea markets. Curious, she asked around and finally managed to track it down several years ago. Peering through holes in the wall, she said, it was just a bunch of dust and a few sticks of furniture.
The bar was shuttered in 1965 as Fidel Castro's Communist government nationalized nearly all private enterprise, and it was subsequently abandoned to decay over the decades until the City Historian's Office, a government agency, began looking at restoring the building in 2007.
Historians, architects and designers carefully pored over photographs from long ago and interviewed old-timers to recreate Joe's in its original location as faithfully as possible, down to the delicate plaster molding, dark wood paneling and colorful bottles of alcohol displayed behind glass.
The dark mahogany bar, once reputedly the longest in Latin America at about 59 feet (18 meters), was polished to a high shine.
"It's really nice. It's not quite what I would've expected in Havana at all," said Nick Clough, who was visiting from Newcastle, England.
"Very in keeping with what it used to be," said his wife, Joanna Clough. "It feels like you've stepped back in time - even though it's clearly quite new and modern."
In his novel "Our Man In Havana," Graham Greene wrote: "No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe's because it was the rendezvous of tourists."
That will no doubt be largely true during Joe's second lease on life.
The bar stands between several high-end tourist hotels and is mere steps from some of Havana's most important museums. A sloppy sandwich and a cocktail will set you back $13 plus tip, far too pricey for Cubans who scrape by on government salaries averaging $20 a month.
But tourists in search of a piece of history are sure to flock here to have their picture taken in the same joint where everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to Nat King Cole and Ted Williams once wet their whistles.
They will include increasing numbers of Americans, tens of thousands of whom are traveling to the island each year on cultural exchange tours that are tightly scripted but usually include some free leisure time in the evenings.
Tangy sloppy joe sandwiches are synonymous with the saloon - and were purportedly first dreamed up here although others also claim to have invented them. They arrive with the tomato-and-green-olive-spiced ground beef piled high and spilling out of the bun, which ends up looking more like a tiny hat instead of something actually expected to contain all that meat.
Best to skip breakfast before ordering one, and multiple napkins are recommended.
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi