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Sloppy Joes Bar, Old Havana, Cuba

Anecdotes of Sloppy Joe's Bar in Havana, Cuba

31 August 1923, New York World pg:11, col. 1, More Havana Snapshots

Good old days at Sloppy Joes in Havana

...If you have been to Havana and have not visited "Dirty Joe's", on the Prado, you have not seen Havana. "Sloppy Joe's" is as much of an institution as "Jack's" or the Hotel Astor bar used to be to Broadwayites and visitors in the good old days. Joe is a Spaniard who probably owes his appellation to his swarthy complexion and is not what it would indicate, for he is a clean and likable fellow with many American friends. His place is a regular, old-fashioned grocery, which is more like a typical country store, with the dry goods left out but wet goods in their place.

Joe sells either by the bottle or by the drink anything there is, or has been discovered, to tickle the palate of men. The furnishings of the place are about as up-to-date as those of a Tenth Avenue delicatessen shop, but he gives the biggest drink of the best liquor for the least money - or so it is said by visitors - and has a reputation as a cocktail mixer that extends from New Orleans to Demerara...

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When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba by Basil Woon, New York: Horace Liveright 1928, Pg. 43:

...The lucky part came when the Havana city government some years ago appointed a "sanitary commission" to inquire into the cleanliness of the bodegas.

The less said about the actual workings of this commission the better. But it happened that "Pop" Roberds, proprietor of the Havana Evening News, and Joe were having a little squabble about this time over a matter of advertising. "Pop" (Pg. 44-ed.) thought Joe should advertise with him, and Joe thought differently about it. "Pop," being an old-style newspaper man, very properly thought himself affronted, and forthwith wrote an editorial in which he suggested to the Sanitary Commission that they might with profit extend their investigations to include "a place on Zuletta Street which should be called Sloppy Joe's."

Sloppy Joes advertisement

The name caught on almost at once, and Joe, although privately peeved at "Pop," realized that he had a good thing. He enlarged his place, and at a moment when drinks in Havana were costing seventy-five cents apiece (it was just after the Volstead Act became operative in the United States), suddenly cut the price in half. The resultant business forced him to enlarge his place again.

"Sloppy Joe's" became a byword and Joe used the slogan on his saloon sign and in his advertising. Distinguished writers from New York and further a field wrote about the place and money came in so fast that Joe again enlarged. He now employs eleven bartenders. He advertises in The Evening News and "Pop" Roberds is a regular client. The place is big, noisy, has an almost exclusively tourist trade, and is frequented for refreshments after the theater. It has little really Cuban about it and might before the war have been on Third Avenue, New York...

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Support for Ms. Ghioto's Cuban theory came from Leonard Zwilling, general editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English.

He confirmed that a sandwich was indeed served at the Sloppy Joe's bar in Havana and that a version of it wound up on the menu at the Town Hall Deli in South Orange, N.J., in 1936, when it was (and still is) not a messy chopped meat sandwich but a triple-decker deli sandwich. Jack Burdorf, an owner of the Town Hall Deli, knew the sandwich's history. His father had worked at the deli and then bought it with a partner.

"Around 1934 or '35," Mr. Burdorf said, "the Mayor of Maplewood, Robert Sweeney, used to vacation in Havana and hang out at an old saloon called Sloppy Joe's. When Sweeney returned to New Jersey, he described the sandwich he used to eat there to my dad, and asked him to recreate it"...

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Anonymous testimony ...

In the 1945 it was frequented by teams of flights of the airplanes B-29 belonging to the 330th BG settled down in Operational Unit at Cambric Army Air Field, was located near Cayuga, Cuba about 30 thousands southwest of Havana.

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Pablo Armando Fernandez 's testimony, 1996 National Prize of Literature, regarding an experience lived with the Cuban pianist, composer, and vocal interpreter, Ignacio Jacinto Villa y Fernandez "Bola de Nieve" .

"Once we were eating at Sloppy Joe's, I caught a napkin and I began to write a poem dedicated to Joe. He told me: "That napkin is mine!". We had a long argument. I tried to explain to him that the text was not finished yet, there was no point to give it to him like that. He replied that he did not care, he wanted it that way!. Then I said: It is yours. Finally, he took the napkin with the sketch of that poem, of which I don't remember a line".

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Anonymous testimony ...

The forgotten Sloppy Joes in Havana
The abandoned Sloppy Joes in Havana

A couple of years ago I could visit the ruins of Sloppy Joe's. The metallic curtains of the Havana mythical bar, closed for decades, were run for the team that would film a documentary.

We were granted permission to enter a place that had become a cave. Once we were inside we could see the rats running around the place, the leaking from the ceiling had formed stalactites and there was almost nothing left of the mirrors. But the bar was still there, magnificent. Someone from the filming team poured water on the floor at the entrance and he was able to clear the dirt. Suddenly, the sign came out as the moon. Sloppy Joe was open for a moment. It was party time, the musicians played their instruments again.

(Soon after, somebody assured me that he had a piece of Sloppy Joe's drinks cabinet at home. If that was true, it had been sold as a relic, similar to what happened the bricks of Berlin Wall).