Thursday, 24 June 2010

Lunch, drinks and ice cream in Havana

At the corner of San Ignacio and Obrapía in La Habana Vieja, the colonial part of the Cuban capital, is this decaying little gem: a former bar and restaurant with painted adverts from the 1950s-60s on its walls. The building was later turned into a small neighbourhood store -the Nuevo Centro Mercantil- and currently lays abandoned, awaiting a possible restoration.

The façade on Obrapía

Unfortunately I haven't been able to discover the name of this bar as it was covered when the premises became the Nuevo Centro Mercantil.

By one of the former entrances is this wonderful sign advertising ice creams, with a scoop in a stylized cup.

Helados [Ice Creams]

Even if it is possible to distinguish a few letters here and there, what was written on the scoop, including the brand, has faded too much for me to be able to make any sense of it.

Before customers enjoyed a dessert, they could have a cheap lunch.

Pruebe los más
Exquisitos y variados
Blue Plate - 60 c.
Try the Most
Exquisite and Varied
Blue Plate - 60 c.

Originally used in US restaurants, the expression 'blue plate' made its way across the Straits of Florida, an illustration of the close links between the island and the US prior to the fall of dictator of Fulgencio Batista. What 'blue plate' refers to, vacuum-cleaner salesman turned spy James Wormold discovered it when he attended the lunch given by the European Traders' Association at Havana's Hotel Nacional:
'I was telling you,' Mr MacDougal went on energetically like a Scottish reel, 'that you would do better to drink now. It's all you'll be getting.'
'There will be wine, won't there?'
'Look at the table.' Small individual milk-bottles stood by every place. 'Didn't you read your invitation? An American blue-plate lunch in honour of our great American allies.'
'Surely you know what a blue-plate is, man? They shove the whole meal at you under your nose, already dished up on your plate - roast turkey, cranberry sauce, sausages and carrots and French fried. I can't bear French fried but there's no pick and choose with a blue-plate.'
'No pick and choose?'
'You eat what you're given. That's democracy, man.'

Graham Greene, Our Man In Havana (1958, pp. 170-171 in the Penguin edition)
Often 'blue-plate' meals were served in plates with partitions and were among the cheapest food restaurants would serve.

To wash down the food, what could be better than a "Cafe express" costing 3 c., as advertised on both sides of the pillar at the street corner?

Yet some customers might have prefered something a bit stronger. Some Enxebre perhaps, as this lovely advert encouraged them to.

The Galician word 'Enxebre' means 'genuine', 'authentic', 'typical' as well as 'pure'. When it comes to alcoholic drinks, it refers to a straw-coloured white wine made with very ripe grapes from the oldest vines, or to an aguardiente made purely from grapes, as it is the case on this sign.
The Enxebre sold in this bar was imported by Jacinto Rodríguez, who owned the 'Galicia Moderna'. I haven't found when Jacinto Rodríguez set up his food and wine import business, which operated further down the road at Obrapía 26, just by the harbour. However a study about the reconstruction of the Galician identity in Cuba between the early nineteenth century and 1920 mentions that in 1907, to add a touch of authenticity to the different celebrations organized by the Galician community in Havana and around, he imported a typical ox cart from the motherland to carry his products to the aforementioned events. Another source adds he was a founding member of the Peña Gallega club. Clearly an influential member of the community, and certainly a relatively successful one too. Obviously the business survived the political upheavals of the first six decades of the twentieth century but what happened to it after the triumph of the Revolution I do not know.

Pida... [Ask for...]
Jacinto Rodríguez
Puro de uva [Made of Pure Grapes]
El mejor [The Best One]

The bottle has a very fine label on which one can read above the coat of arms "Arguadiente puro de uva", and below the three gold medals the product was awarded at exhibitions, "Jacinto Rodríguez".

What will happen to this building? It really depends on whether the Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana, the institution in charge of the capital's heritage, considers it should be restored or not (and on whether or not it will have the financial resources and the material to carry out the work). The Oficina del Historiador is already doing a fantastic job restoring the architectural jewels of a city with one of the finest collection of buildings in the Americas. The job is dauting and many that are worth preserving are still in a dilapidated state. To be fair, the architectural merit of the building where this bar was located is very limited. Yet those painted signs are certainly worth preserving. At least the Oficina del Historiador has a good record regarding the preservation of ghost signs so let's hope something can be done about this place.

Location: corner San Ignacio and Obrapía, Havana / Pictures taken on: 20/03/2010


JBS said...

The beautiful beams of oblique light brushing the face...are they sunlight or what? The other shadows don't quite corroborate it.
To what would one restore this? To touch the surface with paint would destroy it. This is a problem with furniture restoration.
Everything you do to a thing to 'restore' it makes it lie...
As John Kirk said in "The Impecunious Collector's Guide to American Antiques", "buy it ratty and leave it alone."
Or as Joni Mitchel said "Pave Paradise...put in a parking lot."

Sebastien Ardouin said...

Indeed JBS, that's sunlight. I just loved that beam across the façade. When I took the pictures, the sun was on the axis of Obrapía. On the first picture, the shadows on the façade and the pavement are cast by the building to the right. If the balcony that appears to the left on the first picture and on the second one had been in the sun, its shadow would have fallen further to the left, almost on the other side of the street junction.
Looking at what the Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana has been doing so far, if this building were to be restored, the painted ads would be left as they are (maybe some product would be applied to prevent further damage, if that exists, but they wouldn't be re-painted). The rest of the façade would be given a new coat of paint and the result would be similar to the building on Plaza Vieja. Of course for some (me included) the flaky paint adds to the charm of the building and that would be lost, but that's understandable. I'll post in a near future other painted signs that have been left intact when buildings were restored.

losmogotes said...

sharing the beauty of these old walls