Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly Cuba Issue

The New Nightspots Transforming Havana’s Social Scene

Chic is rapidly replacing gritty in many of Havana’s newly imagined gathering spots

A bartender mixes a drink at O'Reilly 304. (Ty Nigh / Flickr Creative Commons)
Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly

On a recent Thursday at 1:45 a.m., as I watched the last dinner guests spiral down the vertigo-steep stairs from El Cocinero’s rooftop bar—to where gypsy cabs, old Chevys, and Soviet-era Ladas waited along the street—the Fábrica de Arte Cubano next door appeared to be winding down, too.

Appearances deceive: A low thrum of music pulsed from the broad entrance to the warehouse-size space, which was once a cooking-oil factory. Just inside, the arms of a half dozen patrons stretched and waved toward servers at a bar. I threaded past clusters of young Cubans arguing and laughing in hallways and gallery spaces, and caught a glimpse of Rihanna on video, in resplendent yellow on a three-story screen, singing for customers gathered on a smoking patio outside. In a cavernous hall at the back of the complex, a local DJ provided the soundtrack for body-to-body dancing. Hundreds of bobbing heads turned blue, pink, no color at all, and then blue all over again.

Everything tonight was new, including the pace of change. Fábrica de Arte Cubano, known by its acronym, FAC, usually closes for a month three times a year to switch out the 900-odd works of Cuban art it exhibits. FAC’s founder, the musician X Alfonso, told me earlier in the afternoon that he and his colleagues had just accomplished in three days what normally takes 30. They had mounted a dizzying collection of photography, painting, sculpture, and displays of industrial design—not only by such gallery notables as Liudmila & Nelson and Roberto Diago, but also by hitherto unknown artists who proposed work via a submission box. As we spoke, Alfonso was still rubbing gray paint off his hands.

When I lived in Havana on and off between 2008 and 2011—to research a book on the last generation of Cubans raised under Fidel Castro—most of the people now at FAC would have been hanging out on the Malecón, the five-mile road and esplanade that runs along the coast, or on park benches along G Street, the city’s stately central avenue. Havana’s social life then typically took place either in public spaces, behind closed doors, or at concerts. Foreigners sipped mojitos at expensive state-run clubs or one of the two dozen in-home restaurants priced for tourists, most of which featured similar menus in similar settings. The meals were unappealing, even to the well-heeled Cuban artists, musicians, and government officials who could afford them. If there wasn’t a cheap concert at the Karl Marx or the Bertolt Brecht theaters, the young or broke might visit Havana’s massive ice-cream parlor, Coppelia. But by and large, social life was cheap, and it was spontaneous and far from the tourist orbit.

“On Calle G there were nodes of people, and one group stuck to another, and another and another,” Alfonso recalled. “I lived on Calle G, Malecón. [We went] from Coppelia to Malecón, Malecón to Coppelia, Coppelia to Malecón.”

In the past few years, this pattern has shifted. Restaurants, bars, and music venues have opened everywhere conceivable—on corners, rooftops, even in alleyways—since the loosening of restrictions on privately run eateries in 2011. In short order, these nightspots have become increasingly sophisticated and specialized. And tourism to Cuba has simultaneously boomed, funneling a reliable flow of dollars to local employees who can then afford to go out themselves.

The dynamism of public spaces hasn’t disappeared—the vast majority of Cubans still don’t make enough money to pay FAC’s $2 cover charge with any regularity. And bars, technically, are not sanctioned by the government, which is why El Cocinero is a restaurant before it’s a drinking hole. But at these nightspots, no matter what they’re called, Cubans and foreigners converge in varying proportions—young and not so young, posh and not so posh—nursing drinks or building up a hefty bar tab, making new friends or catching up with old. The back pages of OnCuba magazine are thick with quarter-page advertisements for hybrid restaurant-bars, and a relatively new app, AlaMesa, helps direct patrons to the right spots.

“You can come here and see four photographers and seven musicians, and they’re in the same space as the general public,” Alfonso noted. “They’re waiting in the same line as you. This was what I wanted. Everything is different now.”

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A bar in Cuba is—by necessity and design—not just a bar. Nor is it merely an indication of a shift in the country’s economic policies or of a booming tourist industry. A bar is also a cultural statement, a reflection of entrepreneurial spirit, and an opportunity to project a personal vision. Building by building, brick by brick, Havana is being remade after decades of entropy. A number of proprietors see themselves as restorers of architectural patrimony; they peel away slapdash additions and renovations to highlight a building’s old bones.

Two bar-restaurants in Old Havana, the O’Reilly 304 and El Del Frente, are just those sorts of places. Both were previously residential apartments, co-owner José Carlos Imperatori told me over a pineapple-lemonade frappe at El Del Frente, the restaurant he opened nine months ago across the street from his first venture on O’Reilly Street. “The [economic] opening has made us more creative,” said Imperatori, who is also a painter and graffiti artist. “It’s not like before, where everything was the same. We are more daring.”

Imperatori and his business partner bought the apartment that would become O’Reilly 304 three years ago, and then smashed its facade and replaced it with enormous window panes. He opened half the sleeping loft—what’s called a barbacoa, installed in Old Havana homes with high ceilings to create more room—to make a double-height dining space. Then he removed internal walls, installed a skinny concrete bar at the back, and hung vintage signs, his own artwork, and pieces made by his art school friends over every possible inch of wall space. O’Reilly, as it’s popularly called, features Cuban-international fusion food, gorgeously presented gin drinks, guava and passion fruit daiquiris, and—seemingly impossible, the space is so small—impromptu jazz performances by trios of young musicians later at night.

Though Imperatori wanted to attract tourists, his bar is a local favorite, too. At 9 p.m. on any given evening, a mixed cluster waits in the street outside for tables. Cuban friends-of-friends squeeze into tiny non-spots at the bar for a drink before dinner elsewhere.

There’s more gloss on El Del Frente, Imperatori’s newer venture. In a gracious 1942 building, the restaurant is all high ceilings and white walls, colorful floor tiles, stenciled graffiti art, and sweeping flowers in enormous vases. Too glossy, it seemed, for the trio of young American men who walked up to the rooftop bar next to where I sat on a Saturday night.

“This is so gringo,” one commented at the bar’s Bertoia chairs, swooping plants, and Edison bulbs, the latter zigzagging between the apartment buildings overhead.

Yuma,” one of his friends corrected him. “They say ‘yuma’ here.” (“Yuma” is indeed the correct Cuban slang for American; it came from the 1957 Western 3:10 to Yuma.)

A distinct faction of tourists seems annoyed by the perceived polish of this new Cuba, as if they’ve missed out on the real thing, or as if the obvious grit of the city hasn’t been simply brushed outside the tourist corridor of Old Havana, Vedado, and Miramar. Still, the young Americans weren’t wrong. If by “gringo,” or “yuma,” they meant that the bar no longer required patrons to thread under lines of wet laundry and past a living room where a lone woman would sway in a vinyl rocker while watching a Brazilian soap opera—the route to the famed La Guarida restaurant before its owners bought out the apartment building’s residents and opened a rooftop bar—then yes, Havana’s new nightspots are very much more yuma than in the past.

Smaller details still reflect the Cuban talent of making the best of things: The Copa Airlines flatware at one café, the too-large paper napkins stuffed into Sol holders at another, or the man wheeling ice into a sleek patio bar in a rusted shopping cart. And ordinary Havana is never far away: You can watch from a new waterfront lounge in Miramar as kids leap off the boulders on the rocky coastline, slamming into the ocean at the magic hour before nightfall, and you can listen to the gentle flutter of laundry one patio over.

As the Americans at El Del Frente sipped their expertly crafted cocktails, an impromptu dance party was forming just outside the bar. A half block down the street, a rusty Moskvitch, an ’80s Soviet sedan, had parked alongside a state-run centro de recreo—a slim, empty storefront with overly bright fluorescent lighting and a few bottles of rum and TuKola (local cola) at a makeshift bar. As the car radio blared techno, a dozen Cubans danced raucously in the street.

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A bar in Havana is also a social statement. Among the Cubans who can afford to go out, different groups have begun to frequent different venues. Artists go to O’Reilly 304 or El Cocinero. The film and dance crowd stays up late at Bohemio or Madrigal, owned by, respectively, a dancer and a producer. The timba crews, the city’s salsa musicians and their fans, go to Esencia Habana. The preppy kids—mikis, in the local parlance, who get support from a wealthy exile or a relatively well-to-do artist, entrepreneur, or political parent in Cuba—haunt Sangri-La or 091, a new spot in a restored modernist house. There’s an underground friki, or punk rock bar, and the gay scene materializes at mYXto or King Bar, as well as at FAC, where most of the above crews also can be found.

The list goes on and on. And all these spots host a mix of Cuban and foreign patrons. Earlier on Thursday evening, at Siá Kará, an Old Havana eatery, I sat at the bar between a pair of Frenchmen and a young Cuban woman. Her name, I learned, was Alejandra, and she was the bartender’s girlfriend. She was 24 and a psychologist, but she’d quit teaching at the university six months earlier—her salary had been 500 Cuban pesos, about $20 a month—to tend bar at Sangri-La, where she nets up to a thousand dollars in tips during the same amount of time. The discrepancy between state and private pay scales explains why the bars and restaurants of Havana are tended by very educated Cubans—no legal framework permits privatized academic work yet. Alejandra wanted to practice her English with me; as we spoke, she pulled out her iPhone and showed me pictures of her aunt, a bodybuilder in Canada.

“Her muscles, they are like, what is the word? Marble!” she crowed before ordering a screwdriver.

That rainy evening, Siá Kará—with its warm light, enormous open doors, fluttering gauze curtains, and the dome of the capitolio at the end of the otherwise residential street—possessed the air of a secret hideaway.

It’s easy to forget how tenuous the standing of these new enterprises actually is, even in this brave new Cuba. Competing rumors dominate discussions of why a bar run by a German man, which remained open for a scant three months, was shut down by state inspectors. The wife of a Cuban spy imprisoned in the U.S.—a state hero—may or may not live in front of the bar and may or may not have bubbled a complaint upward; a neighborhood lobby consisting of other nearby clubs may or may not have disliked the competition and forced its closure. The bar today, with its custom ironwork and fresh paint, is still dark, and the local laws prohibiting or protecting new restaurants, bars, and clubs are murky. Rumors—of who owns a bar, how it was constructed, or why it was closed—ping around most new ventures.

Still, for better and for worse, Havana has entered a new era: more tourists, more social spaces, increasingly gentrified neighborhoods. The center of gravity of Havana’s social life has become split between indoors and out. Just look at FAC: During the course of a typical Saturday night, X Alfonso told me, his club/bar/art and performance space hosts between 1,000 and 1,700 revelers.

“The miki and the friki and everyone, they’re all here,” he said proudly. “There’s nothing like this in New York, in Paris, anywhere.” I knew he was talking about FAC, but I couldn’t help but think his words applied more generally to the overall energy—exuberant, uncertain—of Havana itself.

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