HAVANA Sloppy Joe's, one of Havana's most famous pre-revolutionary bars and a former haunt of American tourists and film stars like John Wayne, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, reopened its doors on Friday, almost 50 years after it closed.
Waiters dressed in black and orange uniforms served drinks and tapas to a mix of tourists and Cubans, some of whom had waited years for the reopening of the historic watering hole.
"I'm very excited ... Sloppy Joe's is open. I can't believe it. The past and present have been united," said Barbara, an American tourist from New York who has been visiting Havana for the last ten years and followed the bar's much anticipated restoration.
Sloppy Joe's Bar was founded by Spanish immigrant Jose Garcia, who capitalized on the U.S. Prohibition era from 1920-1933 when American tourists flocked to Havana to drink and gamble to their heart's content.
The bar was nationalized along with most businesses in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces took power and languished until it closed in 1965.
The restoration, undertaken by the office of the Historian of Havana, began in 2007.
The office is in charge of a massive remake of Havana's historic Old City, considered one of the best preserved jewels of colonial architecture in the Caribbean, as well as a lucrative tourist attraction for Cuba's cash-strapped, communist-led government.
The dilapidated building was painstakingly restored using period photos and materials donated by people who were associated with the bar, both in Cuba and abroad.
"What interests me is to work to restore to my city, to our city, a whole series of things that form part of its memory. ... To restore Sloppy Joe's is to return to Havana the place where artists, baseball players, tourists all met," said Eusebio Leal, who heads the Historian of Havana's office.
"The final objective is not commercial, it's not to exploit a name. The opportunity it brings is to recover an important memory of Havana," Leal added.
THE LONGEST BAR TOP
Among Sloppy Joe's most famous attractions was the bar itself, stretching 60 feet. It was immortalized in the 1959 movie "Our Man in Havana", starring Alec Guinness and based on the novel by British author Graham Greene - one of Sloppy Joe's former patrons.
Parts of the original bar were preserved and restored to original splendor.
Ernesto Iznaga, Sloppy Joe's new manager, said the bar will offer a wide range of the food and drink it served in its heyday, "specifically the food, such as dips, tapas, and sandwiches."
"I'm super happy. I passed by here every day. I followed the restoration from the beginning and I came today because I wanted to see how it looks," said an emotional José Luis Rodríguez, 80, the former owner of a nearby bar that was also nationalized in the '60s.
"It's exactly as it was. These tiles they have put down are the same color as before. Everything is the same, and although they altered the entrance and put in air-conditioning, they kept the same drinks and snacks, which is what the place was famous for," said Rodriguez, who did not eat or drink because the foreign currency prices were beyond his pension in Cuban pesos.
(Editing by David Adams and Jim Loney)