HAVANA TIMES — An ad for a restaurant given me by a young man handing out flyers on Obispo street, Old Havana, offering patrons the opportunity to “enjoy the World Cup finals on a 57-inch, flat-screen TV”, drew me to the Restaurante-Bar 513, located on 8th street, between 5th and 31st, in Miramar. Other establishments in Havana – both private and State – have done something similar.
Movie theaters like the Yara and Riviera are screening the matches on their enormous screens, bringing us as close to the World Cup as is possible in Havana. There, people experience their own, modest version of the games, waving the flags of their favorite teams and making the wave, as spectators at Brazil’s stadium do.
At State establishments like Restaurante Fabio, patrons can also watch the games on a 57-inch flat screen, in an air-conditioned locale whose one condition is that they order something. Prices are of course in hard currency.
What makes Restaurante-Bar 513 different? You get a cocktail and tapa on the house. Since I don’t drink alcohol, the house offers me a soft drink or natural juice of my choice instead. Luis Alberto, the owner of the bar, approaches patrons to ask if they’re enjoying their stay, despite the fact he is constantly busy, and regardless of the stress inherent to managing an establishment of this nature (particularly one that has been operating for only two months). Luis Alberto has worked in the food industry his entire life
He did not seem put off by the small turnout during the Netherlands-Chile and Spain-Australia matches. Nor was he too discouraged on June 30, when he was forced to close down the restaurant due to clogged piping and lost a good opportunity with the France versus Nigeria and Germany versus Algeria matches, the very same day movie theaters are closed.
By Wednesday, July 2, he had fixed the plumbing and was again ready to offer his customers a top-notch service.
HT: There’s a sign outside saying the restaurant is in a partnership with a number of Spanish firms.
Luís: We support Spanish businessperson. If they come to the restaurant, we give them a discount. I extended the offer to include all Spanish citizens, through my webpage, because not everyone can become a businessperson. If they’re in Cuba and come to my restaurant, it is a pleasure for me to welcome them and offer them a discount.
HT: Does it worry you that there are many restaurants like yours in the Miramar area?
Luís: Every restaurant has different characteristics in terms of its structure and design. It seems they all offer the same food, but that’s not the case. You may get the same kind of fish served differently at each restaurant. It all depends on the experience that someone has accumulated, if they’ve been able to travel abroad and get to know other cuisines. I don’t believe we’re in competition with one another. The public decides what food they’re looking for beforehand.
Luis has traveled abroad and has had the opportunity to get to know Spanish, Mexican, Panamanian and Russian cuisine.
HT: When you set up the TVs two months ago, were you thinking about the World Cup?
Luís: Yes, though I was also thinking about people who enjoy watching films, who can come here to relax, enjoy a music video or listen to good music.
HT: I came because of your ad. Has offering a cocktail and tapa on the house to people who come watch the games proved profitable?
Luís: A match is over two hours long. Even if you have a drink and a tapa on the house, you’re going to want to eat at one point in those two hours. What’s more, all of the drinks on the house are aperitifs. You have to eat something.
HT: Are you personally a soccer lover?
Luís: I’ve always played it. I’m a fan of Spain, which unfortunately lost this time around.
Luis tells me his grandmother was Spanish – hence his feelings towards that country.
HT: The place has been empty the few times I’ve come. You don’t get many customers?
Luís: There are busier hours. I’m often tired because the place begins to fill up after midnight. Young people have brought back something Cuba had lost: the city’s nightlife. Havana was once the happiest city in the world, everyone went out at night to have a good time. Later, everything began to shut down at midnight. Following this small, quote-unquote liberalization, there’s more nightlife now.
HT: Why “quote-unquote”?
Luís: Because licenses are only given out to restaurants, not bars.
Luis shrugs. He prefers to look on the bright side of things:
Luís: At midnight, a person can eat a pizza or a steak. We didn’t have that before. The State doesn’t offer that service. Young people who study or work want to go out at night, and they didn’t have where to go before.
HT: There are discos.
Luís: But young people can’t afford the cover charge and food and drinks are expensive there. That’s why they come to these places.
HT: Prices here are affordable for young people?
Luís: Of course. You don’t have to pay a cover charge. You come in, sit down and have a beer.
HT: How much is a mojito or a rum-and-coke?
Luís: Two CUCs, what any Cuban cocktail costs. There are some State establishments that charge 3.50 CUC. Beer is sold at 1.50 CUC here. The State charges you 2 CUC in many places. I have to buy it at the retail store. If I could buy it at cost, like the State does, I could sell it at 1 CUC.
I think about my kids. If you give them 10 CUC to go out on a weekend, where can they go? They can’t even think about going to a concert by Gente de Zona or any band like that. In Spain or Italy, however, seeing those same bands play somewhere costs you 5 euros, drinks included. Here, it can cost you as much as 20 or 25 CUC. Who can afford to go? Beats me.
I say goodbye to Luis, wishing him every success in his business. As I transcribe my interview with him, I ask myself whether we Cuban citizens will one day be offered discounts at establishments like this one. Perhaps not everyone, but perhaps those who work in fields as important as education and public health, and cannot afford going to places like this one.