By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
Battling restaurants lay claims to fame from Havana, Miami
HAVANA – They’ve fought over politics and revolution. Now Cubans and exiles are fighting over a landmark restaurant.
It’s called La Bodeguita del Medio, a little money maker that draws about 12,000 customers a month, thanks to its fabled history.
Ernest Hemingway and a parade of VIPs have sipped rum cocktails at the restaurant, still one of the biggest tourist attractions in Old Havana.
Mery Martínez isn’t happy about that. She has a Bodeguita del Medio of her own in Miami. She says her family founded the restaurant and ran it until Cuba’s socialist government nationalized it.
She doesn’t actually use the word “nationalize.” “They robbed the franchise,” she said. “And we plan to fight back.”
She doesn’t detail how or when. But she’s resolute. “Fidel Castro is a thief,” she declares.
Back at the original La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Sonia Ramos is unapologetic. The way she and other Castro loyalists figure it, the 1959 revolution is history. The people who opposed Mr. Castro lost. So get used to it, she says.
The Miami restaurant, which opened in March, “has nothing to do with us,” says Ms. Ramos, a commercial representative.
To be sure, the Cuban Revolution triggered a slew of fights, not just with guns, but with lawyers and laws.
For years now, the United States has steadily toughened economic sanctions against the Cuban regime. The two governments have never settled their differences over the revolution. And they’ve been at odds over trademarks – for instance, who owns the right to produce Havana Club and Bacardi rums, Hatuey beer and Cohiba cigars.
Add Bodeguita del Medio to the list.
Ángel Martínez founded the restaurant on April 26, 1942, as the Pleasant Storage Room. He changed that to Martínez House and sold rice, beans and other dry goods. Customers soon asked for lunch. The menu was simple, from white rice and beans to pork and chicken, dripping in garlic sauce.
Writers and artists started dropping by. Hemingway is said to have perfected the restaurant’s best-known drink – the mojito, a mixture of rum, sugar, carbonated water and other ingredients.
In 1950, the two-story restaurant’s name was changed to La Bodeguita del Medio, or “The Little Storage Room in the Middle.”
Visitors have included sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, poet Pablo Neruda, singer Nat King Cole and writer Gabriel García Márquez.
One day, Cuban poet Nicolás Guillen scribbled on a wall of the restaurant, starting a tradition that continues today.
“With all my soul I kiss this rich paradise,” someone named Cynthia wrote.
Tourists from Mexico, Yugoslavia, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Norway, Chile, the United States and other nations have added thousands of other messages, and they cover the walls of the legendary watering hole.
“Long live Cuba!” one says.
Gran Caribe, a state-run chain of hotels and restaurants, began selling Bodeguita franchises in the 1990s. Now there are restaurants on three continents, including four franchises in Mexico and others in spots such as Italy, France and the Czech Republic. Another opened in Palo Alto, Calif., but it has nothing to do with the Cuban government.
Mr. Martínez, who became manager of the La Bodeguita in Havana after the revolution, died in 1988. His wife, Rita “Santica” Martínez, 91, lives down the block and says she has no complaints about the restaurant being nationalized.
Her husband had five brothers and six sisters. One brother, Arturo, had a son, Reinaldo. His late son, Agustín, was married to Mery, who now runs the La Bodeguita in Miami with their daughter, Helen.
The Miami restaurant is wedged between a health clinic and an arthritis foundation in the city’s Little Havana. “Here people can drink real mojitos in complete freedom,” she said.
But on a recent afternoon the restaurant was mojito-free. “We don’t have any rum,” a bartender explained.
Workers at Havana’s La Bodeguita laughed at that. “What? No rum?” one asked. “What the heck’s going on over there?”
Mery didn’t have much to say about that. A lawyer by trade, she said she spent four years in jail for “counterrevolutionary activities” before going to Miami in 1986. And she remains deeply resentful that Cuba’s government – in her words – “stole” the family restaurant.
“If you come into this restaurant,” she said, “there’s one requirement. You’ve got to hate Fidel Castro.”