On a small side street just west of the Plaza de Cathedral is the most famous bar in all of Havana, the Bodeguita del Medio. At first glance, this tiny hole-in-the-wall bar doesn’t appear to be much. The furnishings are worn, even by Havana standards, and the walls appear to be covered in graffiti.
They are, in fact, and a closer examination of this graffiti shows you one of the reasons why this place is so famous. The walls are covered with signatures and comments from past patrons. The names on the wall of past patrons include Nat King Cole, Fidel Castro and the man most associated with the place, Ernest Hemmingway.
The Bodeguita originally started as a small general store in 1942, owned and operated by one Angel Martinez. By 1946, he realized that the place was becoming more of a popular hangout, and it slowly converted into a restaurant and bar. It soon drew hundreds of students, musicians and bohemians. Late evening conversations here over a glass of rum would run the gamut from local politics to the specifics of Son and other forms of Cuban music.
Over the years the popularity of the place grew, and more and more began to call the small little store turned bar into their home away from home. After the Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the place continued to prosper. Many of the present regimes had spent some of their earlier student days here, after all.
In recent years it has become one of the most popular tourist draws in all Havana. Each day busloads from all over the world are deposited here. Each of them is hoping to share in the history, enjoy a mojito, the house special, and add their names to the wall.
It is not quite clear when or how the idea of scrawling names on the wall began. Some claim Hemmingway started it. More than likely it started as a way of leaving messages for friends, and it just grew from there. For whatever reason, everyone now does it, and some names famous and not have been obscured under hundreds of others.
I’ve personally signed it on four different occasions and am never able to find where I did the last time. The most famous signature on the walls, of course, belongs to Ernest Hemmingway. The Bodeguita was one of his favourite haunts.
The tiny restaurant with only 15 tables to the rear of the bar may not look it, but it is actually a five-star establishment and winner of numerous awards. There is always a line up to eat here, and as reservations are hard to make in Havana, prepare to be patient. The menu of Cuban and Creole dishes, however, is well worth the wait.
The best time to visit is in the evening after the throngs of tourists have left. While it is still hard to get a table in the restaurant, the front bar is relatively quiet. You can sip your mojito in peace and examine the photos and autographs that cover the walls. Feel free to add your own, of course. It’s a tradition. You can even ask one of the bartenders to show you how to make a mojito, just like “Papa” liked them.
If You Go
Cuban Tourism Board in Canada