Tiki Relics in Havana, Cuba

: : During the 1950s – the heyday of Tiki – exotica ruled. Exotic vacation destinations were a faraway dream for many but the proximity of the island of Cuba enabled North Americans to experience an exotic clime without travelling to the South Seas. Catering to tourists’ taste for the exotic (and a desire to please Americans), Cuba jumped on the tiki bandwagon. Why then, was I surprised when I stumbled upon two Tiki joints in downtown Havana? : :

: : We all know Cuba is isolated due to the embargo; its 1950s automobiles remain well-preserved. But who knew the state would also preserve its tiki eateries? I happened to be in Havana for a Latin American film festival in December 2000 and I passed two such places on my way to the movie theatre, prompting me to return to investigate. : :

: : Both on Calle 23 (23rd Street, leading to Hotel Capri and the swanky Hotel Nacional) in the Vedado, the downtown core of Havana, these tiki establishments, along with the 50s Chevrolets and Dodges, hearken back to pre-Revolution times when brothels and casinos reigned. A time when the clientele’s breath didn’t smell of Cuba Libre (rum and cola) but of the equivalent harder stuff like Daiquiri (invented at the Floridita, which was one of Hemmingway’s haunts) and Mojito (a wild mint, rum, and club soda drink, invented at La Bogedita del Medio, another of the writer’s haunts). : :

: : Restaurante Bar Polinesio (formerly a Trader Vic’s) had a beautiful worn tiki outside its exterior stone wall. On the inside: Chinese food, rattan chairs, and thatched bars... very authentic to the genre. I asked for a business card. As with everything else in Cuba, bureaucracy is paramount. They didn’t have one. Business cards aren’t prevalent in the communist bloc. The waitress called for the manager. While I was passed to different rank and file, I asked if I could buy a menu for the M.T.A.S. They refused. The rule of scarcity applies here. Frustrated, I left to photograph the exterior of the restaurant (after having asked permission, of course). Maybe I should have eaten there... : :

: : A few steps further on Calle 23 is the Tikog Club, featuring another tiki just below its sign. In retrospect, it is, in fact, something of a giant hybrid tiki and afro-cuban wood carving, like the Santeria gods you find in markets. I peered into the bar, located below street level. It looked closed, as most places in Havana do. Outside, a street vendor stood selling fruit shakes. : :

: : Hotel Riviera, where we stayed, was the ultimate 1950s kitsch haven. Built by Meyer Lansky three weeks prior to the Revolution, its decor is still intact and, in fact, is kitsch concentrated. Their wall of shame features several famous Cuban bands and Leonardo Di Caprio. The Hotel is famous for a cabaret revue and the prostitutes who work out of its bars. They offer a breakfast buffet that compensates for the far off location on the Malacon (the waterfront). : :

: : As for the rest of the trip... Did I mention Fidel’s black Mercedes sped by in front of me? And that I met Che Guevara’s bodyguard who kissed me after showing me his Sierra Maestra scars? Yeah, I saw filmmakers and films. And I fell onto Hotel Riviera’s roof where I bled profusely but managed to attract a naked guy to the window. : :

: : North American tiki fans ought to flock to Cuba before other currents alter the nostalgia associated with the now cliched, decrepit architecture of Old Havana and Modern Havana. I am sure there are other treasure troves deep in the city’s interior. : :

: : No Tiki sightings in my other recent travels in Ireland, Israel, Egypt, and Italy... : :

Mirella Bontempo © 2001


Back to 
El Polinesio
El Polinesio
Tikog Club
Tikog Club