La Bodeguita del Medio: How This Cuban Salsa Bar Conquered the World

La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana | © marcosantiago / Pixabay
La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana | © marcosantiago / Pixabay
Photo of Stephen Woodman
19 December 2017

Cuba’s most famous bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, was once the favorite haunt of iconic figures such as poet Pablo Neruda and jazz singer Nat King Cole. La Bodeguita also lays claim to being the birthplace of the mojito cocktail—that delicious blend of rum, sugar cane juice, lime juice, and mint. A must-see for visitors to Havana, the legendary bar has since expanded its franchise across the world, with branches in Mexico, Belgium, and even Shanghai.

Founded in 1942 in the heart of Havana’s Old Town, the bar was originally named Casa Martínez and was known for serving excellent mojitos. In 1949, Chef Silvia Torres joined the team, and the bar became the talk of the town—she served a Cuban menu of boiled rice, fried plantains, black beans, and pork.

La Bodeguita was especially popular among bohemian circles in Havana. Drawn by its unpretentious but atmospheric vibe, writers, musicians, and journalists flocked to the watering hole to meet up with friends and enjoy a mojito.

Mango Mojito | © Janine/Flikr

One of the most devoted regulars was Felito Ayon, a charismatic publisher who invented the name Bodeguita del Medio because the bar was situated half-way down Empedrado Street. The name was officially adopted in 1950, and business boomed.

Famous early regulars included the Cuban literary icons Nicolás Guillén and Alejo Carpentier. The bar established a reputation as a hub for debate and left-wing social causes. Latin American intellectuals such as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Salvador Allende, the future president of Chile, also visited the bar.

Writing on the walls of La Bodeguita del Medio | © Manuel Castro / Flickr

As the tiny watering hole’s reputation grew, so did the status of its visitors. Hollywood stars such as Errol Flynn, Brigitte Bardot, and Sophia Loren stopped in for a drink.

The walls of La Bodeguita are still decorated with the signatures of these famous customers. The bar even boasts a framed message from Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway, who has long been linked with the bar (although some experts dispute the authenticity of this note).

A note Hemingway wrote about his two favourite bars in Cuba | © Gorupdebesanez / WikiCommons

Whether Hemingway was a regular at La Bodeguita or not, the bar was certainly known for serving one of his favorite cocktails, the mojito. As soon as you step inside La Bodeguita, you instantly recognize the intense scent of Cuban mint and sugar. The sweet cocktail has been prepared here since the 1940s.

Today, the bar’s storied history draws as many tourists as it does Latin American intellectuals, and it’s best to arrive early to avoid the crowds. Indeed, for the past two decades, the bar has become such as tourist hub that it was even targeted as part of a bombing campaign against tourist spots in 1997. While no one was killed by the explosive device, several were seriously injured. Ernesto Cruz Leon, a Salvadorian mercenary and former bodyguard, was later arrested for planting the bomb.

La Bodeguita has now expanded across the world. The franchise has six bars in Mexico, and individual establishments in Belgium, Hungary, and Australia, among other countries. The iconic bar is even making inroads into Asia, with a new venture just opened in Shanghai. So, wherever you are in the world, have a look to see if there’s a branch—you might be much closer to Old Havana than you think.

Mojitos are coming up! | © Derek Blackadder / Flickr

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