El Polinesio - Gastro Obscura

El Polinesio

When the Cuban government seized a Trader Vic's franchise, they unknowingly led to its preservation. 

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Often, visitors to Havana, Cuba, can feel as though they are unstuck in time, what with the pervasive classic muscle cars and faded mid-century modern tourist attractions. Some tourists revel in this dissonance and take to the Mad Men lifestyle, while others may consider the many injuries, both self-inflicted and those caused by others, that have led Cuba to be forever stuck in the late 1950s. Perhaps nowhere is that tourist dissonance felt more strongly than at El Polinesio, a fully preserved tiki bar located in the Habana Libre hotel.

Before the hotel was known as the Habana Libre, it was the Havana Hilton, the pride and joy of president-turned-strongman Fulgencio Batista. The hotel opened in 1958 as a state-of-the-art resort and casino. When it opened, celebrities and socialites were in attendance, and the hotel featured the hottest amenities–most importantly, it had a Trader Vic’s.

Trader Vic’s both heralded and also reflected the rise of tiki culture, a mid-century melange of Polynesian and Māori customs mixed in with a healthy dose of cultural appropriation. After World War II, many Americans newly exposed to the Pacific theater, especially Californians, began to revel in these trends, and kitschy tiki bars became a nationwide and soon worldwide smash.

All this history ended up facing the reality of the Cuban Revolution. Within months, American resorts were closed, and only reopened at the behest of the Cuban government. The Hilton soon became the Habana Libre and Trader Vic’s was nationalized within months, as the government seized the means of production of mai tais.

In a twist of fate that could assuredly lead to a number of political science essays, ironically the Communist regime has preserved this ode to high-end resort kitsch and colonialist excess far better than capitalist countries. The bar and restaurant, renamed El Polinesio, has been preserved in nearly an intact state, making it functionally the only remaining Trader Vic’s still standing from its 1950s heyday.

Many details are original, from the fireplace to the birdcage lamps down to the original glassware. Much of this preservation is due to its longtime manager Osvaldo Sainz, son of original Havana Trader Vic’s bartender Enrique Sainz. His love and reverence for tiki culture helped keep the place alive and in the spirit of its original intent–and the spirits, as you can still order from its original drink menu. You can stop in for a mai tai, mojito, or Cuba libre, and imagine Havana as it once was, and contemplate what it is now.

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