14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodriguez, Havana, January 21, 2022 — A red and yellow sign on 23rd Street in Havana’s Vedado district alerts passersby to one of the city’s latest building projects. “P Street closed. Detour through O Street,” it reads in capital letters, turning an onlooker’s gaze towards the site of the old Moscow restaurant, where workers were setting up a construction fence on Friday.
The building’s neighbors, who for decades have been complaining about the ruin, a breeding ground for mosquitoes and rats, look on in wonder at what would seem to be repairs were it not for the sign at the corner of Humboldt Street that clearly states the purpose of the work: “Hotel under Construction.”
Faced with years-long complaints and public discontent, authorities announced their intention to demolish the building, arguing that the extensive damaged caused by the 1989 fire, combined with years of abandonment, made it impossible to save the structure.
They later unveiled a plan on television to demolish the main structure while preserving the existing underground parking garage in order to construct a new hotel on the site.
Over the course of its history the site has had several uses: a dairy farm, then Havana’s first greyhound race course in the 1940s, followed by the luxurious Café Montmartre in the 1940s. With two bars and a casino, it wasopen every evening and featured live music.
The most famous stars of the era paraded through the French-style nightclub: Mexican composer Agustín Lara, Spanish singer and dancer Lola Flores and, of course, Cuba’s own Benny Moré, Olga Guillot and Rita Montaner. It was reported that, in 1947, Frank Sinatra cut into a giant cake amid its lavish interiors in celebration of his recent wedding to Ava Gardner.
It was here also that Fulgencio Batista’s head of military intelligence, Antonio Blanco Rico, was assassinated.
When Fidel Castro came to power, the business was appropriated and converted to a workers’ canteen. In the 1960s it was turned into the Moscow restaurant, coinciding with the country becoming a Soviet satellite, with a menu featuring Russian specialties. One of its signature dishes was solyanka, a soup made with an abundance of sliced meats.
“An uncle of mine was a captain in one of the Moscow’s dining rooms,” recalls Sandra, a 45-year-old Havana native who remembers stories he used to tell her. “My brother and I were fascinated by a book, printed in Russia, that told you all there was to know about the restaurant. That’s how we learned the difference between a meat knife and a butter knife.”
One weekend in 1989, when the building was undergoing repairs, a fire broke out in the restaurant’s lower floor that ultimately destroyed the whole place. It seems to have been an omen. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union collapsed.
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