14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 2 November 2023 — Neither the gray sky nor the rain that fell at intervals on Havana this Thursday clouded the brand new figure of the old Varsovia [Warsaw] restaurant on the corner of 12th and 17th streets in Havana’s El Vedado district. With its freshly painted façade and shiny windows, the store has reopened, converted into a complex of private businesses with prices that, even in one of the most affluent neighborhoods of the Cuban capital, would scare anyone away.
The entrance on 17th Street introduces the customer to a bright environment. Blackboards written with chalk and a certain informal touch welcome buyers to the butcher shop area and warn them that they will have to pay 1,300 pesos for each pound of beef steak they wants to buy. If their desire is to sink their teeth into a steak again, then the price rises to 3,000, but they also finds out that there is no more brisket left and the steak is gone.
“I came in because I didn’t want to get wet,” a woman explains at the door, shaking her umbrella before completely crossing the threshold. “I can’t afford to pay for any of this but I have to say that the place turned out nice,” she points out, immediately adding: “It’s a shame that the exterior paint wasn’t enough for the entire building, because now it looks older and more destroyed, with the ground floor being so renovated.”
It’s a shame that the exterior paint wasn’t enough for the entire building, because now it looks older and more destroyed with the ground floor being so renovated.
On 12th Street there is another entrance to the complex, but this one leads to a small business that sells “household supplies.” A living room set with two armchairs costs a whopping 200,000 pesos, while an ornamental glass ball reaches 80,000. “I don’t think anything is sold here because I’ve never seen such high prices,” grumbled a young man who was exploring the establishment for the first time this morning.
Outside, a woman and her daughter pressed their faces to the window to see the interior of the store, but the windows, suitably dark, barely allowed the goods for sale to be distinguished from the sidewalk. After a few seconds, the two crossed the street and directed their steps towards a nearby bus stop, protecting themselves from the rain with a piece of cardboard from a box a TV came in.
The restaurant area of the new Varsovia, which is not yet operational, has six tables for four people each. This Thursday the employees were still cleaning that part and, a few meters away, the bakery, which only had bags of breadcrumbs, was already sending out deliveries. The market located in the building was well stocked with preserves, beers and soft drinks.
Sweets, chocolates and ice cream star in the new Varsovia complex. Candies, chocolates, fruit cakes and all types of jams, most of them imported, complete the syrupy offering in a country where diabetes rates are increasingly alarming and in a month in which sugar is the only product that has reached many of the ration stores.
Nowhere in the new and exclusive complex can you read the old name by which Havana residents still know the place, but the reminder was not necessary for some of those who approached this morning to talk about “the new image of the Varsovia” or, as an old man declared: “Look what the Polish comrades have become!”
The former restaurant was baptized during the nominal fever that spread through Cuba when the Island’s alliance with the communist countries that made up the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CAME). In those years, restaurants with names of the capitals of the countries that orbited the Kremlin, such as Warsaw and Sofia, or named after the Soviet capital itself, such as Moscow, proliferated.
At the Varsovia, dishes allegorical to Poland were served but also Creole combinations accompanied by the emblematic fruit juices of Bulgaria, pears in syrup from Romania or sweets made from condensed milk imported from the German Democratic Republic. The spell of the world of the proletariat began to break in the late 1980s and by the 1990s the restaurant fell into a tailspin.
“You couldn’t even come here, even at the time when they turned it into a restaurant [that took payment] in convertible pesos,” recalls Manolo, a resident of 12th Street. “It had red curtains that were never washed and cockroaches walked on the walls. The menu was very limited and state employees stole with both hands. There was a time when this was empty because they no longer had cooking supplies.”
Manolo says that the demise of Varsovia was accompanied by the crisis of the entire neighborhood. “This entire area is around what was the second most important corner in El Vedado after 23 and L. Here on 12 and 23 we had everything: cinema, pizzeria, a hamburger place, ice cream parlor, flower shops, bakery and stores.”
Now, some of the other establishments in the neighborhood are in decay, and others are under repair, the Varsovia shines with a particular light, that of the incandescent glow emitted by an 80,000 peso crystal ball.
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