Monday, April 24, 2006

Drinking History at New York's Algonquin Hotel, USA

"I love a martini/but two at most/three I'm under the table/four I'm under the host" wrote Dorothy Parker in "the glorious decade" (1919-29) when Parker, Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross and their fellow wits lunched at their famed round table in the Algonquin Hotel. Ironically, they couldn't drink any martinis at all. It was Prohibition!

Now the history seeking tourist can drink with pleasure. A sense of the hotel's past is everywhere, from the tiny couch across from the front desk for the Algonquin house cat Matilda to Natalie Ascencios's painting "A Vicious Circle" hanging behind the round table. We arrived on a wet afternoon and were immediately charmed by the dark wood lobby and the cocktail lounge filled with comfortable chairs, framed photos of famed guests, and, perhaps, guests about to be famous working at their laptops. The courteous staff were amused as we took photos of the round table, painting, lobby, piano and each other. We then settled at a tiny table and sank into a larger version of Matilda's couch to drink in the Algonquin experience.

Classic (and very expensive) cocktails are a must so we began with the Matilda, a lovely mix of Mandarin Absolut, cointreau, orange peel, and champagne. Then a New Yorker, a Negroponi, and of course a martini (or two). The cocktails are served on a napkin printed with Parker's martini poem, accompanied by a bowl of salted nuts. As we sank deeper into the couch, a pianist softly played Cole Porter and Gershwin and history became alive.

For readers of "The New Yorker" the Algonquin is a holy shrine. "The New Yorker" was founded in 1925 by Harold Ross, a regular at the round table. "New Yorker" writers and editors would gather regularly at the Algonquin for lunch. Faulkner wrote his Nobel Prize speech in his Algonquin room in 1950; Gertrude Stein often stayed at the Algonquin as well. Actors, writers, musicians, the rich and the famous have stayed at and written about the hotel. Aware of its unique history, the Algonquin provides a leaflet "Tribal Tales of the Algonquin" featuring "New Yorker" ads from 1931 and facts about the hotel's noted visitors.

In the warm glow of $13 cocktails, classic American music, soft chairs, dark wood, Japanese wallpaper, images of "the vicious circle", thoughtful and attentive service, literary history is as exciting now as it was being made in "that glorious decade".

The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th St.
New York, New York 10036

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hemingway's Havana Haunts, Havana, Cuba

Ernest Hemingway...American novelist, short-story writer, journalist, Nobel prize winner, ambulance driver, fisherman, secret agent, playboy, animal-lover, madman, alcoholic? Whichever title you choose, 'Papa' was his own preferred nomenclature, certainly during his time in residence on the Caribbean island of Cuba, his adopted home for two decades.

Today, Cuba's architectural glory is literally crumbling and you could be forgiven for feeling you have stepped into a time-machine and been transported to a former age as 1950s Chevrolet after 1950s Chevrolet passes you by in varying shades of pastel-ness. Despite initial appearances and if you look beyond the flaking paint and the cracking walls there lie hidden gems waiting to be discovered. One of these, the city of Havana, which in part is now a UNESCO world heritage site and gradually being restored, played host to 'Papa' Hemingway and provided inspiration for some of his most famous works. As you tour Havana's intoxicating old town, it is quite easy to punctuate your efforts with stops at the former drinking dens of the renowned drinker.

Within staggering distance of Edificio Bacardi, the former headquarters of the Bacardi rum clan, now famously at loggerheads with the Cuban government and no longer producing rum in Cuba, there's the Floridita. This bar is where Hemingway would come to drink daiquiris on his way home to his four dogs and 57 cats at Finca Vigia, his farm on the outskirts of the city. Hemingway once said that alcohol was his “best friend and severest critic”. After twelve daiquiris, reputedly Hemingway's normal intake in one session, it is perhaps easy to see why he considered the relationship a close one. Although partial to daiquiris as he was, Hemingway created his own version of the cocktail, now immortalised as the ‘Papa Doble’. The traditional Floridita daiquiri contains lime juice, a dash of maraschino, a shot of rum and half a teaspoon of sugar over crushed ice. Hemingway's variation cut out the sugar and doubled the rum!

La Bodeguita del Medio, located close to Plaza de la Cathedral was another regular hangout of Hemingway's being where he would come when he fancied an alternative to the daiquiris. This bar and restaurant, was where Papa would indulge in a mojito or two and, supposedly, endorsed his penchant for this establishment's particular concoction of rum, sugar, mint, water and ice by adding his name to the graffiti on the walls. Nowadays, the place is overrun with tourists and sadly, can no longer be said to serve the best mojitos in town. One suspects the management believe poor service, over-salted food and weak drinks can be compensated for by the curiosity value of the scribbled-on walls and celebrity photographs adorning them. Hemingway is no doubt turning in his grave at the state of the watering hole he once loved.

For many years, Papa Hemingway stayed at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, close to the Plaza des Armes. The hotel has recently been renovated and now looks stylishly modern yet retains much of its traditional character. Hemingway stayed in Room 511, which can be viewed, at a fee for non-hotel guests, for seven years and is known to have worked on "For Whom the Bell Tolls" during this time. Today, the rooftop restaurant, reached by the birdcage lift, serves great mojitos and would perhaps be a more worthy recipient than La Bodeguita for 'the best mojito in town' award, although it should be said they are by no means the cheapest.

As you tour Cuba Hemingway's literary legacy lingers on but it has to be said that he has also left another legacy, of a more liquid kind, in Havana. Perhaps a more appropriate title for Papa Hemingway might be 'Old Man of the C'...the C standing for cocktail?

La Floridita
Obispo No.557 esq. a Monserrate
Tel:(53-7) 867 1299 or 867 1300 or 867 1301 Ext. 128
Fax:(53-7) 33 8856 or 86 68856

La Bodeguita del Medio
Empedrado entre Cuba y San Ignacio
(Near Plaza de la Cathedral)
Tel: 62-4498

Hotel Ambos Mundos
Calle Obispo 153
(Near Plaza des Armes)