The “Europa” restaurant is located on Obispo, Old Havana’s most cosmopolitan and famous street, just at the corner of Aguiar Street and diagonally across from the droguería Jhonnson [Johnson Drugstore]. My mother, who arrived in the city from a village in the interior in 1937, just before turning two, and who has lived in this part of the city ever since, tells me that Europa was always a far from luxurious restaurant, one of many in the city since colonial times.
However, this locale reached its greatest popularity during the ’70s and ’80s, when it was one of the most frequented pizzerias in the city. It was so popular that if today you mentioned “Europa Restaurant” to any middle-aged native or non-native Habanero, he would shrug his shoulders; but if you said “the pizzeria on Obispo” he would certainly know what place you are referring to.
The pizzeria on Obispo was one of those places that lay in the path of many people on that very busy street, and for that reason it was one of the best known in Havana. For those who had the time and patience to stand in line and sit down comfortably and be leisurely served, it had an enclosed, air-conditioned area. There was also an outdoor patio area, open to both Obispo and Aguiar streets, perfect for those less demanding of their gastronomic service; you stood in line directly behind each seat, right behind whoever was seated there at the moment. This way was a little uncomfortable and forward, but very convenient for those who weren’t too picky when both hungry and in a hurry.
The Europa wasn’t classy, just a simple place for spaghetti, pizza or lasagna. Certain neighborhood sots weren’t missing from the patio either, whenever beer was available. They would stand behind the latest diner and, in a low voice, wheedle: “Hey girl, if you’re not going to order the beer give it to me.” Because then, and up to the late ’80s, you had to pay for food to get beer at this and many other restaurants. Almost anyone could afford a place like this, as the pizza—and a plate of spaghetti too—cost only 1.20 pesos.
During that time it was also unusual to come across a tourist, and the foreigners you saw once in a while were mostly sailors passing through the island, almost always from old socialist countries.
Well, after the economic disaster of the ’90s, when gastronomical offerings became so scarce as to almost disappear, the Obispo pizzeria (like almost everything) was no more, and after some time it was closed to the public.
For a good long time mysterious work sounds were heard emanating from within the place, and some optimistic locals assured that the pizzeria would open again soon. There was speculation that the prices would be a little higher than before (of course!), but finally that lively corner of Obispo would be reclaimed for the people and pedestrians of Old Havana. The most starry-eyed declared “Leal is going to compete with the places in Chinatown that have monopolized the pizza market.”* Well, I said it: The most starry-eyed.
And “Europa” did in fact reopen. Or better to say, it’s a restaurant again, because its doors are still closed to average Cubans. Europa is now a luxury restaurant that accepts only the convertible peso; that is, it is aimed towards foreign tourism and those (Cubans) anointed by the gerontocracy and other exclusive ranks. Its new glass doors, etched with its initials, discreetly guard the elegant premises with an inviting atmosphere adorned with lamps. Its tables are set with cloths and crystal glasses and watched over by waiters tending solicitously to the privileged clients.
When I was going by there on February 12 I tried to get in to take a few pictures, just before it opened. Of course I wasn’t allowed; it’s an exclusive place, a kind of tabernacle that plebeians like me have to be kept out of, no matter how many pizzas might have been consumed there in the past.
Eusebio Leal Spengler is the Havana City Historian, and director of the restoration program of Old Havana and its historical center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Havana’s Chinatown is a small area located just to the west of Old Havana.