Growing up in Cuba, Jose Lorenzo, co-owner of the new Habana Hemingway Café in McLaws Circle, considered novelist Ernest Hemingway a role model.
“Ernest Hemingway loved the culture, food, drink, music and artwork of Cuba,” Lorenzo says. “He loved everything about the island and was an inspiration.”
Lorenzo, who moved to Richmond when he was 16, went on to own and operate two Cuban-themed restaurants there before Alex Menendez, another native of Cuba, convinced him to bring his touch of the Cuban cuisine and culture to Williamsburg. Menendez and Lorenzo opened the Habana Hemingway Café in January.
The restaurant is named, in part, in honor of Hemingway, and the author’s influences can be found throughout the café, including the walls. Lorenzo, who is also a mural artist, hand painted several Hemingway-themed pictures on the walls of the dining and bar areas of the establishment.
“We are a Cuban restaurant with an American twist,” Lorenzo says.
One of the most popular items on the menu is the “Ropa Vieja,” a Cuban dish with house special shredded beef sautéed with garlic, onions, bell peppers, and finished in a wine tomato sauce. The flank steak as well as the Cuban sandwich, which is prepared with roast pork, sweet ham, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, are also customer favorites.
“Of course, everyone asks for the Cuban sandwich,” says Lorenzo. “It is made with our own custom bread using a Miami recipe. We make our bread fresh every morning. We use a lot of Cuban flavors and color in our food. We try to make it as authentic as we can.”
The same holds true for the adult beverages.
The bar area is dubbed “Home of the Mojito,” a cocktail made with rum, lime or lemon juice, mint, sugar, ice, and sparkling water or club soda. Mojitos were made famous at the LaBodeguita del Medio bar in Havana.
“Ernest Hemingway would go there all the time and have a mojito,” says Lorenzo, who enrolled in classes to learn how to make genuine mojitos. “We also have Hemingway daiquiris on the menu as well as The Old Cuban, which is similar to the mojito but uses champagne.”
Lorenzo’s wife, Leticia, assists in the kitchen as well as the front of the house and there are six waitstaff. Lorenzo, meanwhile, is a man of many talents and, in addition to being restaurant co-owner, chef, and mural artist, he is also a musician. He and his Cuban band, Timbason, often entertain the Habana Hemingway Café’s guests.
“My favorite part of the restaurant business is the people,” he says. “I enjoy meeting new people and all the conversations I have with them.”
Habana Hemingway Café is open for lunch and dinner and has entertainment nightly. Wednesday night is Salsa Night with free dance lessons and Thursday night is Piano Bar Dinner Night. There are also comedians and Latino music and dancing on the weekends and a Paint, Wine and Mojito Night the second Friday of each month.
Eventually, Lorenzo, who has worked with food trucks as well, would like to add a food truck for the restaurant to bring Cuban flair to other parts of the community.
“We aren’t just a restaurant,” Lorenzo says. “We are like an entertainment center. It’s a different experience each time you come. So far, it’s been great. Come on out and see what we are all about.”
Want to go?
Habana Hemingway Café
264 McLaws Circle
Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.