As a Cuban immigrant, Jose Lorenzo hopes his new restaurant will provide not only the taste of his native country, but also its sights and sounds.
Lorenzo opened Habana Hemingway Café on McLaw’s Circle Jan. 8, and as soon as guests walk in they are greeted by popular Cuban music.
To the left of the main entrance, the walls of the dining room are adorned with murals of Cuba. To the right, beyond the bar, are more paintings and a cabinet stocked with Cuban cigars.
The paintings were not purchased, framed and hung — instead, Lorenzo created them all with his own hands.
“Ever since I was a kid, I was a painter,” Lorenzo said. “Music, food and painting are my passion. I love to cook. My wife says I cook pretty good.”
One of his paintings depicts a lighthouse towering over the sunny Cuban coastline. A bright mural shows a red roadster parked in front of some shops on a narrow, stony street. Others display the Cuban flag, rolling waves on the sea, and the restaurant’s namesake, Ernest Hemingway, who spent much of his life in Cuba.
Painting is the reason Lorenzo left Cuba in the first place. In the mid-1990s, many of his paintings were political in nature, and usually critical of Fidel Castro’s oppressive communist regime.
Rather than being thrown in jail for his dissent, Lorenzo took his chances on a new life in America.
“I came here for freedom of speech,” Lorenzo said. “Now I have the freedom to do what I want.”
Lorenzo’s freedom of expression, colored by his upbringing in Cuba, inject personality into every aspect of the Habana Hemingway Café.
Even the glass-covered tabletops were designed and hand-painted by Lorenzo.
“I like to be creative in every respect that I can,” he said.
The food itself has authentic Cuban tastes that can’t be found anywhere else in Williamsburg, Lorenzo said.
Habana Hemingway Café’s menu is built around entrees and sandwiches featuring beef, pork, chicken and seafood cooked and topped with Cuban spices and peppers. Onions, garlic, cilantro, bell peppers, oregano and cumin are common ingredients in both Cuba and Lorenzo’s café.
Popular Cuban sides like rice, sweet plantains, Yuca fries and black beans round out the menu.
Since moving to the U.S. Lorenzo said he has borrowed from his new home’s culinary palette. For example, salmon is not commonly served on the island of Cuba, but Habana Hemingway’s Café offers a salmon dish prepared with a mango-glaze native to Cuba.
“Since the place is called ‘Hemingway,’ we have a bit of American fusion,” Lorenzo said. “I love my culture, but at the same time I love American culture.”
In addition to his paintings on every wall, the Robustos Supremos cigars, and the Cuban music he has brought north with him, Lorenzo’s café offers free salsa lessons every Wednesday night. Every Thursday, guests will dine while live piano is played in the front of the dining room.
Wine and painting nights will be held the first Friday of every month, featuring Spanish wine, as Lorenzo said most Cubans have Spanish lineage.
Friday nights will be mambo nights and Saturdays will be Miami nights, with dancing and live music from 10 p.m. until close.
Lorenzo is even the lead singer of a band, Timbason La Original, who will be playing in Habana Hemingway Café once a month.
“This is not just a place where you can come eat,” Lorenzo said.