When Laudelina Macías entered the Monsieur bar at El Aljibe restaurant, the emotion was immediately evident in her eyes. Looking at the wall covered with photos, she exclaimed, “Look, there’s my cousin Sergio!” as her two daughters quickly joined her in that moment of excitement, mixed with nostalgia.
They were visiting from the United States, and the well-known restaurant was an obligatory stop during their trip. “This is like going back to the beginning,” one said.
The lovely recollection of past encounters fills the air, and Eliseo Diego’s old poem about a comfortable place to be comes to mind.
Laudelina remembered the El Aljibe estate, where she was born, along with the celebrated recipes her cousins, Sergio and Pepe, used with such success. She commented, “My Aunt Tona made those black beans, and her recipe is still respected at the restaurant.
“Now, more than the food itself, what I love about El Aljibe is the family history it holds, which is beautiful. That’s why I am so moved that our blood is still linked to the place. Sergio and Pepe did well wherever they opened a business; they were able to win over the public in an exceptional way.
“I live in Miami, and over there, every one knows El Aljibe. When my friends found out I was going to Cuba, several of them told me to make sure I came here. And I thought: They’re talking to me about El Aljibe, a place I’ve been connected to since I was little... Really, I think they’ve done a magnificent job preserving the memories.”
FROM THE FARM TO MIRAMAR
One of Tona’s great-grandchildren currently manages El Aljibe, located in the Havana municipality of Playa since August 13, 1993. Manager Víctor Zamora clarifies that this date was actually the re-opening, since the restaurant was first established with this name in 1946, on a farm acquired by the family on the outskirts of Havana.
“My grandfather – who was named Alberto Modesto García, but every one called Pepe – was a founder of the original El Aljibe, beginning when they rented the site at the end of WWII, with the idea of taking advantage of growing U.S. tourism, which took off in that era.
“There was a small exhibition area displaying Cuba’s principal plant species, a cock-fighting ring, a guajiro (country boy) who would climb a palm to pick the fruit… My great-grandmother was in charge of the kitchen, and the menu was based on rice, black beans, chicken, root vegetables, salads, and natural fruit juices,” he said. Zamora explained that later his grandfather bought another piece of land and, in 1953, moved the restaurant there, and received many, many Cuban and foreign figures. It was known then as the Rancho Luna del Wajay. The capacity was close to 500 guests, almost twice what El Aljibe can handle today.
“In 1959,” Zamora continued, “my great-uncle Sergio decided to open a new restaurant calledRancho Luna del Vedado, on L Street, between 15th and 17th.
Both of them turned over their property during the nationalizations undertaken by the Revolution, and went on to other work. In 1993, bringing El Aljibe back to life was proposed, with my uncle Sergio up front, and my grandfather
Pepe as captain.”
Although both are now deceased, those who followed have attempted to preserve the family tradition, said Zamora, who took up the reins in 1998. He added, “It’s no easy task, because those two old men were gastronomic institutions. The majority of our cooks learned from them.”
THE CUBAN WAY…
Working with the Palmares extra-hotel state enterprise group, the restaurant has been granted the National Vanguard distinction for several consecutive years.
Despite growing competition from private businesses, 2015 was a good year, according to the young manager Zamora, who noted that the majority of clients are from the United States, and are brought to El Aljibe by travel agencies such as Havanatur, San Cristóbal and Amistur.
Diners won’t encounter exotic meals at El Aljibe, but rather a variety of dishes ranging from beef steaks and fried pork to lobster, shrimp and fish. And Zamora reports that all dishes can be prepared according to the client’s preference - breaded, stuffed, roasted…
Nevertheless, he notes, more than 90% order chicken al Aljibe. “We adapt to the visitor, and for 12 CUC, visitors can eat as much as they like of this dish, which is the house specialty.”
Referring to the restaurant’s staying power, continuing to attract diners, Pepe’s grandson mentions a combination of elements, “It’s not only the food’s tastiness, but rather doing things a different way, being a bohío (country shack) in the center of Miramar, exquisite reception, very rapid service, little protocol in the attention offered, and always looking to make sure the client is comfortable and enjoys the visit. Our success emerged from, and is maintained by, this mix of factors,” Zamora concluded.
OPINIONS FROM THE STAFF:
In the words of Yainé González, El Aljibe staff member, it’s about making people feel at home. For example, diners are not always served from the right, as is the standard practice, but from whatever angle does not disturb the guest. She has been at the restaurant since 1993. It is the only place she has ever worked, and says staff share a strong sense of ownership, and strive to function like a family.
Jorge González, a bartender at the Monsieur, agreed that El Aljibe promotes a family environment, characterized by the professionalism the staff learned from the great teacher who was Sergio, saying “From him, we learned the importance of making an effort to provide the best service, and be at the permanent disposal of clients, because in the end, thanks to them, we exist. We are a team, from the captain to the cleaners.”