Although it’s usually the giant MoonPie atop Mobile’s second-tallest building that gets all the attention at the dawn of a new year, now it’s the basement everyone is quietly excited about.
A battered old service elevator in the Trustmark building took me to the basement last Wednesday night, where you’ll find the city’s newest — and perhaps most unique — downtown bar, Las Floriditas.
There, I met Roosevelt Patterson Jr., a former Alabama football player who looked every bit the part. The mountain of a man, known more delicately as “Rosie,” greeted me with a smile and an “hola” before asking for the day’s secret password.
The word on the bar’s first night of operation was “Hemingway.” At the utterance of this special word, and confirmation from Rosie, a bookcase behind him opened and I was ushered into the modern speakeasy.
As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit former safe room of the old First National Bank, I was struck by the music playing over speakers throughout the establishment. I was overtaken by the music and the specially made domino tables placed throughout the bar. I was immediately transported to Cuba, during a time when Ernest Hemingway might’ve taken his rightful place at a corner table, a sugar-free cocktail in his hand.
It was no mistake that my first thoughts upon entering were island-related. That’s the vibe owner Bob Baumhower was going for when he conceived the idea more than a decade ago.
“We were actually looking at a different building in 2007 or 2008; the old Russo’s building in Fort Conde village,” he said. “We couldn’t put the deal together because of the Great Recession.”
A little more than four years ago, Baumhower began inquiring about space in the Trustmark building because of a strong relationship with the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which still owns it.
“We started the build-out four years ago, but ran into a water problem,” he said. “We eventually got back online.”
The “water problem,” as he called it, was actually flooding issues, which were resolved by raising the floor. Visitors can spot evidence of this renovation by looking at the huge, old vault door, which is stuck in place by a cutout of the floor. More tables sit beyond the vault door and safe deposit boxes line the inside walls.
The Cuban-themed, speakeasy-style bar was designed to pay homage to an old bar in Havana called El Floridita, Baumhower said. That bar originally opened in 1817, and later it’s where Hemingway would spend his days, sipping on a cocktail made from rum, natural grapefruit and lime juices, Baumhower said. The signature cocktail called the Papa Doble is featured on the new bar’s menu. El Floridita is also the birthplace of the daiquiri, he said. Las Floriditas, like its inspiration, has a number of daiquiris on the menu, as well. About a year ago, Baumhower and others visited the old Cuban bar and made daiquiris, he said, so the line of succession is clear.
“When you have a daiquiri here, it’s in the tradition of El Floridita,” Baumhower said.
The Hemingway and Cuban themes flow throughout, with pictures of the famous author adorning almost every wall and a tropical motif running throughout.
When Baumhower lived in South Florida he got interested in island life while traveling to an island near Fort Lauderdale. Later he said he became a fan of Cuba. A Cuban theme also plays well with Mobile, he said, which has strong ties to the island nation and its capital city. Baumhower thought the idea would work.
“Mobile has a great relationship with Havana,” Baumhower said. “I thought it was a good idea, with Mobile’s history with Cuba and my background. This is all stuff I love.”
Baumhower motioned proudly toward the domino tables where several patrons were perched. The tables, the former Miami Dolphins player said, were made in South Florida and depicted different scenes. One showed an image inspired by Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” while another showed the bar’s logo and yet another showed a map of Cuba.
Baumhower admitted the idea of a password in order to access a place of business is a bit of an alternative marketing plan, but said it’s all in fun. Patrons can find out what the secret word is each day by going to the bar’s Facebook page or Instagram profile.
“We hope it’s fun,” he said. “We want people to have fun.”
The bar serves more than just beer, wine and cocktails though. The place specializes in Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban food, in the form of small plates and bar grub.
While Baumhower owns the joint, he said the opening was a team effort involving himself, his wife, Leslie, their family and his staff.
In addition to drinks and food, the bar has a stage for live music and plans to host salsa dancing classes.
With the uniqueness of the place — open at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday — it won’t be a secret for long.
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