Michelle Bernstein is back with something new — but it’s nothing like her restaurant Michy’s.
The James Beard award-winning chef and her chef-husband have partnered with a longtime elite Miami bartender to open a new lounge in Little Havana. And the vibe is classic, old-world Cuba.
Café La Trova, which quietly opened Jan. 17 with limited hours and menu, is meant to evoke elegant pre-Castro Cuban cocktail bars, down to the cantineros mixing drinks in tuxedo shirts and bowties. Call Café La Trova the Cuban cousin to the award-winning bar Sweet Liberty, the Miami Beach bar Bernstein and her husband, David Martinez, co-own. The new spots opens with regular hours Jan. 28.
“It’s very thoughtful, and you feel it the second you walk in,” Bernstein said.
If it feels authentic it’s because of her partner in this venture, Julio Cabrera, the mind behind the elegant Regent Cocktail Club in Miami Beach. He grew up in his father’s bar behind their home in the Cuban province of Matanzas. Here, the live band plays classic Cuban songs and the well-dressed waiters may well lead you in a merengue, if you wish.
Meanwhile, the best way to enjoy it are with Bernstein’s finger foods to keep the party going (and a coffee bar where pastelitos are kept warm all night).
Café La Trova plucks the best of what Cabrera and Bernstein do and put it all in one place.
During the day, it’s a coffee bar and sandwich shop, with all day empanadas, croquetas, pastelitos and desserts.
At night, it changes into eveningwear and transforms into a classic lounge with heartier dishes, music, a Cuban vibe and drinks to match.
Expect spins on daiquiris and mojitos — with plenty of whimsy. (One drink is served on a wooden chancleta, a tribute to abuela’s favorite weapon.)
Out back is a second bar with a distinctly ’80s vibe at night, doubling during the day as cantinero school for bartenders in training.
“The food is totally wrapped around his Cuban sensibility,” Bernstein said.
She took inspiration for the menu from Cabrera. His father, Israel Cabrera, sold almost all his worldly possessions to buy the cafe and bar that butted up against their island home in the 1950s. He called the place Café El Sacrificio.
It was the family’s livelihood until the bar itself was sacrificed to the Cuban government, which took it over, as it did all private businesses, after the 1959 revolution.
“And just like that, one day, they showed up and took everything from the refrigerator to the coffee makers,” Cabrera remembered. “I remember them putting the yellow tape over the door.”
Cabrera’s fathers salvaged precious items from that bar — including the metal sign with the bar’s name — and held onto them for decades, spiriting them to Miami. Cabrera promised him until the day he died in 2015 that he would hang that sign in his own bar someday.
Those items now adorn Café La Trova, a bar that Cabrera has been working toward since he left Cuba in 2001.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring him here, but I know his spirit is present,” Cabrera said.
An agricultural engineer with a degree from the University of Matanzas, Cabrera instead turned to Cuba’s life-raft hospitality economy in the late 1980s and studied tourism — particularly the buttoned-down culture of Cuban bartending.
He learned to match the elegance and presence of bartenders with a close-cropped haircuts and impeccable attire with precisely made cocktails.
That took him around the world as a brand ambassador for Cuba’s Havana Club rum (a company whose right to the name has long been disputed by the Bacardi family in exile, which produces a rum by the same name).
He met Bernstein and her husband David Martinez on a project in Mexico in 2004 and later handled all the drinks at Bernstein’s award-winning Michy’s. He also later collaborated on Sra. Martinez and Cena by Michy.
All of her restaurants eventually closed — the result, partly, of rising rents. Bernstein focused on family (she and Martinez now have a 7-year-old son), creating the menu for Sweet Liberty, catering and her long-running PBS television show, “Check, Please!”
But when Cabrera came to her with his lifelong passion project three years ago, chatting over Cuban cigars and cocktails, she and Martinez hopped on board.
Bernstein poured her heart into the food, down to her mother’s own Flan de Mama. Croquetas, her hallmark at Sra. Martinez, return stuffed with paella, jamon serrano with fig jam for dipping, or a creamy spinach and feta intended to melt on the first bite. Empanadas stuffed with beef, sweet corn and chicken, or roasted calabaza show her Argentine side, the tapas her Spanish influences.
“Everything has Cuban influences but isn’t only Cuban,” Martinez said. “It has all of Michelle’s touches.”
They hope it will become a place for regulars around the clock — a lounge, a bar, a restaurant, a hangout with Little Havana soul.
“I always promised my dad that one day, somewhere in the world, I was going to re-open his bar,” Cabrera said.
Café La Trova
971 SW Eighth St., Miami
For updated hours, visit CafeLaTrova.com