Historic Structures

Sloppy Joes Bar, Key West Florida

Date added: July 1, 2021 Categories: Florida Commercial

Only limited historical sources exist documenting the original Victoria Restaurant, which was to become the home of Sloppy Joe's Bar in 1937. During construction in 1917, a photograph was taken of workmen preparing the foundation of the restaurant. Another photo, taken during the 1920s shows a view of the restaurant at the corner of Duval and Greene streets. Although the print is somewhat fuzzy, it is possible to see that "Victoria Restaurant" has been painted just above the entrance to the building. The restaurant is also listed at 201 Duval Street in Key West city directory for 1917-1919, and the restaurant appears on the 1926 edition of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Key West.

Juan Farto, a native of Spain, purchased the land on which to build the Victoria Restaurant in 1917. According to Juanita Veliz, Jose Castillo, Farto's brother-in-law, served as the architect for the building. According to Farto's business card, the Victoria Restaurant was the "only first class restaurant" in Key West, and featured "American and Spanish cooking with seafood as a specialty." During its heyday during the 1920s, the Victoria Restaurant catered to the elite residents and winter visitors on the island. Palm Beach millionaire Malcolm Meacham, who established what was to become Key West International Airport, booked many private dinner parties at the restaurant. Wealthy Cubans en route to mainland Florida via the ferry from Havana and the Overseas Railway would telegraph Farto to prepare paella, a favorite Spanish dish containing rice and seafood. It was the U.S. Navy's "club" for years and on Saturday nights was used for dances.

Farto operated the restaurant until 1937, when he sold the building to Joe Russell, at that time the proprietor of the Sloppy Joe's Bar located one block away at 428 Greene Street. During the Prohibition Era, the original Sloppy Joe's Bar operated as a "speakeasy" under several names, such as the Blind Pig and the Silver Slipper. The bar specialized in brand name whiskies and rum smuggled to Key West mainly from Havana, Cuba, where alcoholic spirits were legal. Oral tradition says that it was Hemingway who encouraged Joe Russell to change the name of his bar to "Sloppy Joe's," after a similarly named "watering hole" in Havana. The official legal opening of the original Sloppy Joe's Bar on Greene Street was December 5, 1933, the day that Prohibition was repealed.

The new Sloppy Joe's Bar on Duval Street opened officially on May 5, 1937. A photograph of the new Sloppy Joe's Bar was taken around the time of its opening. One of the constant patrons of the original Sloppy Joe's Bar was Ernest Hemingway, who moved his custom to the new location. Hemingway arrived in Key West in 1928 and purchased the old Asa Tift House on Whitehead Street in 1931. The house (now the Ernest Hemingway House Museum) would be Hemingway's residence on and off until his death in 1961.

The new bar became the favorite drinking establishment of Ernest Hemingway and his "mob" of friends, mainly writers and artists that had come to make Key West their winter home. These included some of the literary lights of the day and a variety of local residents; John Dos Passes, Waldo Pierce, Captain Eddie Saunders, and Henry Strater. The new spot featured the longest bar in town. The Club Room, a partitioned hideaway, was used for gambling. Joseph Russell required the bartenders and waiters to wear blue serge pants, and white shirts with ties. A painting by artist Erik Smith depicting the bartender Al Skinner, Russell, and Hemingway hung in the bar for years.

Joseph S. Russell was born in Key West on December 9, 1888. Russell worked as a cigarmaker, charter boat captain, rumrunner, Hemingway's boat pilot, and was the author's fishing companion for twelve years. In his company, "Papa" Hemingway caught an astonishing 54 marlin in 115 days. Hemingway called Russell "Josie Grunts" and used him as the model for the fictional character Freddy, the owner of Freddy's Bar and captain of the Queen Conch in the novel To Have and Have Not.

As a charter boat captain, Russell prowled the Gulf Stream waters aboard his 32-foot fishing boat, the Anita. He was Hemingway's boat pilot after the author purchased his own craft, the Pilar. The pair often headquartered at the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Havana, Cuba, where Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea in 1952. The two men drank mojitos at the original Sloppy Joe's Bar on Prado Street in Havana and at the El Floridita Restaurant. In a letter to Waldo Pierce in 1932, Hemingway wrote: "We are going to Havana to fish out from there, going across in Josie Grunt's boat on the first moonlit night." In 1936, Hemingway commented to his editor Maxwell Perkins, "Mr. Josie is laying off the operation of his highly successful joint because he is getting bartender's foot from standing up all day and night, and the day after.. .he is going over to Cuba with me."

Joe Russell died in Havana of a heart attack on June 20,1941, aged 52. He had accompanied Hemingway, who by that time spent most of his time at his home in Cuba, on a fishing excursion. It was Hemingway that called Russell's wife Lulu and brought his body home to Key West, In Havana The Post noted the passing of "a great fisherman" who was one of the pioneers of rod and reel fishing for large game fish in Cuban waters. After Joe Russell's death, his widow Lulu continued to operate the bar until 1956, when his son, Joe Russell, Jr., became the owner of the bar.

Today, Sloppy Joe's Bar continues to operate under different ownership as a saloon in Key West. The bar remains a place of entertainment and an eating and drinking establishment that is popular with both city residents and tourists. The bar is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. 365 days a year. Sloppy Joe's is a Key West landmark that has become internationally famous and attracts thousands of visitors annually. In 1981, the bar began hosting the anual Hemingway Look-Alike Contest which ultimately became a weeklong celebration honoring Hemingway as both writer and sportsman. In mid-July each year. Sloppy Joe's is thronged with cheerful bearded men competing for the title of Hemingway Look-A-Like, while Hemingway family members judge their worthiness and hundreds of spectators cheer on their favorites. The Look-A-Like Society, composed of each year's contest winners, is now organized as a nonprofit group with educational and environmental concerns. Today the festival incorporates events that include an internationally recognized short story competion, street fair, and storytelling contest.

Visit the Offical Sloppy Joe's Bar Website