Mike McNally started working in the kitchen as a dishwasher when he was 17. He’s 37 now and the head cook. Pokey Wynn and Martie Sanchez have been cooking and expediting in the kitchen for 16 years each. Sara Fernandez has been handling the dining room for not quite that long. The mural by Gulfport muralist Keith Stillwagon has been preserved for two decades, the Florida flora and fauna faded but never painted over. And on the website, a plucky but amateurish organ rendition of that old chestnut La Bamba provides the nostalgic soundtrack.
Habana Cafe in Gulfport has been around. To be precise, it celebrated 20 years in May, making it one of the elder statesmen in Gulfport, located about a mile from the city’s burgeoning restaurant row. When it debuted, Cuban food had a stronghold in parts of Tampa, but not so much in Pinellas County. It was the birthright and vision of Josefa “Jo” Gonzalez Hastings, who took over a charming two-story old house that had previously hosted a California wrap restaurant and coin laundry called Charlie Bubbles.
Jo and her aunt, Alina Gonzalez, aimed to debut a moderately priced restaurant showcasing family recipes from the Habana and Oriente regions of Cuba — picadillo and Oriente-style lechon asado. Their audience had a steep learning curve: Your sign is spelled wrong, they said. (Havana is the Anglicized version of the word Habana.) What’s a boliche, they said.
Visit these days and it looks like a room full of regulars, many placing orders for a go-to dish they’ve been devoted to for years. It’s a comfortable two-level space, the first floor festooned with a huge world map, mounted restaurant reviews and accolades, and wide, double-decker windows. Upstairs a balcony level is a bit more intimate, rendered more romantic by strings of white twinkly lights.