The New Face of Havana Nightlife

As Cuba slowly leaves the 1950s behind, one nightclub offers a vision for the country's future that's more than classic cars and mojitos. Suzanne Cope on La Fábrica, and the changing face of Havana nightlife.

On my last night in Havana, I took a cab to the edge of the residential neighborhood of Vedado, where I walked a half-dozen deserted blocks past warehouses shuttered for the night. I was miles away from the tourist-heavy neighborhood of Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, on a mission to find what had been billed to me as an unforgettable night out—one that would give me a taste of real Cuban nightlife, and, I’d come to find, rival the likes of New York and LA.

My last week had been spent exploring Havana under the guidance of a pair of locals, friends of friends, named Oryel, 31, an aspiring hip-hop artist, and Minka, a graduate student at Havana University in her mid-20s.

Like most foreigners, I spent time along Calle Obispo, the main tourist drag of Old Havana. Here, most businesses are owned by the government and cater to foreigners, serving mint-packed mojitos in brightly tiled open-air spaces playing mid-century-style Cuban music meant to evoke the country’s pre-Soviet heyday. One night I met Oryel at a paladar, one of the recently allowed privately owned in-house restaurants, around the corner from his home in Vedado; we had a simple dinner and sipped locally popular Cristal beer at a rickety plastic table in a small courtyard with a mix of well-off locals and tourists, static-y radio playing in the background. Another local suggested a visit to the revered jazz club La Zorra del Cuervo, where Jose Fonseca, one of the hottest young Cuban musicians, was playing. A 10 CUC (roughly $10) cover paid for two cocktails and a seat in a basement room among mostly foreigners.

But these touristy jazz clubs, hotel bars and sweaty clubs with generic dance music offer a manufactured experience very different from that of the real Cuba and the type of nightlife that’s sprouting up as the country moves into a new era. According to Minka and Oryel, there’s only one place to be if you want to catch a glimpse of where Havana nightlife might be headed: La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, often shortened to La Fábrica or FAC.

This is one of the first venues to realize a vision of Cuba that isn’t focused on tourism or reliving the country’s romanticized heyday of the 1950s (represented by all those classic cars and images of mobsters drinking tropical cocktails), an era believed by many to be the last time that Cuba had a vibrant nightlife culture.

Founded by X (Equis) Alfonso, a Cuban multi-media artist who said he was “inspired by the National School of Arts of Cuba, where all the arts coexist together in harmony and where interesting projects are created,” La Fábrica is a club that often offers an unpredictable variety of performances, art exhibits and music. Alfonso dreamed of a place that would showcase the breadth of Cuban culture, where art and performance “that is authentic and different from the contemporary globalized currents” could have a home to inspire and be inspired by young Cubans in a country poised for change—all in a space that’s welcoming and accessible to the average citizen. He’s produced FAC in several temporary locations since 2008, but after pitching his vision to various Cuban government institutions, he was finally given permission to transform the old oil factory into its permanent home, which opened to the public in early 2014.

On the night I visited, the line to enter snaked around the exterior of the old cooking oil factory that houses it, whose name, El Cocinero, was still visible in large block letters on the smokestack jutting from the box-like structure. The crowd of mostly Cubans in their 20s and 30s spoke in a mix of local Spanish and English of various accents as the line crept forward, everyone patiently waiting to hand over the required 2 CUCs to enter.

When we finally funneled into the building, we made our way upstairs to the main art exhibit, stopping at a bar offering a small selection of rum-based cocktails, non-alcoholic drinks priced from 1 CUC and a small tapas menu. Mojito in hand, I wove through the labyrinthine space divided up by temporary walls, each featuring pieces by local Cuban artists. One wall featured a series of color-saturated photos of the bedrooms of Cubans from around the country; another a series of life-sized, nearly nude portraits of women of a myriad ages and body shapes.

In the adjacent room, visitors sat atop roughly hewn benches made of old pallets and crates found in the factory before its transformation, watching art-house movies projected on the craggy factory wall. Off the next, a group whiled away the evening beneath the Havana stars on a large balcony. And at the back of the factory, in an area reserved for live performances, a woman with a guitar sang folk songs in Spanish. Later, the stage would be filled with classic American rock songs, and later still, dance music.

What makes this place so different from other Cuban nightlife venues—and even bars and clubs in American cities—began to crystallize. This is one of the first venues to realize a vision of Cuba that isn’t focused on tourism or reliving the country’s romanticized heyday of the 1950s (represented by all those classic cars and images of mobsters drinking tropical cocktails), an era believed by many to be the last time that Cuba had a vibrant nightlife culture. In a place where government and economic fragility have so long dictated artistic, social and entrepreneurial opportunities for Cubans, La Fábrica offers a glimpse at a future that embraces diverse perspectives, innovation and community.

Late in the evening, that community came in the form of a crush of locals pulsing to the music amidst sculptures and paintings on the first-level dance floor. Oryel bumped into a few friends, and we squeezed into a space near the DJ.

At closing time, we funneled back out into the night. There were only a handful of taxis, and by then we totaled six—more than a local cab could take at one time—so we walked the two miles on uneven cobblestones to Oryel’s apartment, arriving just as the sun began to rise on a new day in Havana.

A Brooklyn-based narrative food writer, Suzanne Cope is the author of Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food. Her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic and Edible Boston, among others.