Sloppy Joe’s – A Drunken Journey

The drinking couldn’t be any better, nor as good, anywhere in the world and you’re down to the drinking now kid, and you better get just as far in it as you can. That’s what you’ve got now and you better like it and like it on all frequencies. You know you’ve always liked it and you loved it and it’s what you have now, so you better love it.

Ernest Hemingway from ISLANDS IN THE STREAM

sloppy-joes-key-westEvery now and then you come across an iconic destination that is so much more than just a place to explore. It’s not only a symbol of an era, but such an important one that it transcends time. You may pass by such a place time and time again never once giving it a second glance. This is just an ordinary bar, you think. The streets are lined with bars just like it. Since this particular bar is pretty crowded, you figure it must be worth spending a few bucks on a drink so you decide to check it out.  You step through the front door. And that is when it hits you! Something more is revealed, something great!  For over 80 years Sloppy Joe’s Bar has been just that, something great!

Who else could write such poetry about drinking liquor like Ernest Hemingway? Just reading that passage makes you want to love the drink, but it also makes you sad because it’s clear that the person doing the drinking has nothing left. He is truly alone. Perhaps this man was someone with whom the author once shared a drink. Perhaps he spoke similar words to this man as encouragement to put away his misery and look for something to love even if it was that very drink. Perhaps this man was Ernest Hemingway himself. Or perhaps we are all this man. Wherever the truth lies, most likely at some point it passed through Sloppy Joe’s.

To really understand this legendary establishment, we have go back to its roots, way back! The United States government repealed Prohibition on December 5, 1933. That very day, a rumrunner named Joe Russell opened a bar in Key West called The Blind Pig. Joe’s place wasn’t for the squeamish. Drinking was heavy and the crowds were boisterous. One man, a patron and a friend, came to his bar on a regular basis. Sometimes he brought his own friends, important people of the time. The Blind Pig became the place of all places to be in Key West in the 1930s. His friend was none other than Ernest Hemingway who lived in Key West until 1939.

Courtesy of PinterstFor six years, Hemingway sat at that bar, watching, listening, engaging, and observing the joys and sorrows that were the lives of Joe Russell’s customers. There’s no doubt that many of the relationships he developed inspired characters in his writing. Though he never mentions Sloppy Joe’s by name, the references are there. Thomas Hudson, the main character in his novel, Islands in the Stream, is an artist, sea-captain and bar regular. From the love of the sea to the love of the drink, the similarities between Hudson and Hemingway are striking. Islands in the Stream was not published until after his Hemingway’s death, but the book provides insight into the life of a truly amazing man and also what it was like to be at Sloppy Joe’s in its early years.

Picture a steamy humid day. Sweat is pouring off you like just got out of a shower. There is no air conditioning anywhere. Your only hope of cooling off is the local bar where others have already gathered who have the same intention as you. You sit at the bar, order your ice-cold drink and immerse yourself in relaxation. Before you know it you’ve had three or four and they keep coming. The afternoon light sinks in the sky to make way for the evening stars. The bar is now packed to the max. There is dancing and laughter. There are jokes and there are fights. What can be any better? Finally, when you can hardly stand, you stumble home without even paying the tab. No one says anything. The bartender knows he can count on you to be at the same bar stool at the exact same time the next afternoon and the next and the next. This is your life and you love it.

Today, some of Hemingway’s personal belongings are displayed at the bar in Key West. Hemingway actually played a hand in changing the bar’s name to Sloppy Joe’s. Since Hemingway frequented Havana, Cuba, he asked that the bar be re-named after a bar in Havana that sold iced seafood and alcohol to its customers. The floor was always covered with stinky water. The owner, Jose Garcia, acquired the name sloppy Joe. Russell agreed with his friend’s request. He purchased the current location at Duval and Green Street in 1937 for $2500. They moved the bar from its original location across the street and Sloppy Joe’s has stood the test of time ever since.

20150704_184537Maybe it no longer has the longest or most fashionable bar in town like it did during Hemingway’s days. It more than makes up for anything it may have lost over time with ambiance. Ghost-like images of Ernest Hemingway adorn the walls. A mounted sailfish caught by Hemingway himself adds to the heritage. Live music, dancing and spirited crowds grace this island-themed relic of yesterday. A Sloppy Rita Dream will keep you dancing into the early hours of the morning while island locals sit at the bar reminiscing about anything and everything over a more traditional Rum Runner. Grab a basket of Conch Fritters or the Firecracker Shrimp. Then dive into the signature sandwich made with slow cooked beef, peppers and onions doused in a special sauce, the famous Sloppy Joe. Finish your meal off with the world renown Key Lime Pie.

Years passed. Key West grew up around Sloppy Joe’s and the bar changed with the times and still managed to hold onto its historic charm. The actual bar is the original bar from 1937. Think of all the sorrowful stories and preposterous pick-up lines that have stained it over the decades. There are no cushy bar stools. Instead you’ll get a simple wooden place to park your rump. The drinks are the star of the show here. Ernest Hemingway would have had it no other way. Each July he is honored bybearded men competing for the best Hemingway look-alike.

As the bar grew in popularity eventually reaching international fame, it was expanded to two additional locations, Treasure Island in Pinellas County and Daytona Beach in Volusia County. While the Key West location focuses on island charm and plays to the heritage it shares with arguably the greatest American writer of them all, its sister locations are larger and more like a comfortable restaurant to accommodate the faster pace and larger populations of local tourist-driven economies. The sister sites serve full entrees while the Key West location sticks to more traditional bar food and sandwiches. Try the Lobster Mac and Cheese or the Surf and Turf Burger. Both are heavenly!

20150704_194819The Treasure Island location is adjacent to the Biltmore Hotel on the beach. It has a large indoor dining area, indoor and outdoor bar seating and deck where you can eat or drink while watching a glorious sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. There is also beach access from the restaurant. The Daytona Beach restaurant is located in the Ocean Walk Shoppes next to the Wyndham hotel. It is a little more modern since it just opened in 2010. Look over the majestic Atlantic Ocean from the outdoor patio on the beach or relax comfortably in the air-conditioned dining room. Like the Treasure Island bar, it captures the flavor of the area while adding a splash of Key West charm to make visiting each establishment a unique experience.


“An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.”

Ernest Hemingway

All three Sloppy Joe locations are bound by delicious drinks, exquisite food, and an atmosphere that makes you feel like you are really somewhere special. After all you are. Upon entering Sloppy Joe’s, you may think you are among a bar of fools. Upon leaving, you’ll know you were among a bar of friends. Ernest Hemingway thought so highly of the place that he managed to capture the atmosphere in many of his novels as only he could write it.

imgresWhether you’re in Key West or Treasure Island or Daytona Beach, don’t just walk by Sloppy Joe’s thinking it’s just another beach bar. Step inside. Grab a stool and order a Sloppy Mojito. Drown yourself in the richness of what it means to be there at that moment without a care about time, the same way others have done for 80 years. At Sloppy Joe’s, time is irrelevant. Go over to the photos on the wall and pay homage to the man who made it all possible. He may be looking right back at you, capturing the expression on your face, reading your thoughts. After all, the ghost of Ernest Hemingway has kept the bar alive for almost a century. Who’s to say he is not writing your story right now?

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