Café La Trova, in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, manages to at once embody the city’s past and future. The bar program, helmed by founder Julio Cabrera, showcases the classic cantinero style of bartending he honed in his native Cuba. It’s a celebration of tradition, authenticity, and the art of the cocktail that, thanks to Cabrera, is now being taught to a new generation of Miami bartenders.
While many modern cocktail lounges have adopted the retro aesthetics of a romanticized, bygone era of bartending, the earnestness with which cantineros adhere to standards has persisted for nearly a century. There are definitive rules, most established in the 1924 book Manual del Cantinero. For starters, a cantinero must wear their sleeves buttoned down, they must be clean-shaven and presentable at all times, they must never wear sneakers, and cocktails must be memorized.
For Cabrera and the team at Café La Trova, the goal isn’t simply to give history a nod, but for authentic Cuban barcraft to permeate all aspects of the establishment. Drinks are thrown between shakers to create aeration and texture, garnishes are precise and only handled with tweezers, and hospitality is paramount.
“We are very classic, but very stylish in the way we make the drink,” says Cabrera. “We focus a lot on the technique, high-level technique, when we make the cocktails. For cantineros, it’s not just to make a cocktail, it’s how we make it.”
“Flair is not [about] throwing bottles,” he adds. “It’s a focus on technique, on style and elegance.”
Chef Michelle Bernstein, a long time friend of Cabrera’s, dishes out contemporary takes on Cuban classics like Cuban sandwich empanadas, locally-caught fish steamed in banana leaves, and skirt steak ropa vieja. The result is a perfect encapsulation of Miami comfort food, mirrored in the drinks Cabrera’s cantineros pour.
In a city with no shortage of mediocre Daiquiris and Mojitos, the bar program’s dedication to Cuban authenticity aims to remind patrons what made these drinks so iconic to begin with.
The cocktail menu consists of a curated selection of Cuban classics and house creations (“Tragos de la Casa”), each made to exacting specifications.
The former includes drinks you’d expect, like a classic Mojito Criollo, Hemingway Special, Presidente, Periodista, and even a frozen Banana Daiquiri. The latter features original cocktails like a Strega-based Mule, an Old Fashioned riff using blended whiskey and coffee-tobacco bitters (to evoke two Cuban mainstays—coffee and cigars), and the Chivirico, which employs a combination of tequila, mezcal, passion fruit, lime, chile liqueur, and basil foam.
However precise the bar program, Café La Trova keeps the hospitality experience rooted in fun. Nightly live Cuban music is front and center, with the bar’s cantineros engaging with the rhythm and the crowd as they mix and throw drinks.
“Being a cantinero behind the bar is also about being part of the show,” says Cabrera. “If we work in a Cuban place we have to have Cuban music. And if we have Cuban music, cantineros at some point should be part of the show—playing, singing, dancing, doing something behind the bar—that is a part of our culture as well.”
Part artists, part entertainers and, above all, cultural ambassadors, La Trova’s cantineros embody an unwavering dedication to guests and craft. Their embrace of tradition remains timeless—and yields some of the best drinks in the country.