Celebrated Cantinero Julio Cabrera Debuts Cuban Cocktail School
Cabrera’s three-part space, which also includes a café and bar, aims to bring Cuba’s iconic cantinero culture to the States.
Julio Cabrera was never supposed to spend his life inside a bar. Born in Cuba, Cabrera grew up inside his father’s café, El Sacrificio, located in a small town just outside the city of Varadero. He remembers furtively stealing sour candies from behind the counter as cantineros (bartenders) rushed by, mixing spirits and serving cocktails. But when Castro’s revolution forced the café to close, his father struggled to find work and Cabrera made a promise to pursue an education instead of drinks.
“My dad always told me how difficult it was to start a new life as a bartender,” Cabrera says. “My parents wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer or even a dentist. Anything was better than a bartender.” In his early twenties, Cabrera worked as an agricultural engineer on remote coffee and citrus plantations across the island. Even today, he finds it hard to forget how alone he felt.
“I remember riding a horse through the mountains in Cuba, completely surrounded by trees in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I was so unhappy. I needed people, music, more life. It was that day when I decided to tell my dad that someday I would open the same kind of place he had before the revolution.”
Now 30 years later, Cabrera’s first café and bar opened in January in Miami’s Little Havana, one of the largest Cuban neighborhoods outside of Cuba. Through a partnership with longtime friends, James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein and her restaurateur-husband David Martinez, La Trova – named after a style of music developed in Santiago de Cuba – pays homage to traditional cantinero cocktail culture with multiple bars, a full-service café, a ventanita window, and a traditional Cuban bartending school led by Cabrera.
“Looking back, El Sacrificio resulted in so much sacrifice for my father,” Cabrera says. “My dad passed away a couple of years ago, but I know he would be proud of La Trova. I’m doing this for him and all of the great cantineros out there. Miami needs this kind of place, too. It’s a true Cuban experience.”
Inspired by Cabrera's memories of his late father's restaurant, La Trova’s centerpiece is the cantinero school, where aspiring bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts can enroll in themed courses and certification programs. There’s longer, 20-hour courses for those with previous experience, along with casual classes for recreational learners, ranging from international classic cocktails to universal techniques. Different from a traditional bartending school, La Trova’s emphasis on “cantinero” highlights the elegance and hospitality behind creating cocktails.
“American bartenders are more about speed and mastering the pour,” Cabrera says. “Cantinero is concerned with how you’re dressed and the way you treat people. It’s about creating cocktails with technique and beauty. It’s not about how many drinks you can make, but rather the way you make each one.”
In the evenings, La Trova’s cocktail program features 1950s-inspired Cuban drinks by Cabrera and his business partner and fellow cantinero, Orestes Pajon. There’s the classic daiquiri, the rum-based Presidente, and the Hemingway Special, a drink made for two with rum and grapefruit juice. The café’s sister bar, which doubles as Cabrera’s classroom in the daytime, celebrates Miami in the 1980s with drinks like the Cosmopolitan and the Grasshopper.
“About a year and a half ago, Julio, David, and I went to Cuba together,” Bernstein says. “We visited the part of Cuba where Trova music comes from, and as we listened to the music and had cocktails, we all sort of understood that this is something we had to bring to Miami. We’re bringing together what we experienced there with Miami’s own Cuban culture.”
As for the food, Bernstein created an all-day menu of shareable bites with Raulito Salgado, the former chef of La Floridita, one of the most iconic restaurants in Havana. Together they’re behind items like Paella Croquetas, Calabaza and Black Garlic Empanadas, Vaca Frita, and Pan con Bistec.
“Raul and I have worked together and really learned each other’s flavors,” Bernstein says, who was born and raised in Miami. “Part of the menu is dedicated to him and his classic dishes, and the other part is kind of like my whole life of in Miami captured in a croqueta or an empanada. It’s putting together all the things I’ve seen and done and wrapping them up in Cuban love.”
Otherwise, the 5,000-sqaure-foot space includes an outside patio, frequent live music, and a walk-up ventanita-style window named El Sacrificio, in honor of Cabrera’s late father. In the coming months, the restaurant will add a cigar bar and tables with dominoes, too.
“In Cuba, it would be impossible to open this restaurant,” Cabrera says. “My country that I love so much… it’s not easy. That’s why I decided to move and sacrifice in the same way my dad did. I started a new life when I moved with my family to the U.S. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.
La Trova. 971 SW 8th St., Miami. 786-615-4379.