Many years ago—sometime the late 70’s—my father packed the family into the car and drove us down from suburban Marietta to exotic Buford Highway to go to a popular restaurant he had read about in the paper. The restaurant ended up being a tiny shack near North Druid Hills, the Havana Sandwich Shop. I remember eating my first Cuban sandwich, empanadas and black bean soup—a feast that was quite an exotic meal for an East Cobber some 30+ years ago. I was instantly hooked and over the years’ I have continued to relish some of the best Cuban food north of Havana at that exact spot. It’s a simple formula: amazing flavors served in a simple atmosphere by a nice family.
Right now is an especially poignant moment for the little Buford Highway shack. 2016 not only marks the 40th storied year for the restaurant—a history which includes the passing of its founder, a catastrophic fire, a painful family dispute and ultimately the glorious resurrection of the original location—but also it’s a moment when US and Cuban relations are normalizing for the first time in decades. It’s a beautiful time to discover this Atlanta Eats Hidden Gem.
Rewind to February 9th, 1976. Eddie Benedit Sr. and his family had arrived from Cuba in 1962 with “just the clothes on their backs” and now they decided it was time to open a restaurant serving authentic food from homeland—succulent Cuban sandwiches, maduros (ripe plantains), yucca fries, tamales and more. It was an instant hit. Over the years the restaurant and its incredible Cuban sandwich served with yellow rice and Eddie’s signature red sauce racked up dozens of awards from entities like Zagat, City Search, Trip Advisor and more.
But then in 2001 tragedy struck—Eddie passed away from cancer just 2 days before Havana’s 25th Anniversary leaving Debbie and Eddie Jr. in charge of keeping this cherished tradition. Driven by both a desire to honor Eddie’s memory (there are photos of him all over the store) and continue to serve the faithful customers (many of whom she considers family), Debbie and her “girls” (aka hard working employees) continued to lovingly operate the shop, even earning recognition in a feature in a Forbes Magazine article in 2011 for women small business owners.
Then more tragedy struck: on October 5th 2008 the Havana Shop was ravaged by a fire. The landlord who had owned the building had never brought anything up to code and the place was a tinderbox. Debbie explains “the morning of the fire I had just watched my entire life go up in flames. The memories, the cherished items and the livelihood of my girls and myself, gone!” The original shop closed.
Eddie Jr. opened up opened a 2nd location in Canton which kept the “girls” working until Debbie could find a new location—13 months later at Buford Highway and Clairmont in Crossroads Village Shopping Center. At the same time, a family member opened an unsanctioned location further south on Buford Highway portray themselves as the “original.” The effort only lasted about a year, but did during that time it created heavy family strife and did considerable damage to “The Original Havana’s” reputation.
But there is a happy ending: Debbie saw a chance to take over the original building in 2015. “When I first walked into the building, I turned around and walked out,” she said. “But after talking to Eddie Jr and seeing the excitement and smile come across his face, I knew we had to make it happen. He made a comment to me that day, ‘Mom, you know why nothing else has opened there in 7 years? Because only Havana belongs there!’”
So they took over the building, brought it up to code and has reopened the one and only original on her 59th birthday, a gift she describes as “one of the best birthday presents besides this year having all my kids home.”
Now, as of just this July, you can experience the original back in its original location. “We haven’t changed a thing in 40 years,” says Debbie. “Although we have added items to menu over the years, the basics haven’t changed at all,” she says. “It is so good to be “home” and seeing friends walk through that door, smiling and saying “welcome back” makes it all worth it!”
For more behind-the-scenes knowledge of Atlanta’s best restaurants, look here. And be sure to watch Atlanta Eats every Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on Peachtree TV for more of your favorite Atlanta restaurants!