Crumbling colonial façades, an atmospheric portrait of Che Guevara and the sultry heat of a salsa beat transport us to downtown Havana…
It’s hard to believe this is central Sheffield; even harder to conceive that this rustic street scene was once the contemporary chic of Platillos in Leopold Square.
Since being taken over by Cubana just a few weeks ago, the space has been transformed.
Where once an open-plan staircase led to lofty ceilings and acres of floor, now sit the walls of a faded villa, with pantiled roof and marble balustrade.
Downstairs is the villa’s ornate entrance, a neighbouring tobacconist’s and the stained glass windows of a church – all resplendent in their distressed grandeur.
This is not the result of a mammoth construction project, but a few simple partitions transformed by the brush of artist Paul Staveley. His trompe l’oeils bring the streets of Cuba to our doorstep and the effect is amazing.
“We’re really pleased with the result,” admits Adrian Bagnoli, who co-owns the place with business partner Brad Charlesworth.
“We wanted to have the extra space without losing the intimacy of our original venue and I think we’ve achieved that.”
Parts of the former building and much of its contents have been moved to the bar’s new home – including lights, a mural and a series of portraits depicting musicians from the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, which first inspired the Cubana concept.
The band has been a regular visitor over the years: “I can’t wait for them to see the new place,” says Adrian.
The prospect of trying to recreate the dingy appeal of the original Cubana in this swanky new building was one that filled him with apprehension. Yet the feat has been accomplished… with authentic brass knobs on.
Since moving, many of the regulars have admitted the old place was too small; too poky. Yet the new model has lost none of the compelling Latin atmosphere.
It features not only the trademark live music of its former incarnation, but a whole new repertoire too – including regular sessions with jazz pianist Piero Tucci and a 100-year-old piano rescued from the nearby Montgomery Theatre.
The menu too has had a revamp. Adrian and designer Paul Brady went on a recce of London’s most popular Latin bars, picking up ideas for their new ‘home’ and sampling the tapas.
Adrian then returned to the capital to watch Brazil in the World Cup Semi-Final, this time taking Fabian Cruz, head chef since Cubana first opened in Trippet Lane, 14 years ago.
During the trip he gave Fabian a flavour of his favourite bars – and on their return, the chef rewrote the menu, adding some new dishes alongside the popular favourites.
These include his own versions of the two tapas dishes that most impressed them during the London trip: grilled tuna steak with broad beans, and crispy potatoes with chorizo and egg.
“He took it all on board and came up with some new experiences,” says Adrian.
“We’re now open at lunchtimes too and Fabian decided we should offer the full menu throughout. He didn’t have to do that, but we all want the new Cubana to be the best it can be.”
The move to Leopold Square’s flagship unit has more than tripled the floor space available at Cubana – making it one of the biggest independent operations in the city.
The larger premises mean that, in addition to the ground-floor bar and first-floor restaurant, there is now space for private dining and a function room.
In addition to its regular programme of live music and dancing, the bar will be offering more DJ nights, a variety of dance classes and one-off events starring some of the UK’s top Latino bands.
House band Son Para Todos are in full swing as we arrive to sample the Tuesday evening vibe.
The place is packed, but we’re soon soaking up the sounds along with a pint of Portuguese Sagres beer and a glass of quaffable house red.
Those who can’t be bothered to wade through all the tapas can opt for a set menu at £19.50 or £23.50, including more than a dozen dishes.
We choose four each and within a short time our waitress begins to deliver a steady stream of little plates.
My companion’s favourite albondigas are good as ever: chunky meatballs with a distinctive smoky red wine and tomato sauce.
I like the feta salad, withcucumber, tomatoes, olive oil and a drizzle of red pesto.
Lamb is beautifully succulent, braised in rich red wine, onions and thyme.
And asparagus is a good contrast, wrapped in Serrano ham, chargrilled so it still has plenty of bite and served with spinach, tomatoes and manchego cheese.
There’s cous cous – Moroccan style, with tomato, peppers and herbs – and a bubbling dish of sliced aubergines layered with tomatoes and cheese sauce.
And we can give the thumbs-up to the chef’s new dishes too...
Chargrilled tuna steaks come with broad beans, spinach, tomatoes and a herby balsamic dressing, while crisp sautéed potatoes are perked up with little pieces of spicy chorizo and topped with a soft-yolked egg.
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, is £47.70.
* Cubana, Leopold Square, Sheffield (0114) 276 0475 Cubana