Step into the Latin Quarter

24 Oct

From the moment you enter the bright, pillared dining room of Cuba Libre you are transported to sunnier climes. The restaurant oozes colour from every direction from the multicoloured patchwork tablecloths to the pop-art posters that resemble donations from a traveller’s Cuban scrapbook.

As I pull my coat tighter round me, fighting the October chill drifting in from Islington’s Upper Street through the restaurant’s open door, I’m surrounded by a mural of a sunny terrace with green shuttered windows. The theme continues throughout the restaurant; one window displays some washing pegged on the line, a well-to-do Cuban is painted standing in another and, of course, everywhere you turn you’re presented with Che Guevara’s silhouette staring proudly into the distance. Harder to spot in the restaurant’s décor, Fidel Castro lies tucked away in a corner represented by a papier-mâché model playing cards with his piers JFK, Khrushchev and Guevara.

Open since 1990, Cuba Libre claims to be London’s first and best Cuban restaurant. Although I cannot boast enough knowledge of Cuban cuisine to confirm this, the hoard of customers flooding out onto the restaurant’s pavement terrace on Friday and Saturday nights speaks for itself. The Havana Bar at the back of the venue hosts happy hours from 5pm to 8pm every week day and for those who start the party early, from noon to 8pm at the weekend, serving up unique cocktails such as the Khrushchev Heel, Castro Missile and Guevara Sunrise. With the offer of two cocktails for £8.50 and bottled beer at £2.70 this place beats the price of many Islington bars. Most refreshingly, Cuba Libre lacks the pretentiousness that is rife in so many of Upper Street’s more classy (and pricey) establishments. Forget a dress code or preferred clientele, this place spells fun for anyone and everyone.

Perfect for a lazy tapas lunch at the weekend, you can choose four dishes or a ‘hot Cuban baguette’ for £6.95. Scrawled on the blackboards adorning the pillars, the menu includes 18 tapas dishes featuring the classics: tortilla española, patatas bravas, chorizo, champiñones con ajo, croquetas de pollo, pimientos asados and the list continues. The price fits the bill; it’s fair to say these were not the tastiest tapas to ever hit my palate, but the Havana-style ambience makes up a large part of the meal. Perhaps hiding behind a fusion of Spanish-Cuban cuisine – tapas are surely not authentically Cuban – Cuba Libre also hosts a paella night every Monday when £25.95 buys paella for two and a bottle of wine.

This bar-restaurant is at its best after nightfall as regular customers show off their salsa skills to abashed Brits. The bar is open, and buzzing with salsa rhythms, till 11pm on week nights and 2am at the weekend. Without the means to hop on the next flight to La Habana, the next best thing you can do is grab yourself a mojito and join the dancing throng.

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