Coffee shops have long done more than just serve our urge for a caffeine fix. Many historians claim that the coffee houses which spread throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries were directly linked to the intellectual flowering known as the Age of Enlightenment. For the first time people had a social place to meet and a beverage to drink which stimulated mental activity and heightened perception. Writers, artists, musicians and political dissenters took advantage of these new spaces and human society became all the richer for it.
Well in a roundabout way a new cafe which has just landed in the West End is keeping this part of history alive. It has also brought a little bit of Cuba to our doorstep. The Social opened earlier this year and on the first day I visited the air was full of the unmistakeable sound of Cuban music. The Social is owned by Ross Ciavarella and Chelsea D’Aoust, with manager Samantha Anderson at the helm. Its homage to Cuban culture was inspired by Chelsea’s many visits to the country where she was entranced by the vibrant street life, the infectious music and the spicy food, a fusion of Spanish and Caribbean cuisine.
The cafe’s name recalls Havana’s real life Buena Vista Social Club, a community centre which became a haven for musicians and music lovers and eventually the inspiration for a documentary and CD of the same name. If you don’t know the Buena Vista Social Club story a chalk board inside the cafe’s front door will tell you what you need to know.
The Social’s Cuban-inspired menu provides a unique Latin twist to standard cafe fare, with breakfast options including a tortilla and lunch specials listing a questillada soup. Drinks are divided into Cafe Americano and Cafe Cubano, the latter including the scrumptious cafe bombon (espresso served over a shot of condensed milk) which is so good it could stand alone as a dessert. Not a coffee drinker? No problem, chai and chilli hot chocolate will keep you in the Cuban groove.
Along the cafe’s back wall a comfy lounge beckons and on a nearby table authentic Cuban dominos sit waiting for players. If you aren’t sure how to play this classic tile game easy-to-follow instructions are provided, along with complimentary scoring sheets. The message is clear – like the coffee shops of Cuba The Social is not a place to hurry through, but to linger. So settle in, play board games, converse with friends or read solo. But take a moment to look behind you because up there on the wall Fidel Castro is smiling his approval.
The Social, 774 Hunter Street, Newcastle West. Open: Monday to Friday 7.30am-3.00pm, Saturday 8.00-2.30pm. The CD Buena Vista Social Club was released in March 1996 and produced by Ry Cooder; it is available through World Circuit Production. The Wim Wenders documentary of the same name was released in 1999. Official website http://www.buenavistasocialclub.com.
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