Sam and Nicole outside their new Leeds venture

A Leeds-based chef and entrepreneur who is renovating a city centre building as part of his new business venture has uncovered mysterious ‘ghost’ signage which has been hidden for over 60 years.

Sam Pullan, who is transforming a historic cafe in Leeds city centre, discovered the Empire Cafe sign, which is thought to date back to the first half of the 20th century. Sam and his team of builders made the discovery during recent renovations at the former La Strega cafe on Fish Street in the city.

Little is known about the Empire Cafe but the name is likely to refer to the Empire Theatre which opened on nearby Briggate in 1898 on the site of what is now Harvey Nichols.

Chef Sam Pullan is aiming to transform the venue, which has been closed for the last few years, into an independent all-day cafe and restaurant. He plans to retain the sign even though the name of the cafe will be changed to ‘Appys’.


Sam commented: “As we started taking off the old cladding covering the front of the building, we discovered this ‘ghost sign’ for the Empire Cafe. There’s no real reference online about it but it’s right behind where the old Empire Theatre used to be until 1962. The former owner of Cafe Strega, who bought it in the 1970s, didn’t realise the sign was even there.”

Sam, who previously founded and ran successful gastro pub The Bear at Carriages in Knaresborough, says the sign has already become a major talking point as passing shoppers notice the renovation work going on, sparking conversations and fond memories.

He added: “Everyone who is walking past is looking up and taking photographs. It must be one of the last remaining areas of the city centre that hasn’t been redeveloped so there probably aren’t many signs like these left to uncover. We’ve literally uncovered a little slice of Leeds’ forgotten history.”

Sam left The Bear at Carriages earlier this year in search of a new hospitality venture and together with his partner Nicole Deighton, signed a 15-year lease on the building which they are currently investing £75,000-£100,000 in transforming.

Sam is no stranger to extensive renovations having acquired his previous business, formerly Carriages, out of administration in 2020. Following £100k of investment and extensive renovations, The Bear at Carriages opened in summer 2020 against the backdrop of multiple lockdowns, breathing new life into the venue in the market town. The Knaresborough gastropub boasted a unique purpose built solid fuel fire ‘bear pit’, housed outside in the premises’ extensive beer garden, and quickly established itself as a popular dining destination thanks to Sam’s adventurous menu.

Sam added: “In developing and transforming this once very popular and characterful Leeds institution, we want to give a little bit of Leeds back to Leeds. Cafe Strega was always an all-day dining venue serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. This type of service is almost unheard of these days and there certainly aren’t many independent places that are like that in existence any more.

“It’s a small, fairly compact space and we’re taking a lot of it back to the original brick. We want the finish to be really nice. Originally the front of the cafe would have been all glass which we can tell from the construction so we’re going back to that which we feel is a nice nod to the heritage of the place”

Sam intends to launch the new business in December or January and plans to open four days a week – Wednesday to Saturday – offering dining in as well as takeaway options. He intends to source as much of the ingredients as possible from nearby Kirkgate Market.

As a key feature of the new venture, Sam has designed an open kitchen for theatrical cooking using a German-style rotisserie and an open fire, similar to the firepit concept he introduced at his previous venture, The Bear at Carriages. He is also considering switching the lights off in the evening to create dining by candlelight to help reduce crippling energy costs.