Six of the best Leeds bars

I get frequently asked which are the best bars or pubs in Leeds: by colleagues visiting the city, by friends on trips and by random folk on Twitter. It’s quite a tricky question because like everybody, I have my favourites. Depending on my mood, the weather, and a whole host of different reasons I will select an establishment based on a specific range of criteria.

It’s also tricky getting to a top six as Leeds is blessed with lots of very good places to have a drink. So I approached this task with a very specific mindset – which are my ‘go to’ places, where I know a welcome will await and result in an agreeable drink and perhaps some food. But that’s for another list; this top six is all about the booze.

So right now, in the summer of 2013 here are my current top six places I like to go in Leeds for a drink. I should point out that these are in no particular order.

The Cross Keys

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What’s not to like about The Cross Keys? Olde worlde charm in an urban environment, log burners in the winter, sunny courtyard in the summer. A peerless collection of local and international beers combined with a small but decent wine list means the drinks easily match the mood. The playlist is always good and the efficient hipsterish service rarely found wanting. It’s a great place to relax over a beer after work that very quickly turns into a low-key dinner as the food here is very good too. I won’t dwell on the food too much in this post, that’s for another list.

Maven

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No street signage, a bouncer on the door and a dodgy flight of stairs are the inauspicious signs that something interesting is going on.  Maven oozes cool that’s part understated confidence and part speakeasy flair. The only bar on my list that doesn’t serve any food at all, is a bit of a hidden gem in the city. It definitely channels a different kind of NY charm with cool clientele and even cooler bar staff. Cocktails are the main reason to come here and they are as good as you get anywhere. Early doors relaxed drinking morphs into beats and dancing later, attracting a younger crowd.

Friends of Ham

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A relative new boy to the scene, FOH is tucked away in the city centre and its unassuming frontage belies its stature in the city. A great list of beers, a very well curated wine list (supplied by local merchant Latitude) and, of course, the titular charcuterie. The only establishment on the list (or in the city for that matter) to have shuffleboard, FOH is a perfect location for a swiftie, a session, a leisurely snifter or indeed a tapas-style feed. It’s a reassuring sign that the place is always rammed and its position in the top six has been cemented by Observer food columnist Jay Rayner’s recent rave review.

The Adelphi

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This venerable old watering hole holds a special place in the heart of the Leeds drinking fraternity. Just over the river, this beautiful old pub wears its trademark acid etched windows with pride. One of the last pubs in Leeds that still retains its identity as a proper boozer, The Adelphi is now part of a chain, but you actually wouldn’t realise that, but in a good way. It’s really all about the beers and every taste is well catered for, and if you’re peckish, the food offering is reasonable too.

The Midnight Bell

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No list of the best pubs in Leeds would be complete without representation from Leeds Brewery, who leads the new wave of brewers in the city. Their growing portfolio of Leeds drinking houses is fast becoming a mini booze empire and the city is all the better for it. The Midnight Bell is two or three doors down from The Cross Keys, in the perfect location to service the growing number of media businesses in the area. The crowd is eclectic, dudes with beards rub shoulders with old school locals and its courtyard provides probably the best outdoor drinking experience in the city. No pub could survive these days without a decent menu and although the food is very good, but it definitely plays second fiddle to the beers.

The Reliance

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It’s very telling that most of the bars or pubs on this list also serve excellent food. For me it goes hand in hand and I can’t think of any place in the city where the booze isn’t supplemented in some way. The Reliance is a consummately cool bar and dining room in the Northern quarter with a distinctly lower east Side New York vibe. During the day, light streams in through big glass windows and on an evening a relaxed ambience takes over. Great local beers and ales combine with a well-judged wine list to make this a perfect stop off for drinks or an extended dinner.

So that’s my top six.

Let me know if you disagree or there are any glaringly obvious omissions. There’s bound to be some controversy I realise and even as I type this I’m thinking about other places I’ve missed. Notable mentions should also go to:

The Alchemist / Angelica  – favourite of the Leeds fur coat no knickers brigade, the city does love its glam and The Alchemist and Angelica sit astride the newly opened retail cathedral, Trinity. I do like a bit of glamour, mind.

Leeds Bar and Grill – see above re fur coat but this city square stalwart is still a boisterous place to grab a glass of Pino Grigio and possibly a granny too.

Whitelocks – Oldest pub in Leeds etc, this place is always great for a mid shopping pint, it still retains its eighteenth century charm along with a loyal clientele. Nice pub to hole up of a winter’s afternoon.

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The Whippet Inn

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Monday night is fast becoming gig night in our house. This Monday saw us hop on a train to see the rather wonderful Simone Felice play live in York. Now in my book, there is absolutely no point in travelling over to a great city like York without experiencing the culinary delights of the city. So we did.

I’ve eaten out in York only on a handful of occasions and each time it was places I’d heard of or were well known in foodie circles – J Baker’s or The Blue Bicycle for instance. Monday nights in provincial cities in these straightened times are not exactly packed with opportunities for great food – most of the nice places take the chance to have a night off on what is usually a quiet night.

A work colleague recommended a recently opened gastro pub-type joint, which was getting rave reviews. That was enough for me and I booked a table for two.

The Whippet Inn (fnarr, fnarr) is situated just a long stones throw from the station, tucked away down a quiet side street – so pretty easy if you’re travelling by rail, which I’d recommend as parking in York is painful at best. The restaurant has a simple, well-stocked beer bar and a nicely designed dining room at the back. The emphasis is on decent ales and wine and steaks although it is worth pointing out the vegetarian options, although limited were judged excellent.

The simple but well-curated menu had an air of confidence around the produce and the cooking. The 40 day beef caught my eye immediately and I opted for rib eye (as per) whilst the sister chose a summery halloumi and courgette plate. Starters were light and well put together, but the beef is the main deal here and who am I to argue?

We selected a Navarra Spanish red, which at £19 was well priced given its quality and it complemented the beef beautifully. Prior to the wine we had a cheeky blonde Scottish beer ‘Bitter & Twisted’ which set us up nicely.

I can report the steak was first rate – worth paying extra for 40 days, rather than 25 and the extra 3 oz from 7 to 10 was also worth the investment. Service was knowledgable and attentive even though our assistant waiter was in training it was handled well without any issues.

If you’re in York, this has to be one of your favourite new places.  In a city that is not exactly wall to wall with amazing eateries, I predict that The Whippet Inn will be a huge success.

Trinity Leeds

Trinity Centre in Leeds is apparently the biggest Shopping Complex opening anywhere in Europe this year. It think it is named after the old Trinity church which it appears is having an interior make up but desperately needs a full on exterior clean as it looks forlorn outside the huge shiny new structure sharing it’s name. The Trinity centre is a Trinity of shops, bars and restaurants covered by an amazing glass roof that is designed so it overlaps in various places allowing gaps to the outside. The weather has been particularly cold but every time we have been it is like being “inside” a fridge so seeing ladies in heels and skimpy clothing rushing between bars is kind of odd. I have to admit other than to buy a pack of refills from The Pen Shop I haven’t been around the shops but there are some new to Leeds.
What is different is that there isn’t the normal obligatory shopping centre food hall although Giraffe, Carluccios, Waggamama and Yo Sushi represent the chains and the rest are smaller more stylish set ups.
In turn we have tried out Angelica (more later), The Alchemist and it’s sister bar The Botanist both of which serve great cocktails but very different in style. The Botanist is quirky and more shabby chic and although very busy right now the staff appear in better control, whether a pit stop whilst shopping or a pop in for one or two it has a nice friendly atmosphere. There is a heated outside area where you can see into the open kitchen which we liked very much but summer we thinks…
The Alchemist is aimed to be upmarket with a “science of mixology” vibe, serving the drinks in an elaborate mix of laboratory style vessels. All very intriguing and theatrical but the the thing is it is not all substance as the cocktails inside the vessels are on the whole excellent. The terrace has nice urban views and will be full in summer. We haven’t eaten at either the Botanist or Alchemist so can’t comment.

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So, onto D&D Group’s Angelica and Crafthouse which I guess are the anchor leisure food/drink destinations at Trinity. I am told this is D&D Group’s first foray outside of London where amongst others they own the very upmarket Le Pont de la Tour and Quaglino’s so the expectation is huge. Our first visit to Angelica was on a soft launch 1st Saturday night, as you would expect the joint was buzzing, there were eight of us booked in to eat but they can’t sit eight on one table so we had adjoining tables for dinner but then butted up after. The big idea is the raw fish bar which I was particularly looking forward to so you can imagine my disappointment when the ice behind the glass was covered in empty shells, looked good but EMPTY??

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Various dishes from sashimi to steak, to cold lobster left all eight of us underwhelmed, the service was also poor. However the drinks and atmosphere were superb and the views from the snow covered terrace are amongst the very best in Leeds centre, this coupled with the sincerely apologetic staff we decided we should go back but not for dinner. Lunch definitely and drinks without a doubt. After our trip to Casa Mia we decided to go back to Angelica for drinks to make sure we all would have a very “relaxing” Monday. We had a little persuading to do to get in as it was pretty packed but it was worth it, we had a fantastic night. My recommendation is not any of the great cocktails but the Venezuelan rum “Diplomatico” which is amazing.
This brings us nicely on to Crafthouse and our date night dinner. I have to add that we had had a good 10 day break from all the eating out by this time……. I know it has been a full on month so will we will be taking it easy for a while??
The Crafthouse space is all glass with a great mix of furniture from bar stools allowing seating looking into the kitchen to intimate tables enjoying a great view and a dining table for eight or more. Very impressive format.
The Executive chef Lee Bennett has created a nice menu that will challenge all the high end establishments in Leeds and beyond. Originally from Bridlington but travelled far and wide Lee has not lost all his roots with Bridlington, Lobster and “Ginger Pig’s” beef being a key part of his repertoire. They have what is called a Josper, some kind of amazing BBQ type grill which allows cooking at a high temperature adding that lovely sealed crisp effect along with smokiness without losing the ability to keep meat succulent inside.
As we had not had a date night for a while we decided what the hell and went all out. Laurent Perrior Rose, Grilled Lobster, Rib of Beef(accompanied by a very reasonably priced £21 carafe of Chianti)assiete of deserts and cheese over 4 hours. D and I can honestly say the Lobster was The Best and we were treated by the chef to a small amuse bouche version of his signature Lobster Bisque which was incredible in it’s depth of flavour with a heavenly texture

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How do you follow that, well Lee was showing off we think because the Rib was not only amazing but without doubt the finest beef we can remember tasting. We were pretty much beaten even though we didn’t finish all the beef so to our shame the desserts weren’t given full attention but we tried a little each of all of them and….next time! We waited for a while before cheese thankfully it was not a massive plate but just right portions of local cheeses which to be honest we played with but were lovely. The prices for the above are high but in our opinion worth it. This place will challenge it’s competitors to reach higher.

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Finally we had a very quick Monday night meal at Cielo Blanco a lovely independent Mexican and decided on the Street Food menu which allows you to choose 3 dishes for £10.95, we had slow cooked baby back ribs, pulled pork tacos, prawn tostados, mackerel and salsa verde tacos additionally we had a Mexican Fish Butty which was interesting. Mrs S had Mojito’s and I had a Modelo beer plus a couple of Virgin Mary’s to accompany the meal all were excellent. A nice friendly spot for a quick different experience.

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Will the Trinity Centre kill off the rest of Leeds High Street? I don’t think so if the Council gets it right and supports lots of variety with independents, festivals, street entertainment and develop a proper City Centre Strategy. Leeds is continuing to change so far for the better, let’s hope it stays that way.
G&D.

Mikkeller & Friends, Copenhagen

Mikkeller & Friends
I’m a huge beer geek. Over the past 4 or 5 years hunting down craft beer has become one of the things I try to fit into every trip to a new place. Luckily in London it’s getting much easier to find the stuff. There are some truly top drawer craft beer bars popping up, serving the finest beers from around the world and it’s an exciting time for anyone looking to explore what beer has to offer beyond Stella, Guinness and their like.

Outside of the US, where the scene is decades older than our own, top of my craft beer places to go list for some time has been Copenhagen, and the Mikkeller bar in Vesterbro specifically. Owner and renowned brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø has been making boundary-pushing beers under the Mikkeller name for about 8 years now, often collaborating with other notable brewers around the world and exporting his creations to more than 40 countries. His bar has become something of a mecca for beer freaks passing through Europe (or indeed making a special pilgrimage) and one look at the outstanding tap list and rare bottle list is enough to see why.

I’d heard he was opening a new, much bigger bar called Mikkeller & Friends down the road from the existing bar, with a whopping 40 taps, and an adjoining bottle shop, but I figured I’d have to just get there when I could at some unknown, possibly non-existent point in the future. It was the nicest of surprises then when on the last day of our holiday in Berlin recently the wife let it slip that we’d be going to the new bar’s opening party the following weekend as a special birthday treat, sans child and with everything paid for already (apart from the bar tab).  Cue that Christmas Eve when you’re 6 feeling…

A couple of days before the opening of what promised to be one of the World’s best craft beer bars, the on tap list was announced on the Mikkeller website, and it was the stuff that a beer geek’s dreams are made of, boasting among other things Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial  Stout aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla beans and Westvleteren XII, two of the world’s most sought after brews, both of which are generally unavailable outside of their respective breweries in Munster, Indiana and Belgium respectively, unless you’re willing to part with serious cash on eBay. Coupled with that came the news that the bar would be offering 1000 litres of its regular house beers for free once the doors were open, and when that was gone they’d be serving the crazy stuff until closing time.  With 1500+ people saying they would be attending on Facebook it became abundantly clear that this was going to be some party.

We turned up an hour or so before the scheduled opening time of 3pm to find about 40 or 50 people already queuing outside the basement bar in the bitter cold with a palpable buzz building. I’d experienced this kind of queue at plenty of gigs before, but this was definitely a first. Opening time eventually arrived and the throng poured in. By some miracle we got seats, picking up some free beer from the bar on the way. The place is very open, but cosy with a clean and sophisticated Scandinavian feel, lots of light wooden furniture and shiny turquoise floors.

Free beer is always nice, and the three different brews on offer all slipped down very nicely, warming up the crowd like a support act before the headliner (the insanely brilliant list of amazing beer) came on. The Nørrebro Wit was the best of the bunch, with a classic wheaty citrus flavour and a little bit of bitterness, balancing nicely with honey sweetness.

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We got chatting to some Aussie law students studying in Copenhagen and after a couple of free beers the bar started serving all the rare and hard to find stuff and people started to swarm. Battling my way through to the bar, there was a bit of a crush going on, and I realised that the level of beer geekery I was immersed in was higher than I had ever experienced. This was beer mania. I felt like a loser for half a second before hearing a guy next to me order 4 measures of Dark Lord. At 150dk for 20cl (getting on for £20) that was an expensive round even by Danish standards, and he was clearly taking things at least as seriously as me.

And then it was my turn. It felt a bit surreal ordering a Dark Lord, like finding a copy of The Quarrymen acetate and having the money on me to buy it, but I went for it, along with a Zombie Dust American Pale Ale (also from the Three Floyds brewery) and Mikkeller’s Spontandoubleblueberry lambic fruit beer. The Dark Lord was poured first and popping my schnozz in the top of the glass to get a whiff of what was going on in there was a truly memorable experience. The powerful vanilla and bourbon aromas immediately blew me away, and were complimented with a strong hit of espresso. Chatting to the guy next to me as the barman poured the rest of my order, I let him have a noseful as well and it seemed to have the same effect on him.

Back at our table I was more than ready for a taste of this much revered drop of thick black stuff, and if I’ve built this up too much it’s because the sampling of this beer was a real event for me. With the wife and the Aussies all having had a quick sniff I took a big sip, and my word what a beer it is. It’s like a dessert and a coffee rolled into one (and a beer obviously), really rich and viscous, with the vanilla even stronger than I expected, and the 14% alcohol not noticeable at all, making it dangerously drinkable for such a strong beer. It has all the classic imperial stout flavours: coffee, chocolate, roasted malts, and dark fruits, but with a nice sweet vanilla and burnt sugar note, a bit of bourbon, and a slight sour note in the finish (possibly from the barrel aging). I’m a big believer that the best things in life are meant to be shared and I must have let 4 or 5 people have a sip. It was a good conversation starter: “here, have a taste of one of the best beers in the world”. Well you’d talk to someone who said that too, right?

Whilst Dark Lord was the best beer we had there, the selection on offer was impeccable. The Spontandoubleblueberry was refreshing and bursting with blueberry flavour and that tartness you get with lambics. We also sampled a lychee version which was absolutely delicious, along with Daybreak, an Imperial Stout brewed by Mikkeller in collaboration with US brewery Hill Farmstead. Unfortunately Westvleteren XII, the number one rated beer in the world, never came on – which must have been a disappointment for some. It wasn’t pulling through the tap for some reason. Luckily a friend shared a bottle with me last year (thanks James) and they were selling it in bottles in the adjoining bottle shop for anyone desperate to try it.

Eventually of course when you’re drinking high strength beers you have to stop – too much of a good thing and all that. I had to have a quick look at the bottle shop before we left and I could have filled both of our suitcases with amazing beers that would prove very difficult to find in the UK. The beers in the bar and bottle shop aren’t cheap, but I came away with bottles of Three Floyds Alpha King and Zombie Dust for about £6.50 each, which is fairly reasonable given the distance they’d travelled and their rarity in Europe. We drank them in the apartment we rented for the weekend the following day and both were outstanding. As we left one of the staff handed us each a small glass of barley wine brewed by To Øl (another Danish brewery, with whom the bar is apparently a joint venture). He’d poured it from a giant Nebuchadnezzar bottle which I’d have struggled to lift I think. One for the road? Don’t mind if I do…

Back into the cold, where there were still plenty of revellers spilling onto the street, we stopped by the hot dog van parked outside only to discover they were serving hot dogs with condiments made with Mikkeller beers. I can’t say I could taste beer as I ate it, but the sausage was good and spicy and I’d gladly have polished off another. Nice touch.

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By rights, the next morning should have been horrific, but a good night’s sleep and plenty of water before bed kept our hangovers to a minimum. We spent the day exploring and ate at Mother, which is something of a Copenhagen institution, serving great sourdough pizza and an Italian buffet brunch I’d recommend to anyone paying the city a visit. After a look around the Museum of Copenhagen and a nice walk by an icy canal, we ended up back in Mikkeller & Friends, and the vibe was entirely different to the previous evening, with just a few people there and the staff able to stop and chat. The guy I spoke to was friendly, knew his stuff about beer, and even remembered serving me the Dark Lord, asking what I’d thought of it and letting me know that they’d sold all they had of it within 40 minutes. Not surprising really, given its reputation and deliciousness. I tried a Kernel London Sour (only 2.3% – good hangover beer) with a dried gourmet sausage and cornichons, recommended by the barman and it all slipped down rather nicely, just as everything had the night before.

Mikkeller and To Øl have raised the bar with Mikkeller & Friends. I honestly can’t fault it. It’s a great place to go and enjoy the best that craft beer has to offer, and probably the best bar for beer I’ve ever been to. If only it were in London. Interestingly, there are rumours that Mikkeller will soon be joining forces with Brewdog (who already have several bars in the UK) to open a game-changing bar in Clerkenwell. With the fantastic Craft beer Co already offering a top notch craft beer experience in the same area, it could make Clerkenwell the best place to go for a beer in London. Exciting times indeed.

Paramount bar and Ponti’s Italian

    Jen and I were invited on a mums and daughters weekend in London to celebrate our friends 60th birthday (not allowed to mention her name). Some of the daughters had not seen each other for over 10 years so we were in for good fun… Snow forecast, we travelled down via East Coast UK which departed on time and as usual had a fun journey, a few drinks, crisps, sandwiches and biscuits all served with a smile from the friendly staff.

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    Tube tickets purchased we headed off to find our hotel, The St Giles on Bedford Ave, a 2min walk from Tottenham Court Road tube..ideally placed for theatres and shopping..room key in hand we walked into the room and straight back out again, the room was dated and smelt disgusting..reception were friendly and helpful and changed our room to a newly refurbished room and all was good… We met up with 2 of the party and headed off for a drink. Centre Point has a bar and restaurant on the 32nd floor called Paramount and is situated next to TCR tube entrance on New Oxford Street …very handy……Prosecco and Olives ordered so it was time for a chin wag..chit chat and banter across the table as mums and daughters caught up on gossip…we were only staying for a quick drink but the others arrived and 3 bottles plus other drinks later we thought it was time to leave to get ready for dinner..
    On a previous visit to London with the “older” girlies we had stopped off at Ponti’s Italian Kitchen on John Princes St just off Oxford Circus, the place had a nice friendly vibe so we decided to eat there again for Sharon’s celebration birthday…I booked a round table in the window weeks before and confirmed my reservation…on arrival, no round table available so I spoke to the manager, Nelson.. He apologised and within 10 mins had sorted the table for us..we ordered a bottle of Prosecco and a sparkling rose, no sparkling rose… Various starter were ordered, garlic pizza bread, king prawns in garlic and fritto misto all were lovely and well presented

    20130126-140046.jpg Mains included the usual, pizza, lasagne and pasta with meatballs…the only negative comment was that the meatballs were over cooked and hard…everyone else enjoyed their food…as if we had not had enough food some ordered desserts, I had read on the internet about the Bomboloni de ricotta, warm donuts with acacia honey and vanilla pod ice cream… sounded yummy…unfortunately they didn’t have any!! so I opted for the dolcini, a small dessert, in my case creme brulee with a coffee..very good but not what I really wanted…All of us commented that the food was good and the service exceptional, the bill was £30 per head which we thought was good value..

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    To round of the night we walked back to Paramount for a final glass or two and to admire the night lights of London, I must admit it is a stunning 360* view from the bar, note you do need to book in advance to get on the guest list…

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    Dx

Stew and Oyster at Oakwood, Leeds

We have been meaning to try out the Stew and Oyster for some time as it has been recommended by a few friends. So when I decided that it would be better to take The Lad for a walk around Roundhay park to avoid the quagmire that is pure mud locally we took the chance to pop in for a light lunch.
Once inside we were surprised by the eclectic mix of furniture but the decor was just as you would expect of a cool simple does what it says on the tin suburban bar. The floors are all wood, furniture varies from sofas, bar stools, plastic chairs and tables of various sorts. The walls are covered in posters and beverage signs as well as blackboards which all come together somehow with a relaxed charm.

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The bar is well stocked with an excellent choice of locally brewed and international beers plus one of the best range of liqueurs in a local bar I’ve come across, the whisky’s are worth a particular mention.
I ordered half a dozen oysters and a pint of stout brewed in Ilkley and D had a root vegetable stew with a glass of Rose. The oysters were very good and along with the stout I think I had a months worth of vitamins, just what the doctor ordered. The stew was also good and the vegetables were not a mush, the accompanying slab of bread was fresh and perfect.
On Sundays they have a film day showing 3 films on a large screen ranging from a kids, family and “grown up”.
My opinion is that every suburb needs a place like this and whether you go as a family or on your own you will feel welcome because it is homely and community at the same time in a contemporary style.

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G&D.

Harvey Nichols Christmas Carols 2012 and The Maven, Leeds.

A Christmas treat for the last 5 years (check out original post from 2008) has been a friends and family trip to H N for Christmas carols.
It is tradition now to start with a quick dash around the shops for last minute pressies then congregate at Whitelocks for hellos and a few well deserved bevvies. I love the Victoria arcade, the superb stained glass roof lends itself to beautiful acoustics and The Saint Peters Singer are just the ticket, they provide an ambience and effect that would even rouse Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas spirit..

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The meal is simple, broth, stewed beef followed by mince pies which doesn’t sound a lot but it is ample and as you would expect from HN it is superbly presented and very tasty. This year there were seventeen of us and we had a great pre Crimbo party atmosphere.
The hardcore New Farnley group were intrigued when Mr Dean suggested we have Gin tea at The Mavern afterwards. Eloquently described by Mrs Dean “it’s above the tattoo and piercing parlour up some smelly stairs near the Corn Exchange but when you get in it’s like a New York speakeasy…..”.
Well that is just what is was like and it is a super indie curiosity of a bar. We all had Hendrick’s Gin Tea served in Hendrick’s tea pot and cups. This place will become a regular. G uttered the the words “let’s go on a bender….” but the gang just laughed!

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D&G