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

LG_Cross-Keys-668x341

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

Joel_maven-668x341

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

bar-tipjar-friends-of-ham-leeds-668x341

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

44_theadelphi_0_501

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

midnight bell

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

cm-the-reliance-leeds-01-668x341

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.

whitelocks

the-alchemist-1-web

 

The Whippet Inn

the-whippet-inn

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.

Smoak

One of the anomalies of the Glasgow licensing laws means makes street food very difficult to happen. Basically the Scottish laws are quite strict about street food being sold within 300 yards of a school, and Glasgow in particular has a lot of schools.

This may well be North of the border bunkum, aimed at befuddled Sassenachs but it’s what my local food experts in Glasgow told me as we walked towards one of the more innovative solutions to this pedantic bylaw.

We were on our way to a ‘pop up’ food thing, situated in a bar on Glasgow’s notorious Sauchiehall Street. I say ‘thing’ as it’s a dine in, sit down and have a beer with food affair or a takeaway – either way, it’s interesting and currently the best sandwich in Glasgow right now and that got me on the hook.

Smoak is the indoors street food ‘concept’ situated in one of Glasgow’s most old school bars, The Variety. This place is as authentic as they come and we piled in on a surprisingly quiet Friday lunchtime. The menu is super simple with meat, cooked long and slow and smoked of course, served with home-made slaw and pickles. The chef is set snugly next to the bar with all his kit, like he’s been there twenty years.

It’s a genius idea.

photo-7

It really worked: the old school credibility of one of the city’s coolest, dodgiest bars and the bang on trend filthy food served with a lot of verve and attitude. I loved the look of it all, but clearly ordering the entire menu would not have worked so I went for the mixed slider combo – smoked brisket, pulled pork and Asian pork with all manner of pickles, gravy and loveliness and a brioche bun to boot.

Washed down with a pint of Guinness it was the lunch my personal trainer should never know about – and I’m relying on you to keep schtum about it.

Smoak are doing something that is both lovingly done and well considered and it would be great to see them in Leeds. Perhaps we could get our thinking caps on…hang on a minute, it would work a treat in somewhere like the Brudenell…

photo-5

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.

Mikkeller

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.

kernel London Sour

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.

Sunday Lunch at The Cross Keys, Water Lane, Leeds..

The Cross Keys is probably our favourite pub in Leeds so I will apologise up front if this review appears a tad biased. Although we visit The Cross Keys around five or six times a month on any given day it is the on a Sunday that we find it a comforting sanctuary and enjoy most regularly.
We tend to start by walking” The Lad” aka Chester our old dog along the canal and end up at the pub. This Sunday the Great British weather was behaving and the sun was out to play, the canal side is really wonderful and Leeds looks so different from this perspective, kind of comfortable in it’s post industrial makeover.
We sat in the courtyard at the back of the pub and enjoyed a beer/wine before moving inside for lunch. The place is wood and stone floors, the beers are true and varied, the food just great quality pub dishes nothing more or less. The team is led by Andy the Manager and is knowledgeable and very service orientated, table waiting, although you can just stand at the bar and enjoy the selection of real ales and a packet of scratchings if you prefer….
The a la carte menu changes regularly according to seasons but for us on a Sunday it has to be, beef, pork or lamb with all the trimmings. The Lad is spoilt and as a regular his bowl of water is generally served even before our drinks are! Andy is in the habit of bringing out some off cuts (which to my eye look suspiciously like prime bits of beef) for The Lad , which are eaten with absolute joy and followed by a nap under the table!
A really nice touch for Sundays is the Feasting Menu which has to be ordered 72 hours in advance and is a choice of rib beef, pork shoulder or leg of lamb brought out and carved (by yourself if you so wish) at the table. Each cut of meat serves about 8 hungry people and is served with vegetables, big Yorkshire puddings and whatever condiments you desire.
We have done the feasting menu with family and friends on cold rainy Sundays when the log fires are roaring away, it truly is the perfect Sunday.
No wonder then that the Guardian Food Magazine regularly has The Cross Keys as the runner up in their Sunday Lunch Pub competition, funny enough I never asked who is the winner.
Well worth a visit.

20120903-171428.jpg

20120903-171440.jpg

20120903-172716.jpg

Town Hall Tavern, Leeds

Both the Haynes and the Deans had recommended the Town Hall Tavern which has undergone a resurrection. On the way to Waitrose we decided at the very last minute to take the turn off to Central Leeds and nip in for a quick lunch. The interior is all wooden floors and gastro pub colours e.g. Farrow & Ball….
The place was busy but not rammed which is positive because even though it was Saturday the place is not in the shopping quarter and being by all the Law Courts you would expect weekdays to be naturally the busiest times.
The menu is quite extensive with “home cooked pub grub” but we found the tapas style little dishes very interesting and at £1.95 per dish great value.
D had the fish fingers and chips with spicy beans. The fish and chips were excellent with little pieces of lightly battered fresh fish and a few twice fried chips but the spicy beans were a bit bland. I had 3 little dishes, pigs cheek scotch egg which was fantastic, chicken and black pudding samosa which was fantastic and spicy squid which was….. good (a tad greasy). My pint of Landlord was superb.
“We must go again” and we will.

20120616-112414.jpg

20120616-112424.jpg

Malton Food Festival

img_2358

img_2364

img_2369

img_2374

img_2376

We spent a very enjoyable day at The Malton Food and Drink Festival last weekend. Opting to start the day in style, we had breakfast at Leeds Bar and Grill (superb, by the way) and then hopped on the train to Malton. Rather than drive we fancied letting the train take the strain. In the end we had to stand all the way to York due to a short train and racegoers. This did not dampen our spirits in any way and we hopped off the train in Malton on a bright and breezy day.

The Festival itself was very well put together with plenty of local producer stalls all set in the picturesque town centre. There were a couple of large demo tents and an excellent beer festival in the local concert hall. Sensibly, near the beer was the hog roast and artisan sausage butty stands to soak up the local ale so we were set for a great afternoon.

One of our favourite producers were there – Sand Hutton Asparagus – and there were a couple of tempting Pimms and Pie stalls that caught my eye and wallet. all in all we felt it was a great event, basking in good weather and very well attended.

Oh, and there was a tank. Well not quite a tank but a reconnaissance vehicle. Still it looked cool and trundled noisily back to base at the end of the day.