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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Monkey Bar – Bangalore, India

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In a cool, ramshackle district in the southern Indian city of Bangalore there’s an unassuming bar called Monkey. And if you weren’t a local you would almost certainly walk past the corner where its situated as the tuk tuks and buses fight for space.

Monkey has won interior design praise with its urban décor, retro cool decorations featuring old school vespas and star wars prints. Founded by the famous Indian chef – Manu Chandra of Olive fame, one could be in New York city or Leeds…but there is something else, an Indian twist to everything.

As very loud and very great tunes from the DJ upstairs blasted out we kicked off with a selection of house cocktails and special mention has to go to Mangaa, and Copper Monkey – vodka and whiskey based, infused with local flavours and spice. The food is a curious mix of western, Indian and Chinese along with straight bat wings, nachos, ribs etc. What was interesting was a whole section of offal – heart, brain, liver all delivered with taste attitude.

It’s a kind of Indian tapas style experience – very social with lots of small plated being shared – my favourites included:

Butterfly Chicken ‘Gangnam Style 😉Zesty shredded chicken sautéed with lime, basil, chili, black beans and green onions stuffed inside crisp butterfly shells

 Chilli BrainBrain cutlet with green chilli and fenugreek

Pickled BeefSpicy beef pickle with ker, sangri and curry leaves in gingery oil; served with hot pav and onion

Monkey is officially a gastro pub in Bangalore but for me it had none of the preachyness we can get in gastro pubs in the UK –  this was definitely a vibrant, unpretentious and essential place to come, eat and drink.

The Cornish Arms, St Merryn

Second day in Cornwall and the sun had taken a day off, funny then that unless you are abroad thoughts drift towards a nice pub lunch….perhaps even a roast.
So it was that we decided to take a drive over to St Merryn to find The Cornish Arms, Rick Steins pub. As almost everywhere in Cornwall the drive along country lanes means most places have to be “destination” hostelries and therefore after the drive they better be good or the disappointment can be big. The Cornish Arms is an old pub that has been cleverly extended without taking away the character right down to real log fires and RAF Curlew memorabilia harking back to previous use of the establishment. The menu is not huge and is quite old school comfort food, burgers, scampi, curry etc but all posh nosh style.
We both decided on Sunday lunch, D went for the beef and I had the pork. All that needed to be said it’s faultless right down to the plate of mixed vegetables old school form.

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At £12.95 per head or £15 if you had a pudding…we opted to have puddings too, sticky toffee for moi and chocolate nut Sunday for D. Service and value was excellent! We will go again I fancy Mumrez Khan’s lamb and spinach karahi! Booking is advisable even out of season.

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G&D

The Hare at Scawton

On our way to The Black Swan we decided to nip in to The Hare at Scawton. Once you have climbed Sutton Bank it is a left turn off the main road to Helmsley and just a mile and a half down a country lane. The views across the Dales are magnificent when driving to The Hare, worth a look on their own!
We did pop in a few years ago just for a drink and the place was rammed which is to be expected due to the excellent reputation for great local food.

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As soon as you walk in the old country pub real fire atmosphere just get’s you. The staff are very friendly but we were surprised and pleased that it was quiet due probably to the Xmas/New Year in between period. We ordered a pint of Black Sheep and a glass of Rosé which the Lad accidentally knocked over, my cat like reactions saved the pint but not the Rose…..
There were two other couples in the bar and we were kindly asked if we wanted to swap with one of them for a “dog friendly table” which we did. One of the couples were from Leeds and the lady actually went the same school as our kids did, small world….
We were looking for a light bar lunch and opted for starter portions of Parsnip soup and a bowl of mussels. The soup was sweet and creamy, the mussels were juicy, fresh in a lovely creamy sauce. If it wasn’t for the fact that we were driving and dinner was booked we could have easily settled in for a long long lunch, perhaps next time, in fact definitely next time. Top place a must go.

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G&D.

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.

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The Bulman, Summercove, Kinsale.

First night in Kinsale spent at the Bulman at Summercove. The views over the estuary on the taxi ride down were stunning. The Bulman pub was buzzing when we arrived and we had a couple of drinks downstairs before going upstairs to the restaurant. Gurdev and Tony shared a dozen oysters as a precurser.They certainly looked good and the guys said they were exceptional. That was followed by starters of scampi, spare ribs in a sticky honey sauce(very nice Dawn says) and crab gratin. The mains included monkfish in tempura batter for Gurdev and seared tuna for Tony. We didn’t have desserts but followed with cheese and that was the only disappointment ( it was served too cold) in an otherwise excellent first night in The Emerald Isle.

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The Milestone, Sheffield

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The Milestone is a very cool gastro pub tucked away in an old heavy industry district in Sheffield called Kelham Island. Home to a brewery and few cool old style boozers, this part of Sheffield is not quite city centre and it’s all the more pleasurable for it. Parking is easy and it’s just a stone’s throw from my sisters house, where we stayed last weekend.

After reading Jay Raynor’s very positive review of The Milestone in The Observer, we decided to give it a try for dinner last weekend. I’d describe the ambience as laid back, cool and industrial modern chic. Not dissimilar in many ways to eateries in our very own Holbeck.

As they don’t take bookings (odd,I know, considering you can book a meal online nowadays, as easily as you’d check your email or play party poker) we chanced our arm with a Sunday late afternoon and as it turned it out, it was perfect. The in between lunch and dinner service meant the place was only half full but as we were leaving it was rapidly filling up. It’s always nice to get into a restaurant in a lull, as the service are less taxed, though sometimes it also means they can be slightly lazier. Luckily for us, the service was great.

We kicked off with cocktails (like you do) and my Kelham Island Iced Tea was a blast of summer. I was the only one who fancied a starter and the cured breast of partridge with juniper was delicate and fabulously gamey. I couldn’t resist the rib eye for main, whilst J had the Croque Madame with G and G opting for the pea and broad bean risotto.

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Check out that bad boy!

My steak was historically good – on the bone and it was a real Fred Flintstone cut of meat. Perfectly cooked medium rare – as rib should be – it presented a challenge to eat I can tell you. J was slightly disappointed with the dryness of her Croque, but it was a very generous portion nonetheless. Risottos were declared spot on too.

Desserts looked interesting so G went for the chocolate brownie (very chocolatey), I had the rhubarb three ways (an homage to West Yorkshire) and J had a huge slice of textured cake which I can’t quite recall!

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This is probably the first time we’ve eaten out in Sheffield and I have to say that it was very enjoyable. I can highly recommend The Milestone – the food, service and prices were spot on. If you’re looking for casual dining with serious food, then look no further.