Keeping up with the ever-expanding pub and bar scene in Leeds is a genuine challenge, albeit a pleasurable one. Today, the city centre is awash with minimalist chic, faux rustic charm and theme bars, leaving the trusty, traditional pub somewhat faded into the background. Or so it seems.
Until you put your mind to it, it’s easy to think that there is no room or desire for the traditional boozer in Leeds. Furthermore, since the start of the millennium, the impact of the recession, rising beer taxes and regulatory costs has seen many such establishments having to permanently call time.
But that’s not to say there aren’t still plenty of stubborn mules maintaining their values and audibly tutting at the lack of drip trays, bar towels, brass foot rests and indefinable ‘characters’ around Leeds’ buzzing new bar scene.
These pubs were here long before ice bars, cocktail bars and retro-fitted craft ale bars started springing up in various pockets of the city centre, and they can be loosely placed into three different categories.
First there are the pubs that maintain a ‘traditional’ feel but have been extensively renovated and are now geared towards a wider market. This includes pubs such as the Scarbrough Taps, West Riding, The George, Victoria Hotel, The Adelphi, The Grove Inn, The Griffin, Fox & Newt, Duck & Drake, Horse & Trumpet, The Palace and the Town Hall Tavern.
These pubs demonstrate a clear concession to moving trends, but still a pleasing attention to core pub values of hospitality, conviviality and value-for-money, well-kept beers.
Some of these pubs have accepted that food needs to be on their radar and they do it very well; we’re no longer talking a jar of pickled eggs on the bar and a choice of two varieties of pork scratchings any more.
Exposed brick, restored beams and vintage copper-topped tables may well be a feature here and through their enduring link with conventional pub ethics, many of these hostelries have achieved legendary status in Leeds. Some also have embraced the ‘real ale revolution’, perhaps without even realising there was one.
The second group includes four mainstays in Leeds that are impossible to ignore and uphold their heritage in gloriously obstinate and inflexible fashion. Briggate’s narrow cobbled loins give us the Packhorse, Whitelocks, Angel Inn and The Ship. These four tardis-like pubs run parallel to each other, almost representing the very heart of Leeds, and which will prevail with hearty chatter, sticky carpets and effortless character most likely until the end of time.
Finally we come to what we should define as the true traditional pubs of Leeds. Pubs such as The Fenton, The Duncan, General Eliot, The Regent, Three Legs, The Templar and the Prince of Wales may have perhaps seen better days, but are still architectural gems. These boozers are brimming with bold tiling, ornate stone carvings and facades in-keeping with what were (and remain) important public buildings in Leeds.
Inside, the décor may be stained by a century of tobacco smoke – it may be they still struggle to completely enforce the smoking ban. Perhaps they have also been partial to the odd lock-in over the years too. All in good spirit, of course.
These are the pubs that are largely untouched by progress. Here we often see pets, a few 1970s stereotypes, boxes of dominoes, plenty of brass furnishing and quite possibly some ornamental toby jugs or earthenware pottery for good measure.
Even a jukebox is likely frowned upon – indeed, music is just a background irrelevance to the hospitality and warmth that used to characterise the pub trade. Although, be warned, what passes for weekend entertainment may well include karaoke...
If you do receive food here, it won’t be served on wooden planks with chips stacked like a Jenga game or in a stainless steel basket. This will be hearty fare with substance on best crockery, and you will be eating it on an ageing varnished table levelled-out under one leg by a decade-old stack of beer mats.
But essentially these pubs epitomise dogged resistance to both change and development, and have somehow outlived the Tetley’s name that they used to rely on so heavily. They are the centre of their customer’s universe, and life outside their four walls and heavy swinging doors just passes by.
All pubs of history and standing offer a window into a world that is very different to that outside; when pubs were the bedrock of society not just a means of escape and thankfully something that Leeds embraced and now recognises and protects.
Some may see them as blots on the landscape of a planner’s shiny, new dream. Thankfully enough see that they can co-exist and offer foundation to a city’s belief built on tradition, warmth and heart.