North Bar, City Centre, Leeds
I was going to do a review of Further North, which is the best pub within walking distance of my house. However, discussing Further North without first addressing North is like talking about Engels without mentioning Marx.
This post goes a bit beyond a simple review, because North is such a good pub of a particular type that it allows for a wider discussion of what it does so well, and why. North is not what many people I know would derisively refer to as an “old man pub”. Instead, it’s much more like a shabby-chic hipster café bar, halfway between Brooklyn and Bruges.
North Bar’s main strength, on any objective measure, is the selection of beer. It doesn’t have an especially high number of handpumps relative to Mr Foleys or most JD Wetherspoons, but those it does have are chosen well. Good local beers are favoured (with “beer miles” noted on the blackboard), and the cheapest on offer is usually Wild Mule: a pale, refreshing, hoppy session-strength beer from Rooster’s/Outlaw. As a default beer, it’s excellent. Guest beers often include those from Crown Brewery and Marble.
The keg beers are all pretty special as well. As well as some interesting European beers, often including one from Brasserie Ellezelloise, they were the first place in the UK to have Brooklyn Lager on draught.
The fridges, however, are something else. They’re packed with a brilliant selection of European and American bottles. Because these are relatively rare, imported beers, sometimes you’ll find yourself burning through your wallet pretty quickly, but by and large you’re paying for real quality. However if you’re into beer in any way, it’s almost impossible not to want to splash out a bit. Again, though, there’s usually a good cheaper option. Recently, for example, Flying Dog Pale Ale has been on offer.
I should also note that this focus on the selection extends to the range of spirits on the bar, which shuns the default options in favour of similarly interesting alternatives.
The blackboard in North includes tasting notes, which I think should be standard practice these days. When local pubs only ever sold Tetleys they wouldn’t have been required. However, when you’re offering an ever-changing range of unfamiliar, perhaps entirely new beers that most won’t have seen before, you’re simply missing a trick by not letting punters know what they’re supposed to be forking out £2.90 for. Of course they’re always happy to let you try a beer as well.
In relation to the bottles, you’re provided with a beer menu divided by origin and noting style, ABV and price. This is generally helpful but, given the breadth of choice, it often helps to fall back on the knowledge of the bar staff.
All of the bar staff, apparently without exception, have an excellent knowledge of the wide range they’re selling. The management’s commitment to educating the staff at regular tasting evenings is a really admirable policy, and one you’d struggle to find at a lot of North’s competitors. As a result the staff are happy to sound out a customer as to what they like and giving a recommendation. Beyond that, their willingness to say, “We’ve not got [standard option found in most pubs] but have you tried [alternative with similar qualities]?” seems basic when you think about it, but not all pubs bother.
North Bar is not a gastropub. However if you want a really good, reasonably-priced modern British meal with a decent pint, you could do a lot worse than wandering up the road a few hundred yards to The Reliance, which shares ownership with North but has different priorities.
North instead plays to its strengths by offering a small range of low-maintenance food options to sustain their customers. These include good pies, served with or without mushy peas in a canteen tin, with a pie and a pint deal. However perhaps the standout option is the meat and bread or cheese and bread. Who could resist a good Belgian beer with the cheese of the week, crusty bread and pickles off a wooden chopping board?
You could occasionally take North for granted if it weren’t for beer festivals such as their recent Oktoberfest and prior North American Beer Festival, where the bottles and taps changed significantly to include a wide range of exciting examples of German and US beers respectively. The North American one in particular was brilliant, full of exciting beers from Stone; Left Hand; Dogfish Head; Victory and a wealth of breweries I’d never heard of before. Although the novelty (and ABV) of some of the beers was reflected in the price, needless to say I happily spent a small fortune.
North also had (like Mr Foleys) a giant pumpkin filled with Rooster’s 5 Spice Pumpkin Ale (left). Whilst Roosters probably deserve the credit here, it’s another example of a trip to the pub turned into an event. Another good example was the Orval day a couple of Sundays ago, with Orval tasting and Orval cheese available.
North are also good at using social media including Facebook to publicise these events and their regular pub quizzes, which I’ve never attended but sound fun and different.
The clientele are eclectic, with a few older drinkers as well as many younger ones. They’re there to chat or sometimes read, and on the occasion that a shouty drunken idiot wanders in, they stand out like a sore thumb, reminding you of how this would be normal in many other pubs.
North Bar has no telly. I don’t like televisions in pubs but maybe that’s linked to the fact that I don’t watch sports. Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water” had no radio but I would suggest that, judged right, music can make a place more welcoming. There’s no jukebox but instead the music playing is a seemingly random but brilliant selection that includes Jeffrey Lewis, Franks Black and Zappa and Can. This feeds happily into (what I imagine to be) the Williamsburg vibe, as does the local art often exhibited on the walls.
I said above that I consider North to be a café bar. I mean this in the best sense of the word, in that it’s somewhere you can go to while away the hours, exploit the free Wifi or read the paper or a book without feeling like an alcoholic. The staff are friendly as well as helpful and knowledgeable. They’ll ask you if you want another drink when you’re running low, which is something I’ve rarely seen outside traditional local pubs. It’s very easy to spend hours there.
North Bar, 24 New Briggate, Leeds LS1 6NU; @NorthBarDrinks; http://www.northbar.com/