Gastrophysics: Town Hall Tavern, Leeds City Centre
Anthony Bourdain in his article “A Drinking Problem” (collected in The Nasty Bits) entertainingly ranted about an imagined London pub that had just “gone gastro”. Good food and good beer, he said, should be nowhere near each other. Pernicious foodies ruin traditional English pubs. He has since retracted this view, but it’s a commonly-held one.
My own view on gastropubs is divided. I like good restaurants that serve decent beer; and I also like good pubs that do good food. What I don’t want is for a good pub to become merely a restaurant-in-pub’s-clothing; one of those places that you get in London where you walk in, order a pint and the manager glares at you like a spent scratchcard for refusing to order food, a poor return on his investment.
The Town Hall Tavern in Leeds is a relatively historic pub (1926) which has recently “gone gastro”. A Timothy Taylor house opposite the courts, I used to come here on an irregular basis for a well-kept pint of Landlord or one of the less widespread Taylor’s beers such as Ram Tam. Beyond that, the old pub didn’t have an awful lot going for it: certainly friendly enough but with too much pine, too much carpet, a fruit machine and pointless televisions. Because it’s opposite Leeds Combined Court Centre it historically had a lot of legal clientele; but I think when Veritas opened, with its wine list and charcuterie boards, that was more the type of place suited to today’s counsel and solicitors.
When the Town Street Tavern was revamped I was initially sceptical. The new exterior looked like it was trying too hard: a bit art deco with some unfortunate purple strip lights. But inside it’s surprising and also considerably improved: floors stripped back to the wood, new green tiles on the walls, no more televisions, a blackboard, some old Timothy Taylor’s ads, and photos of old Leeds, alongside random pub ephemera including (of course) Beer Street and Gin Lane prints. There are some self-consciously quirky teapot lampshades, memorably described on The Apprentice recently as an “idea” rather than a “concept”.
What is perhaps most surprising is the selection of beer. Whilst the cask range is, as before, exclusively Taylor’s (Landlord, Ram Tam, Golden Best), the keg beer includes three from Staffordshire’s Freedom Brewery. They’ve even opted for Freedom’s pleasant roasty Stout in preference to Guinness. The fridges have an interesting selection of imported bottles from Beer Paradise, including O’Dell Cutthroat Porter, Sierra Nevada and Flying Dog Pale Ales, Jever and Tripel Karmeliet. There are also cocktails and a wine list.
The menu looks attractive and I opted for a simple fish and chips, which was very nice indeed and came in suitably gastro-sized portion (“feed not fill”). You can check out more about the food on the website and this mouthwatering Leeds Grub blog post. I should also mention that the service was excellent.
So overall I’m happy with the makeover and it will make me visit more than previously. Whilst the Town Hall Tavern is not quite a destination beer bar to rival Mr Foleys or North Bar, it is a much-improved pub where you can eat and drink well.
Importantly, on a Friday evening it didn’t seem to me that there was too much pressure to order food rather than simply drink. That puts it in a pleasant category with a few other places like The Adelphi (and indeed Veritas) where you might have a few good beers, see another table tucking into some very well-presented food and decide to stay for a light or full meal. That gastro Goldilocks zone where it’s not too restauranty, not too pub grubby, but just right.
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