Bar review: Friends Of Ham, Leeds

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Few people mourn the passing of a payday loan shop, least of all when it makes way for a sizeable extension of one of the very best bars in town.

The street level area of Friends of Ham was always a little cramped – only the basement offered proper space to sit down and relax. But the expansion into the vacant property next door has created the same upstairs footprint as below, breathing space which has given a fresh continental dynamic to this wonderful place.

Even so, owners Claire and Anthony ‘Kitch’ Kitching were apprehensive: “Our biggest concern was that people would think we were getting too big for our boots,” says Claire Kitching.

That doesn’t seem to have happened, though rave reviews in Observer Food Monthly and elsewhere could have easily left the couple with seriously swollen egoes.

The added popularity that comes with such acclaim is also a problem of its own, so a new admission policy maintains that Belgian bar feel.

If customers can’t find somewhere to sit, and it is already two-deep at the bar, they are asked to wait outside: “People don’t want to be sitting down having a drink with someone’s backside in their face,” says Claire.

Friends of Ham will take their phone number, and call back as soon as a place becomes free, allowing them to head off somewhere else for a while.

“It’s a different way of operating – and sometimes you get people outside moaning that there is free space inside, but they have to understand that there may be someone who was here an hour ago, who is now coming back for that table. But our target market is people who don’t actually like the crowds.”

Claire and Kitch met at Newcastle University and initially worked in London. “We got to our 30th birthdays and thought ‘what do we do next?’”

It was while travelling that the idea dawned. “We were in Portland, where we just fell in love with beer.”

That American influence is evident on the bar. House ale Last of the Summer Swine (6.2 per cent) is a big tasting IPA from Holmfirth’s Summer Wine brewery, famed for its strong, experimental, highly-hopped American IPAs.

The four handpulls and ten keg beers change regularly – and I take this opportunity to try tart and rich cherry beer Delirium Red, which at 8.5 per cent ABV and £4.50 for a half pint is not for drinkers who are faint of heart or wallet.

“We always try to go for beers which other bars don’t have. People can come in and try a whole range over their night out.

“It’s about appreciating quality over quantity.” Accordingly, all the draught ales are available in third-pint measures.

The arrival of the likes of Bundobust, the Griffin and the Head of Steam have added new interest to this corner of town: “It has created an area where people can spend the whole night, rather than having a couple of drinks down here before moving off,” says Claire. “We’re still getting very full.”

Friends of Ham’s unique combination – an eclectic selection of beers and its trademark meat and cheese platters – pulls in a diverse clientele.

“We get a lot of women, couples coming for something to eat, and of course there are the beer geeks who just want to try everything that we have.

“I love it when I walk past a table and see a woman sitting on her own, reading a book, drinking a beer.”

FACTFILE

Type: Charcuterie and beerhouse

Hosts: Claire and Anthony Kitching

Opening times: Noon-11pm Mon-Wed, noon-midnight Thurs-Sat, noon-10pm Sun

Beers: Great choice of draught beers – both four cask and 10 keg – from around £3-pint. Third-pints available, and flights of three thirds for £5.

Wine: Good choice

Food: Cosmopolitan selection of meat and cheese platters

Children: Not especially suitable

Disabled: Slightly tricky access to ground floor, second drinking area is down a flight of stairs

Entertainment: Books and board games

Beer Garden: None

Parking: Pay and display and multi-storey areas nearby

Telephone: 0113 242 0275

Website: www.friendsofham.com

GOING OUT: The Vesper Gate, Kirkstall ticks just about all the boxes for being a great pub.

Pub review: Vesper Gate, Kirkstall, Leeds