Bar review: LAB, Merrion Way, Leeds

Leeds Arena Bar (LAB) at the Merrion Centre in Leeds. Picture by Steve Riding.

Leeds Arena Bar (LAB) at the Merrion Centre in Leeds. Picture by Steve Riding.

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Millions of pounds of investment, a showpiece 13,500-seater arena and a 50-year-old shopping centre that somehow has to try and rival the likes of Trinity Leeds.

Those are the ingredients that make up Leeds’s much-touted Arena Quarter at present. Billed as the next big development for the city’s thriving nighttime economy, the hope is that in years to come the area will have been kickstarted by the £60m Leeds First Direct Arena.

The adjacent Merrion Centre is undergoing a revamp, and one of the first signs of life is LAB – or Leeds Arena Bar.

As the latest addition to the Jones Bar Group’s increasing portfolio, this two-storey laboratory-inspired creation is bidding to become the go-to Arena Quarter bar.

Overlooking the arena from its new base at the Merrion Centre, the bar’s nearest competitors are the Stick or Twist Wetherspoons pub across the road and the bars on the other side of the shopping centre such as Sela, Mojo, The Pit and North Bar.

It’s refreshing to see this relatively untapped side of the centre starting to emerge. LAB opens up on to the rabbit warren walkthrough from the city centre through the Merrion Centre to the arena.

Its brown/ bronze signage sporting an atom as its logo, a chemistry class-style formation of basic wood and metal benches and its periodic table of cocktails scribed in chalk on blackboard wall menus all playfully showcase its theme.

Yes, it does somewhat remind you of the suave science-inspired Alchemist at Trinity Leeds, but in truth it caters to a slightly broader audience while its menu appears slightly less elaborate.

We didn’t spot any mini Bunsen burners, lab coats or dry ice on our visit, but if you’re simply after a drink in nice surroundings before an arena gig you’re probably less inclined to wait five minutes for your drink to be studiously perfected.

Instead it’s a welcoming, themed space with hints of the stripped-back appeal of its successful Roxy Ballroom concept. There are exposed industrial beams above, low-hanging lantern lights and gleaming cream tiles in and around the wood-topped main bar area downstairs.

An eclectic soundtrack featuring everything from indie to Arethra Franklin and Duran Duran provides the backdrop to this sociable venue.

Its upstairs space has more dining space as well as an impressive yet petit balcony which mirrors its mini beer garden below.

The drinks menu features around 10 lab-style original cocktails as well as classic mixes available on request, while there are six draught choices including Asahi, Oranjeboom and Cobra lagers alongside real ale choices.

The fridges are filled with a selection of half a dozen wines and endless amounts of canned and bottled beer, cider and ale.

We chose two strong bourbon, cherry and coke syrup and Rosso Colossal Cherries at £6.95 each and bottles of Sol and Peroni lager, which brought the bill to a relatively reasonable £20.90.

The cocktails were well presented and executed, reflecting the quality of this clever and timely addition to the Arena Quarter.

Only time will tell whether this new district will flourish but the early signs are good.

And if the next bars and restaurants buy into the area as much as LAB, the arena’s kickstarting credentials will surely be proven.

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