“IT was a bit awkward,” admits Rich Fiddaman, on having to ask Leeds Brewery for a reference when he applied to take on the Cross Keys.
He had previously been in charge at the Midnight Bell, just a few doors along – and after a spell working in the brewery, and then in Liverpool, he has now returned to the city to take over at the Bell’s closest rival.
But a glowing reference was duly delivered, allowing Rich to complete a long-held ambition. “A few years ago, I said there were two companies I really want to work for – Leeds Brewery and the North Bar group. Now I’ve done them both.”
The Cross Keys is North’s most southerly venue, sitting just beyond the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in the heart of the Holbeck Urban Village. Its success, along with that of the Bell, the newer Northern Monk Refectory and a clutch of other restaurants in this once-neglected space reflects a remarkable feat of urban regeneration.
And on this Saturday evening, the place is packed with drinkers crowded around the bar, diners scattered in little pockets around the busy space and a lively private party going on upstairs. “We have functions upstairs most Saturday nights,” says Rich.
Furniture in the main room is arranged around the central bar which dominates the space. A spiral staircase is flanked by two red brick fireplaces. The first has the roaring flames of a cast iron stove; the second is packed with logs awaiting their turn in the fire.
In common with others in the North Bar group, the standard bitter is Prototype from Kirkstall Brewery. The name suggests it is experimental, soon to be replaced by something permanent, but it has been a fixture here for years now.
It’s my Friday night ale of choice at Further North and always delivers zingy fruity hoppy bitterness balanced with the soft and easily-refreshing nature of a session ale.
It may be a prototype but if they ever change the recipe I’ll be the first to complain.
The three other handpumps rotate a selection of guest ales: “We always try to have one pale ale, one amber ale and one dark beer.” Feckless, from the Red Willow Brewery in Cheshire is a current choice. Continental beers, craft ales and well-stocked fridges give the customers plenty to choose from.
Food is served most sessions and I put the diet on hold to tackle three chunky pork and apple sausages and mash (£10.95), while my wife deconstructs an architecturally-impressive stack of portobello mushroom burger, crusty bread, cheese and onion rings (£10.95).
Meanwhile, our daughter is serenely separating mussels from their shells and slurping the creamy sauce with gusto (£10.95).
There’s a special Sunday roast menu, while special events – beer and food matching events, cycle-themed sessions and a popular Sunday evening quiz keep the punters rolling into a pub steeped in Holbeck’s rich industrial heritage. In the area’s engineering heyday, inventor James Watt hired rooms here to spy on rival Matthew Murray. By the time North Bar found it, this historic space was languishing as a tyre store.
And Rich seems happy to have made the move. “It’s very similar to the Midnight Bell,” he says. “We get on very well with them.”
The addition of Northern Monk, and the long-promised renaissance of the nearby Grove have created in this part of town a lovely little drinkers’ circuit. So why would you ever rock the boat?
Type: Popular bar and restaurant
Host: Rich Fiddaman
Opening Hours: Noon-11pm Mon-Thur, noon-midnight Fri-Sat, noon-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Prototype (£3.10) plus changing range of three guest ales priced £3.10-£3.90 plus Hop Studio Pilsner, Lindeboom North Brew Pilsner, Schneider Weiss, Brooklyn Lager, Liefmans Cuvee Brut and Aspalls Suffolk Cyder
Wine: Decent wine list with choices from £4.25-glass and £16.95-bottle
Food: Wide-ranging menu served noon-3pm and 5.30-9.30pm Mon-Sat, plus Sunday roast menu noon-4.30pm
Disabled: Straightforward access to main ground floor bar, but slightly cramped inside
Children: Welcomed but no special facilities
Beer garden: Attractive courtyard to rear
Entertainment: Quiz Sunday, occasional themed events inluding forthcoming five course Marble Brewery dinner
Functions: Room upstairs available for private hire
Parking: Pay and display areas nearby
Telephone: 0113 243 3711