The arrival of London’s trendiest burger and meat joint is just one sign of Leeds’ food renaissance. Rob Parsons reports on the city’s new-found foodie status.
It’s fair to say the Leeds city centre site chosen for MEATliquor’s first base in the North would not have been the first choice for most restaurateurs.
Looking out onto a little-used alleyway between Commercial Street and the Trinity Centre, and with a Victoria’s Secret as the backdrop, the empty unit had not found any takers despite the best efforts of bosses at the new shopping centre.
Luckily, Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins have made a habit of turning unlikely spots into gold with their five restaurants in London and Brighton, so were willing to take the site after being approached last year.
They are sinking more than £1m into the project, which opens on Bank Street on September 9 and is described as the “biggest gamble yet” for the Londoners behind the hugely successful ‘burger, beer and cocktail’ joints which have taken the capital by storm.
It is the latest addition to the culinary scene in Leeds which has prompted locals to describe the city as “the epicentre of cool food and drink in the UK”.
Speaking during a visit to the city to check out the progress on MEATliquor Leeds, Papoutsis says the pair have “a history of taking unwanted, awkward sites” since starting out selling burgers from an industrial estate in south-east London.
“We were approached by the landlords, because our DNA is taking sites which have no-one going into them”, adds Collins.
“If you are a food and drink offering at the Trinity you want to be under that glass dome in that food court area
“They were all taken and snapped up, but this was just left languishing.
“We were drunk enough to accept it. It was a unit they just didn’t know what to do with. But to be honest, we wouldn’t have taken a unit that was forward-facing into a shopping centre, it is just not us.”
After opening five sites which have seen punters queueing round the block to sample their edgy mixture of US-inspired cuisine and nightclub-like ambience in the last three years, MEATliquor Leeds is the first north of the Watford Gap.
A quick tour of the interior reveals the main eating area in the basement, complete with space for a DJ booth and pool table, decorated with Yorkshire roses and Northern Soul references, part of efforts to create a venue inspired by the region.
“We have always been inspired by the buildings, and coming up to this area, to Leeds, we wanted to be more of the north rather than just come up here and shoehorning it into the shopping centre.
“We have spent a lot of time pulling in lots of influences and culture from the last 50 years,” Papoutsis says.
The pair have spent a lot of time in Leeds and Yorkshire, and he observes that “the people here appear to be very excited, not just about food but going out, nightlife, having a good time. The history of the nightlife up here is kind of in Leeds’s DNA.”
Despite being named as among the 1,000 Most Influential People in London, Collins and Papoutsis are not the first to note the emergence of Leeds as a food destination and say the city has “a huge demand for good food”.
A piece in Olive magazine in April noted the “recent blossoming of the northern food scene” as a significant trend, while a later piece this summer described Leeds as a “city obsessed with street food, pop-ups and ultra-casual dining”.
According to Tony Naylor, a freelance journalist who writes for Olive and The Guardian: “The thing that is obvious and conspicuously different in Leeds is the prominence of street food concepts, generally from fixed sites under cover rather than on-street dining.
“You have got Belgrave Music Hall, Patty Smith and Dough Boys within that who do really good pizza and burgers, you have got the street food at Trinity Kitchen, you have got Bundobust in Mill Hill and there is more ad-hoc monthly stuff which is happening. There is lots more happening than that.”
Naylor adds that any reputation for food Leeds may have had previously was geared towards fine dining, with attention focused on the efforts of celebrity chef Anthony Flinn prior to the closure of his restaurant Anthony’s last year.
“The big story was Anthony Flinn, going after a Michelin star which he never got”, he says. “That has certainly changed. I can’t think of anyone in Leeds who is aspiring to that kind of food.
“This is not just in Leeds and Manchester, in London there has been a massive post-recession gravitation towards cheaper, more informal dining.”
With street food all the rage in Yorkshire’s unofficial capital, it’s no surprise the city will play host to the British Street Food Awards in Millennium Square, a three-day festival of food starting on September 26 where Europe’s best street food traders will go head to head.
Diane Amesbury, who writes the Leeds-based food blog A Tale of Two Sittings, hails the diversity of the Leeds food scene, which she says is less spread out than that of Manchester.
“Seeing independent street food traders was rare until a few of years ago, until the likes of now well established names Manjit’s Kitchen and Fish& came on the scene,” she says.
“From the yearly held Amazing Graze (from Manjit’s Kitchen) and Veg Out (Wharf Chambers) we now have monthly events such as Belgrave Street Feast, World Feast and Brandon Street Night Market.
“It shows how the number of independent traders has increased, not only locally, but the area has attracted traders from around the UK wanting a slice of the action.
“The pop-up restaurant - with ventures such as We The Animals, The Noise of Strangers and more recently Trestle.
“They are combining together talents from different areas, resulting in a new and unusual dining experience Leeds, often in unusual venues.”
She added: “I like the diversity of the food scene in Leeds, we have a lot bases covered. It would be great to see some other cuisines catered for though, I’d love to see Peruvian food hit the city and bring back Ethiopian too.
“The amount of collaboration between people in Leeds is fantastic, they are trying to bring something new and different to the city.
“Manchester is also diverse in its food scene, but is much more spread out unlike Leeds.
“I’m a big brunch fan, so I’ve noticed they have more independents servicing a quality brunch menu, such as Solita, Home Sweet Home, Superstore NQ amongst others. I’d love to see more of a brunch scene develop in the city.
“In recent times Manchester has attracted celebrity chefs wanting to achieve Michelin stars, such as Simon Rogan and Aiden Byrne with The French and Manchester House respectively.
“Apart from Anthony’s, Leeds didn’t seem to have those aspirations for a while, but with The Man Behind The Curtain pushing boundaries in fine dining, who knows?”
Fine dining is clearly not dead in Leeds, with Michael O’Hare’s The Man Behind the Curtain on Vicar Lane garnering rave reviews.
But Gip Dammone, who runs Salvo’s Italian restaurant in Headingley with his brother John, is sceptical about whether there is a market for £100-a-head fine dining in the city.
“People will pay £30 for a really good steak but they don’t want to spend £20 on a steak and another £10 on a wine waiter and a table cloth that needs to be washed every day,” he says.
“There are lots of exciting places that I keep discovering in Leeds that are blowing my mind. It has as much to offer as it ever has.
In Leeds a lot of us are trying to eat better. People like a more casual approach to eating but they still want the quality. In town all the casual places that are serving food. It is great.”
A good illustration of the changing face of Leeds food comes at the Corn Exchange on September 20, where the basement space previously filled by Anthony’s will be taken over by a host of independent businesses for Cornucopia Underground.
It is described as “a feast for the senses that will confirm Leeds as the epicentre of cool food and drink in the UK”.
The event, which features cheese and music matching and “apocalyptic beer cocktails”, has been organised by the Leeds Food and Drink Association, a not-for-profit, membership organisation for food and drink businesses of all shapes and sizes.
Jo Murricane, who co-founded the association, says: “At the moment Leeds is having a real explosion of food and drink. The independents are coming to the fore and there are supper clubs and collaborations they are doing which is quite new over the last couple of years.
“Places like Manchester, which people often compare Leeds to, has peaked, whereas Leeds is really growing and getting more exciting and developing. It does have so many people that have come along over the last few years and they are all collaborating.”