The balcony of Beckett’s Bank offers a splendid vantage point to watch the world go by.
On one side, viewed through giant windows, Park Row bustles with shoppers and traffic. On the other the ground floor bar is busy with a relentless footfall of customers and the hubbub of conversation.
From up here, enjoying a relaxing pint of Doom Bar, it seems perfectly evident that in recent times, JD Wetherspoon has really upped its game. Once renowned, perhaps even notorious, simply for its cheap beer and formulaic pub grub, the company has made a noticeable shift towards quality – both in its range of products and in its standards of service.
Perhaps as beer – both real ale and craft keg – have exploded in their popularity and availability over the past decade or more, Wetherspoon has simply had to up the ante. That Beckett’s Bank stocks American IPA Devil’s Backbone and a Brewdog lager, show the company is happy to be moved by the spirit of the times. Equally, it remains one of the very few places outside clubland where it’s possible to get a pint for under £2.
And the fact it’s able to bring this mix into some wonderful old buildings, splendidly re-imagined, is truly remarkable. The Winter Gardens in Harrogate, which opened a year or so ago, is perhaps the most stunning example, but longer-established Beckett’s Bank is another.
It occupies a prime spot, filling the block between Bedford Street and Greek Street on Park Row. This location, as well as the reliable food and drink, pull in a mixed crowd: couples, families, workmen, office staff and shoppers are all in evidence during my lunchtime visit.
Beckett’s was once Britain’s largest provincial bank, founded in Georgian Leeds and with 37 branches at its peak. It even issued its own banknotes. Park Row was its headquarters, and if you’re prepared to look beyond the neon lights and the hectic flashing of the fruit machines, you can sense the tasteful re-use of this lovely old building.
Eight dramatic square columns support an ostentatious ceiling painted a vibrant deep blue and criss-crossed by beams which moulded and sculpted into a series of foliage patterns. At each intersection, a white Yorkshire rose stands proud of its red background.
One can imagine Victorian bankers and merchants conducting their business here in these grand and forbidding surroundings.
In the broad space in front of the bar, drinkers and diners perch on high stools beside tall tables; plain tables and chairs maximise the space around the walls and on the broad balcony above.
It’s cavernous and feels rather impersonal, but the great choice and no-nonsense pricing amply compensate.
On this lunchtime visit, most customers seem to be eating. The menu covers all the major bases – pasta, pub classics, steaks, sandwiches, burgers and salads – with the best value reserved for those who either dine in pairs (£7.39 for two main courses) or order their food and drink at the same time (meal and a pint offers from £5.49).
At £2.95-a-pint, I’m very tempted by guest beer Shipwreck IPA, until I notice its formidable strength (6.5 per cent ABV). Beers of this alcoholic content are rarely so well priced. But this being a working day lunchtime, I opt instead for the pleasures of Cornwall’s famous Doom Bar ale (four per cent), which displays the soft and malty, gently bitter, easy-going characteristics which have combined to make this the biggest selling cask ale in Britain.
I only wish I could have stayed for another.
Type: Lively alehouse and restaurant
Opening Hours: 8am-midnight Sun-Wed; 8am-1am Thurs-Sat
Beers: Abbott Ale (£2.65), Ruddles (£1.99), Devil’s Backbone (£3.10), Doom Bar (£2.95), John Smiths (£2.65) plus changing range of real ales from £2.70. Also Heineken (£3.10), Stella Artois (£3.40), This Is Lager (£3.10), Amstel (£3.10), Kronenbourg (£3.10), Tubourg (£2.65), Foster’s (£3.15), Carling (£3.25), San Miguel (£3.55), Guinness (£3.10), Strongbow (£2.70) plus guest cider
Wine: Decent wine list with choices from £2.65-glass and £8.59-bottle
Food: Wide-ranging menu served all sessions. Additional themed menus are Mexican Monday, Steak Club Tuesday, Chicken Club Wednesday, Curry Club Thursday and Fish Friday
Children: Welcomed but no special facilities
Disabled: Straightforward access to main ground floor bar
Beer garden: No
Entertainment: Games machines, rolling TV news, BT Sport, free wifi
Parking: City centre car parks nearby
Telephone: 0113 3945900