Bar review: The Old Red Lion, Leeds city centre

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“MR SMITH calls me one of his modern type of managers,” says Sarah Goodchild, joining me for a pint at the Old Red Lion.

She’s referring to the famously-conservative Humphrey Smith, owner of Samuel Smith’s Brewery and a descendant of the historic founding family which established Tadcaster as one of the brewing capitals of Britain in Victorian times.

And while John Smith’s has gone down a quite different mass-market route, Sam’s has embraced tradition, keeping its pubs simple, unchanging – and famously stocking only their own-made products. At times, the whole Samuel Smith empire has seemed impervious to the seeping tides of change.

Say what you like, it is a successful formula. The Samuel Smith’s pub empire runs to 300 pubs, mostly across the north of England but with many in London, including lawyers’ bolthole the Cittie of Yorke in Holborn and the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street, once frequented by Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens and other writers of repute. Many seem like beautifully-preserved relics from a bygone age.

While neither can boast the glittering clientele of their London stablemates, the lovely Angel in dark and mysterious Angel Inn Yard, just off Briggate, and the Kings Arms just below Ousegate Bridge in York, are two of Yorkshire’s true Sam Smiths jewels.

And what they all have in common is value for money. While £3 seems to be the entry level for a pint of bitter in the city centre these days, here you can get a pint of Sam Smith’s Light Mild for less than half that price.

Some Sam Smith’s pubs offer hand-pulled real ale, but here all the beers are keg products; the attractive, curving oak-panelled bar is topped with a line of the distinctive box-shaped illuminated fonts serving the whole company range. Art deco lanterns hang beside rows of gleaming pint glasses, just above eye level.

A clutch of little rooms are clustered around the bar: to the left a comfortable lounge with leather armchairs and sombre and sober decor, to the right a pool table. Monochrome images of the city hang around the walls.

For me, easy-going, malty, nutty Old Brewery Bitter is an obvious choice, and this dark, caramelly pint, the very essence of a Yorkshire ale, is welcome company during my chat with Sarah a couple of days before Christmas. Again it’s great value at just £1.80.

For Sarah and husband Mark taking on the Old Red Lion is both a career change and a lifestyle choice. Sarah was a retail manager for Mothercare, Mark often worked unsocial hours: “We hardly saw each other,” she says. And as the parents of twin six-year-old girls, they were keen to find roles more suited to family life. As if to emphasise the point, we are soon joined by one of the girls, wearing her Christmas jumper and fretting about mum’s discussions with Santa.

Taking on the Old Red Lion wasn’t a complete step into the unknown: “I’d worked in pubs before, in Wetherspoons and for Sam Smiths,” says Sarah. They seem to have settled in well at Meadow Lane, gradually building up the trade of a pub which always seemed detached from the city’s main drinking trade, despite being only a stone’s throw from the Adelphi. Nearby companies like Asda, British Gas and AEG helps ensure a healthy regular trade.

And Humphrey has encouraged the couple to make their own mark on the business. “He’s been in a few times,” says Sarah. “But the brewery has let us have our own way.” This has included some recent redecoration outside and the revival of food service, including a popular home-made Sunday lunch at a creditable £7.95. This pub is back on the up.

FACTFILE

The Old Red Lion

Address: Meadow Lane, Leeds, LS1 7BT

Hosts: Mark and Sarah Goodchild

Type: A locals’ pub on the edge of the city centre

Beers: Old Brewery Bitter (£1.80), Sovereign (£1.82), Light Mild (£1.34), Taddy Lager (£2.08), Alpine (£1.64), Pure Brew (£2.92), India Ale (£2.92), Extra Stout (£2.20)

Wines: Small selection

Food: Meals served noon-2pm and 5-8pm Mon-Fri, noon-6pm Sun

Disabled: Straightforward access

Entertainment: Games machine and pool table

Children: Welcomed

Beer garden: None

Parking: Pay and display car park opposite

Telephone: 0113 2426779

PIC: Simon Hulme

Bar review: 166 Bar and Bistro, Horsforth, Leeds