“PEOPLE have been coming in from the balcony, telling me it’s too hot out there,” says Aire Bar manager Louise Howard, trading high on that rarest of occasions, a sunny Easter Monday.
As at Calls Landing next door, customers have flocked to this peaceful, sun-drenched drinking space with its south-facing views across the River Aire.
When this place first opened as Sparrow’s Wharf, something like 20 years ago, I’m sure many wondered how it could ever survive. The city’s riverside regeneration was still years away from reality, The Calls still a grim twilight zone thoroughfare, the outlook from the balcony fairly miserable, the river filthy.
All three have improved. Hotels, restaurants and bars have revived The Calls; offices and apartments stretch along the south bank; the Aire may not be the Arno, but it shimmers and dazzles, much cleaner than before. Even water taxis ply for trade here.
For much of this time, Louise Howard has been manager. Originally from the south, she came to join her husband in Leeds: “He was from the north east, so this was half way,” and eleven years on, she’s still here, one of the longest-serving licensees on the circuit. “I love it here, I really enjoy my job.”
From The Calls, two flights of stairs lead down to this bar, in whose red-brick walls and dramatic barrelled ceilings can be glimpsed its original purpose.
These riverside cellars and warehouses once serviced the city’s commercial prosperity, when the river and canals were the lifeblood of trade with both coasts. If you’ve not been down here before, the spectacular panoramic views can come as something of a surprise.
A long bar stretches along the opposite wall, where shiny fonts offer a good choice of lagers and six handpumps dispense a changing selection of three real ales.
I start with the soft and malty, gently refreshing Bridestones Pennine Gold before moving on to the more assertively bitter, grapefruity Mosaic single hopped golden ale from the Two Roses Brewery in Barnsley.
Food is served pretty much all day every day, with hearty full English breakfasts served from 10am, before their Yorkshire Burgaire (geddit?) menu takes over at lunchtime.
I choose the curiously-named Tyke It Like A Man, which imaginatively teams a sizeable beefburger with bacon, cheese and pesto and a generous dollop of macaroni cheese (£6.95).
My drinking buddy goes for the pulled chicken sandwich (£3.25) and we share a portion of chips (£1.50).
Sky Sports helps bring in the punters, but the fact that Louise’s neighbouring properties are all residential rather limits her ability to lay on any high-octane entertainment.
Good thing too – nearby Call Lane boasts more than enough late night fleshpots, to make Aire Bar a handy bolthole away from that madding crowd.
Divided into four distinct spaces by chunky brick walls, the design makes a virtue of the industrial brick, broken only by the occasional modern art original or striking photograph. The floor is part wooden, part smooth slate flags, with leather sofas and stools providing a comfortable place to drink.
On long summer evenings, the riverside deck really comes into its own, and during the winter the terrace is covered by a heated canopy making it possible to enjoy the changing Leeds skyline all year round.
At its highest, the water regularly laps just six inches below the decking, and the bar has been flooded three or four times during Louise’s long tenure here.
The £45m flood alleviation scheme currently under way should prevent it happening again.
Type: Interesting riverside hideaway
Host: Louise Howard
Opening hours: 10am-11pm Mon-Thur, 10am-1am Fri-Sat, 10am-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Changing choice of three real ales, each around £3.40-pint plus Sam Adams (£4), Peroni (£4.45), Amstel (£3.85), Veltins (£4.30), Red Stripe (£3.90)
Wines: Good choice from £4.35-glass and £13.30-bottle
Food: Served 10am-10pm
Disabled: Access is down two flights of stairs
Beer garden: Riverside terrace
Entertainment: Games machines, Sky Sports TV, pool table
Functions: Areas available for private hire
Parking: On-street areas nearby