THEY really should have called it Big Pils. In the same cavernous building which was once home to the notorious Big Lil’s Saloon Bar, a great new bar has at last opened its doors, putting a much-loved Czech lager right at the heart of its business.
Just down from the wonderful Crash Records, a gap in the Headrow frontage opens into Bramleys Yard, and the entrance to Headrow House is dead ahead.
Turning right you arrive in the ground floor bar, where four vast copper tanks dispense fresh, unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell.
The beer is delivered weekly in tankers from the brewery in Plzen, the city which gave its name to a whole genre of golden lagers. The arrangement means that drinkers in Leeds can now enjoy this world famous beer in the state which nature intended. It’s the real ale of the lager world – and a very rare point of distinction for this new pub, a sister outlet to the Belgrave, a couple of hundred yards north of here.
“This used to be a dark and dangerous place,” director Simon Stevens admits, recalling the building’s time as Big Lil’s, which finally closed following the murder of a customer in 2003. “We actually looked at this place before we opened Belgrave, but it was a massive job.”
The previous owners had made an attempt to open up it up, but failed: “It was a bit like the Mary Celeste,” says Simon. “It was creepy. Everything had just been left. They had clearly done some work on the smaller rooms, but the larger spaces hadn’t been touched, like they couldn’t face the enormity of the task.”
So, having got Belgrave properly established, Simon and his team turned back to this sleeping giant, opening a venue whose four storeys are, by turns, a bar and restaurant, an event space, a cocktail bar and a roof terrace.
On my visit, just 24 hours before its official opening last weekend, the toilets were unfinished and the plaster was still wet: “We’re still working on it,” said Simon. Even so, the beer was flowing like water as those given an early preview of this fabulous new development were clearly intrigued by the prospect of fresh lager, 500 miles from its Central European home.
Only a handful of bars and restaurants outside the Czech Republic offer this product and Headrow House is the most northern. Curiously, in this fresh state, it is a smooth, easy-drinking experience, with some of the sharp edges of its famously bitter taste, softened and mellowed. Giant copper pipes carry the beer to taps on the bar, where its dispensed into heavy glass tankards. Mind you, at £4.60 a throw, it’s a tad more expensive over here.
Still, there are four handpulls, selling a rotating choice of real ales, the same number of craft beers and big fridges stocked with a good choice of bottles and cans.
The ambience is very much that of a European beer hall, the sort of place you might stumble upon in Munich or Prague. And though it doesn’t offer Czech drinkers’ favourite Knuckle of Pork, the Oxclub restaurant will add to that feel, serving hearty choices like the hanger steak (£8) and ox cheek (£11), all cooked on a custom-made grill, imported from Michigan.
Above this, an event space will be home to a vibrant programme of live music and exhibitions. A further floor up is the Redondo Beach cocktail bar, which will no doubt be a draw for young things, bright or otherwise. That could actually be the roof terrace which sets this place apart from the pack. From three storeys up, there is a sense of Mary Poppins; you half expect Dick van Dyke to emerge from behind one of the chimney pots, delivering weirdly-accented cockney banter.
Type: Huge beer and food venue
Address: The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 6PU
Telephone: 0113 234 6160
Opening Hours: 11am-2am daily
Beers: Changing choice of handpulled cask beer from £3 a pint plus Pilsner Urquell (£4.60), Amstel (£3.80), four craft beer lines and 72 bottled and canned beers
Wine: Good choice
Cocktails: Good choice - especially in Redondo Beach cocktail bar upstairs
Food: Oxclub grill restaurant plus streetfood selections
Children: Not suitable
Disabled: Wheelchair and lift access to all floors
Entertainment: Changing programme of exhibitions and events in upstairs space
Beer Garden: Rooftop terrace
Parking: City centre car parks nearby