It all depends on the exact criteria you use, but however you were to decide which was the finest pub in Leeds, the Victoria would always be a contender.
It would score highly on many measures: food, atmosphere, welcome for example. On others – architecture, historic interest, choice of real ale – there are few to match it anywhere in the city.
It’s telling that when the New York Times recently rated Leeds 22nd in the World’s Top Places to Visit (Only 22nd? Come on guys!) the two pubs it recommended were the Victoria and the splendid Cross Keys at Water Lane, choices from opposite ends of the spectrum in some respects, but united by their commitment to great beer.
My early evening visit to the Vic was my first in at least two years, and it’s a while longer since I’ve written about it for the YEP – but it was reassuring to find that this great old city tavern is still on top form.
Its Sunday name remains the Victoria Family and Commercial Hotel, and that proud name is picked out in beautiful gilt lettering above the front door. But to most it is simply the Vic, a much-loved dining spot and watering hole, and remains a pleasure to visit.
Stepping inside, you enter an ornate, high-ceilinged lobby which will have once been the hub of life of this 28-bedroom hotel, which served for many years those brought by necessity to the business end of the Victorian city, with its law courts, Town Hall and infirmary.
Hotels don’t look like this any more and life’s the poorer for it. The vast Hilton under construction across Millennium Square shows demand for city centre accommodation is greater than ever, yet the impossibility of putting customer lifts into the Victoria renders it unusable as a hotel for the 21st century. Those ancient bedrooms stand idle, as they have done for years.
Nowadays the Vic does all its trade on the ground floor. I really envy anyone reading this who has never visited this beautiful, real ale paradise and still awaits the pleasure of stepping for the first time from the lobby into the long main room, with its long polished counter, brass details, floral tiles and gorgeous private booths. The back bar is simply a masterpiece; its engraved mirrors, ornate wooden carvings and stained glass would look perfectly at home in some High Anglican church. A big brass bell hangs in the doorway between the main bar and the snuggish Albert’s Bar behind, and has been used no doubt to call time for generations.
We call in for an after-work refresher before heading to a gig at the O2. It was an obvious choice – and as soon as I had a pint of the house Nicholson’s Pale Ale in my hand, with a big chunky cheese and bacon burger (£7.95) on order, I knew it had been a good one.
The beer, brewed specially for the group by St Austell Brewery, is one of two regular handpulls, the other being Tetley’s, of course. There’s a cracking range of other cask ales on offer though; the list changes daily.
The Victoria is one of three Nicholson’s pubs in Leeds, all of which are distinguished by their long serving licensees. Terry Grayson at the Palace, Toby Flint at the Scarbrough, and Carol Coleman at the Vic have racked up something like 60 years service between them in their respective pubs. That they have stayed so long speaks volumes not only for the level of service they provide, but also of the company’s commitment to its pubs. It may be part of the much larger Mitchell’s and Butlers, but they are clearly doing the important things well.
Except their directions, that is. If you have never been here before, please don’t use the map on the pub’s website, which will take you to St George’s Church, a couple of hundred yards west of here, which might boast an equally impressive history, but it’s still valuable drinking time wasted.
Name: The Victoria
Host: Carol Coleman
Type: Real ale paradise
Opening Hours: 10am-11pm Mon-Wed, 10am-midnight Thurs-Sat, noon-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Tetley Bitter (£2.70) and Nicholson’s Pale Ale (£3.20) plus great choice of real ales, most at £3.20. Also: Carling (£3.20), Amstel (£3.40), Kronenbourg (£3.60), Stella Black (£4.05), Peroni (£4.10), Guinness (£3.55)
Wine: Good choice
Food: Good selection of decent quality pub meals served 10am-10pm Mon-Sat and noon-8pm Sun
Children: Welcomed, but no special facilities
Disabled: Ramp access
Entertainment: Both Bridget’s Bar and Albert’s Bar are available for private hire.
Beer Garden: None
Telephone: 0113 243 1481
Beer of the Week
History has not been kind to Captain Edward John Smith. And though Titanic Brewery was named to honour the doomed liner’s skipper near his Staffordshire birthplace, one can’t help feel this latest beer doesn’t help his reputation.
It’s blurb suggests American Red might have been the kind of beer he would have enjoyed, had the Titanic made it through to New York, which is fair enough, but the label of the bewhiskered Captain, oblivious to an iceberg silhouetted in the sunset, suggests even more negligence than he’s generally credited with.
Anyway, I’m supposed to be reviewing the beer, which is really rather lovely. A deep amber red of colour, it gives off enticing bready, yeasty aromas, before bursting on the palate with bitter, metallic determination. This firmness persists in a beer which punches above its moderate 4.5% ABV and – if you’ll forgive the obvious pun – goes down very gracefully.
You’ll find it in Morrison’s.