TWENTY years on from its foundation, North Bar still has that rare capacity to delight and surprise.
Whether or not North was the catalyst for the seismic change in our city’s drinking culture, it played a significant role, introducing drinkers raised on soft, nutty Yorkshire bitters to a whole world of flavour experiences.
“A few of us were blazing a trail at the time,” says founder John Gyngell, name-checking Art’s Café, Oporto and Mojo as others in the vanguard of this little revolution. The success of places like the Social and Belgrave owes much to these early adopters.
“Most people didn’t understand what a bar was and how it could be different to their normal drinking experience. It was actually a leap of faith to open any bar that wasn’t a traditional pub or something pretending to be Irish.”
John describes those early years as “a learning experience for ourselves as well as our customers” – yet while they are now serving the converted rather than the sceptics, that mission of discovery goes on.
A lunchtime visit this week, my first in a while, wasn’t so much a fling with an old flame as a re-affirmation of vows. I’m back where I was two decades ago – yet rather than making a first acquaintance with Erdinger or Sierra Nevada, now I’m face-to-face with a further bewildering, beguiling set of choices. There’s mocha porter from California, blonde from Belgium, cactus gose from Nevada. The list isn’t quite endless, but it’s sufficiently comprehensive that it’s bulldog-clipped beside every table to let drinkers browse at their leisure rather than puzzling over the pump clips at the counter.
When North Bar first sidled onto the Leeds scene, peeking out from its narrow shopfront onto the kebab alley of New Briggate, such choice would have baffled drinkers beyond comprehension. “It had to be evolution rather than revolution,” says John. “We sold Kronenbourg and Fosters but we always wanted to improve that choice. Occasionally we asked our customers to make the leap with us – like swapping Guinness for locally-produced cask stout and porter. Some of them fell out with us, but we knew we were doing the right thing.”
Over time, as its confidence grew, as it dawned on drinkers that there was something special going on, North extended its range: “When you’ve discovered something beautifully made which tastes incredible, you’re not going back to mass-produced fizz,” says John.
Fast forward to 2018 and North’s month-long US festival is showcasing the varied talents of 90 American beers. A star spangled banner hangs in the window; red, white and blue bunting ripples overhead.
The bar is recognisably the same: a long ribbon of simple tables stretches back from the narrow picture windows at the front; a magazine rack offers lone drinkers something to read; an arresting display of photographs on a carnival theme is the latest in a series of exhibitions. It’s so simple, so prosaic, it’s hard to imagine that this once helped shift the whole foundation of a city’s beer culture.
In time, the formula proved sufficiently successful to be rolled out to the suburbs and beyond. And there’s more to come: “We’ll grow within our means and do it the right way and in the right locations,” says John. “We’re very picky.”
New Briggate, Leeds
Type: Unpretentious modern alehouse
Opening times: 11am-1am Mon-Tues, 11am-2am Wed-Sat, noon-midnight Sun
Beers: A huge and changing choice of cask and keg ales, starting from the house pale ale NB20 (£3.40) and Veltins lager (£4.50)
Wine: Small choice from £3.40-glass and £17-bottle
Food: Pork pies, toasties and sharing platters
Entertainment: Occasional themed events
Children: Not particularly suitable
Disabled: Straightforward access but no special facilities
Beer Garden: None
Parking: Multi-storey and pay and display areas nearby
Telephone: 0113 242 4540