In many ways, Charlie Brett’s - the restaurant has now been rebranded simply as Brett’s, although the adjoining takeaway still carries the old name - is something of an incongruence. In an era when restaurant openings often resemble red carpet events and when prestige seems to be conferred by the number of tables or the extravagance of the decor, Brett’s defies convention.
It sits, rather unassumingly, at the end of a neat little terrace of residential cottages just off North Lane, a stone’s throw from Headingley’s main drag and the constant stream of punters marching steadfastly along the infamous Otley Run pub crawl.
At a glance, you might mistake it for a house. It has a rather well kept lawned garden which reaches up from the main road, complete with neatly clipped bushes of lavender. Strangers to the area might be forgiven for sauntering on by were it not for the newly installed signage and menu board signalling it as a dining destination.
But dining destination this most certainly is and if the new managers have their way - as they intend to - it will be for some time to come. For, aside from eschewing convention in terms of its size and demeanour, Brett’s has another formidable point in its favour. While many restaurants crow about making it to their 1st, 5th or 10th year in business, Brett’s is now into its 100th and will mark its centenary next year.
Two months ago, the business was given a new lease of life by two businessmen who have cut their teeth in some of the best restaurants Leeds has to offer.
Shaun Davies is the man who put The Foundry - recently sold to Masterchef finalist chef Matt Healey - on the map. Before that, he ran a farmhouse restaurant in Menorca before returning to Leeds in 2004. Alongside the 48-year-old is Dave Ridealgh, 26, the former restaurant manager of Brasserie 44 and a protege of father Steve Ridealgh, formerly of Michelin-starred Pool Court Restaurant.
Together, they have brought about subtle yet distinctive change to one of Headingley’s best loved institutions, changing the menu at the restaurant (although aficionados needn’t worry, it still serves fish n’ chips), installing a new bar and making more of the al fresco opportunities in that idyllic country garden to temp passing trade from the street beyond.
Shaun grew up in Harrogate and began his career in the restaurant industry as a pot washer at William and Victoria, which is where he met Phil Richardson, with whom he ran The Foundry for 12 years. He progressed to chopping veg and eventually became a chef. But his association with Leeds goes back a long way.
“I remember coming here all the time, we would come for the sport, for the cricket and rugby. Everyone knew Brett’s then, all the cricket crowd would come here. That’s why I think it’s such a draw, it has such a good reputation.”
The father of three, who also has two stepchildren, is excited about the new challenge and the possibilities. A keen sports fan himself, he’s already made inroads in terms of making the place known to local stars.
“From The Foundry, I know Peter Lorimer, Eddie Gray, Tony Derigo, Simon Grayson… we’ve got to know Ryan Sidebottom, he was up last week and Geoff Boycott has been in already a couple of times for lunch.
“The restaurant has so much potential in terms of appealing to the people who come here to watch the cricket but also the students and their parents who come to the area for the first time.”
David concurs: “With Brett’s, I think we wanted to make the restaurant more of an offering, we just wanted a different style, still keeping the fish and chips but a couple of notches up market. People are coming in and are pleasantly surprised with what we’re doing. “
The menu is short: eight starters, eight mains, pus side dishes. There’s chicken liver pate with caramelised onions and toast for a very decent £6.95, steamed Shetland mussels for a snip under nine quid and on the mains confit of duck leg for £16.95 and 12oz aged Yorkshire rib-eye, with change from £25. And of course, there’s Brett’s ‘famous’ fish n’ chips. The qualifier is deserving, not least because of its longevity.
The business was started by Arthur Brett in about 1899. He acquired a horse and cart and worked as a carting agent carrying people and goods around the area. In 1919, he launched a new venture by going to Leeds market everyday bringing fresh fish back to his shop to sell. Working with his son Charlie, they expanded the business in the 1930s by also creating a restaurant. It gained its national reputation through cricket with famous players and commentators becoming its most devoted customers.
Shaun is keen to keep those ‘local’ credentials. “Our bread comes from the artisan bakery across the road, our meat from Richard Setchfield in Roundhay, the fish we get from someone we know in Scarborough. Everything is local. How it should be.” Even the menu bindings were made round the corner at Spink & Thackray.
Still, David says he and his head chef Cameron Gardiner, formerly of The Foundry (and before that Leodis), are not averse to changing things up when circumstances allow. “When we last got the fish, he had some nice Dover sole, so that will go on the specials board.”
Brett’s has also changed upstairs, with Shaun and David opening up two new dining spaces, available for private booking.
David says: “We dropped lucky this year with the heatwave, because we’ve had people dining out every night. In some cases, we’ve been so full, we were turning them away.
“What we’ve got here is somewhere nice and intimate, which is great in the summer but is also going to be nice and cosy in the winter. It’s independent, too, so in effect, you’re not getting us anywhere else. We know people by their first names, we know what they like to eat, drink and so on. It’s that personal touch.”
Shaun adds: “This is a true neighbourhood restaurant. There aren’t many places which can say they have been there 100 years. But we can.”
Next year, when the Ashes comes to Headingley, fans will be hoping for centuries of a different kind but if they fail to materialise, Brett’s will step up to the crease.