This month we headed over to the flourishing West Yorkshire city to check out what all the fuss was about and found a city thriving on its independence
It’s 10am on a warm Leeds morning, the sort of morning that’s awaiting the sun to burn off a lingering cloak of grey. We’re here to celebrate the opening of the new La Marzocco northern office but we’re also curious, we’ve heard a lot about the city recently and we want to know what all the fuss is about. Situated in West Yorkshire, Leeds is the third biggest city in the UK by population and lies within the UK’s fourth most populous area. A former industrial city, Leeds is now most notable for its universities and diverse economy, home to the fastest private sector jobs growth of any UK city. It was also ranked fifth on Lonely Planet’s list of 10 best places to visit in Europe in 2017, other places on the list included Zagreb, Croatia (1st) and Moldova (8th).
Our day begins at North Star Coffee Roasters, a coffee shop and roastery at Leeds Dock near the tourist favourite Royal Armouries Museum. North Star were the first coffee roasters in the city and its HQ, home to a coffee shop, roastery and coffee academy is the perfect place to begin our curiosity tour of the city. We chat to roastery assistant and wholesales trainer Ollie Sears about the city and he’s full of excitement. His formative experiences of Leeds were rooted in his time at the city’s redbrick university, and his involvement with the university’s business society influenced his decision to stay in Leeds and pursue a career in specialty coffee. He tells us about the thriving local independent business scene, as well as the surprising influx in tech. North Star itself is a beautiful bright and airy space, serving coffee and food as well as selling a host of specialty coffees, tea and locally produced products with an emphasis on ethics. If you think Fairtrade is the best we can do to make everyone’s life better on the supply chain, you need to have a flat white and a chat with the staff of North Star.
Our jaunt continues back into the city centre with a stop off at The Corn Exchange. The majestic Victorian building is one of three corn exchanges in the country which still operates in its traditional capacity as a place for commerce (albeit minus the corn) and is a stunning landmark housing some of the city’s best independent stores. As the clock conveniently strikes noon, we head into Little Leeds Beerhouse a quaint independent bottle shop with a wide selection, regular events and a few beers on tap. We knock back a schooner each of Affinity Brew Co’s 4.2% ‘For The Many’ and chat to the guy on duty.
“I think Leeds is quietly awesome,” he tells us straight off the bat. The ‘quiet’ part seems important. When people talk of seeking an alternative to the ever increasing prices and decreasing fulfilment of London, they usually mention Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, Glasgow and Edinburgh, but rarely Leeds. The more Leeds unfolds in front of us, we wonder why more of a fuss isn’t being made nationally.
Our new friend at Little Leeds is full of weighty but justified Leeds statements (“The Brudenell Social Club is the best music venue in the country”) and even has recommendations further afield. “The Grove in Huddersfield – best pub in the country, and it’s cheap because it’s in Huddersfield.” Beers firmly dealt with, we head downstairs to look at clothes.
MKI Miyuki Zoku is our first fashion port of call. Founded in 2010 by creative director Vik Tailor, the brand’s idea was to open a bold new concept store in the centre of Leeds bringing new styles, labels, looks and ethos to the city. Emphasis throughout is on fashion from the designer perspective, but with quality at a modest price point. Most of the garments on offer are minimal, clean-cut Japanese-inspired basics from the brand’s own range MKI, but the store also stocks Comme des Garçons and Saint James. This independent fashion streak is evident again a few units down at All Blues Co., a menswear store channelling 40/50s heritage American workwear. Although a lot of brands stocked are new to us, the selection has a few pieces we could really get behind. A lot of pre-washed cotton, heavy cotton t-shirts, work jackets and chunky Red Wing footwear. The owner, a charismatic chap, seems confident on winning people over to the new brands: “We have a lot of people come in, we call them the converts. They’re into their Scandinavian streetwear, then they see what we’ve got and they do a 180. They’re sold.”
The Hip Store and Accent are clothes stores that crop up in conversation with the people we meet, as are the city’s historic arcades, peppered with luxury brands and independents. One in particular that we’re excited to visit is Village – an independent magazine and bookstore (the upstairs is a small gallery space) situated in Thornton’s Arcade. It’s the sort of small, minimal well-kept store that any city would be proud to have just one of, but Leeds is full of such places. Small independents across a variety of fields, stocked to the gills with exciting stuff and kept ticking over by interesting, creative and sociable staff. Village’s selection is vast and when asked, Ben behind the till is full of recommendations from Village: “Pretty much everything you can think of, someone’s made a magazine about it. Everything. We’ve even got a magazine about art and dogs. In fact, we’ve got two magazines solely about art and dogs”, he tells us.
With coffee, clothes and magazines explored, it’s back to beer with a visit to The Old Flax Store, home to the Northern Monk Brew Co. The Grade II listed mill houses a brewery, taproom and events space. The taproom is a fantastic space staying true to the building’s historic industrial roots, all open brick and rugged seating. Of course, the selection available is incredible. We opt for a schooner of ‘Eternal Session IPA’ each and sit down to chat with Andrey from the taproom.
“The thing with Leeds is people get into their interests in a big way,” he says. Music, like with so many people we speak to throughout the day is a big pull, as is the city’s close-knit and creative community. We treat ourselves to a can of ‘Patrons Project 7.02 Peach Farmhouse Ale’, a delicious 7% saison and head for food. En route, we go back to Thornton’s Arcade for a swift one in Tall Boys Beer Market.
All beered out, it’s time for food and with so much variety awaiting us, the choice is a tough one. We’ve heard great things about The Reliance and its modern British seasonal menu, but it’s not on our route. Pizza Fella and Zucco sound delicious, but we’re not feeling Italian. The same goes for Zaap Thai and Friends of Ham, you can’t talk about Leeds without someone suggesting you visit both. Perhaps due to our fondness of Drew Millward’s work (that is rampant throughout the city) which lines their walls, we settle on a trip to Bundobust. The Indian street food restaurant which also deals in craft beer is a Leeds institution, recommended in the 2017 Michelin Guide as well as featuring in endless lists charting the best Indian, vegetarian and food in the country.
We order the ‘Bundo Chaat’ (samosa pastry, chickpeas, potato, tamarind chutney, onion, yoghurt and turmeric noodles), a little bowl of sweet and savoury crunch and textures, as well as the ‘Biryani Bhaji Balls’ (‘Arancini meets Biryani’) and ‘Chole Bhatura’ (chickpeas cooked in a rich onion and tomato sauce). All come in modest portions but leave us surprisingly full with just enough room to finish a Mango Lassi each. Suitably fed and watered, we head over to the Leeming Building to celebrate the opening of their new northern office. Thanks for a wonderful evening chaps, and happy 90th.
Leeds is an exciting city and in twelve hours we hardly managed to scratch the surface. The craft beer scene is strong, helmed by one of the best breweries in the country, the food scene is even stronger – a delicious array of street food, independents and high-end chains and the city’s concentration of historic arcades makes it the perfect place for a day’s shopping. It’s only a matter of time before Leeds starts finding itself topping the lists it appears on.EJ