“Don’t talk to me about sophistication, I’ve been to Leeds.” That famous line from a classic Harry Enfield sketch – involving an unsophisticated, boorish Yorkshireman – was referenced on more than one occasion during a recent trip to the county’s largest city to explore the Leeds food scene.
One restaurant manager opined that it was a quintessential piece of London-centric snobbery – the ingrained belief that anywhere outside of the M25 was an artistic, cultural and gastronomic desert. Which couldn’t be further from the truth, as it turns out. As a passionate foodie, I can assure you that the Leeds food scene is on the up, up, up.
The city itself is instantly likeable and sorely underrated. Located just an hour south of the Yorkshire Dales, Leeds has a charm and newly discovered self-confidence that is very infectious. A decade and a half of redevelopment and investment has transformed the city centre into an exciting vision of 21st-century urban chic. But aesthetics are only half the battle – we found Leeds’ residents to be almost uniformly friendly, helpful and eager to chat with strangers.
It’s also a beer paradise. Yorkshire’s illustrious brewing heritage dates back hundreds of years, and Leeds has some of the best microbreweries and craft-beer bars in the UK. We started in the revitalised Mill District, and worked our way through from there. The cliché is that northern cities are a paradise for lovers of Indian cuisine, but in my experience, Bradford and Manchester outrank Leeds in that department. Instead, we savoured Leeds food in the form of Spanish delicacies at Iberica, fantastic cocktails and innovative comfort food at The Alchemist and Matt Healy’s superlative cooking at The Foundry – my favourite memory of the trip. There were enough tasty morsels, precision cooking and generous wine lists to keep even the most hardened of critics happy. And while it is undeniable that Leeds lacks the sheen of Edinburgh, or indeed the exquisite architecture of Bath, it makes up for that in sheer pzazz. Welcome to the very model of a multicultural metropolis, with excellent food & drink options aplenty.
Top 4 Leeds restaurants and bars
Best for beer: Northern Monk Refectory, Marshalls Mill, The Old Flax Store, Marshall Street
The Northern Monk is my new favourite craft beer house. It’s killer selection of excellent, hoppy American-style IPAs and friendly service is probably why the place was packed, even on a damp Monday. In addition, the owners oversee a rotating kitchen residency scheme, which supports local indie food start-ups: great for post-libation munchies.
Best for views: The Alchemist, Trinity, Level 1
Fans of the Alchemist will know that this excellent, well-run collection of cocktail bar cum restaurants isn’t unique to Leeds. But this is my favourite incarnation for three reasons. Firstly, it serves the best comfort food in the city. Think tempura prawns, duck spring rolls, steaks, popcorn chicken (Cajun chicken coated with sriracha mayo), lamb rump and kofta or perhaps smoking fajitas. There is little to satisfy the health freaks or fans of molecular gastronomy, but I defy anyone who loves food not to enjoy what emerged from the kitchen. Secondly, the Alchemist boasts a killer cocktail list, which runs the gamut from well-made classics to innovative inventions that are served with a healthy dose of theatre and pzazz. Thirdly, the views from their lovely summer terrace are the best in Leeds. Gaze over the handsome stone architecture, cocktail in hand, and remind yourself why London isn’t the centre of the universe.
Best for Spanish cuisine: Iberica, Hepper House, 17a E Parade
Again, Iberica isn’t unique to Leeds, but this incarnation is ten leaps ahead of the Spanish competition. The space is simply gorgeous – you enter a grade-II listed building, formerly used as an auction house and now transformed into a very opulent and romantic restaurant, complete with high ceilings, grand portraits, ornate mirrors and soft furnishings. But there’s plenty of substance to complement the style; the menu is overseen by executive chef Nacho Manzano, who hails from a much-lauded three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Asturias. He personally trains chefs for Iberica at his signature restaurant Casa Marcia, who are encouraged to take traditional Spanish gastronomy and merge it with modern culinary techniques, albeit the food at Iberica is never overwrought or annoyingly conceptualised. Moreover, Iberica boasts the best Spanish wine list in Leeds, possibly Yorkshire, bar none. In addition to several top brands of Cava, Iberica offers an extensive collection of Sherrys, Riojas, Ribera del Duero reds, Galician whites and cocktails – try the Raventos I Blanc sparkling wine for an eye-opening look at what Spain can do in the bubbly department. They also use Coravin – a device which extracts wine without removing the cork – to allow diners to sample the fine and rare by the glass.
Best for food, atmosphere, you name it!: Matt Healy X The Foundry, 1 Saw Mill Yard
‘Food to swear by,” proclaims the huge neon sign on the exterior wall of this fantastic restaurant. Myself, I felt that expletives were superfluous; I was too busy enjoying Matt Healy’s brilliant prowess in the kitchen. A runner-up on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2016, Healy is as worthy of winning food awards as any other chef in Leeds – perhaps more so. Of course, such a proclamation requires a hefty weight of evidence, so here it is. He runs a charming buzzy restaurant at the heart of the Round Foundry redevelopment south of the centre – yet another project designed to drag Leeds’ proud industrial past into the 21st century. He’s picked a brilliant team of staff, who cannot do enough for you. And finally – yes, I’m repeating myself- the food is bloody good.
It also refuses to pigeon hole its guests. At the top of the menu is a list of charcuterie and cheeses, plus a few nibbles for those who just want something with a drink. There small plates to share, larger main courses and a host of moreish desserts. I honestly cannot find fault with anything that emerged from the kitchen, from the freshly baked sourdough to the slow-cooked belly pork, wild seabass and salt aged lamb rack. We were glorious gluttons during a boozy lunch at The Foundry, and so very, very happy.