Take that Manchester. Leeds is now food capital of the north

Scott Collins and Yianni Papoutsis the men behind MEATliquor.
Scott Collins and Yianni Papoutsis the men behind MEATliquor.
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A year after the closure of flagship fine dining restaurant Anthony’s, Rob Parsons reports on how Leeds is once again enjoying a culinary renaissance.

It’s fair to say the Leeds city centre site MEATliquor chose for its first base in the North isn’t what restauranteurs would call a prime location.

Looking out onto a little-used alleyway between Commercial Street and Trinity Leeds, the empty unit had not found any takers despite the best efforts of bosses at the new shopping centre.

Luckily, Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins, who are sinking £1m into the project, have made a habit of turning unlikely spots into gold.

The pair started selling burgers from an industrial estate in south-east London and on a recent visit to Leeds, Collins said: “We were approached by the landlords, because our DNA is taking sites which have no-one going into them.”

Despite being named as among the 1,000 Most Influential People in London, Collins and Papoutsis are not the first to note the emergence of Leeds as a food destination and say the city has “a huge demand for good food”.

A piece in Olive magazine in April noted the “recent blossoming of the northern food scene” as a significant trend, while a later piece this summer described Leeds as a “city obsessed with street food, pop-ups and ultra-casual dining”.

The last 12 months have marked something of a sea change. Tony Naylor, a freelance journalist who writes for Olive and The Guardian, says any reputation for food Leeds may have had previously was geared towards fine dining, with attention focused on the efforts of celebrity chef Anthony Flinn prior to the closure of his restaurant Anthony’s last year.

“The big story was Anthony Flinn, going after a star which he never got. That has certainly changed. I can’t think of anyone in Leeds who is aspiring to that kind of food.”

Leeds will play host to the British Street Food Awards in Millennium Square, a three-day festival of food starting on September 26 where Europe’s best street good traders will go head to head.

Diane Amesbury, who writes the Leeds-based food blog A Tale of Two Sittings, hails the diversity of the Leeds food scene, which she says is less spread out than that of Manchester.

“Seeing independent street food traders was rare until a few of years ago, until the likes of now well established names Manjit’s Kitchen and Fish& came on the scene,” she says.

“From the yearly held Amazing Graze (from Manjit’s Kitchen) and Veg Out (Wharf Chambers) we now have monthly events such as Belgrave Street Feast, World Feast and Brandon Street Night Market. The pop-up restaurant - with ventures such as We The Animals, The Noise of Strangers and more recently Trestle. They are combining together talents from different areas, resulting in a new and unusual dining experience Leeds, often in unusual venues.”

Fine dining is clearly not dead in Leeds, with Michael O’Hare’s The Man Behind the Curtain garnering rave reviews since opening in Vicar Lane earlier this year, but many more seem to be favouring informal approach

At the Corn Exchange on September 20, the basement space previously occupied by Anthony’s will be taken over by a host of independent businesses for Cornucopia Underground. The event has been organised by the Leeds Food and Drink Association, a not-for-profit, membership organisation.

Jo Murricane, who co-founded the association, says: “At the moment Leeds is having a real explosion of food and drink. The independents are coming to the fore and there are supper clubs and collaborations they are doing which is quite new over the last couple of years.

“Places like Manchester, which people often compare Leeds to, has peaked, whereas Leeds is really growing and getting more exciting and developing.”