The news of any sort of redevelopment at Whitelock’s is enough to send a shudder down any spine. After all we’re talking about Leeds’s oldest and best-loved pub, wedged in the burrow of Turk’s Head Yard since 1715, its fame secured since Victorian times as Whitelock’s First City Luncheon Bar.
Fear not. Its architectural glories are intact, the original bevelled mirrors, the etched glass, the brass barley sugar rails and the Burmontoft tiles supporting the superb marble and copper topped bar all gleaming as they should.
When I first went in the 1970s, huge Yorkshire puddings with onion gravy was a student staple, served by uniformed motherly waitresses. Tables had starched white linen cloths, silver cutlery and proper napkins. The menu, of roasts and stews and jam roly poly, was always generous and hearty, though never much of a gastronomic journey. Today the tables are wipe-clean and waitresses wear skinny jeans but the swirly carpet is intact, a real fire still burns in the grate and the food still emerges from a hatch in the corner.
The menu is a mix of traditional – gammon and egg, fish and chips, beef and ale pie – and more modern pub grub like heirloom beetroot and Yorkshire Fine Fettle cheese salad; mushroom and Yorkshire Blue cheeseburger.
And true to that yesteryear, the food is variable. Excellent Yorkshire chorizo, pea and mint on a toasted crumpet scored well. A less than succulent grilled dab with new potatoes didn’t. The steak and ale pie – a Desperate Dan portion – had good tender meat but needed more juices. Fat chips were good but more finesse with the vegetables would have helped. Then again Lishman’s sausages and mash in a sea of gravy was very good and the black pudding Scotch egg even better.
So what’s new? Few will remember the old function room next door since it’s reportedly not been used for 30 years. An old photograph shows a Victorian bar of dark wood, being propped up by a trio of bibulous old coves and I’m confident none of them is still around to splutter that their bar is now, shock, horror, a cocktail bar.
The Turk’s Head Bar has been “carefully realised” by Lord Whitney, a Leeds design company run by Amy Lord and Rebekah Whitney, who describe themselves as Connoisseurs of Make-Believe. The make-believe comes in the form of wooden cabinets filled with a collection of old chemists’ bottles. In a nod to the days of gin palaces, the bottles are re-labelled with a touch of whimsy: arsenic, trout oil, codeine, leeches and deep sea sediment.
The period feel continues in the grey walls, blue/grey tiles, velvet banquettes and designer chairs. Retro lamps hang over the marble-topped bar while rows of botanicals are artfully back-lit. It’s handsome, contemporary and pleasingly restrained.
There are gentle historic references on the menu, too, with small plates of pickled eggs, Cornish pilchards, potted pig’s head and crispy pigs’ ears among a list of platters, salads and things on toast – available midweek at prices between £1 and £8. At weekends the whole Whitelock’s menu is on offer in both places.
Those pigs’ ears, once saved for the dog, became modish when Fergus Henderson began serving them at St John in Smithfield. I’d imagined a sort of super crackling but these were mildly porky strips of breadcrumbed cartilage. Chewy and well… interesting. I can see the attraction among the nose to tail brigade, but my money is on their lovely crab meat on sourdough toast, light and fresh with the delightful new mown hay whiff of fresh tarragon.
If the food looks to the past, the drinks are totally 21st century. Real ales on tap, wines, spirits and a short but fashionable cocktail list with negroni in a cut glass tumbler and a long G&T made with two brands new to me: Whittaker’s of Harrogate gin and a cloudy Square Root Hop Tonic from Hackney, served with a thyme and a scattering of juniper berries.
The person funding the make-believe is Ed Mason, a man well positioned having opened the HiFi club in Leeds, the Deramore Arms in York and a boutique brewery in Hackney. In 2012, with Whitelocks in drab decline following two pubco ownerships, he stepped in, renamed it Whitelock’s Ale House and brought in some quality beer from Timothy Taylor’s and local craft brewers.
He’s done a fine job. Whitelock’s is buzzing again, and with the Turk’s Head next door, old and new nicely complement each other. No sacrilege involved. Whitelock’s remains, as John Betjeman once put it “the very heart of Leeds”.
• Whitelock’s Ale House, 4 Turk’s Head Yard, Leeds LS1 6HB. 0113 245 3950, whitelocksleeds.com. Open: Monday to Saturday, 11-12am; Sunday, 11am-11pm. Dinner for two inc. bottle of wine and service £60.
Turk’s Head Bar, turksheadleeds.co.uk. Open: Monday to Thursday, 4pm-12am; Friday, 4pm-1am; Saturday 12pm-1am; Sunday 12pm-11pm. Two cocktails, four small plates £40 (inc service).
DRINKS SELECTION 5/5