back to England
- Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
- Style and Decor – 10/10
- Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
- Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
- Value for Money – 5/10
- The Pub-Going Factor – 9/10
Amid a shower of mediocrity Whitelock’s is a beacon of preservation and tradition. You might call the place an object lesson creating a characterful pub.
Whether Leeds is serving up mediocrity in the form of cut-and-paste industrial chic craft ale venues or boring chain pubs, you only have to look at Whitelock’s to tell the difference between a here-today-gone-tomorrow fad, a Greene King IPA/Sports screen piece of gentrified nothingness and character of a sort that endures. Read the Historic England listing if you don’t believe me.
Whitelock’s itself was first founded in 1715 as The Turk’s Head, and served as a city centre mainstay in the Georgian era, although you’ll find the current state more akin to late Victorian in style, with mirrored panels, stained glass, tiled bar and tarred black wood, a strange halfway-point between the opulent and the down-to-earth.
The pub functioned as a ‘Luncheon Bar’ after being taken over by the Whitelock family in the 1880s, and in the daytime the place has much the same feel as it would have had a century ago; a bustling busy atmosphere (partly due to the compact space) with food service and drinking intermingling. Whenever you visit you always feels like you are part of a grand old tradition.
Situated down of one of Leeds many arcades off Brigate, the pub used to stretch along the length of the yard, albeit part was rarely used for years. It’s a narrow snaking venue, now effectively two bars, one of which is now a stylish cocktail and craft ale bar called The Turk’s Head in homage to the original name, but which typifies everything Whitelock’s isn’t – this may be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences. The pub can be approached from either side of the arcade, although I recommend approaching via the Trinity Centre entrance where it is hiding in plain sight surrounded by modernity. You access a quiet corridor, still called Turk’s Head Yard, which builds into rabbit-hole like escape from the noise of the street and shopping streets – it really makes you feel like you’ve been transported back in time. You will find benches outside, which can be nice to sit out on a warm evening but are not the main reason for venturing down here. Head inside and chance your arm at finding a seat – not always the easiest easy task in here.
The crowd at Whitelock’s rises and falls in swells. In the space of half an hour the scene at bar can change from a breathless tangle vying for space to calm and sedate. It’s really quite interesting to spectate.
The bar area itself is unusual and –of course– old-fashioned. Despite the pub having a low ceiling, the bar itself seems raised above the level of the pub so after pulling your pint it seems like they are lowering it down to the bar top where you are stood. The toilets are accessed via a narrow little staircase at the end of the bar, which is quirky, almost like being on a ship rather than a pub.
The best beers by far in Whitelock’s are the cask ales, as the lager offerings remain a little behind the times. You’ll find some of the classic real ales kept well on cask, along with some interesting local options. They have some forays into what are deemed ‘craft’ styles, and a sister partnership with the (in my opinion) bang average Five Points, but the guest cask ales feel far more in keeping with what the place should be about.
Although I am largely interested in a pub as a place to drink, for a change, I would like to enthuse about the food. They have put a lot of thought into how to bring the idea of Luncheon menu into the 21st century, and have largely managed it, with most dishes having an English pub heritage, and they use fresh ingredients, the majority of which are sourced from Kirkgate Market, which shows in the flavour. You pay for it, yes, but it’s well-prepared. It isn’t just a generic pub grub place, as Leeds University alumni and restaurant critic Jay Rayner remarked in his review.
It doesn’t stop there, as Whitelock’s and the Turks Head now host beer related events, annual festivals and suchlike, so you can’t go around Leeds for too long before your head is turned back to Whitelock’s.
Once you’re inside and sat down, with only the dappled light coming through the frosted glass, you can really soak up what is an extraordinary environment. With it being a typically cosy old pub, this works particularly well in autumn and winter – once holed up it won’t feel like there’s any reason to move elsewhere. Whole afternoons and evenings can come and go here supping quality pints of ales safely swaddled by its comfortable surroundings.
Whitelock’s is by far the best of the category ‘traditional pub’ in Leeds and due to its very particular preserved features and it could stake a fair claim to being one of the very best in the United Kingdom.
In the ‘40s and ‘50s Whitelocks was a haunt for artists and has been deemed characterful enough to be a subject of artistic study, as this vivid artwork demonstrates. John Betjemen, who always had a taste for the preserved, compared Whitelock’s favourably to another venerable public house, The Cheshire Cheese in London: a ‘less self-conscious’ equivalent.
I have linked to a 1968 video documentary of Leeds, ‘A Poet Goes North’ where this features. Highly recommended as a terrific watch.
In 2006 Whitelocks was awarded an overdue Civic Trust plaque for historical importance. Therefore, if the team running Whitelock’s can deal with all this level of praise magnanimously then I assume my more modest inscription on European Bar Guide won’t alter their unabashed heads-down on-with-the-job approach. Viva Whitelock’s!