Whitelock’s, Leeds

 

Turks Head Yard, Briggate, Leeds, LS1 6HB
  • 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!

Café Vlissinghe, Brugge

Blekersstraat 2, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Every town deserves at least one historic place in which nothing ever seems to change. Being able to link aspects of our own lives to the past (as futile as that endeavour may seem at times) helps to provide our own existence with a sense of place and purpose, in the knowledge that we have retained and respected at least some things of value along the way, and by frequenting these places we contribute to their survival.

Café Vlissinghe takes this idea and extends it beyond all usual historical parameters, and the news gets better still – it’s a pub! Even in Brugge, a place not short of preserved architecture and institutions, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most evocative links to their past, the business traceable for centuries and thankfully keen to preserve the format for centuries to come. Once you have a good thing you don’t easily let that go.

The earliest record of the pub dates back to 1515, extraordinary in and of itself and it claims to have been running continuously from then until the present. This earns Vlissinghe a place on the list of oldest companies in the world. The look of the place may be redolent of a late Medieval inn, however it appears some of the appearance was lovingly and coherently retrofitted in the mid-1800s (an era steeped in fascination and nostalgia for all things Medieval), with the installation of contemporaneous artworks and paintings and furniture that are consistent with the period. It’s all very brown, black, tarred, burnt caramel and crusty textures. Precisely the sort of thing you want with an old pub.

Vlissinghe is located mercifully outside of the main tourist drag, down a typical Brugge alley: cobbled street, whitewashed walls, ancient brickwork, and a bicycle propped up outside that’s so old you wonder whether it’s become an ornament (until a man in a flat cap emerges from the door, tucks his newspaper under his coat and rides off on it). It must be no more than 50 metres long, but the amble down the lane, with the pub entrance coming closer with your every stride has become somewhat of a ritual for me, just long enough to build a sense of anticipation for what’s to come…

Vlissinghe’s gothic lettering is painted above the entrance, so dive straight in and turn left and head down a long corridor entrance with a series of side rooms. This may lead you to believe it is a large venue, but the pub itself is really just a central room, up a couple of steps at the end. You will note it is appointed with large, sturdy, venerable furniture, cushioned with studded leather upholstery, warped floorboards that creak underfoot, faded oil paintings hung on the wall which you have to swivel to and fro between the sheen of the lighting to properly discern, and an impressive and unusual centrepiece: a cast iron steam heater kicking out warmth into the room, most welcome on those days when the cold is piercing and the wind is rushing down the North Sea through the canals and arteries off Zeebrugge.

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There is a pub dog, for good measure who is unobtrusive and content with its existence, pottering around, sniffing and having naps.

The main room overlooks a garden and terrace area used as a bowling green in the summer and has outhouse toilets, which gives the place a friendly and ad hoc feel. These toilets are modern, which I will concede is the one part of a pub which should keep up with the times (though, rather incongruously, they also ‘have’ an APP!)

The kitchen is in an adjoining building and focuses on winter fuel – soups, toasties, meat and cheese platters, miscellaneous bar snacks, which are all done Belgian-style, reliably homespun, the purpose being to warm you up and soak up the drinking. Service is friendly (occasionally disorganised and a little slow, which comes with the territory) and the prices are par for the course, with a few cheaper options.

Nevertheless, there are other things going on here than a pocket sized ethnographic museum, Café Vlissinghe stocks a local beer, the delicious tripel Fort Lapin brewed in a garage five minutes up the road by a new brewer. As this is part-fermented in the bottle and unfiltered, as you pour in the last part of the bottle you will note the colour change from bright amber to a cloudy, yeasty colour! Even with this beer choice, you get the sense of sentimentality and heritage at wanting to promote a city project, even with the hundreds of other Belgian beers they could have chosen to sell. The total range of beers available is modest (most Belgian cafés feel obliged to offer at least 60 bottles and 8-10 taps these days, which does showcase their extraordinary brewing very well, but is often unnecessary) but it is well chosen, with at least one of each main style, and with local options.

The main appeal of frequenting Vlissinghe is the sheer sense of relaxation. Whether it is 11.30 in the morning or last thing at night, I doubt anything about the feel of the pub changes hugely. Hunker down for an afternoon of supremely enjoyable beer drinking, hearty soups and toast, or head down in the evening and sit amongst the throng, frozen- in-time but warmed through with merriment and the satisfaction of your own quiet contribution to keeping the whole thing going. Cheers!