The Gentleman Drinker writes a love note to one of his favourite drinking establishments, Arcadia Bar.
Disclaimer thingy: I respect Steve Crotty for declaring when a review of his will be biased, such as his review of Johnnie Walker Black Label. In the same spirit, what follows may seem more like a down-on-one knee proposal than a neutral review. Well, so what if it is, Arcadia Bar is a bar I go back to time and time whenever I visit Leeds, and if a man could marry a bar, and I was the sort of chap to marry, then it would be Arcadia. Here’s why.
Headingley, north Leeds, is rife with pubs and bars, most of them lousy. Despite their shortcomings, their tills are fat with student loan money. Just as long as they keep dispensing cheap food and cheaper beer to their predominantly student customer base they are recession proof. Shops and businesses have come and gone here in Headingley, but the pubs are firmly anchored.
It’s not merely their cheapness which makes them naff but their lack of character. Anywhere else, eight pubs all within a five minute walk would compete, and compete hard, for survival. Here they prop each other up, thanks to Otley Road.
Otley Road acts as a leyline, the eight plus watering holes gathered near it soaking up the trade generated by the famous Otley Run. Any normal day in Headingley looks like a cross between the Apocalypse and a Comic Convention, with students and stag parties in garish fancy dress staggering from pub to pub, getting rowdier and more obnoxious as they go. Fortunately, there is a quality stronghold away from the roving gangs of Buzz Lightyears, Spidermen and pyjama parties: Arcadia Bar. Idiots in fancy dress are turned away, everyone else is welcome.
At first glance, it comes across as a strange beast. It occupies two units in the Arndale shopping centre and has a full glass front. From the outside, it gives the curious impression of being a pub showroom – you’re on the outside, soaked in rain, while people inside laugh and clink glasses amidst a warming glow.
Arcadia Bar isn’t big; in fact, it may be the smallest bar in Headingley. It is larger since they bought the adjacent unit and knocked through, almost doubling in size. It means there are now four rooms, two up and two down, with each room hosting an average of six to eight tables each. Metal brewery signs and historic drink adverts adorn the walls.
The bar itself is almost small enough to touch from end to end (I can anyway, though it’s been said I have the armspan equal to the wingspan of an albatross), but it manages to squeeze in more variety than a bar three times its size, with eight handpulls and T-Bars dispensing ciders, lagers and fruit beers. Behind that, there are well stocked bottle fridges and a decent shelf loaded with spirits.
It wouldn’t be worth listing their stock at the time I rolled up to the bar, because in a week it will probably be gone. Arcadia sees a lot of trade, and they like to keep the choice varied. There are usually a few local Yorkshire favourites, such as the Ilkley brewery, York brewery, Black Sheep and Timothy Taylor, and they try to keep a BrewDog on rotation on the T-bar. In terms of beer choice, Arcadia Bar ranks best in Headingley, and would put up a good fight for best in Leeds overall. Even lager fans and wine lovers have a healthy menu to choose from.
Sometimes queues can build up something fierce (not due to a lack of staff but because customers can’t spread along the bar; really, it’s a better system in some respects, it guarantees fairness, it just looks worse when you’re used to the same amount of people jostling elbow to shoulder alongside each other). In these instances, there’s a chalkboard to the side of the bar with the current drinks and prices to help you decide while you wait. If you’re still uncertain by the time you get there, the staff are always knowledgeable and offer tastings.
Pint in hand, you can mull over the free newspapers, watch the bizarrely dressed Otley Runners from upstairs, play a board game with friends or make use of the free wi-fi. There are no games machines or music, so you can enjoy your own thoughts or even – imagine this – a conversation. There’s the monthly pub quiz and the occasional spirit tasting session, such as the Kill-Devil Tastings.
The food menu (available from the Market Town Taverns website) is limited due to the size of the kitchen, but always well presented. The fish finger sandwich, various platters and pies are all worth a try. The kitchen isn’t always open (only from Thursday to Sunday, I believe), in which case you will have to make do with olives or pistachio nuts dispensed from huge jars, or fancy crisps.
On the wall at the foot of the stairs leading up to the toilets are business cards and adverts for local events and services. In these everyday adverts for piano lessons and running clubs you can see a sense of community – what a pub should be about. In nearly all the other pubs you’re surrounded by an anonymous wash of bodies, but even if it’s your first time in Arcadia, you immediately belong.
Not far away, on Bennett Road, there’s an arts and community centre called HEART (the Headingley something something something something), but the real heart of Headingley is a small bar at the end of the Arndale shopping centre. So get yourself down there; just take off your damn Superman cape first.