Shears Yard restaurant, Wharf Street, Leeds

Shear’s Yard, Leeds

by rich on April 13, 2014

A long time ago, Leeds only had greasy spoon-type cafés , dodgy pubs, and the odd decent Italian, and that was about that.

Then came Arts Cafe down on Call Lane.

It served good food, good coffee, good wine, and a few decent bottled beers.

It was a little bit – dare I say it – European.

And people liked it. They liked it very much indeed.

Other places like it started to spring up, and Leeds began to develop a proper, grown-up restaurant and café scene. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Arts had a profound influence on the way that people eat out in Leeds today. Art’s was then, and it is now, just a lovely place to spend some time.

It was perhaps inevitable that the people behind Art’s would want to spread their wings at some point, and that happened last year with the opening of Shears Yard around the corner on Wharf Street, in the building that housed Livebait in its several incarnations, not that it’s really recognisable as such today. The building has undergone a total refit, stripped back to the bare brick, revealing its former life as a warehouse of some sort, with a waist-high plinth of polished concrete cast against the walls, beams and girders open to the light that floods in through the large skylights. Industrial filament bulbs hang from a cat’s cradle of thick electrical cords, swung from the ceiling like miniature trapeze lines over beech tables and chairs.

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I spent a year abroad n the mid-Nineties, backpacking around the world. We headed east, through India and the South Pacific, and ended up in New Zealand, then Australia, and then across the ocean into the Pacific Northwest of North America, to Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.

This journey around a big chunk of the Pacific rim introduced me to coffee as a serious subject, something more than the instant rubbish we’d drunk at home in Britain.

Each of these countries had an exploding coffee culture, and people were starting to take coffee very seriously indeed. When we got to Seattle in particular, we found a city that seemed to be almost entirely fueled by this mysterious bean … there was a whole industry and a culture there that simply didn’t exist in Britain. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in Capitol Hill pondering that this sort of thing could really work in the UK, and of course, I turned out to be correct, not that I had any hand at all in making it happen, apart from enthusiastic support for the first wave of big chains that sought to emulate the Starbucks experience, and later, a more refined appreciation for many of the independent places that have started to crop up around here in recent years, in the wake of the chains’ success.

It’s a mysterious thing, this dark, powerful drink, and everything that goes with it. There’s a certain aura around those who make it, a sense that this is not something that can be done by just anybody, a sense that these people, these baristas, are experts in their field and should be left to get on with what they do, and I’ve believed this for years … I can’t make coffee at home as well as the best independents can, with their expensive espresso machines and their wealth of knowledge.

And this is the real point … brewing coffee is a science. It’s a process that can be explained and reasoned in clear, logical terms, but it’s more than that … there’s an art to it too, an art in knowing which of the thousands of variables to tweak to make that shot of espresso perfect, or to make the milk in that latte as smooth as silk.

It’s an art, and not everybody can do it.

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