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Leeds Coffee Culture by Stan

Food & Drink

After my last article for Leeds Indie Food it was ‘suggested’  that I might like to become the publication’s Food Historian. Normally I don’t like living in the past as I am more concerned about surviving the present, and whatever future I’ve got coming. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that I was right – but I am doing it anyway.

The reason for my change of heart was that I don’t think that the younger readers amongst you, that would be the under 60s then, realise how much the world, and Leeds, has changed over the past few decades. I can describe the transformation as it relates to whatever I am writing about but there is no way of imparting the change of attitude, atmosphere or even the demographic of the city.

This topic is a case in point. In the 1950s very few people had been abroad, unless they had arrived by parachute, landing craft or tank, so the only insight we got into the culture of our European neighbours was from the odd foreign film shown over here, or the early Eurovision Song Contests. The import of foreign foodstuffs, other than essentials, was also more of a trickle than a flood as nations recovered from the war.
There is not much sums this up better than coffee.

In the early 1950s there were coffee shops such as those owned by J. Lyons who, incidentally, had the first business computer in the world, and my dad’s haunt, the Kardomah. Both of these were chains which sold coffee and tea in packets as well as in cups to drink on the premises. There was no ’to go’ service.

If I had been behaving myself whist the old man had been working away all week, and not giving my mum too much grief, he would take me to Briggate on Saturday morning for a trip to the ‘KD’ as it was known. It would be a coffee and either a toasted teacake if we went downstairs, where it was waitress service, or a full English if we went upstairs to the cafeteria – google it!

In the late 1950s a new phenomenon hit the High Streets of our towns and cities, establishments known as Espresso Bars which sold Italian coffee in clear Pyrex cups on matching saucers so that you could see the beige coffee within and the frothy head on it. That’s right, for many years an espresso in this country was a white, very milky concoction with froth rather than the authentic small, jet black strong brew with natural crema which we, well I, enjoy today. The experience was enhanced by the exotic machines perched on the counter hissing and bubbling in order to produce this new fangled delight. Not knowing any better, the newly christened ’teenagers’ would flock to these places and act really sophisticated. There would also be juke box in the corner exuding a multi-coloured glow, and rock’n’roll music. Some of the larger versions in London had live music as well. I think that the fad had died out before anyone realised the error but no one cared, it was new and fun, two things which had been missing for a long time. I seem to remember one on Vicar Lane near the West Yorkshire Bus Station called Take Five.

With the 1960s came a more hybrid version known as coffee bars. They sold coffee, Coca-Cola in those iconic bottles, freezing cold from the fridge, and most also did sandwiches. Should you want something sweeter to go with your coffee it was Rum Baba, actually they were so amazing that there was no need for any alternative. There was a varied range of these places in Leeds and each had its own character, and rank in the hierarchy of the city. A common feature of most of them was that they were situated in cellars so it was quite an adventure descending the stairs and wondering what was awaiting. The upside was that no one could see you and so it felt like a special secret place.

I was introduced to this ‘cafe society’ when I was 16 by a school friend who, along with his mates, took me to The Ritz Coffee Bar. After five minutes I was hooked. It was situated at the North Street end of Vicar Lane and was accessed by a small door with no hint of what the interior was like. The name was taken from the Ritz Cinema, later the ABC, which was over the road but is now a derelict site. Today the door is emblazoned with a sign saying ‘Evolve’ and it led, via a flight of stairs, to a less than opulent basement with a small counter from which the brew was dispensed by Kris, the Greek Cypriot owner. Rather than the endless list of options offered nowadays, and the pretentious term ‘espresso’ having been binned, the choice was between black or white. To be honest, a bottle of Coke was always the safest bet when you went somewhere new as the quality of coffee was ‘variable’. You could also make a cold drink last much longer than a hot one. It must have been late 1965 as A Lover’s Concerto by The Toys was constantly playing on the juke box. This was a favourite of the women at the next table who nearly wore the grooves off it by the end of the night. Oh, yes, not only were coffee bars a place for beverages but they also gave us a chance to meet women, not an everyday occurrence up until then as ours was a boys’ school.

After that first visit I suggested to my best friend Pete, that he join us and that was the start of my transition from fat spotty youth to fat spotty man! After a couple of visits the two of us decided to have a wander and sample the delights of the other coffee bars around town. Our first stop was the Riviera on New Briggate. It now trades under the name of Chicko’s and is opposite the Grand Theatre. This had the same vibe as The Ritz but was much bigger and, although again accessed via a flight of steps leading down to the counter, there was a restaurant at street level. The big draw here was ’the tunnel’. When you got to the bottom of the steps and turned back on yourself you could see that, at the end of the room, beyond a pinball machine and table football, was a kind of cave with arched ceiling stretching beyond the wall and underneath the main road. At the end of the tunnel was a wall-mounted juke box selector and so this became our home for the next year or so. I even got a job there during the school summer holidays where I worked highly illegal hours for a sixteen year old, sometimes not finishing until one or two in the morning. Between shifts I would catch an hour or so of sleep on the sacks of potatoes and other veg in the storeroom under the stairs. I loved every second of it!

The clientele changed as the day went on. In the morning it would be shoppers grabbing a coffee, at lunchtime the odd office worker getting a sandwich, back to shoppers in the afternoon and then, in the evening, those going to the theatre or, like us, making a coke last all night so you could spend time in your own secret space with your mates. When I was working there I didn’t need to get the last bus home as the owner paid for a taxi or gave me a lift, so I then got to see a side of Leeds which was totally alien to me.

The Riviera didn’t have a closing time, when everyone left he shut, but until then all were welcome. At half past ten the pubs kicked out so there would be the odd drunk call in but we rarely had any trouble. A couple of times we had a visit from the patrons of what would now be called a gay bar, but in those days homosexuality was still an imprisonable offence so they didn’t advertise the status of their customers. I had seen a smart chap pop down the steps on a few occasions, look round and go back up again, I thought nothing of it until one night, when we were empty, he quickly returned with his friends and they had an hour or so of chat and laughter with the odd song sung by one of them who had a guitar. The merriment ended abruptly when the nightclubs disgorged and the straight customers took over again. These evenings were some I will always remember, the customers seemed so relaxed and grateful to be in a space where they could be themselves for a while.

Every other Tuesday at the Riviera there was the ceremony of The Changing of the Jukebox. A lovely lady would call to empty the money and give the owner his share as well as remove the older records and replace them with some groovy new platters. If there was an old one we particularly liked, one of us would have a ‘headache’ that morning and skip school to plead with her to give us another fortnight before swapping it. It always did the trick.

A couple of doors along towards Merrion Street was The Carousel, another street-level restaurant with coffee bar. This time it wasn’t a cellar as such but you did have to go down a few steps to get to it. It was also a bit more upmarket than our haunt so we just went there on the odd occasion when we fancied a change or got asked to leave the Riv because we were making a bit too much noise. I don’t know how the owner put up with us at all really, although I suppose we did spend a fair bit in there. The chairs here were much plusher and the carpet not the least bit sticky.

The elite place to be seen was the Del Rio in Lower Basinghall Street, where the Trinity Centre is now, opposite the Park Plaza Hotel entrance. Once again it was subterranean but very smart and the regular customers were the kids of well-to-do professionals and entrepreneurs so we didn’t really fit in, they were also a bit older. I had started college by this time and did meet one or two fellow students which made us feel more welcome, well it was a Business Studies course I was on.

The weird thing was the sandwich menu. Whether you dined at the Riviera, the Carousel or the Del Rio, it was always the same. The bread cake was always white but was either round or a finger, like a hot dog bun. In the round version there would be a choice of ham and sliced tomatoes or a square of processed cheese with sliced tomatoes. The finger version was either slices of hard boiled egg alternating with – you guessed it – sliced tomatoes or, luxury of luxuries, mashed up tinned salmon with slices of cucumber. I have no idea as to how many tomatoes I sliced in the Sumer of 1966 but I can still do it blindfold.

Just a mention of a couple of others; The Bilou Gardenia and the Green Room and Rose Lounge. The first was a total dive on Boar Lane which we visited once and were quickly escorted to the door by some of the regulars. We were almost at The Headrow before we dare stop running! The second was a very swish coffee bar and restaurant in the front of the Grand Theatre, hence the names. We only went in there once as well, but that was because we couldn’t afford to go a second time.

Time marched on, and so did I, going to college in London for six months. When I got back the places were still trading but I had outgrown them. I also started work so didn’t have the benefit of the ‘flexible attendance hours’ I had enjoyed at school, so tended not to go out very much, especially as I was engaged and saving for a deposit on a house.

In 1971 my wife and I had moved to Wakefield, where the houses were cheaper, but would visit Leeds to go to department stores for Saturday morning coffee between spending our dosh. Lewis’s which occupied the whole block between Home Sense and Sainsbury’s on The Headrow, or Schofields, which was an independent, more swanky place, over the road where The Core is now.

I think that we all know what happened next, the behemoths which are Starbuck’s, Caffè Nero and Costa, took over the world, and the independents of the Sixties closed down. Ironically the chap who owned the Riviera was called Costa but I don’t think that it was he who started the chain. If it was he should bung me a few quid for the unpaid overtime!

Thankfully, the wheel has now come full circle and the new breed of coffee houses are again selling packets of coffee to take home as well as brews in cups to drink in, or cartons to take away. Unlike J Lyons and the Kardomah though, they are independents, some of whom source and roast their own beans. The coffee menu is baffling to a chap like me who only needed to know how to peddle black or white, and the sandwiches are amazing as well, although I am sure that there will be the odd sliced tomato in there somewhere. I wish them all well and, as someone who takes their brew black with no sugar so nothing to mask the taste, thank them for giving us the quality we deserve.

I mentioned going to college in London. I did that because I wanted to become a barrister (didn’t happen) but nowadays I doubt I could even cut it as a barista, it all looks very complicated.