Leeds & West Yorkshire

Indie bites: The rise of 'casual dining' in Leeds

LIF Image copyright Jessie Leong
Image caption Leeds Indie Food Festival saw more than 3,000 attend its opening events

Leeds's restaurant scene was reportedly criticised earlier this year for its lack of Michelin stars, but chefs in the city are shrugging off any negativity by serving up its first independent food festival.

It's 1pm and popular Leeds lunch spot Cafe 164 is buzzing with hungry office workers snapping up sandwiches and fancy cans of pop.

Two of those people are Matt Dix and Simon Fogal, who are recovering from the opening weekend of Leeds Indie Food Festival (LIF), which launched at Belgrave Music Hall.

The pair spent the last year organising the inaugural event and over the last few days have celebrated its fledgling success by indulging in one of their favourite pastimes - eating and drinking like kings.

They weren't alone - about 3,000 like-minded foodies joined them at events across the city, which included a Victorian candlelit banquet, a street food festival and a night market.

Image copyright Jessie Leong
Image caption LIF kicked off with a night market at Canal Mills which saw street food being served
Image copyright Jessie Leong
Image caption Steak, grilled cheese, Thai food and falafel all featured at Leeds Feast
Image copyright Luke Hannaford
Image caption Indian street food and craft beer bar Bundobust opened in 2014 after popping up at events

"I was surprised at the numbers that turned up," says Matt over his coffee. "You're never quite sure when you start something like this how enthusiastically people will embrace it.

"It was nice to see the range of people - knowing that someone picked up a programme at Halifax swimming pool and came over for our event."

Leeds has in recent years experienced a surge in independent restaurants, cafes and bars popping up in pockets of the city previously neglected, feeding an appetite for the quirky and home-grown that only a handful of people foresaw needed satiating.

Sandinista - a stalwart of the Leeds drinking scene - has been a solid but largely solitary presence on Cross Belgrave Street since 2002, occupying the corner unit of an otherwise dingy street overlooking the inner ring road.

Image copyright Tom Joy
Image caption Belgrave Music Hall is just one of Sandinista's new neighbours
Image copyright Luke Hannaford
Image caption People want to grab a beer and a bite quickly and cheaply, says Matt Dix

But it has recently welcomed a stream of new neighbours, including cocktail den, Blind Tyger, real ale house, The Social, and canteen-slash-gig space, Belgrave Music Hall.

Meanwhile Holbeck, which is trying to shake off its reputation as the city's red light district, has seen a surge in regeneration, including the opening of Northern Monk Brewery around the corner from gastro pubs The Cross Keys and The Midnight Bell.

The city has come a long way from North Bar opening its doors on New Briggate in 1997, says Matt.

"When it opened, North claimed to be the first craft beer bar in England, in that it imported beer from around the world and cared how it was kept and promoted it as an independently minded product," he says.

"Now it owns The Cross Keys and four other bars in and around Leeds. They're a good example of how the scene has evolved."

Image copyright Jessie Leong
Image caption The craft beer scene in Leeds has blossomed in recent years

Even with the success of bars like North, there is still a risk to opening an independent business. When Belgrave moved in to a derelict nursery school building in 2013 people were sceptical, recalls Simon.

"People were saying, 'why are you opening there?' They couldn't see what that space could become. And having two kitchens that sell different things, people just didn't get it at first," he says.

"But the rise of casual dining, especially street food, really helped and it's something Leeds has done really well in the last five years."

Street food as a concept is hardly new - it's a common trade in places like Thailand and India and one that's been successfully monetised by Mexican chain Wahaca, which has a string of restaurants across London and beyond.

But in Leeds, the appetite for the quick and cheap style of eating is a relatively recent addition to the scene.

Image copyright Ifty Patel
Image caption About 100 businesses are coming together to celebrate the city's independent scene
Image copyright Jessie Leong
Image caption The city's street food offering ranges from baked goods to salt beef

Trinity Kitchen in the city's new shopping centre boasts an ever-changing line-up of guests, serving up everything from Punjabi dishes to fresh baked goods and salt beef sandwiches.

Others like Bundobust, Grub & Grog and Patty Smith's have all made their mark either in permanent venues or by temporarily setting up shop somewhere.

The days of buying a dodgy burger from a van at a football match are as long gone as lingering over a starter, main and dessert, says Matt.

"Increasingly, people aren't going out for four course meals and that's partly to do with street food," he explains. "People like going out for something easy and cheap."

Image copyright Luke Hannaford
Image caption Burger bars are one of the big draws across Leeds...
Image copyright Jessie Leong
Image caption ... but there's always room for Persian street food...
Image copyright Helen Webster
Image caption ...And not forgetting a firm favourite for many - stone-baked pizza

LIF aims not only to celebrate and reflect the change in the city's cuisine culture, but to cultivate it too.

The light bulb moment for Matt and Simon came when they realised the city's official, annual food festival couldn't cater to the "little guys" who struggled to afford the cost of taking part.

"It wasn't representative of the independent scene so we decided to do something about it," says Matt.

"We asked a few of our friends whether they wanted to be involved and ended up with more than 100 events and 100 businesses on board.

"We were bowled over by the appetite for it, people were so excited."

Image copyright JessIe Leong
Image caption Simon Fogal and Matt Dix believe the rise of casual dining has helped the city's food scene

The original six co-founders launched a fundraising campaign which raised more than £9,000 in four weeks, making the festival a community effort from the get-go.

The idea of collaboration is at the heart of the festival's ethos. As well as promoting food and drink, the two-week event also includes cookery classes, film screenings and art exhibitions.

"It's about promoting Leeds as an independent city and it works much better when it's all inter-connected," says Simon. "It's a culture that's self-supporting.

"The more they work together, the more they benefit, and if we all do well, it brings more people and tourism into the city."

Image copyright Matthew Andrews
Image caption LIF hopes to bring together the food, drinks and arts scene with exhibitions

Despite recent claims that Leeds's lack of Michelin star restaurants diminishes its standing as an eating destination, Simon and Matt hope LIF will put the city's food scene on the map.

"No-one in Leeds really cares we don't have a Michelin star. I would much rather have five really interesting, independent places to go eat at.

"That reflects how people eat and that's what we are trying to do. We're not trying to achieve nationwide greatness, we just want people in Leeds to have a nice, affordable tea."

Leeds Indie Food Festival runs until 24 May.

Related Topics

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites