If you worm your way through the city centre, under the train station, over the canal and into the edges of Holbeck, you may find yourself thinking you’ve strayed too far from the path. The tallest skyscraper in Yorkshire looms over you on one side, and a wasteland cum car park sits on the other. But between the sleek urban sprawl and empty industrial warehouses you’ll find a bright light in the Leeds pub scene.
The term “gastropub” has always left a bitter aftertaste. It brings to mind cosy little watering holes gutted and refurbished into soulless, sterile places with expensive sandwiches. But The Cross Keys has all of the heart of your beloved local, while going far above and beyond the average pub menu.
They take the claim of ‘seasonal, local produce’ very seriously. There are daily alterations to the menu and everything is sourced from their four Yorkshire-based suppliers. Don’t make the mistake of asking for olives. They don’t have them: olives don’t grow in Yorkshire. What you do get is trustworthy, imaginative dishes that make the most of what Leeds and its neighbours have to offer. At the moment that offer seems to be quite a lot of savoy cabbage, which, in the hands of Cross Keys, is transformed into a rich, buttery, wonder-veg.
Our starters were potted pig with spiced rhubarb and ginger chutney, and pan-fried squid, beef dripping croutons, black pudding, and lemon emulsion. The former was delicately flavoursome, though the meat lacked audacity, overpowered by the chutney. The squid, however, was beautiful: smoky and salty with the welcome sharpness of the lemon emulsion. And if the squid blows you off your feet, you’re brought back down to earth again by the delicious humble beef dripping croutons and black pudding.
While starters certainly prioritised precision over size, the same cannot be said for the mains. A bowl of rope grown Irish mussels with cider, bacon and leek cream was so enormous our server struggled to haul it to our table, even with two hands. And in case that wasn’t enough, it was served with a bowl of their exceptional chips. And bread. Yet unlike standard pub food, the size of the portions didn’t come at the expense of excellent quality. The venison cottage pie with blue cheese mash is an intense feast, rich and deeply meaty. It seems to encapsulate what they do here: take a familiar and homely dish and just make it better.
Stuffed as we were, we couldn’t resist trying the pub’s own homemade “deep-fried mars bar” with salted caramel and marshmallow. It’s a perfect reminder that, despite the high-end cuisine and dedication, the place doesn’t take itself too seriously.
With its 1930s blues music, weekly Sunday pub quiz and gorgeous interior, Cross Keys is cool without being too cool. It’s doing something very exceptional and unique in Leeds, and it’s really good at it. With pubs in Britain closing every day, perhaps they’ve found the perfect way to make it work. And if the future of British pubs is places like this, then that future is certainly very bright indeed.