Leeds city centre boasts (if 'boasts' is the word) more than its fair share of trendy, modern bars, meaning that the trendy, modern drinker is spoilt for choice of where to drink their trendy, modern drink. Those who crave a more old-fashioned experience may have more of a search on their hands, depending on how old-fashioned they are. However, rarely will anyone find Leeds's oldest pub (established 1715) and its Victorian decor to be too new. It is also easy to reach, being located down an alleyway which runs from Briggate, the main shopping street, to the back of Marks & Spencer.
The pub was originally called The Turk's Head, a name which can still be seen in the stained glass of the windows and in the name of the alleyway; Turk's Head Yard. The name changed after William Whitelock purchased the business in 1880 and the decor was updated six years later. The current owners are the Spirit Group, who bought it in 2004.
Whitelocks is quite easy to miss, with only a pub sign hanging over a passageway between the Northern Rock Building Society and the Carphone Warehouse to stop the Briggate entrance from being entirely secret. Nevertheless, a healthy crowd ranging from students to flat-capped old men nearly always manages to find its way to the place.
There is plenty of room to sit outside in Turk's Head Yard, although it is a bit like being in a black and white railway carriage because the passageway is so narrow. The tables and benches are wooden and the tables are made from cut-down barrels topped with a circle of timber. More modern picnic tables have been added, providing extra seating for when the interior of the hostelry either too hot or too crowded. Some of the seats are rendered uncomfortable by large plants that compete for elbow room.
When sitting outside, you will be struck by the number of signs telling you to hang on to your belongings. Theft is clearly a problem.
The first thing you'll notice upon entering the pub is the decor, essentially unchanged since Victorian times, consisting mainly of mirrors, brass and oak panelling. The bar itself is particularly impressive, not to say overwhelming, being almost up to the average person's eyeline and with about a foot of shiny counter in front of it. To order food or drinks you will need to crane your neck upwards and catch a bartender's eye as they gaze down at you over this spectacular copper barrier.
The pub's interior is, like the yard outside, long and thin, with room for only one row of tables between the bar and the wall. At one end of the pub (the left on entry) a door and some fairly steep steps provide access to the toilets. The bar begins next to this door and stretches about half the length of the place. Beyond the end of the bar the extra width thus provided has been used to create a restaurant area, which sometimes provides extra seating, sometimes operates like an actual restaurant, and is sometimes hired privately, when a heavy curtain is pulled across to separate the private party from those who are not invited.
Whitelocks is a real ale place, praised by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. It has a few well-kept guest beers keeping the regular Theakston's brews company. Lager, cider, wine and an impressive selection of spirits are also available.
Until the 1990s, the beer was served in pint mugs, but these have fallen victim to modern times. Whitelocks has resisted such advances as jukeboxes, fruit machines and small shelves full of nick-nacks, but handleless drinking vessels have taken over.
Inquisitive readers may be wondering about the description 'luncheon bar'. As well as the restaurant part, food is available from the bar and it is indeed a popular place for a midday meal, especially on weekdays, when besuited patrons pack the place on, presumably, their dinner breaks from whatever high-powered jobs they have. This is probably the time when swinging a cat is most difficult in the pub.
The food available ranges from soups and salads to a full meat, two veg and Yorkshire pudding roast, but the most popular munchables must be the sandwiches. At the time of writing, a hearty, and freshly-prepared, filling, such as BLT or roast beef and onion is available on a remarkable selection of breads with a side salad: all are excellent value for money.
Particularly recommended is the chicken, bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Both the chicken and the bacon are freshly cooked, still hot and delivered to your table of choice by the landlady herself - although this may have been the result of our Researcher avidly making notes.
Bar food is served from Mondays to Saturday 12pm to 7pm and on Sundays from 12pm to 5pm. The sit-down restaurant's opening hours are slightly shorter. The prices of the beer and sandwiches are moderate - very reasonable for central Leeds.