5 Dull Chains and the Independents That Do It Better

Ever wander around a new city and get a vague sense of deja-vu? Everywhere you look things are the same, but slightly different, and you start to question whether you’ve been here before. Suddenly your gaze rests on a Starbucks, and you realise that your mind isn’t playing tricks on you, you’ve just seen this Starbucks a thousand times in a thousand different places.

Leeds is no different. In city centre alone, I believe we currently have 7 Starbucks, 6 Costa Coffee, 5 Subway and 3 each of McDonald’s and Nando’s. Those are some big numbers for a city so compact you’re rarely more than 15 minutes’ walk away from anything else. Luckily, the independents are fighting back, and despite being the underdog, they’ve got a lot on their side. Apart from having a spark of originality and staff who tend to have a genuine passion for what they’re doing, the product is higher quality, locally-sourced, and despite all this – wait for it – you often pay less money for all this indie delicious-ness.

Convinced that you should break up with your favourite chain immediately? Good. Now find out where you can go to ease the pain – I promise it won’t just be a one night stand…

Costa Coffee La Bottega Milanese

“You know what I could really go for? A bland cup of foam and a pre-packaged panini”… said nobody, ever. Enter La Bottega Milanese, blending the best of Milan and Yorkshire to create great coffee, fresh paninis and beautiful Italian desserts. Their method clearly works; they occupy a premium spot in The Light and last year opened their second location at Bond Court (where the staff can often be found using their chalkboard to direct playful insults at the Costa Coffee next door). The decor is a refreshing change from average Leeds coffee shop, and the cherry on top? Their Leeds Light location is open as late as 9pm.

La Bottega Milanese coffee, Leeds

Subway Brod

Amid claims of overly-salted bread, questionable additives and calorie counts to rival McDonald’s, I’ve never been a huge Subway fan. Anywhere that has to produce a synthetic smell and pump it out of every store is pretty suspicious in my book. Brod, on the other hand, is a lunchtime favourite that I seem to share with half of Leeds’ workforce – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the place without a queue out the door. Despite this, everyone gets served within 5 minutes and the sandwiches are amazing. Prices range from around £2.50-£3.50, and don’t forget to pick up a brownie.

Byron Burger Patty Smith’s

Byron has so many branches now and always seems to be full…am I ust missing something? I’m not saying i was terrible, but having been once I found their burgers to be a bit cold, exceedingly average, and not worth a second visit. Plus they are PRICEY – get yourself to Patty Smith’s at the Belgrave instead and you can get a Dirty Burger for a fiver, and add chips for £1.50. The brioche buns are Yorkshire-bred (pun intended), the patties are made on site, and the burger name is so appropriate. You’ll know what I mean when you try it.

Patty Smith's Dirty Burger

La Tasca Viva Cuba

La Tasca seem to do a hell of a lot of offers – 2 for 1s and the like – but they really should for the price of their dishes and mediocrity of the food. La Tasca has a lot of competition from independents tapas places in Leeds; Ambiente and Sandinista are fab, and there are several others on my to-visit list including Bilbao and Pintura. However there’ll always be a special place in my heart for Viva Cuba. Yes it looks like a dive from the outside, but inside is delicious food, colourful Cuban decor and sangria that goes down like fruit juice.

Pizza Express Ecco Pizzeria

I’m going to be totally honest here – I don’t completely totally hate Pizza Express. Occasionally I’ll pick up a decent discount voucher and head along for a pizza that’s actually quite tasty, but when eating at the Headingley branch I’m always haunted by the fact that Ecco is just down the street. They use a wood-fired oven and are dedicated to the authenticity of their Neapolitan pizzas, going so far as to import all the key ingredients from Naples. There are so many original toppings to choose from it always takes me a good 15 minutes to choose one, but I never dither over a scoop of homemade gelato for dessert.

Pizza at Ecco Pizzeria, Leeds

So guys, what chain have you sacked off for a better and brighter independent?

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Gin Tasting at Lazy Lounge

Expert procrastinator that I am, I have a never-ending list of things I want to do and places I want to go that I take a million years to get around to actually doing. This week that list became one item shorter, when I attended the legendary gin tasting at Lazy Lounge.

Lazy Lounge gin tasting, Leeds

The session was led by Tom, Lazy Lounge’s owner and resident gin expert. This was a promising start; I mean, this guy has managed make drinking gin into an actual occupation, and is therefore clearly a genius. He didn’t let us down – aside from telling us about each individual gin we tried (and there were a lot), we were also treated to a brief history of gin, covering its beginnings in Holland where the English first encountered it, the evolution of the distilling process and the 18th century ‘gin craze’ – bet you didn’t learn about that in GCSE History.

Some fun facts we learned about gin:

  • Gin isn’t originally from England – the English discovered it in Holland during the Thirty Years’ War when they saw the Dutch soldiers drinking it for morale and decided to do the same. This is where the saying ‘Dutch courage’ comes from.
  • Juniper, the essential ingredient of gin, was believed to cure the plague; doctors took to wearing masks featuring a huge beak stuffed with juniper berries.
  • The 18th century saw Britain gripped by the ‘gin craze’ – crime, prostitution and mortality rates rose, and only 1 in 6 children survived past the age of 4 (ok, that fact may be lacking the fun).
  • It’s estimated that gin was responsible for as many deaths as the plague (that one too).
  • In Spain, Gordon’s green label gin is considered to be so crap that many bars don’t serve it to customers; instead they use it as a disinfectant. Apparently it’s cheaper than Dettol…

We kicked off the tasting with Bols Genever, which is supposed to be pretty close to gin’s original form. Hmm. I would not have recognised it as gin; it actually tasted more like tequila, and left a not-so-pleasant burning sensation in my throat. Next up was Bathtub Gin, a small-batch which Tom told us is the most popular gin on the tasting, but it wasn’t for me. I’m a fan of floral flavours and this one was almost spicy, which also made it seem more alcoholic than it actually was. I chased it with some tonic water…

Lazy Lounge gin tasting, Leeds

My memory became a little hazy as we progressed through the gins, but I think the final count came to about 12. Before you judge my alcohol tolerance harshly, it’s worth mentioning that it was only after the 4th sample that Tom realised he’d been serving us wine measures instead of gin measures. Yikes. A few stood out through the fog anyway, my favourites being Old Tom, Xoriguer and Portobello Road. I also tried sloe gin for the first time, and we had a lovely raspberry-infused gin that went beautifully with elderflower tonic.

Tom also gave us a quick lesson on tonic water; Schweppes is most bars’ go-to tonic, but I’ve always hated the bitter aftertaste. Turns out this is caused by the artificial sweetener that Schweppes use as a cheap alternative to sugar, and you can avoid it just by upgrading your tonic. We tried Fever Tree, which I believe I’ve had before at Town Street Tavern in Horsforth, and the difference was incredible. If you’ve tried a G&T and think you don’t like gin, chances are cheap tonic is your real enemy!

Lazy Lounge gin tasting, Leeds

When the tasting was over, we hung around to enjoy a few elderflower and pomegranate gin cocktails before heading home. At £20 the evening is great value – not only had I got the equivalent of about 9 or 10 shots and plate loads of sandwiches and cake, I’d also sampled a huge array of gins and learned so much! Tom is a great host, and I’d recommend Lazy Lounge’s sessions to anyone. I’ll probably be back for the wine…

Lazy Lounge gin tasting, Leeds