Sarah Cotterill visits an unlikely location that has been feeding Leeds since 1905
When Chef Patron Sam Pullan, and his partner Nicole Deighton, signed a 15-year lease on a new hospitality venture, little did they know of the secrets and stories they’d uncover. Hand drawn goad maps dating back to the seventieth century locate early blueprints for the building - No.6 Fish Street, at the corner of a ginnel beside a men’s tailors and Yorkshire Penny Bank. Once the sluice yard for Leeds Shambles’ slaughterhouses, then a passageway to The Empire Palace Theatre stage door – a popular variety hall attracting famous faces from the world of entertainment.
I don’t quite think there is anywhere quite like what we are doing
But recent renovations have peeled back a far more significant heritage. “As we started taking off the old cladding covering the front of the building, we discovered this ‘ghost sign’ for the 'Empire Café." As luck would have it, an all-day dining institution ready for a refresh.
Opening in Spring 2023, Pullan and Deighton will be reviving the characterful venue, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, Wednesday to Saturday, eight till late. Expect takeaway queues and French bistro-style seating out front. Inside, a warm Yorkshire welcome - a dramatic tiled bar with natural wine on tap and cosy tables underneath the kitchen, where it’s safe to say, chefs will be feeling the heat.
Pullan’s taste for fire and smoke began at an early age. He cites his Mum, who made Christmas Puddings for Lishmans in Ilkley, as “A massive influence”, and grew up eating fish and chips at Charlie Brett’s in Headingley before the Leeds Rugby League home games. “We’d occasionally go to Bryan’s”, he adds, “Where they left the skin on the haddock - absolutely delicious when it goes crispy!”
His penchant for barbecue billowed, thanks to his time stoking the ‘bear pit’, as Head Chef and Co-owner at The Bear at Carriages. At The Empire Café, he will be showcasing the very best of nearby Kirkgate Market’s seasonal produce on a 'Wall of Flame' rotisserie grill, sourced from a garage in Fife. “I’ve been to Germany a few times and seen them in action, so we knew we wanted one as a bit of a theatrical centrepiece. So as a complete long shot I checked Gumtree and couldn’t believe there was a brand new one in Scotland collecting dust!”
From a family-run gastropub in the sleepy market town of Knaresbourough to a vertical spit behind a takeaway hatch on a derelict corner of inner-city Leeds, Pullan has never been one to do things by halves. Take, for example, the spreads his catering company used to regularly lay on for weddings and exclusive clients such as Coach, Gucci and Grey Goose Vodka. Think ice troughs stacked with oysters, prawns and lobster tails nestled between sweet-sour dipping sauces and delicate fronds of seaweed. Banquets bowing with slabs of venison and rhubarb terrine, beef wellingtons, curls of charcuterie, crimson figs, cheeses, and pots of piccalilli.
At the Empire Café, the excess will come in the form of flash-fried Bavette steaks, under mountains of fries; whole chickens slathered in herb-rich butter, potatoes cooked on hot coals, dripping with schmaltz and dumplings bobbing in noodle soup.
The grill will be lit and loaded at seven A.M. By eight, you can snatch a sausage straight from the flames, or tuck into their Leeds Market Breakfast, smoky bean chana masalas, and Polish bread patties wrapped in greaseproof paper. By lunchtime, forty chickens will be spinning on chains in the window.
As the city’s streetlights flicker on, and it’s time for yer tea, the restaurant will come alive for evening service. I climb down a ladder amidst the rubble and brick dust, to the low-ceilinged dining room, imagining an Egon Schiele-style boudoir, the glow of candles against glassware, monogrammed plates and perhaps the crackle of a record player.
“I think every chef takes inspiration from lots of places. I don’t quite think there is anywhere quite like what we are doing.” Pullan has roped in staff from previous businesses to curate a culinary crack team with a unique set of talents. “We’ve known each other a while now and [have] all got the same ethos around food.”
I dig a little deeper, to sum up their ambitions for this round-the-clock menu. “Lots of delicious stuff” Pullan specifies, “Made with loads of love, licked with a bit of fire.” And with this much victual antiquity on their side, there’s no ghost of a chance that this reincarnation of The Empire Café will be a flash in the pan.
Read next: ‘Where else can you get food this good and park right outside for 20p?’ Brooks Restaurant, Brighouse, Reviewed.
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