Simon Richardson came for the cocktails but stayed for the cheeseboard
It’s very unlikely that I’d have gone out at the ‘top end of town’ fifteen years ago. North Bar was too expensive for young’uns, the Belgrave was a snooker hall, Merrion Street - Mojo apart - didn’t really hold much interest, and you certainly didn’t get jazz bars and speakeasies lurking under barbers’ shops. Times have changed though. I’ve swapped kebabs for cheeseboards and brightly coloured, diabetic jugs full of pain for proper cocktails. Perhaps Leeds has aged with me - depending on your tastes, for better or worse.
'..there’s always something in the pipeline here, the menu is always on the brink of change'
The Watermark is very much testament to change, both in its set-up and in its back-story. Dariush and Filippo, two lads with genuine wide-eyed enthusiasm for cocktails and hospitality, almost fell upon the building following the closure of Epicurus (aka my previous favourite cocktail bar in the city). Having spent several years collaborating, researching and serving cocktails out of their own kitchen in Beeston - as well as a fair bit of travelling and running takeovers - they were offered the chance to fulfil a dream. They’ve certainly taken it.
The Watermark is cosily decorated both inside and out. In truth, not a huge amount has changed from Epicurus in some ways; the upstairs still has a smoking-room vibe, and the seating has been tweaked and improved, but not dramatically altered...
There’s a noticeably different vibe though.
We walk in and everyone seems to know each other; there are a few board games out and a smattering of hats bearing the two cat silhouettes of The Watermark logo. I spot Cards Against Humanity. Nothing like sipping on an Old Fashioned, accompanied by such classic phrases as ‘a windmill full of corpses’ floating towards you on the soft breeze.
The menu is small - four lowballs, four highballs. Bartenders Brunch (£9) is all orange and Campari flavours to begin with, rounded off with a delicate mango vermouth. A small clothes peg provides the ‘side dish’ of mango and fried corn kiko; the salt and sweet mix immediately reminding me of a South American bar.
Aegean Breeze (£9) is refreshing in a different way, with cold brew coffee being a perhaps overly dominant ingredient; I don’t really get much fig, but it’s tasty all the same. We also try an Oiled Fashioned (£9) – the twist being that they’ve given the Evan Williams a butter wash to add a more savoury feel, then strengthened the concept with crisps for extra salt. It works really well, and the crisps are in keeping with the lack of pretence of the place as a whole.
Meanwhile, I can’t resist asking for my favourite cocktail – a Negroni with mezcal instead of gin (£9). Theirs is properly smoky; just how I like it.
One of the jewels in Epicurus’ weighty crown was the food, and the fact that they served it until 3:30am. The Watermark has kept the hours and the food is still very much a part of the evening, with a small mock-kitchen area set into the side of the bar.
We go for a couple of pork pies (£3.50), which come with a lovely fruit chutney. The pies themselves are decent, although sadly lacking in jelly. I love jelly in pork pies; not the stuff you get in the supermarket ones that remind you of tinned cat food from the 80s but the almost liquid, gooey delight of a hot pie from a butcher that trickles down your chin as you bite into it. I’m willing to accept that this isn’t everyone’s cup of pig though.
There is also a cheese and meat board (£13) and, if my hosts are going to be kind enough to offer a large wooden vessel containing the finest fat-based foods known to mankind, I’m certainly not going to be so rude as to ignore them. Sliced ham, salami, cheese (both soft and hard) and a higgledy-piggledy display of apple, grapes, nuts, chutney, olive oil and bread ensure that they’ve done the decent thing and coloured right to the edges of the board. It’s all good quality and a great mix of flavours, but I could have eaten two.
We end the night with a chat with Dariush, and a pair of drinks that he’s working on. Part of The Watermark’s signature approach is that there’s always something in the pipeline, and the menu is always on the brink of change, so I’m not going to say any more.
But we leave, knowing that we’ll definitely be back for a second visit. It’s a combination of things really, rather than one stand-out punch in the mouth. Well-made drinks, decent food, a pleasant homely atmosphere? Tick, tick, tick. But it’s the sheer love of the job exuding from the owners that shines through and really gets me going. Perhaps, like the drink, I’m old-fashioned. But I’m a stickler for good service with a genuine smile - and The Watermark’s got that in spades.
The Watermark, 3 Cross Belgrave St, Leeds LS2 8JP
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: made by God him/herself.
Drinks & snacks
Bartenders Brunch 8, Aegean Breeze 6, Oiled Fashioned 9, Negroni 9, Mystery Drinks 7.5, Pork Pie 6, Cheese & Meat Board 7
Water as soon as you sit down and attentive, helpful, genuine service throughout
Exactly as they wanted it to be - a homely, relaxed environment