What images come to mind when you think of York? The Minster, steam engines, Romans and Vikings, a city resisting the 21st century? But look beyond that twee facade, outside York’s narrow medieval streets, and a very different city is asserting itself.
“It’s definitely getting more vibrant,” says Danielle Barge, editor of webzine Arts York. “In recent years, a lot of people have started independent projects: small theatre and film companies, artists’ studios, music promoters. People are almost in artistic rebellion. They’re taking it upon themselves to say, ‘if no one else is going to make it, we will’.”
Drop in at Earworm Records, advises local DJ and promoter Tor Petersen and, within minutes, you can plug yourself into a discerning local music scene – look out for events from Ouroboros; Young Thugs; Indigo_303; Animaux; Please Please You – that most visitors to York remain oblivious to. “It’s a small city but there’s a knowledgeable local crowd, and a very co-operative scene. We look out for each other. We struggle with a lack of venues and those we have, we really appreciate,” says Petersen, who co-promotes the electronic music event series, Bad Chapel.
From the emerging, floating, grassroots Arts Barge Project to the imminent Spark York – a food and arts shipping container development with a distinctive community outreach angle – it is as if, after years of coasting on its historic attractions, York is waking up to the idea that both locals and visitors now demand more from a city. It’s the same with food. York may still be dominated by chains and tourist-trap venues, but the individuality and ambition of key local independents, such as Skosh and Le Cochon Aveugle, have put the city on the map. It now looks like somewhere where interesting food can find an audience. For instance, hotly tipped chef Luke Cockerill (@lukecockerill) is working on a new York project.
But there are still barriers, and independents (in initiatives such as Fossgate’s Sunday street parties) tend to help one another in the face of relentless external pressures.
“I moved to York in 2001 and it was seven years before it started to get any kind of decent restaurant scene, and that scene is getting more traction,” says Ben Thorpe, editor at York on a Fork (yorkonafork.com). “All the independents I speak to have the same complaints about high [business] rates and unfair competition from chains.”
On the arts scene, Lydia Cottrell – one-half of the live art duo, 70/30 Split (on Tumblr), who run the Slap festival (Salacious Live Alternative Performance) – echoes this: “York is low on affordable space. In Leeds, you might get an empty shop unit to work in, but York’s not like that. Property is at a premium and, as a city, it’s very geared to tourists – not least its high-profile arts stuff. A group of us are looking at how we can enable smaller, higher-risk work, and, in particular, produce work for people who live in York. That’s a very different thing.”
It’s a thing that, by using this guide on your next trip to York, you can actively support.
A former working men’s club and cabaret venue, the Crescent is now run by the people behind York’s Irie Vibes Sound System. It has retained its community spirit, its darts teams and billiard tables, but it is now a crucial creative fulcrum. This month saw Josie Long, Mr Scruff, Acid Mothers Temple, Mark Thomas and Peggy Seeger play there – an eclectic, international line-up of underground music and comedy, at a venue simultaneously focused on nurturing York talent.
The Fulford Arms
A short walk from central York, this pub is renowned for everything from its street-food Sundays (last one on 19 November), to its natty beer garden. But primarily, it is a terrific music venue for both local and touring guitar bands and more experimental events. For instance, on 22 November, it hosts EMOMYork, an open-mic night for electronic producers. “The owners, Chris Sherrington and Chris Tuke, are really serious about music,” says Petersen, whose Bad Chapel party showcased Pye Corner Audio here this month. “One of them used to be a sound-engineer, and the pub has an amazing rig. It’s a real audiophile’s venue.”
Every city needs one: a dark basement where, under its low vaulted ceilings, York’s clubbers can lose themselves until the wee small hours to cutting-edge house, techno and bass music. The promoters BlackBox and Animaux, who welcome Untold on November 25, make particularly good use of Mansion’s Funktion-One soundsystem.
This stalwart venue is still going strong after its move across town in 2014. Its programme of, generally, mid-level touring bands and the occasional tribute act, tacks rather heavily to middle-aged nostalgia (Shed Seven, Big Country and Zodiac Mindwarp feature this winter), but from Lydia Lunch to New York “brasshouse” trio Too Many Zooz, there are edgier events happening here.
Other musical boltholes
There are plenty of musicians and DJs in York but a scarcity of venues means gig-goers will often find them playing ad hoc in pubs and bars. The excellent late-night craft beer and tapas bar Sotano hosts everything from acoustic acts to house and disco nights, and there are similar things going down at Rope & Bollard and the Fossgate Social. The Phoenix Inn is York’s informal live jazz hub (usually free entry to sessions), while, in a tiny space nicknamed the Hovel within South Bank Social Club, Young Thugs Records put on free gigs that run the gamut from lo-fi experimental indie to hardcore punk and psychobilly.
This 100-capacity space underneath the City Screen cinema nurtures myriad weird and wonderful ideas in performance, dance, poetry and music. It has become an essential part of the local arts scene – home to everything from jazz gigs and Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School to the Say Owt Slam, one of several York spoken-word events run by Say Owt’s punk and hip-hop-inspired poets.
Art of Protest Gallery
Opened earlier this year – with a flourish as Los Angeles street artists Defer and Big Sleeps created a huge wall mural opposite the store – this commercial gallery showcases contemporary urban art in a variety of visual styles. If the work is generally less didactically political than the gallery’s name might suggest, its aesthetic and focus on issues around the “environment, consumption, identity”, is a radical departure for ye olde worlde York.
According to McGee
A small, independent, contemporary art gallery, McGee is much loved locally. Gaby Lees, learning manager at York Museums Trust (hosting a Paul Nash exhibition until April 2018), says: “It’s a revolving door of artists, buyers, students and friends, all popping in to see the latest exciting work, or pass time with the owners.” Danielle Barge says visitors should also keep an eye on certain local pubs: “You get exhibitions in Fossgate Social or [community-run co-op] the Golden Ball. York River Art Market also sets up by the Ouse during summer.”
Along with Rogues Atelier, Pica is one of a handful of artist-run studio spaces. Rogues offers workshops and hosts exhibitions, while Pica has several open days each year (the next is on 3 December), and Pica’s Rebecca Carr and John Hollington are curating the Effects Design Market (1-3 December). “Pica is a collective of 18 contemporary artists – a mixture of writers, jewellers, sculptors, ceramicists, painters and filmmakers – and even though it has only been there for around a year, it’s one of York’s major arts hubs,” says Beccy Ridsdel, a ceramicist and one of the organisers of the annual York Open Studios (April 2018), which sees artists exhibiting in their homes and studios.
If York is in the midst of what Barge calls a grassroots “artistic rebellion”, its theatre scene has been one of the main beneficiaries. In recent years a flurry of small companies – such as the “site-sensitive” Bronzehead, Six Lips, avant-garde duo 70:30 Split or Well Fangled – has emerged with interesting work. From improv nights in local pubs to performances in York’s parks, visitors may well encounter them in unusual places.
Le Cochon Aveugle
From its unusual wines to its no-choice, eight-course menu (served blind, each course a surprise), this restaurant has been designed to give diners a unique gastronomic thrill-ride. “It won’t work for everybody,” says Olivia Seymour, who blogs about York food at frivolitea.co.uk. “But if you want to experiment and try new things, it’s a great place to do that because the chef, Josh Overington, really knows how to put flavours together.”
Chef-owner Neil Bentinck is a restless spirit of rare creative ability. His deft small plates pinball between East Asian, Indian, French and British influences in a way that is both great fun and utterly serious. Look out for his fried chicken with brown-butter hollandaise and crisp pork belly with vindaloo sauce, pickled carrots and yoghurt rice. Seymour says: “The food at Skosh just gets better and better. His spicing and balance of flavours are exceptional.”
York has a very decent network of either vegan or vegan-friendly cafes and restaurants: good examples are the legendary El Piano and young buck Partisan. Source is unusual in that it pushes both meat and meat-free dishes with equal vigour. “It has been open about 18 months,” says Ben Thorpe, “and its menu offers a mixture of slow-cooked meats [served as tray meals with cornbread, fries and slaw] and really good vegetarian and vegan stuff, like pulled jackfruit.” Other dishes include shakshuka (spicy baked eggs) and a roasted cauliflower in flaked almonds and tomato sauce.
Street food has been slow to take off in York, thanks to a lack of regular events and despite the work of local outfits such as Smokin’ Blues and Street Cleaver. (“Mark Hill’s bao buns and kimchi mac‘n’cheese at the latter are phenomenal,” says Thorpe.) The new-ish Shambles Market food court finally provides a permanent platform for local stars such as Tarik Abdeladim, whose Los Moros hut serves vivacious Middle Eastern wraps. Thorpe is a fan of Pizzoli, also in the food court, which “does really good pizza and arancini balls” and Winner Winner’s shack, which “serves decent fried chicken”.
The Falcon Tap
As well as serving A1 craft beers (with an emphasis on local/north-eastern breweries, such as Bad Seed, Brass Castle, Half Moon and Northern Alchemy), this post-industrial boozer hosts various DJ nights, book readings and gigs in its so-called bunker. “The guys who run it are really switched on musically,” says Petersen, who recommends the Rhum Boogie nights: “They cover an amazing span from Detroit techno to jazz.”
This is a sister business to the York Tap (York railway station’s 32-tap beer-vana), but do not be deceived by Pivni’s crooked 16th-century architecture: the building is old but Pivni’s beer selection is ultra-modern. Northern breweries (Marble, Buxton, Thornbridge) feature prominently, amid a national and international range that includes beers from a further related business, Tapped brewery. Beer writer Gavin Aitchison, who for years covered the pub beat for local York daily The Press, says: “Pivni is York at its absolute best – an ancient building used in a modern but sensitive way that allows people to enjoy it, rather than just gaze at it.”
York has an abundance of stellar pubs – Maltings and the Rook & Gaskill are two more essentials. But in the city itself, it lacks innovative breweries. Brew York is one exception, and its smart warehouse brewery tap is open Wednesday to Sunday. Mark Stredwick, owner of Brewtown Tours, which runs bus tours of Yorkshire breweries, says: “It does what I would consider traditional English cask beers and then more craft-style hoppy stuff, sour beers, beers using fruits, coffee and other flavours. It’s very inventive.”
Kiosk: Project Space
“A quirky cafe-cum-gallery with lovely coffees and even better artwork,” says Gaby Lees, of this tiny space co-founded by Russ and Rebecca Carr, the latter a clothes-maker who works at PICA (see Culture). With its hand-thrown crockery, decorative ceramics and fine-art pieces (many for sale), Kiosk is clearly embedded in the regional artist-maker scene, but, according to Seymour, it is more than just an arty hang-out. “It serves the best coffee around,” she says, adding that Russ (who uses Yorkshire-roasted Dark Woods and Maude beans in his flat whites and Chemex brews) is similarly adept in the kitchen. Moreover, his brunch and lunch dishes (for instance, spiced beetroot upma patty with a poached egg and pickled salad; plates £4-£10), can sometimes be followed by patisserie from revered York bakery, Shutishuti.
Cave du Cochon
A spin-off from Le Cochon Aveugle (see Food), this super-casual wine bar – big on natural and small-producer wines – has established itself as a benchmark venue in its own right. “I love going in and saying, ‘I’m looking for X sort of wine’, and letting them surprise me because they really know what they’re talking about,” says Seymour. “It’s challenged me to think about different wines.” Food-wise, Cave also serves excellent snacks, light meals and charcuterie, from devilletrd eggs to pig head and potato pie (up to £15).
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