Go north for a plethora of vibrant pubs – and an exciting new wine bar within a spit of York Minster, above.
The city of York in north-east England has many attractions. There is the National Railway Museum, founded in 1975; the Jorvik Centre, which tells the almost complete story of the Vikings and their influence, founded in 1985. Then there is the more recent and extremely popular Christmas market, which has, since 1994, filled the city centre every December. According to one local, at the end of the year you can tell when a train has arrived by the regular influx of families swarming towards the market from the rail station.
Perhaps the oldest attraction is York Minster, so old that it retains its name of minster despite being a cathedral; its origins pre-date the Norman Conquest of 1066 when the word cathedral first entered the English language.
The area round the Minster draws the biggest crowds and therefore presumably its landlords demand the highest rents, so it comes as somewhat of a shock to report on an excellent, independently owned wine bar that boasts a view of the Minster. Just round the corner from the public entrance to the Minster, at 21 High Petergate, is the quaintly named 22 Yards wine bar.
For those unfamiliar with cricket, 22 yards is the predetermined length of a cricket pitch (and, incidentally, roughly the distance from the front window of the wine bar to the back of the kitchen). Hence the name given to the wine bar by its cricket-mad owners Adrian Stancer, Richard Townsley and Karl Booth – although as its enthusiastic manager Georgia-Rose Vanderwater admitted, first-class cricket is not played in York. Leeds, 30 miles away, is the home of Yorkshire cricket.
The current site exudes an enthusiasm for wine, and it was their evident enthusiasm that, as Vanderwater explained, helped the owners to secure these well-positioned premises. ‘The site had been a small cafe bistro with a musical theme for 26 years but the business did not reopen after COVID. There was a lot of interest in the site. Richard and Adrian managed to get the keys only after 13 months of negotiations. It was the vision of the proposed business of 22 Yards and what it would become, and that it would be absolutely appropriate for this historic site (plus lots of good faith), that won the day.’
Having been open for six months, 22 Yards seems to have found an enthusiastic audience by making its own enthusiasm for wine, and good food, pretty obvious. Down the left-hand wall is a unique, annotated blackboard with little perches for the bottles that constitute that week’s bin ends.
‘The wine board was certainly the idea of Adrian and Richard and when I was hired as general manager before we opened, I suggested the bin-end approach. Adrian says, “we really wanted the place to scream wine!” In designing the interior we felt this was a good way to showcase a revolving wine board. We had the hope that locals would come to us for drinks or dinner, say, three times a week and we wanted to make sure that there were plenty of interesting wines to try each time. Both Richard and myself love trying new and different wines and so we felt this fits the bill. Also, we felt there has been a bit of a change by many winemakers, in making their bottles and labels more marketable and attractive. Although you obviously can’t judge the wine inside, there’s no doubt many casual wine drinkers would choose a wine on the aesthetic of the label.
‘The wine as the star and adding to the interior rather than just a traditional blackboard seemed to make sense. Customers seem to like it. We update the board every week. We like to cover lots of styles, countries and price points. Sometimes particular wines are very popular and may only last a few days. Sometimes, we have so much interest that we move that wine across to the core list.’
From an extensive list we lapped up a glass of Lustau Amontillado, a couple of glasses of Burja almost-orange wine from Slovenia, a glass of Pedro Ximenez, and one of Romain Taupenot’s glorious Gevrey-Chambertin 2014. We ate just as well.
We began in Iberian style: a plate of padron peppers and a serving of Cantara small sardines, served in its tin, complete with artful cardboard wrapping, alongside sourdough toast and butter. I have no objection to any chef serving seafood like this: it cannot be bettered and the wrapping, still on my desk a week later, brings back happy memories. We enjoyed a delicate lemon sole and a well-made game pie (pies are big in Yorkshire), highlighted by some cleverly creamed Brussels sprouts, before ending with a shared chocolate-and-orange tart and a bill of £129.80 including service. We felt as though we wanted to return.
We ate on a Monday night, which limited our choices (22 Yards is a seven-night operation) but York has plenty of excellent, arguably more ambitious alternatives. I have already reviewed the popular Skosh, and Tommy Banks’ Michelin-starred Roots is one of York’s more celebrated restaurants. We stayed at the extremely quiet Grays Court Hotel, a building behind the Minster that was originally begun in 1080, although its accommodation and its plumbing are far more modern. Here we enjoyed a really good breakfast and bar lunch. Its Bow Room restaurant, run by chef Adam Jackson, was closed on Monday but obviously has high ambitions, offering only a multi-course tasting menu in the evening priced at £120 per person.
Those interested in independent places to eat may like to consult Indie York with its useful map of the city’s independent businesses.
As well as an increasing number of passionately managed wine bars and restaurants, Yorkshire is famous for the quantity and quality of its pubs. There is the oldest, the Bingley Arms in Bardsey (frequented by Vikings, so they say), as well as one of the highest, the Lion Inn at Kirbymoorside. Then there is the Crown and Cushion at Welburn.
This pub, only a few minutes’ drive from the extremely popular Vanburgh house and grounds of Castle Howard, seemed to me to be the epitome of Yorkshire hospitality. Warm and welcoming waiting staff; Black Sheep beer on tap; dogs served with their own bowls of water; and even a steak and ale pie with chips, gravy and greens on the menu. What more could we have asked for when we walked in at 2 pm? Very little except perhaps for the delicious sticky toffee pudding which, again, we shared. My bill came to £50 including service and a glass of Vincent Dampt Chablis.
One of the inevitable consequences of so many good places to eat is the question of which is the best place to enjoy good food and drink. In North Yorkshire there seems to be a rivalry between the small towns of Malton and Helmsley, 15 miles (24 km) apart. Malton started at a disadvantage as far as we were concerned. We arrived there after most places were closed and its cause was not helped by a disappointing meal at The Talbot Hotel, helped by a bottle of Contino Riserva 2017 (wine cost £60, food £40!).
We fared much better in Helmsley. A very good coffee and homemade flapjack in front of an open fire at Porter’s Coffee Shop set us on our way around the village before an exciting lunch at Bantam restaurant: confit garlic butter flatbread; cod’s cheeks, salsify and salsa verde; a slice of house-made black pudding with apple; and a crème caramel with golden raisins (also shared, as you can see below). With two glasses of surprisingly dark Pfalz Pinot Noir from Pflüger, I paid a bill of £56.
We thoroughly enjoyed our two or three days in York and North Yorkshire. And this is written by a Lancastrian travelling with a Cumbrian!
22 Yards 21 High Petergate, York YO1 7EN, UK; tel: +44 (0)1904 651215
Grays Court Hotel Chapter House Street, York YO1 7JH, UK; tel: +44 (0)1904 612613
The Crown & Cushion Welburn, North Yorkshire YO60 7DZ, UK; tel: +44 (0)1653 618777
Porters 19 Bridge Street, Helmsley YO62 5BG, UK; tel: +44 (0)1439 771555
Bantam 8 Bridge Street, Helmsley YO62 5BG, UK; tel: +44 (0)1439 770479
Image of York Minster by Andrew Holt via Getty Images.