Returning to Sheffield after several years we were delighted to find that it’s still a great city for pubs, albeit one under some strain.
We like to have a plan, or play a game, when we have limited time in a city.
This time, we decided to avoid the old favourites and try some new-to-us pubs.
With that in mind, we asked local friends for advice, including Martin Taylor. Martin is one of Britain’s Good Beer Guide pub tickers and for the past few years has lived in Sheffield.
One of the first pubs he suggested was one we’d never visited and, indeed, never heard of – The Red Deer on Pitt Street.
It’s a classic backstreet local with dark red paintwork and, at this time of year, sparkling fairy lights behind the frosted glass.
Worryingly, though, there was also a sign offering us the opportunity to LEASE THIS PUB. That usually indicates some instability in the situation, such as outgoing management, or a pub company up to mischief.
We had a hypothesis:
- Sheffield pubs would be resisting the £4 pint
- there’d be more beer from second-rank breweries as a result
At The Red Deer, we found Oakham Citra and Titanic Plum Porter, both ‘premium’ brands in cask ale, at under £4 a pint. Others on offer were from Bradfield, with their old school pump clips, and Stancills.
“This is what it’s all about, this, isn’t it?” said one of our fellow drinkers, clearly just pissed enough to start expressing emotions to his friends. “Chatting. Making human connections.” Someone else at the table said he didn’t think he’d been drinking in town for 20 years or more.
Open fires amid decor on just the right side of plain. Students. Middle-aged couples “out out” in sparkly dresses and shiny shoes. Games of Yahtzee and mugs of mulled cider. Magic in the lowest of keys.
The Red Deer is apparently not considered remarkable in Sheffield. If it was in Bristol, it would be a top ten pub.
It was difficult to go to Kelham Island without popping into The Fat Cat or Kelham Island Tavern but we were intrigued by both The Gardener’s Rest and Alder.
Since we were last here a few years ago, Kelham Island has become a sort of Shoreditch: flats in old warehouses, new apartment blocks, sans serif minimalist bookshops, and street food markets. Depending which street you walked up, the scene was either Dickensian and deserted, or like a neon-drenched carnival.
The Gardener’s Rest is a community pub with a down-to-earth classless atmosphere, designed for oddballs rather than hard cases. There’s some surrealist art over the door, cheese rolls behind the bar, and a team of hard-working, earnest barmen.
There’s also a cursed table by the front door. How else to explain party after party wandering in, ignoring said table, and declaring “There’s nowhere to sit!” before leaving again.
Admittedly, our spot by the wall was better. We drank Beartown Best Bitter, a clean and solid example of the style, and Vanilla Milk Porter from Little Critters. The latter cost, brace yourself, £4 a pint.
If the Gardener’s Rest is the most proper of pubs, Alder, by contrast, is a sort of taproom without a brewery, decorated like a craft beer bar.
On Saturday night, it was busy and verging on rowdy. As a jazz band played in one room (“I’m comin’ home, baby… I’m comin’ home now, right away…”) a bunch of men in their forties wrestled, trying to pump hand sanitiser into each other’s immaculate hair.
Someone opened the lid on the upright piano and began banging the keys like a chimpanzee. Perhaps not the classy atmosphere the management might have been aiming for.
We drank Blue Bee Reet Pale (soft and chalky) and Buxton Best Bitter next to a ledge covered in cactuses.
“It’s not normally like that,” said the barman at The Crow when we mentioned the slightly chaotic atmosphere at Alder. “But that’s the thing about pubs. You only have to go in at the wrong time and you could get a totally skewed impression.”
The Crow Inn is an odd name for a pub, isn’t it? The mosaic on the doorstep is a giveaway: this was The Crown but at some point lost its N. It has leant into this tweak and its windows are now decorated, in vaguely Gothic style, with sharp-beaked corvids.
This pub, in its own way, felt typically Sheffield, too. Pale walls and bright lights suggested craft beer minimalism, and there was a decent list of keg beer on offer.
But there was also sub-£4 cask ale, cosy corners, and a group of burly men arguing with accents so heavy they might as well have been speaking Danish.
Martin, who also knows Bristol well, told us this was similar in feel to The Swan With Two Necks. We took this to mean that it was a pub being pulled in two directions, or perhaps being dragged, resisting, into the 21st century. And that’s about how it felt.
The beer was excellent – Abbeydale Heathen and Red Willow Talus Mosaic Sabro were both the kind of pale-n-hoppy we come to Sheffield hoping to drink. They were, of course, less than £4 a pint.
On Sunday, we arranged to meet some friends and let them choose the pub. They suggested The Union, which happens to be their local.
Nether Edge on a Sunday night in December was dark, damp and quiet – all Victorian villas and institutional outposts behind stone walls. The pub was a beacon, casting a warm glow through fogged windows.
On entering, we were instantly enamoured. It’s a large semi-open space with plenty of wood, red carpets and red furnishings. The landlady gave us a friendly welcome and served us two perfect pints of Abbeydale Moonshine along with a packet of Henderson’s Relish flavoured snacks.
We noticed she was wearing pink slippers – a strong signal that this is one of those front-room extension pubs.
We sat in the football-free end of the pub earwigging on earnest student conversations. In the other room, regulars watched the match on a screen we were told had been brought down from one of the bedrooms upstairs especially for the World Cup.
We have great nostalgia for pub lasagne, a staple of menus in the 1990s, here served with slices of garlic bread at less than £9 per portion.
The menu was printed on wooden blocks, suggesting it’s reassuringly stable, although the cost of living crisis had prompted someone to update the prices with a biro.
As we watched our friends talk and laugh with the publicans, and greet other regulars (“How are you getting along? Not too shabby, not too shabby.”) we felt mournful for our publess neighbourhood back home.
Could The Rhubarb ever be like this again?
For now, at least, Sheffield remains a magical place to go drinking.
Pick a pub at random and the chances are it will be better than some of the best pubs anywhere else.
And those bargain pints, noticeably cheaper than many other cities, probably help to keep them buzzing.