When I first came to Leeds as a bright eyed student dazzled by the big city, the neo-mullet was just emerging as the cutting edge haircut of choice and Ice Cube kept encouraging us to put our backs into it like some insistent pervy taskmaster. At the same time, I, and various factions of the music press, passionately believed The Vines were the next Nirvana (we were wrong).
"On realising they were out of mint, the bar girl was straight out of the door to borrow from a Call Lane rival before I had time to comment. She then mulled, crushed, tasted and concocted with real care and when finished offered to adjust it to suit my taste."
What was clear was that Norman was the ultimate in achingly cool bars. The red leather diner-style seating, mural scene, extensive back bar, flexible music policy and established cool crowd meant that Norman ruled Call Lane and for that matter, the whole Leeds bar scene.
But does it still? It certainly strives to do so, if the eagerness of the bar staff on a recent re-visit was anything to go by. In the absence of printed menus, the plucky pair behind the bar were very forthcoming in creative cocktail suggestions based on our spirit preferences. Feeling rum and traditional I went for a mojito (£7.50). On realising they were out of mint, the bar girl was straight out of the door to borrow from a Call Lane rival before I had time to comment. She then mulled, crushed, tasted and concocted with real care and when finished offered to adjust it to suit my taste. The feeling that my enjoyment of the drink was her top priority was worth the £7.50 price tag. And it was a bloody good mojito.
There wasn't a crowd to speak of on the quiet evening we visited. In fact we were two of only a handful of customers. This could be explained by it being a Tuesday with the annual student abandonment of Leeds well under way. This worked out because without all the pouty boys and girls in the way, we had a full view of Norman's interior.
Ah the interior. Ever a feature. Gone are the red leather seats and mural scene I recalled. The current incarnation of Norman is all chrome tables, leather poofs, sauna style wood panelling and one curvy white wall. Simple enough, but then you look closer and there's an army of white grotesque figurines atop the curvy wall, small cuckoo clocks randomly dotted about and a quite hideous light fixture involving retro print and overlapping circles.
The toilet must also be noted. A secret door in the back sauna wall admits you to what resembles an open plan UV-lit wet room. My friend, a newly qualified nurse, claimed that such lighting is to prevent smackheads from shooting up because you can't find a vein under it. I'd venture and hope that like the cuckoo clocks and the circle-y fixture, the choice of loo lighting in Norman is for purely aesthetic rather than grubby functional reasons.
But back to the bar. A next round of drinks proved equally successful as the first. My friend's pink gin fizz (£6.10) was just the right balance of bitter and sweet. My zubrowka and apple (£3.50) was artfully shaken with crushed ice, mint and served with fresh lime. Honestly, I can't rave about the girl who served us enough. Stone-faced vintage-clad waifs who believe they’re employed primarily to maintain a bar's image are the plague of trendy bars. To be greeted by (gasp) a smile when approaching the bar earns Norman a whole lot of brownie points. I just hope it's not unique to the one staff member.
But does it still cut it as the last word in cool?
The design at Norman has changed four times since the red leather seats era of 2002. The homepage of their website (which features images of a previous, slightly different version of Norman) shouts about them being featured in Japanese style mags a few years ago and hailed as one of the coolest bars on the planet. They're planning another revamp, this time featuring pink, and new menus have gone to print. The reluctance to commit to a style and the persistent desire to be completely 'on trend' betrays a lack of confidence, which is decidedly uncool.
So, Norman doesn't quite feel like it did when I first came to Leeds. Maybe it's lost its edge. Maybe it's because I'm jaded by over exposure to independent bars giving it the big 'I am'. Maybe it's because it quite simply isn't the same bar.
But who cares? Maybe if Norman and I stopped focusing on whether it's cool enough or not, we could recognise what we all know: that it's a good bar that does a good drink and has a good vibe. And that is, surely, all anybody wants.
36 Call Lane
01132 34 39 88
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