In Conversation With Phil Harrison

The Maven is part of Escapism Bar Group, an independent Leeds based company owned by husband and wife team Phil and Mel Harrison.  

Over the past 15 years Phil and Mel have developed a strong portfolio of bars in Leeds, including The Mean Eyed Cat and Verve, both on Merrion Street, and Call Lane Social, Tiki Hideaway, Brooklyn, and Cuckoo, all on Call Lane. Earlier this month they added to their successful string of bars, taking over the legendary Call Lane speakeasy, The Maven. 

I had the pleasure of chatting to Phil about The Maven and his other Leeds bars, the inspiration for their décor, and what plans he and Mel have for the future. 

How did it all start? 

Phil explained that he and his wife Mel had been students in Leeds and had loved frequent student nights out. However, it was after university that the inspiration for becoming bar owners took shape. After graduating, they both went to the USA to work as part of the STA scheme Work America. Whilst in the US they took on a range of hospitality roles and learned some of the essential skills of the trade.  On returning to the UK in 2004, they took over ownership of The Mean Eyed Cat (formerly Reform) – having never managed a bar before. They learnt as they went along and based the bar on a deep south dive. All their decisions were focussed wholeheartedly on the needs and preferences of their customers, aiming to make them feel like a million dollars. Phil and Mel built the bar up, and it quickly became a popular hang out for Leeds locals. 

Before they knew it, Phil and Mel had taken over another bar and the story of the Escapism Bar Group began. Each bar was developed so that it was unique, with individual décor and drinks. For example, Verve offers free comedy nights, whilst Cuckoo, which opened in 2018, has a wardrobe toilet, rhino heads poking out from the walls, and a garden shed entryway to the rooftop gin garden. Cuckoo also boasts free pizza every day between 5 and 9pm, making it the ideal location for work colleagues wanting a place to chill, or theatre goers wanting a place to relax pre-show. 

Why Leeds?

Talk then turned to why Leeds was their location of choice for their range of bars. Phil explained that they had considered other places, including London, but that they think that Leeds is a city like no other. Not only is it where Phil and Mel met and studied, but it also boasts a wide variety of clubs, restaurants and other eateries, a population open to and keen for experiential nights out, and an overall lively vibe. Phil couldn’t imagine going anywhere else and is keen to keep developing his bars in the City. 

What drew the husband and wife team to The Maven? 

I asked Phil what had drawn them to The Maven. He told me that Nino Lopes, the bar’s previous owner and Phil’s good friend, had to return home owing to ill health and had asked Phil and Mel to take over the bar, trusting them to continue his work. Nino built the bar from scratch in 2011 and had developed it into the legendary speakeasy that it is today, with 1920’s décor and prohibition style cocktails. Phil explained that he’d been sorry to see his friend give up his hard work, but that he and Mel had been more than happy to take over the bar.  They have decided not to make any major changes to the bar, aiming to continue serving a range of classic cocktails made by skilled barmen. Instead, they are planning to bolster the speakeasy with one of the first changes being the addition of a subtle sign outside to help people find it. 

What is the décor like at The Maven?

Phil and Mel decided that The Maven is going to be kept pretty much as it is, as it’s already a great bar, with regular customers who love the 1920’s feel. I am glad that Phil and Mel don’t plan to make too many changes to the bar as I loved the décor, with its dark wood floors, its massive selection of decoratively displayed drinks and the 1920’s style candle lighting. I also thought that the high tinted windows added a beautiful ambience to the bar, letting in the light from the setting sun idyllically. In fact, I can’t believe that I have never been to The Maven before, as the relaxed atmosphere and table service are both right up my street. What is more, The Maven has three large event spaces for hire. Phil showed me through to one of the unique meeting/ event spaces, which had its own bar, and is often booked out by corporate groups, private parties and tasting events. 

What’s next? 

Despite having only just taken over The Maven, like any savvy businesspeople, Phil said that he and Mel had not completely disregarded the possibility of opening another bar in Leeds.  The couple actually had a bar licence for another property already, but were waiting for a good time, and gap in the market, to launch it. However, Phil said that growing the Escapism Group did have a few downsides, with one being that he is no longer able to get to know all of his staff as closely as he would like. He said that he makes a special effort to speak to all staff members regularly, as he does the rounds at the weekends, and that he and Mel organise quarterly staff get togethers including trips, meals and fun nights out. 

I thoroughly enjoyed chatting to Phil about the Escapism Bar Group, and its most recent addition, The Maven. I am already looking forward to heading over soon to try out a few cocktails and relax after work. The Maven is open Thursday to Sunday from 5pm.

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