The State of Independents

A recent flurry of articles in the Guardian/Observer food pages following this year’s Michelin Guide highlighted the dichotomy in Brum’s food scene. The inimitable Jay Rayner’s argument is that even after Carters bagging a fifth Michelin star for the city there’s still little choice for good food at a reasonable price in Birmingham. It’s unfortunate that the example he cites as being the exception, The Queens at Belbroughton, is actually in Worcestershire! It’s a lovely pub with a reputation for really good traditional food. The Sunday roast lunch is well worth the trip out to Clent. It joins great restaurants like Polpo, A Wong and Honey & Co in this year’s list of new Michelin Bib Gourmands. Birmingham has no restaurants in this lower Michelin tier that recognises “exceptional good food at moderate prices”. For me it’s clear that, with or without Michelin guidance, the middle ground in the Birmingham food scene is still a wasteland.

So cue a minor backlash, commenters quick to mention Balti, curry, Mr Egg and all those Birmingham food clichés that actually reinforces Mr Rayner’s argument. Local food critic and egghead Richard McComb writes a response piece in the same publication but fails to mention a single restaurant in the middle ground. It’s dominated by chains, big and small, that prioritise corporate ideals over anything that puts good food first. I’m going to assume that we all agree on this because if you’ve read this far you must believe that good food comes from good cooks that care and not from a boardroom. The issue for me are those Birmingham apologists that everytime Brum food is knocked they play the Independent card. I know how hard it is to open and run an independent business in this town, I’m not knocking any indie businesses on those grounds. BUT! There is currently a dogma in the Brum food scene that preaches and publicises a select image of Independents completely ignoring the rich diversity here and on top of that confounds the idea that Independent automatically equals good food.

Let’s take that first point. I genuinely feel it’s a whitewash in a somewhat literal sense, these thinly veiled PR excuses for food and lifestyle blogs in the main ignore anything that can be found in our ethnic neighbourhoods. If you were to believe your average Birmingham food blogger then we only exist in a patchy spiral that starts in the centre, meanders through JQ, Edgbaston, Harborne, Moseley and Kings Heath. A myopic vision of Birmingham which as a native I find unrecognisable and reprehensible. Stop it, just stop writing those blogs and puff pieces in your cosy Harborne cafes and get out into Handsworth, Lozells and Sparkbrook before you claim to have found the latest hidden gem.

The second point needs stressing. Setting up an independent food business takes a lot of hard work and courage but absolutely does not guarantee good food. Go find the great independents in our city but don’t be forcefed by anyone, least of all me. I can’t tell you what to like, if you know me then you know I wouldn’t listen to me either. Use your own judgment just don’t believe in the image that’s been glossed all over town. The middle ground isn’t another mediocre gastropub/burger/bbq/wing place. The middle ground should be The Queens, Two Cats Kitchen, Fiesta Del Asado, Tipu Sultan, Pushkar, Butcher’s Social, Andersons, Manchester Seafood. A combination of interesting food and/or surroundings which doesn’t break the bank. If you’re regularly spending £30 on starter/burger/fries/dessert in the same old places then you’re the reason Birmingham doesn’t have better restaurants in the middle.

You can’t compare us to London, that would be like comparing us to New York or Berlin. But you need to look at these places to see what’s possible. Seasonal modern British, progressive East and SE Asian (Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Malaysian/Fusion), regional Italian, real southern Bbq, Mexican, no holds barred Thai, the list goes on and on as to what Brum is missing in the middle. Let’s compare us to somewhere more reasonable, Bristol. I would swap every other curry house we have for a Birch or Bell’s Diner or Paco or Ethicurean. Not another chain outlet in a shopping centre. Not another tick box exercise for one of our local chains disguised as Independent.

Good food is like good music, it’s made by people who care, it affects you and moves your soul. You don’t want to end up watching Mumford & Sons on the pyramid stage at Glastonbury when you suddenly realise that they suck balls. Don’t believe any hype about music, the same goes for food.