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.

Recalibrating for Bloggers Bias

We have been a bit lazy around here, almost two months into the year 2014 with no blogpost. How are you, the good people of Brum, going to decide which of our city’s unsung Indie food purveyors to spend your money in? Humbly assuming of course that you trust our opinion. It’s a funny thing blogging about restaurants, because invariably the places a blogger reviews are the ones we would go to anyway. Drawn to them because they serve food that sounds like what we want to eat at a price we don’t mind paying for. You don’t really need us to tell you that the new bar on Colmore Row (pick one) has nice drinks but the food is a bit average. You can work that out yourself. No it’s finding that Turkish place in Handsworth or the Spanish in Sutton Coldfield is really worth the short trip from the centre. So maybe the real value in this blog is to dig out these nuggets in the nooks and crannies of our city. Wipe the fluff off them and fearlessly give them a chew for you. A service we’re happy to provide.

But then we can’t strike rich everytime, not every place we try can be great and that’s where a lot of blogs fall down. Most food bloggers will only write about the nights they’ve had out where they’ve had a good time. Usually going something like this: “We had such an amazing night at X that started with amazing cocktails… the staff were so friendly and made us feel so at home…. steaks were mouthwatering and you can choose from two different cuts that had been aged for 21 days…. OHMYGOD the triple cooked chips were simply TO DIE FOR!… decadent chocolate fondant… we all went home slightly tipsy” and that’s great! You can blog about your crazy nights out but just don’t pretend you’re a food blog. The bias in blogs like those is so skewed as to make the most right-wing newspapers seem reasonable and balanced. For example, if you were to believe everything you read in the Daily Mail then you’d think that our country is full of immigrant bikini-wearing teenagers who want to rob you. If we were to believe those bloggers then every food outlet in Birmingham is just wonderful, representing the very pinnacle of their cuisine. Clearly this is not the case, and can never be in a city of over a million people each with their own opinions. So where is the balanced criticism? The truth is that our country is full of lovely decent people who eat in mediocre sometimes awful restaurants. Compiling the Birmingham and West Midlands Food Map last year has really skewed the blog a little, because all we do is recommend great places to eat and buy food. We haven’t had the time to dissect the bad places because frankly it’s harder to write a balanced piece constructively criticising them than being effusive about a good one. You try! It’s not easy. To show that all is not so rosy in the garden of Birmingham, here are some examples where I think most bloggers get carried away with the really rather mediocre food offerings.


Everyone knows this colourful place on Bennet’s Hill, those bloggers talk about the cool vibe and the fantastic drinks in the cosy basement bar. They say the Pan-Latin American food is fresh and vibrant but whenever I’ve eaten there it’s been about as fresh and vibrant as a Birmingham pavement. I’m suspicious of pan-continental themed food offerings anyway*. There will be exceptions of course, a truly passionate and inventive Latin-American cook could offer you a sparkly fresh scallop ceviche alongside spiky carnitas and deep earthy feijoada. But with a menu that starts with those stodgy Tex-mex staples nachos and burritos, you know Bodega isn’t going for anything except lining your stomach for more cocktails.


I have to admit the name put me off for some time. How good can a Japanese restaurant be that’s named after bad pun about a Chinese cooking implement? Oh but so many people say it’s the best Japanese restaurant in town. Well fine, that could be true but only by the paucity of other offerings. Let’s get this straight the sushi there is not good, by Japanese standards is appalling, by British standards it’s just about serviceable. What it does do well however are Japanese comfort dishes like chicken katsu curry, a filling, tasty and unpretentious dish. Though I’d have preferred a Tonkatsu (pork) curry but Woktastic is Halal friendly, so they definitely know their market in Birmingham and it’s not catering for lovers of authentic Japanese cuisine.


Some of the best food I’ve eaten in this city have been under the Streetfood banner. Meatshack’s burgers, Sharians curry goat, wonderful dosas and pizzas from the market in Kings Heath. But really, reading some of the Streetfood reviews it seems that every oozy mouthful of Streetfood ever eaten in this city is an explosion of flavour. Just take a step back, yes you’re having a good time the tunes are great the beer is cold but apart from the few exceptions you or your mates can actually cook better than this. Don’t be taken in by the label “gourmet streetfood”, don’t let fashion hide what is in fact pretty ordinary stuff you could get at any farmers market.

But why am I writing this? Apart from addressing the bias, it’s important to let it out sometimes. If you’ve been served something bad don’t be so British about it and slope off muttering under your breath to never to eat it again. Sometimes it’s so bad that these people need to be stopped and told where to go. Politely though, in the British way. You’ll feel a lot better for it and in the end it might actually raise the standard. That’s always been my goal for food blogging. That’s why Nick and I get on so well, we don’t use this blog as an exercise in PR, it’s just all about the food.

* pan-continental food is deeply suspicious, it’s food stereotyping. At worst in big corporation’s hands it’s lazy mass-produced rubbish, at best in the hands of skilled chefs it’s just confusing. Imagine a Pan-European restaurant in Shanghai serving “authentic” spaghetti bolognese, fish and chips, coq au vin alongside tapas. How good can it be? There might be one or two dishes they do well but in the main it’s going to be sub-standard. But this is the equivalent to a Pan-Asian restaurant here in the UK serving chicken yakitori and satay skewers alongside stir-fried beef in oyster sauce and pad Thai. It’s usually a cheap mess wrapped in the illusion of choice.