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.

8 thoughts on “The State of Independents”

  1. Thank you for writing this, I think it has summed up a lot of things that I’ve been trying to articulate over the last through weeks, although not managed to put down in words.

    I agree entirely with you about the backlash against Mr Rayner’s article and I felt incredibly frustrated that people were leaping to Birmingham’s defence and missing the point entirely. It’s nice to see people feeling proud of Birmingham for once, but call me crazy, I want to hear how we can keep striving to be better and that’s what I took from Rayner’s article.

    I thought your point about comparative cities was fascinating. I agree, looking to be compared to a magnet capital city like London is flat out ridiculous – aspiring to be like Bristol is much more reasonable. Even still, Birmingham’s food scene still feels to me like it’s playing catch up, and its bar/cocktail scene feels like it’s in its infancy compared to similar places. But I hope we’ll get there.

    I think in the sake of fairness I should probably admit to that one of my hobbies is being a food blogger, and whether you consider mine to be a ‘thinly veiled PR excuses for food and lifestyle blogs’ is entirely up to you (although I wish people would offer more direct constructive criticism to me and other bloggers). About a month ago it took an adventure to make me realise that what I was documenting on my blog was less adventurous than I had set out to intend; I’d winded up blogging about where I live (south Birmingham) and where I work (city centre). Sadly for various reasons (mainly illness) I’ve not been able to rectify this, but I’ve been mindful ever since that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. Rayner’s article and this post has reinforced that realisation that I don’t want to be a part of that anymore.

    So thank you. This wasn’t the most comfortable of reads for me personally, but I absolutely think it needed saying.

    1. Thanks Laura for your thoughtful response. It’s very much appreciated. Hope you are getting better.

      We just want Birmingham food bloggers to be more open and honest about the state of our dining scene. We can only improve our lot if we assess, critique restaurants and guide our readers truthfully.

      1. I entirely agree with you, I would love Birmingham food bloggers to be more open and honest about the state of the city’s drinking and dining scene.

        I sometimes wonder if part of the problem is that there is no (obvious) qualification or training to assess, critique restaurants and guide people…or certainly not for food bloggers. There are always going to be people who are relentlessly positive in the hope of scoring free meals and I’d hope they’re in the minority. But some times I wonder if it’s a lack of knowledge* for some bloggers, rather than deliberately being untruthful.

  2. Firstly… This is a very well written piece and no disrespect is intended when I say that I did have to giggle that you contradict yourself in the space of two paragraphs?

    ” 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.”

    “The middle ground should be The Queens (not sure which venue you mean by this, surely not the queens arms JQ), Two Cats Kitchen (Again, JQ), Fiesta Del Asado (Edgbaston), Tipu Sultan (Moseley), Pushkar (City Centre), Butcher’s Social (Harborne), Andersons (JQ), Manchester Seafood (City Centre).” So all the places us lazy food bloggers write about?

    Again, I am with Laura on this one. As a food blogger, we would love to be “The Authority” and get a chance to trek all over every weekend trying differently delicious food from all over the West Midlands… The sad reality is that I am a freelancer with two contracts which means I work mainly City Centre between 9am up to 11pm every day and then end up travelling all over the country to see friends, family and everything in between on the weekends. It would be great to have a chance to get in cab and venture to find those hidden treasures in the less written about places, but the reality is – you eat in places you can get to and back from (and you’re more familiar with). I know that’s a bit of a sad excuse, but it’s worth remembering we’re not paid to blog and the majority of us do it to promote Birmingham…

    I would like to think that we’re all working together to shout about the places we feel are shout worthy, and quiet the Jay Rayner’s of this world.

    1. Nick and I are under no illusion of being “The Authority”. We just like what we like, hope our readers value our honesty and can see the difference between a blog like ours and more promotional ones like yours.

      There has to be balance, if we all write about the same stuff then it’s just boring. In many ways we live in different blogospheres, we will never write about The Botanist or Gas Street Social as we just have no interest in that mass market middle of the road stuff. We don’t believe in it. It’s the Mumford analogy again.

      Btw. I don’t think it’s contradictory what you picked up on. It’s two different points but if you find light relief in it then good for you. Thanks for the writing compliment though!

      1. Oh god, no! I wasn’t saying you called yourself the authority! I genuinely think that, that person doesn’t exist yet. I think there is a place in the blogosphere for all kinds of writing.

        I totally agree that my blog is more promotional than what you’re doing here (which I really respect and read regularly), but it’s not all puff pieces (and I think that’s a little mean to the people that work hard to talk about venues that they love for little or no real gain).

        It’s worth remembering that it is a hobby for people that can’t live off blogging and we all do it to raise the profile of the City and it’s multitude of eateries. You’ve reminded me that I have a blog to write up about one of my favourite gems, The Karczma!

        1. Vicky, do you really believe that people are blogging to raise the profile of “the City”, really? Or are they just doing it because it gets them invited to free parties and free dinners?

          Most of the blogs in Birmingham seem to be based on whatever free stuff has come the bloggers way, and this in itself undermines everything a good food blog should be about and entirely reinforces Lap’s points about the food blogging scene in Birmingham (and I’ve not even started on the issue of the actual food yet).

          This is probably the only blog I read based in Brum that does the job of an actual food blog, as I see them, because I learn from Lap and Nick places that I might never have found and it actually makes me feel excited to be able to go out and explore the culinary diversity of the city. Being busy/poor frankly isnt an excuse, if actually representing the diversity of the city’s food scene mattered a blogger would go out and do it, rather than just write up things they’ve been “invited to review”, because if its really a ‘food blog’ its about the food and someone who really cared would put the effort in to explore. God forbid we get another write up of the tepid, bland, sigh-inducing beige yawnfest of Grand Central’s food offerings.

    2. I would never consider myself an expert or authority, just an enthusiast! However I agree on your point that having more time to indulge this interest would be great, but between a full-time job and other stuff there’s only so much time to indulge such a hobby.

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