The UK based Restaurant, Hotel and Wine Review

Peter Lippitt surveyed the foodie scene in Birmingham, England's second city - NB May 1999

See also readers' comments at the end of this article

Since Birmingham happens to be the nation's second city, you would expect the place to have a large nucleus of award winning restaurants - The Good Food Guide, Michelin stars, that sort of thing. But remarkably this is not the case. If anything there is an embarrassing paucity.

I'll go on. Compare Birmingham's five entries in this year's Good Food Guide - two of which are what the guide calls 'new entries' - with Manchester (12), Bristol (7), or Leeds (7). What is even more remarkable is that 10 years ago, entries for Brum peaked at twelve. That's a reduction of 55% in 10 years.

So what's wrong with Birmingham? Are the good folk of this city unable to discern the difference between good and bad food? Are the city's restaurateurs incapable of competing with the cosmopolitan south or, ironic as it seems, the cosmopolitan north? Or is it a sad fact that the arbiters of good taste can't be bothered to come here? Either way something is amiss.

Over the years, the relationship between good food and Birmingham has been well documented. In Slice of Life, Christina Handyment's exploration of British eating habits since the last War, a former hotel chef - having been sent to the city during the early 1940s to manage a newly-formed canteen - is somewhat surprised to find such a fastidious bunch as the Brummies: "He said the workers at the factory only wanted fish and chips, cream cakes, bread and butter, and brown gravy over everything. They had protested when he made white sauce with boiled beef and carrots. They would not eat salads, did not like savouries - 'Birmingham people do not understand food'."

Fifty years on it seems Brummies have overcome their fear of good food, but they are now having trouble with portion control and vegetables, according to Saturday Times' critic, Jonathan Meades. During a visit to one of Birmingham's foremost dining rooms, he observed: "The spinners, smiths, engravers, sanders and platers who work in "The Trade" - Birmingham's excellent Jewellery Quarter - are determined to get value for money, which means big portions and side plates of multiple (and uninteresting veg)." You'll be glad to know the review was favourable.

Even so, the stereotype is instantly recognisable - the Brummie: the cheery bleeder who is incapable, or indeed, unwilling to be civilised. Paul Gilmore, chef/patron at his eponymously named restaurant, sees the distinction too:"I think the national media is responsible for stigmatising Birmingham," he said. "Regardless of what you're trying to do in this city, you are tarred with the same brush. It's very sad." And all this from a man who is not even a local himself.

Does he feel though, that Birmingham deserved more culinary recognition?: "I was personally delighted to be given an entry in The Good Food Guide, but I felt there should have been more establishments in this year's guide. Like the Lombard Room, or 282 Brasserie at the Hyatt, as well as The Swallow Hotel.

The Good Food Guide is the ears and eyes of Britain's restaurant scene. Yet typically it is the readers who initially act as arbiters. Each year the Guide is inundated by recommendations from members of the Good Food Club, representing the readership. Those establishments put forward are then inspected by professional inspectors, who eat and drink their way through Britain's more reputable restaurants. According to a Guide's spokesperson: if, during the year, they feel they have overlooked an establishment, they will arrange a visit. - Does that include Birmingham? "Of course, there is no regional bias whatsoever. We do not operate in this way."

An entry into the The Good Food Guide is a notable achievement, but the single most important award which can undoubtedly turn a city's culinary fortunes on its head is Michelin. Though some chefs will tell you that the system of awarding stars is very much Francocentric, the presence of a star seems to act as a powerful catalyst - attracting yet more talent and helping to create a local restaurant culture of excellence. Think of Ludlow, the tiny Shropshire market town which recently accumulated a nest egg of Michelin Stars to see it through to its retirement.

Ken Adams of Oaks Restaurant was the first to set up shop in the town and achieve a Michelin Bib Gourmand. He believes that what Birmingham needs is "a young, dynamic chef who is prepared to put himself on the line for his cooking. Claude Bosci of Overton Grange (another of this year's crop of award winners) is an ideal candidate. He is young, dynamic and talented enough to take on the bright lights of Brum. Once he begins to dazzle, the rest will come, believe me."

Restaurateurs are well aware of the high standards set by Michelin. Indeed, once stars are achieved they have to be maintained - and maintenance comes at a high price, as Adams concedes: "You need money. Without backing to compete in a big city like Birmingham, forget it. But that is what it will take."

Even so, Adams admits, "I can't understand why more culinary movers and shakers don't operate out of Brum. At the end of the day it has a captive audience, a guaranteed turnover of people. I would love to open up a restaurant somewhere nearby the National Exhibition Centre."

There is good news though. Raymond Blanc has shown great interest in bringing the essence of Michelin stars to the city. Le Petit Blanc, his chain of successful Midlands' based brasseries, will open sometime this year, if everything goes to plan for the Frenchman. The Bank Restaurant and Bar also look set to establish a presence in the city by the beginning of the next Millennium.

Could this be the spark to ignite the gas stove for 'Renaissance City'? - as I heard Birmingham confidently being described the other day. After all, no other English city outside London has cut sucn a prestigious international profile as that of Birmingham during the last couple of years. The city's gourmet scene certainly needs it.

Peter LippittMay 1999

Readers' comments

Hey, thanks for the nice little article about Birmingham's foodie scene - hailing from Brum as I do (although, now thankfully resident in London !?!)
I've also always found the food there to be terrible! 
(apart from the curries, but that's a different matter) 
The Oaks you mentioned is in Ludlow isn't it? which is not really that close to Birmingham.

[I suppose Ludlow's a lot nearer to Birmingham than it is to London! -Ed]

From Andy Clapham 28th Sept 1999

One restaurant that Peter Lippit does not mention is the excellent Restaurant Gilmore (27 Warstone Lane, Hockley, Birmingham - in the Jewelry quarter 01212333655). Paul Gilmore is the chef/proprietor who cooks 'modern French'. I had moist and full of flavour duck and prune terrine followed by roast turbot with vanilla risotto. The latter may be a cliché in London [I don't think so! -Ed] but not yet in Birmingham. There is a set menu and some good value wines. From 8th Ocotber 1999

Your article about Birmingham's restaurants on the web is interesting, but now very out of date. Bank has opened to great acclaim, and is always fully booked; Petit Blanc, too, has been taken warmly into the hearts of brummies. They are both based in Brindley Place. We have THE best tapas restaurant outside London in the Ikon Gallery, and a whole host of new restaurants and pubs/clubs in the St Pauls/Jewellery Quarter area. It would be nice, if you are to rubbish a whole city's cuisine, that you would keep up to date by, say, around 6 months? [Ouch! Sorry!! we had taken the link out to our front page a long time ago, so it's a bit like coming across an old newpapaer article in a drawer - Ed] Yours sincerely, Vicki Berry, July 31st 2000

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