Cool. It's a funny word, isn't it? In many ways it's the least cool word in the English language, but we don't seem to have invented better. Nick and Catherine Jones are the directors of 2G, the design and build company behind some of the coolest bars and restaurants in the city. The interiors specialists, they're long gone by the time the first food, drinks and service reviews are in — but in many ways their piece in the puzzle is just as important.
When we speak, via Zoom, Nick has COVID. It's day ten of "a very faint line" and cabin fever has set in. But even while wrestling with the onset of insanity, Nick is, somehow, a calming presence. I ask if it's a quality that helps with design and build. "We're rather good under pressure," he says of his 15-strong team, with a laugh that says a lot more than his words. "We need to be. When a client needs to get their venue open, so they can get earning, pressure comes with that. And, although you need to hit their deadline, what you can't do is get in a flap." You can picture it too, can't you? An owner of a new, independent bar or restaurant will, inevitably, be constantly on the brink of panic. Nick, Catherine and their troop are tasked with steadying that ship, as well as delivering the vision.
And when you look at their list of completed projects, they've done it for some absolutely standout locations: Carters, Couch, Land (above), Chakana, The Wilderness, Kiln (below), Tap & Tandoor, 670 Grams, Cuban Embassy, Wildcat Tap; theirs is a CV of some of the most highly regarded bars and restaurants in and around Birmingham. And, notably, not a chain brand in sight.
"Smaller companies, the ones with passion, that's where the excitement lies," says Nick, his eyes lighting up. "When we sit down with a prospective client, we need to be energised by what they want and, invariably, that comes through the bespoke jobs." It's an interesting way of looking at it, that during that first meeting Nick's trying to sell 2G as the right fit-out company for the job but, often unbeknownst to the client, they're selling their vision to Nick. Or failing to. It's happened — in the past — on several occasions that 2G have turned down jobs because they haven't seen the hunger and desire they look for.
The first restaurant job they did take, though, was Solihull's Tap & Tandoor (above). "Were we first?" says owner Shivani Kenth. "It's all a bit of a blur to me. It was so long ago and I had a four-month-old. I remember Catherine being so patient with me as I tried to collect my thoughts on the job, and be a mom at the same time. It was a real collaboration, I remember that much. And guests always mention how beautiful Tap & Tandoor is. I guess there's no better seal of approval than strangers telling you your restaurant is lovely. People particularly enjoy the bells 2G placed in amongst our lights [below]. It's a cliché, but the little details really make the difference."
It was equal parts organic and intentional that 2G carved out a name for themselves working with independents. "Who wants to travel to another city," asks Nick, "to go into the same chain restaurant you have where you live, where it looks exactly the same? Identikit, paint-by-numbers venues, with zero freedom of expression. It's no coincidence that we work on jobs at places we'd actually want to visit. I love wine, I love dining out, I love to cook."
That's an understatement. Having trained at Birmingham's College of Food, Nick did stints with a number of restaurants, including Opus, before chef hours took their toll and he switched things up, following his dad into construction instead.
"Once a cook, always a cook," says Brad Carter, TV chef and the man with the pans at Carters of Moseley (above), which, in the foodie world at least, is 2G's most prestigious interior job. "Nick and Catherine have been coming in for years," continues Michelin-starred Brad, "and you got that energy from them, that they care. Cared about Carters long before they started working on it. And you can tell that Nick's a former chef because he sticks his neck out to make the restaurant work. First and foremost, he makes it run right. It's got to look good— of course it does — but, during a redesign, you need to improve the business, not just how it looks. That's exactly what 2G do, and it's a rare thing."
"If you can't put your finger on what it was about a restaurant that you love," says Nick, picking up on the same point, "often it's the fact that it works. If the logistics of a restaurant are right, and there aren't pinch points or excessively loud or excessively quiet spots; if the staff get on well because they can move around it, then a venue is off to the right start. All the added extras can be tweaked or redone, but at its core, it has to work."
One of the jobs Nick's most proud of is Moseley's Peruvian restaurant, Chakana, where Robert Ortiz is putting out dishes of such visual beauty that the venue couldn't be anything but remarkable. When Guardian food critic and celeb reviewer, Jay Rayner, came to town, he waxed lyrical about 2G's design. "To find Ortiz in this part of Birmingham," says Rayner, "doing his thing in a converted bank – the private dining room located inside the former vault, complete with reinforced door – feels like finding a gorgeous tropical flower at the base of a glowering mighty oak. The conversion is clever, a gentle take on whitewashed adobe, with vivid slabs of art on the walls."
"It's quite nice to read mentions like that, from a reviewer," says Nick, with trademark modesty. "But it's just as good to hear it from any Brummie who might wander in." That bank vault (above) has become one of the city's most iconic private dining rooms and an Instagram 'must-visit'. I ask if photogenic spots in restaurants are becoming a prerequisite and he chuckles: "Instagram used to be mentioned in every meeting we had with clients. But it's not so much anymore. Now QR codes, or outdoor space, or upcycling, or an area dedicated to deliveries, have become more important. Besides, there shouldn't just be one spot in a restaurant you want to take a photo of. Surely."
2G's longest standing client is West Mids wine merchants, Loki. Nick and the crew have worked on all three locations, recently finishing at Knowle (above) and set to lift the curtain on refits at Great Western Arcade and Edgbaston; all three having their own look. "There are unifying themes," says Nick, "but each inhabits its own unique space and hopefully the designs acknowledge that."
Three jobs for one client suggests they're doing something right. "I know it's a thing people say a lot," says Phil Innes, Loki owner, "but it's often true. When contractors are on site, you feel you have to be there as well, making sure things are moving along. That's not the case with 2G. When they say something will be done, it'll be done. I'm barely ever on site when they are, and that's the hallmark of a good operator. On top of that, I admire their attention to detail. No construction job is 100% perfect and there's always a 'snagging list' of things that need tweaking or fixing after a fit-out. The thing about 2G is, when I show up to look at their work, they've already produced the snagging list and started work fixing those things."
I ask Nick, before he goes, if his line of work is self-marketing. If, when people visit a restaurant or bar and they love the look of the fit-out, they ask who did it and that's how 2G get their next job. That Nick has no idea if that's the case, kind of suggests it is. It's been many years since they've had to go on the hunt for their next business lead, with the leads finding them these days. And so they should. Fittingly, their shop windows are their own shop windows.
All the world’s a stage, and Westminster is a pantomime right now. But the rest of the UK and Europe’s theatre is finally hitting its stride again. The BE Festival is back at the Birmingham Rep to bring you the best of European theatre, and some cautionary tales, from 15 to 18 February 2022. Beginning a year of events, the winter season features work from the UK and rest of Europe and will deal with some of society’s headline issues: memory, grief and the environment. Pictured is Mining Stories, a documentary theatre performance created by Silke Huysmans and Hannes Dereere, that explores a mining disaster in the region of Minas Gerais, Brazil. In November 2015, a dam containing toxic mining waste collapsed a few miles away from Silke’s childhood home in the South of Brazil. A devastating mudslide destroyed several villages below the dam and, after a few days, the poisonous sludge flowed into the river Rio Doce, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean. The ecological impact and environmental pollution was the largest ever recorded. Silke and Hannes’s interviews, conducted in Brazil and Europe in the aftermath, show powerful voices determined to fight ecological disaster — and might be a call to arms for those watching the current sewage controversies closer to home… It’s a small but perfectly formed event list, with talks, choreography and audio-visuals; one curiously titled ‘Stickman’. Get yourself a ticket and emerge thankful we keep a hold of cultural Europe. No long queues guaranteed. Standard tickets are between £9.50 and £11.50. Book here.
WHAT TO DRINK AND WHEN: VOL 5
Brum's bartender-in-chief, Robert Wood, with this week's top tipple...
"My favourite place to hang out on a Sunday is The Oyster Club, from Adam and Natasha Stokes of Michelin-starred, Adam’s, fame. Great food is a mainstay, of course, but for me the warm welcome and cold wines perfectly compliment the classical nature of the food. My 'go to' is Harrow & Hope Blanc de Blanc, a wine of excellent stock made on the rolling hills behind the picturesque village of Marlow. It's a family-owned vineyard run by husband and wife team, Henry and Kaye Laithwaite, a name that should give you an idea as to the wine-obsessed lineage of the family. The current vintage happens to be 2017 and, for the uninitiated, Blanc de Blanc is a sparkling wine made with Chardonnay. Their 2017 was a particularly great harvest as the grapes expressed themselves with a wonderful richness, a buttery brioche and an apple crumble-like characteristic. A brightness ensues, reminiscent of pear and quince with a hint of citrus acidity and minerality on the finish. Drink with dressed white crab.
YOU GOTTA 'LOVE STIRCHLEY'
A celebration of all things Stirchley, Love Stirchley, takes place this weekend (February 12 and 13) and the entirety of Birmingham is invited — maybe stagger your arrivals, though, eh? Love Stirchley, with support from Birmingham City Council and ERDF Welcome Back Fund, have found themselves the officially unofficial champions of (debatably) Brum's coolest suburb. The focal point of the two-dayer will be a Valentine's tree outside Stirchley Primary School, which will be decorated with hundreds of hand-folded love hearts. Written upon those love hearts will be comments from 'St. Irchley' fans from far and wide (but mainly from Stirchley) revealing which spots and shops, bars and parks they love most and why. The online form is still open right now, here, if you want to chip in. From the obviously cool (Caneat) to the increasingly cool the older you get (Hoover Repairs), it really is a wonderful way of representing the best of this staggeringly varied High Street. There will be goings on across the suburb and a digital and physical 'zine' that'll serve as a natty directory for the best of Stirchley. Viva.
INTRODUCING: BIRMINGHAM PILSNER
Put your money away because I'll tell you this for free — Attic Brew Co's new Pilsner is going to be absolutely huge. If there's one thing that annoys Brummies, it's making something in Birmingham and not mentioning it on the product. Langleys No.8, take note. Conversely, being bold enough to stamp your pride in Birmingham — all over it — has the opposite effect. It also helps that drinking this Pilsner is like being kissed by Theia, the Greek goddess responsible for gold. The project has been a year in the making and is only possible now that Attic have doubled the size of their Stirchley/Bournville border home. "Birmingham's water is of such high quality" explains Oli Hurlow, company director, "that it matches the water used in Czech Pilsner — which is globally renowned. It really is that good. So what better thing to make than Pilsner itself?" The 10-week brewing process is a long one, but the result is worth it. Soft, bitter and sweet, it's darkish, almost caramel in colour, which belies it's refreshingly citrus notes and super-light finish. You might be able to tell, I've fallen in love with this beer and I don't care who knows it. Plans to sell the Pilsner in cans are in place in the coming weeks but, for now, and as of today, you'll need to hunt it down on tap at any of these glowingly good Brum watering holes: Paper Duck (Harborne), Hop & Scotch (Kings Heath), The Dark Horse (Moseley), The Wolf (JQ), Autobrew (Digbeth), The Bournbrook Inn (Stirchley), Cherry Reds (City Centre), Pig & Tail (JQ) and Attic's own taproom, which is open today. More
It's mad, when you think about it, that Tattu is four years old, particularly given The Grand — the hotel with which it shares a building — only opened five months ago. In those years I've visited six times (I know, fatso, right?) occasionally being treated but usually paying. When paying, I don't tend to order the wagyu beef. Something about the £79 price tag turns me right off but, that dish aside, I've worked my way around almost the entire menu. There's old classics that will never go, like the sticky beef short rib (£14.90 - outstanding) and the Shanghai black cod (£36 - mercy me), but this trip was all about trying their Lunar New Year numbers. And by jingo am I glad I did. They've gone big on new seafood options, which suits me just fine, and the Szechuan rock shrimp with carrot, sancho pepper and pickle was quite the pace-setter. Meaty prawns inside golden crispy coating, they were plump, passionate kisses from the ocean: sweet, naughty but never heavy. Bold promises were made between diners that more of these little clenched cloud fists would be bought if hunger remained at the tail-end of the meal. Daft, daft promises, of course, because out came the seven spiced seared tuna (£14.90) which, wallowing in a truffle aioli, yuzu ponzu and caviar, were lifted hungrily between chopsticks and allowed to rest inside the mouth where they would melt into another day. Duck pancakes are new to the menu and, although a few grades up on the gastronomic geiger counter than your average crispy aromatic, could perhaps be swerved in favour of a tour de force char siu monkfish (£33.95). I don't suppose many fish have the meaty wherewithal to stand up to the honeyed exterior of char siu, the pink of which embedded deep into the flesh just as it would in pork. Order some rice, which will arrive as soft and fluffy as a hipster's chin, and bury your monkfish into it. If there's any ponzu left, pour that over there. Mix and match and make meal-y faux pas. Nobody's watching. And if they are they're just jealous. Final mention to Jared, one of the most smiley and knowledgable front-of-housers I've ever had the pleasure of ordering from. Menu
If you're on Instagram you could win 2 x €100 flight vouchers courtesy of Birmingham Airport and Eurowings, who now fly direct from BHX to Prague. More —
There's a bar / roller disco / nightclub coming to Digbeth. But of course there is. —
If you're into pin badges, the new Commonwealth Games efforts are rather nice. Show me —
Plantable Mothers Day cards that say 'Mom' or 'Mum' are available courtesy of Blooming Heck. £3.95 —
Digbeth Dining Club have joined forces with with the world's largest chicken wing festival. Will you be attending? August 13 & 14 —
Reservations are now open for Shibuya Underground, the Japanese cocktail bar going in beneath The Pineapple Club, in The Great Western Arcade. Opens March 18
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICTURES: Tom Bird (Land, Kiln), Jack Spicer Adams (Carters), hankandmargot (Couch), Richard Kiely (Chakana)
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