My first ever Birmingham business meeting was ten years ago, in The Cross, Moseley (now The Dark Horse), and it was with Digbeth Dining Club founder Jack Brabant. I'd never met him before and our meeting involved 8 premium strength lagers, two strong gins and absolutely no business being done whatsoever. A decade on and we're ordering the weakest beer at the bar — agreeing we're only having the one — and Jack's asking for the music to be turned down. Time, it can be a bitch.
"Don't worry," says Jack with a shake of his head. "The music won't ever be this loud. We're just testing the sound system." Anyone who's been to Digbeth Dining Club on a Friday night will know the music can be so loud that all sensory energies are consumed by the ears. A cruel blow when you're eating the best street food the region has to offer. But — as Dorothy didn't even come close to saying — we're not in Digbeth anymore.
Jack and his media-averse business partner James Swinburne ("you're more likely to be able to interview a narwhal about this launch than you are Swinny") have opened Hockley Social Club, Digbeth Dining Club's more mature sister. We're sat in the vast outdoor space, under a vast roof, surrounded by heaters. Inside the old printing works building is an even vaster restaurant-cum-bar area filled with permanent kitchen spots for street food traders, a caravan-cum-gaming room, and a cafe-cum-record store. The bar is, surely, one of the longest in the city. This is Jack's new baby and his pride is apparent. "I've basically just launched what I want in my life right now. Ten years ago, I wanted street food and partying. That was DDC. Now, I want to be sat here, with table service, warm and dry." Welcome to the future of street food.
Digbeth Dining Club changed the face of Birmingham's food scene completely and has long been heralded as one of the country's very best street food venues, incubating trader talents that have flown the nest and found bricks and mortar. "But DDC was a victim of its own success," Jack admits. "It became so popular that the focus moved away from the food." It did. Queues swelled and an increasingly younger audience wanted music, dance floors and energy over taste and produce and comfort. The weighting shifted from 'Dining' to 'Club'.
For now, Digbeth Dining Club as a standalone event is on hold. Sort of. Jack and James have upped sticks from their cavernous Lower Trinity Street home — a home that physically would lend itself to a COVID-era operations nightmare. They promise to find new permanent premises in Digbeth soon and have agreed a four week pop-up at the Zellig car park. "Other than that, though, our focus is entirely on Hockley, Longbridge, Warwick Castle and Coventry," he says, reeling off the locations at which Digbeth Dining Club have regular residencies and in the case of Longbridge and Hockley, permanent homes. The name is no longer pinned in any geographical sense to the suburb, now more an umbrella term for the street food movement they've created. Their new Hockley spot is, okay, not purpose built but purpose found. As DDC grew, the pair had to expand into nooks and crannies that were never meant for dining. They weren't really meant for clubbing either. Here, they have all the space they could need and they've filled it with the sorts of suppliers they want. Natural and minimal interference wines by Brum's Wine Freedom (did you ever have wine at Digbeth Dining Club? Not so great), local beers galore (Dig Brew Co, Attic, Purity), Hockley Social is even the home to former Corporation Street independent institution Cafe Artum (above). The shackles of Jack and James not owning their previous premises shaken clean off, exciting local brands brought in and showcased.
"It was in a real a state of disrepair when we arrived on site," says Jack surveying his new home. "It was leaking like crazy but we've turned those leaks into an irrigation system." He's not joking. A network of pipes use rain water to feed the plants that sit in planters made from materials found in the printing works when they moved in, upcycled and repurposed. Leafy, stylish, brilliantly lit, it looks great, thanks in no small part to Brum redevelopers Javelin Block, but this is a still an independent business working with an independent business's budget. In that regard it's about as Birmingham as it gets, a look Jack was sure to maintain — industrial, casual, comfortable but about a million miles from the chain restaurants that have laid siege to our city centre and lie almost empty as this venue begins to fill with early diners. The buzz gives me goosebumps. God I've missed it. I can picture myself spending all day here, friends coming and going, staying as long or as little as they like.
The club itself — 'club' being the wrong word (no membership of any kind is required), 'social' being the right one — is about three minutes walk from St Paul's Square in a factory-heavy area of Hockley. I wonder if the lack of action in the immediate vicinity of HSC might hinder it, DDC after all was surrounded by countless other nightlife go-tos. "No chance," says Jack. "Everyone laughed at us when we moved into Digbeth and now every Tom, Dick and Harry from across the country wants in on it. We're used to leading the charge. Besides, we're closer to the city centre than DDC was and it's a destination venue. There's everything you could want here."
He's right, there is. Coffee, wine, vegan options, desserts. Indoors, outdoors, heaters. They even have a late license should they want to use it, although Jack might not be present if they do. "I'm approaching 40," he says. "I'm married. My needs and wonts have changed. I want a seat, a good pint. I want table service — but I want it still to be casual. Perhaps most importantly though, I want the traders to be able to elevate their offerings. Proper kitchens, changing menus, an end to blow-away gazebos."
He's attracting the right talent. Andy Low N Slow (I can exclusively reveal) will take up a permanent kitchen in Hockley from June 3, the talented Brummie barbecue chef (above) who has long struggled to find his own place, set to do the next best thing — an ever present spot at Birmingham's newest and most exciting venue.
And Andy's residency is a great example of exactly what Jack means by 'elevated offerings'. The running joke for Andy is the stream of diners who ask for fries with their food. Andy doesn't do fries, he's more of a smoked duck fat potatoes kind of guy, and it drives him up the wall when revellers insist on chips. But at Digbeth it was a nightly request, his more adventurous dishes almost always overlooked for his, brilliant though they are, more basic brisket in a bun-style options. "Andy did a pop-up here [at Hockley] last week, to get a feel for the place. Do you know what was on the menu? A f*cking fire-cooked bone marrow risotto. That's what Hockley Social is about. Ballsier dishes served to diners who will make the ballsier order. All the crowd-pleasers will be here, of course they will, but traders are freer to experiment, because your average guest is more likely to roll the dice. Willing to pay a little more for that jump up in quality of produce and care in cookery."
COVID won't have helped, but to know that this project has been two years in the making tells you all you need to know about the consideration that went in to it. "I've been to street food halls all over Europe," he says "and the thing that's most often missing is that little bit of soul, you know?" Not here. It's 5pm and already filling up with chatter and cheer — some arriving by cab, most by foot. And when they enter they all seem to do what I did. Pause, look around, smile. The kitchen spaces are wide open for all to see — acknowledging the value in the very theatre of street food. And when table service isn't compulsory, Jack insists guests will have the choice: your food to you or you can go and fetch it, without queues, just as in DDC's (dining) hay day. It'll be worth it just to see those kitchens up close — energised and in their rhythm.
"Andy's placement here might be called 'permanent'," says Jack. "But we don't want him here forever. We don't want any trader here forever — we want them to find their own restaurants, in Brum. But until that day comes they deserve kitchens in which they can be the best chefs possible. Where they can refine their food and express themselves."
I joke with Jack that in ten years we'll be doing this all again, somewhere else. "Yeah" he laughs. "I'll be converting a country pub into the Lapworth Pipe & Slippers Club."
I'd go to that.
Hockley Social Club is open Thursday and Friday (5pm to 11pm), Saturday (12pm to 11pm) and Sunday (12pm to 9pm). Find them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
EVERYBODY NEEDS GOOD NEIGHBOURS
This can is a piece of art. Too pretty to drink? Perhaps. JQ-based Burning Soul Brewery and neighbours Rock and Roll Brewhouse have been good friends for years and, when COVID sidled up, they began looking at ways to sell beer to homes. In the true spirit of collaboration they decided on doing a brew that celebrates their favourite UK grown hops, Burning Soul nominating Harlequin (which packs a bold resinous punch — an almost lycee character to it) while Rock and Roll plumped for Bramling Cross (spicy blackberry). For the design of the can they leaned into the psychedelic, Jimi Hendrix flower power look that Rock and Roll often use on their pump clips and around their taproom. The can was originally just the bright floral pattern, fully coloured, definitely more Rock than their buddies Soul, the Brewery tending to keep their cans monochromatic. A balance was made and this is the result — a beaut bit of both. If you're cruel enough to open it, you'll enjoy a clean golden hoppy ale that has a unique floral taste. Cans available for local delivery at burningsoulbrewshop.co.uk and for collection at both Rock and Roll Taproom and Burning Soul on Fridays and Saturdays.
THE MACHINERY STARTS
Meanwhile, from the files of 'That's Pretty Crazy and I Like it' comes The Machinery at The Hive, in the JQ. Exhibiting for the first time in Birmingham, it's an audio-visual installation capturing the earliest known machine dance. Performed by Caroline Radcliffe and captured by film maker Jon Harrison, it's augmented with the sounds and movements of the Industrial Revolution’s textile industries, by composer and digital artist Sarah Angliss, evoking the conditions of a 19th century factory worker and those of the 21st century call centre worker. The Machinery is a right amounts batty ‘heel-and-toe’ clog dance, this accompanying video actually makes me a little anxious! Mill workers tapped their feet in time to the rhythms of the cotton machinery while they operated them with their hands. They developed these rhythmic patterns and steps into dances. These machines were mainly operated by women and children. By imitating the machines, they found a way to combat the mental and physical constraints of repetitive factory labour and to literally dance with the bloody things. The Machinery will be open to the public from June 1 to 25. Timed tickets are available to pre-book. Free
OUT OF THE DEEP BLUE... COMES THIS GUY
If 19th century child labour is perhaps too heavy a theme for your kid then firstly, fair play, and secondly how about a different dance freebie out in the MAC's amazing outdoor amphitheatre, Saturday (May 29). In a dystopian future — hey, you can't avoid sorrow entirely, pal — EKO, a sentient sea giant, washes ashore. There he encounters Violet and these two buddies — an ancient creature and a young girl — offer us their stories: a powerful dialogue around Earth’s climate emergency, told through dance, movement and madcap puppeteering. Check out this video to see if it's the sort of cultured chaos your kids might be into. The stone auditorium alone is worth the journey, and it's now covered by a canopy. All three show times are free, drop-in events, so no tickets needed and they only last 20 minutes so really little ones should be fine too. Your best bet is to enter MAC via the entrance opposite the lake, on the park side of the building. Staff will be on hand to assist. More
The Venue: Bop Kebabs @ The Old Crown, 188 High St, B12 0LD; Facebook Choice: Bop Lamb Shawarma (£14) Chooser: Matt (co-owner)
🚨 Gauche name drop alert 🚨 About 15 years ago I interviewed Heston Blumenthal and he told me that kebabs would be given the same gourmet treatment that burgers had already undergone. It may sound obvious now, but back then an entire editorial thought he'd gone (huh-huh-huh) Heston Blu-mental. Turns out he knew more about food than half a dozen gacked-up twenty somethings and it was, indeed, so. Birmingham's best example of the humble kebab's rise to epicurean note is Bop Kebabs at The Old Crown, Digbeth. The brainchild of cheffy pals Matt (Button Factory, The Distillery) and Doug (Harborne Kitchen, Tiger Bites Pig), Bop was born of a mutual love of the flavours of the Middle East and seasonal British ingredients. The first dish out of the door was the only disappointing one — a dry lamb kofta, which couldn't be saved despite a seriously delicious sauce. Incredible sauces became a theme, here, very clearly made fresh they were alive, dynamic, bright and contrasting throughout. Order the whipped feta and asparagus mezze (£4.50), charred vegetables marrying consummately with their tangy, rich and slightly salty bedfellow. Fried potatoes with crispy onion and dill yoghurt were spot on in texture and taste. Ordering anything else as mezze might be a step too far if you're kebabbing for mains. And you absolutely are kebabbing for mains. Served on homemade sourdough flatbreads that are given two days to proof, fluffing just enough to be a stable vehicle for the main event. Cripes, the smoked lamb shoulder (pictured) — of which there was frankly enough for two — comes with smoked baba ganoush, candied pistachio, mint zhoug and radicchio. Clearly excellent quality meat, silky and supple the chefs braise it for ten hours, because nine is *definitely* not enough. Perhaps the only thing treated with more love, though, is the chicken shish with hummus, chicken skin dukkah and pomegranate. Chicken breast is brined for 24 hours with szechuan pepper, ginger and anise. Then Matt and Doug make a dry rub including fennel, caraway, coriander and about 6 other ingredients. This was chargrilled to perfection, making me think that kofta was a rare error, and it's brushed with pomegranate molasses, offering fruity notes that bounce like a kid at Tumble Jungle off the salty skin and zesty sauces. Why have a kebab you'll regret after you've been to the pub, when you can have one you won't regret in a pub? Speaking of which, hats off to the Old Crown which is looking absolutely stunning these days. Menu
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. Silence the pianos and with muffled drum, bring out the Alan, let the Partridge come. Tickets for Alan Partridge live at the Utilita Arena go on general sale May 29 (9am), but pre-sale tickets are available today (May 27). Ticket prices are from £41 with Alan arriving in B-Town for his opening night, April 29, 2022 which just so happens to be a Friday. Partridge will be touring the UK wearing a head-mic favoured by TED talkers, market hawkers, TV evangelists, backing singers and carnival barkers.
Steam engines, interactive technology displays, spectacular Planetarium shows and the child-sized world of MiniBrum, ThinkTank is back from Saturday. More
Chef and owner of The Boat Inn in Lichfield, Liam Dillon, is poppin' up at the Harvey Nichols Brasserie every Monday in June. The £100 six-course tasting menu features dishes from his recent Great British Menu appearance. Details
Tickets for funny fella Ed Gamble's live tour go on sale tomorrow (May 28) here. He's playing Brum Town Hall, 4th February 2022 and Leamington, 6th March, 2022.
Gnarly Stirchley boxing gym D&A are offering a free first fitness class for women. Classes run every Monday 8pm to 9pm. More
Bonehead have teamed up with food nerd buddy Lap-Fai Lee for Kings Heath-based pop up Fire & Rice. Appearing at The Juke bar May 29 and 30, then June 5 and 6 it's walk ins only (2pm until 8pm or sell out) for this Southeast Asian grill nirvana.More —
Always a great giggle, The Wine Events Company will be screening Back To The Future at Millennium Point while serving up popular wines from yesteryear at regular intervals. The debate to be had is which vinos need to be brought back to the future?£31.95 per person
"That was Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell, a song in which Joni complains they ‘Paved Paradise to put up a parking lot’, a measure which actually would have alleviated traffic congestion on the outskirts of Paradise, something which Joni singularly fails to point out, perhaps because it doesn’t quite fit in with her blinkered view of the world. Nevertheless, nice song." — Alan Gordon Partridge
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICTURES: HSC (Pritt Kalsi and Guri Bosh), Beer (Matt Bott)
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