"Nine times out of ten this place is a Nando's," says Bobby Barnes as he scans Herbert's Yard in Longbridge. "You've got to hand it to the developers, St Modwen. They asked us to move in and at first we said no. Then they said they're going to build it for us anyway and we realised they meant it. So in we came. The result is, I believe, the best street food venue within a hundred miles. Maybe more."
Bobby works for Digbeth Dining Club, one of the UK's street food forefathers and the team responsible for Herbert's Yard, where we're sat. In front of us is a Philly cheesesteak made by Great Barr success story, The Scran Man who, three months earlier, appeared on the BBC's Saturday Kitchen cooking the exact same dish, live. Next to the sandwich is a giant char siu bao made by Northampton's Herbert's Yard newbies, Fashion Bake. There aren't many places you can eat fantastic Far East Asian dumplings alongside a Mid-Atlantic US staple, and we haven't even scratched the surface of what's on offer this buzzing Friday lunch time.
"We have eight traders working at any one time," says Bobby. "Up from six when we first launched. We've got the balance just right. We don't want diners waiting for long but every trader needs to do better than decent business." A year and a half in operation and they've hit that Goldilocks spot. Herbert's Yard is alive with activity. Office workers sit on a table near a family of five, next to a couple of chaps in Sainsbury's uniform enjoying a well-earned lunch. "Those two are here every Friday," says Bobby without even needing to look round. "We have a lot of regulars, which is the biggest indicator that you're doing something right."
I suggest to Bobby that Herbert's Yard is Birmingham's worst kept best secret and he generously agrees with my ham-fisted gobbledygook. I think what I mean is that Herbert's is clearly a huge success but maybe fifty percent of the people reading this don't know where it is or haven't yet been. "That's definitely true, but we kind of like it that way. If there's one thing we pride ourselves on it's being part of the Longbridge community. And although people travel from far and wide to get here, it still manages to stay under the radar of the masses."
He's right. I've been half a dozen times and it's never been heaving. Never raucous. Not even close. In my imagined Digbeth Dining Club family tree, the original Digbeth venue is the rowdy youngster who will dance the night away, whereas Hockley Social Club, in the north, is his older, more mature sister, who knows how to let her hair down but is in bed by midnight. Herbert's Yard, on the other hand, is the eldest sibling who has a young kid and hasn't seen midnight since the day it was born. It's the street food venue for the young family. It's the dining hot spot for those that like their music cranked up somewhere below seven, let alone eleven.
"I'm not sure we knew what it was going to be when we launched," admits Bobby. "I mean look at it. It's a massive shed in the middle of a giant car park, surrounded by retail behemoths — the only independent business for as far as the eye can see. But gradually it found its pace and its place in the food ecosphere. Family friendly, community focussed. Calming not chaotic."
That word community pops up a lot and where often it's used as lip service, at Herbert's it rings absolutely true. Year round they lend their space out for charitable fundraisers while using it to support their own CIC ambitions, which in turn feeds hungry kids in the more deprived surrounding areas. At the outbreak of COVID Digbeth Dining Club lead from the front in providing key workers with free meals, and that desire to give something back continues to underpin what they do, none more so than at Herbert's.
But it's about so much more than food and charity. Closeup Comedy has brought household names from the stand-up world to South Birmingham with Lindsey Santoro, winner of this year's Biggest Prize in Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Festival compering last night's event and a regular on the roster. Angelos Epithemiou, Eshaan Akbar and Jeff Innocent are just a few of the rising and ready risen stars to have graced the venue.
"The Herbert's Yard lot actually, genuinely care about the community. The food is ace, the venue is beautiful and most importantly it's only ten minutes from my house. As such I'm pretty sure it's the only gig I've ever played where the audience have understood me." — Lindsey Santoro, comedian
Tuesday evenings, meanwhile, have become wellness nights with the food tables cleared to make space for local yoga and zumba classes, while Brum-based The Sekine Quartet regularly bring their string band to Longbridge providing everything from zen-like Beethoven to ABBA by violin. The purpose built Transformer of a venue can be tweaked and adjusted to accommodate all manner of events and entertainment categories while also being as weather-proofed as possible to allow for comfortable dining year round. Even the barrel built tables are decorated by the local college art students.
There is a bar, of course there is, but the lifeblood of the Yard doesn't pivot around it as so often seems the case in city centre food spots. Booze feels like it's way down the pecking order of priorities and the atmosphere benefits abundantly as a result. "Kids charge around the place," says Bobby with a chuckle. "Occasionally, when toddlers are hanging form the rafters, we have to remind parents that it's not a playground, but we'd much rather it were that way round than a kid-free zone. We want families, we want birthday parties, we'll even take a quiet stag do, but we won't have people ruining the experience for those around them. Fortunately that seems to have come about organically. We very rarely, if ever, have to ask people to quieten down. You can tell when you walk in that it's just not the sort of place where revelry reigns. I mean, we even get a load of guests from the retirement home across the way, there. Genuinely though."
"Herbert’s Yard is like a little oasis in the centre of Longbridge. It very quickly became one of my favourite markets to trade at as a small Brummie business owner. When a market has tasty food, cold pints and doggies galore, what’s not to love?" — Kate Jones, owner of The Crafty Brum.
They host a monthly market too, on the first Sunday of the month. Records, clothing, art, condiments, plants, cakes, soaps, you name it, all sold by small, local traders while surrounded by supermarkets, a Hungry Horse pub, a Boots and a Barclays. It's a beacon of independent business exactly where you'd least expect to find one and exactly where one is most needed. The more I think about it the ballsier a decision it was from the DDC crew to take the spot on, and the more remarkable it is as a success.
"We're just a five minute walk from Longbridge railway station," explains Bobby "and it's great because we get train travellers from Sutton Coldfield in the north and Bromsgrove in the south. And though the emphasis should always be on green modes of transport the bottom line is people need cars to do the weekly shop, so it doesn't hurt that you get three hours of free parking right outside our door. Visitors regularly load up their car with shopping before grabbing a bite to eat with us rather than from the KFC over there or the Subway over there. As price points go we're not a million miles off either of those and as quality goes we are, obviously, on a completely different plain. There has long been a complaint that Birmingham is lacking a little in the mid-range restaurant realm. It's a fair criticism. Well here we are, offering exactly that. Reasonable price, extraordinary standard."
"We have always loved cooking at Herbert's Yard — it’s a proper family and one that feels lovely to be part of. I worked at the Rover factory and sometimes feel I'm stood in the same spot years later but now it’s the vibrant community that Longbridge is known for. It's so nice to see everybody relaxing as I look out through the barbecue smoke at another cracking sunset. " — Luke Ellis, co-owner of The Middle Feast.
For all the heartache and horror that played out during the pandemic, there were positives and that sense of community and local pride was one of the most poignant. "The city centre has never felt further away," says Bobby, pointing north. "I mean, it hasn't moved — of course it hasn't — but we as citizens are less inclined to go there unless we need to. The focus has shifted to what's nearer — the 15 minute city. And for as long as I can remember people have been travelling to Moseley and to Kings Heath and to Stirchley. We've feathered their nests for long enough. They're established and they're sorted. Herbert's Yard is here for Turves Green and for Northfield, It's here for West Heath and Rubery and Rednall. Places under-served. Under-appreciated."
And most critically Herbert's Yard exists for Longbridge. A suburb steeped in automotive history now with a small but mighty venue behind the wheel, helping to steer it towards a different future. Long live Longbridge and long live Herbert's Yard.
"HAVE YOU COME TO SAVE THE COUNCIL?"
A brand new week-long film festival celebrating anime in cinema is launching in Birmingham this October. Birmingham Anime Film Festival will run from September 29 to October 5 with screenings at The Mockingbird Cinema, Digbeth, and at MAC in Cannon Hill Park.
The festival is organised by The Mockingbird in partnership with the brilliant Geeky Brummie, Midlands Arts Centre and Flatpack Festival. Bit of a dream team, that.
Film fans will be able to immerse themselves in twenty of the greatest and most influential films in anime cinematic history, with content for all ages. Highlights include Studio Ghibli’s heartfelt 2004 visual treat Howl’s Moving Castle to Satoshi Kon’s iconic 1997 psychological thriller Perfect Blue; and Makoto Shinkai 2016 modern classic Your Name. The festival teases several surprises alongside its programme of cult classics for a wide variety of films from family-friendly to the darker side of the genre.
There's also special advance screenings including Macross Plus Movie Edition, from visionary creator Shoji Kawamori and co-director Shinichiro Watanabe, and featuring renowned composer Yoko Kanno, an action-packed animated masterpiece made for the big screen.
Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time is not only a Charades nightmare but is also the final film in the Japanese epic Rebuild of Evangelion series, co-directed, written and produced by anime legend Hideaki Anno. It will show at Mockingbird on September 29.
Saturday, September 30, features the first of two family-friendly magical movie marathons. The first celebrates the works of Makoto Shinkai from The Place Promised in our Early Days all the way through to Suzume. The next day, Sunday, October 1, will be all things Studio Ghibli with a second movie marathon. Kicking off the day will be Colour Box at the MAC showing the classic tale of Arriety, followed by Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away at The Mockingbird. Both the art style of whimsical storytelling from both Shinkai and Miyazaki is a guaranteed delight for everyone.
The Darker Side of Anime will be on display at MAC with screenings of the masterful Perfect Blue, from late anime auteur Satoshi Kon. This iconic psychological thriller has frequently been hailed as one of the most influential animated films of all time. Belladonna of Sadness will also screen at the MAC, in the 50th anniversary of one of the most groundbreaking classics — a psychedelic, feverish tale of revenge. Schedule
A LEGACY AS LONG AS LIVERY STREET
The loss of Dave Oram to that b*stard cancer at just 52, last year, whether you knew about it or not, was a hammer blow for the city. Not only did Dave incapsulate what it is to be a Brummie (dry humour, raw civic pride, a willingness to lie down in traffic for his friends) but he also lead from the front when it came to promoting Birmingham.
Dave masterminded Brumpic, one of the most powerful social media tools we have but, more importantly, a paean to our collective past. Dave would find and post extraordinary images of yesteryear which recognised the buildings we have lost, the people we have lost and the changes, both welcome and less so, that Birmingham has experienced, tracing back to the late 1800s. It's a body of work (and trust me, Dave saw it as work — comically moaning to anyone who would listen as if someone had a gun to his head and was making him do it) that deserves recognition. And his life was one that impacted so positively on Birmingham that it needs to be known about, using his huge platform to help small businesses, start-ups and one-man bands. I might struggle to repay that favour now, old pal.
Step forward the Colmore Business Improvement District who have taken the Brummie bull by the horns, putting friends of Dave's, cultural institutions, local photographers and, somehow, me in a room with hundreds of photos that Brumpic had made popular, and they didn't let us out until we'd whittled them down to 50 or so. Those 50 make up a free, outdoor exhibition where Snow Hill Station meets Colmore Row, and it will run until October 6.
There you'll find all manner of Brummie gold including the late Queen's early visit to a newly opened Queensway Tunnel (she got all the cushty jobs, eh?) a gobsmacker of a photo of an early New Street Station and at least one gone but never forgotten sticky dance floor.
Please swing by and have a look and if time isn't on your side just hunt out the shot of Livery Street we've pictured above. Dave, who helped discover local photographers and launch some careers, was notably dreadful at photography himself. But he took this shot of Livery Street and though he wouldn't have shown it, inside he would have been dancing with pride that it takes a rightful spot alongside Brum photo royalty.
Now all we need to do is find a big, permanent spot for that photograph. Anyone?
As a regular at Resorts World’s rooftop bar and restaurant I'm yet to have a poor meal there but I suspect, by its own admission, it's never been totally sure of what it should be. From a high-end Japanese joint in the early days through to a modern European fine-dining more latterly it feels like the latest twist will be the last and most settled. Now known as Sky Bar & Restaurant the new menu is focussed on elevating British pub and US diner classics, sprinkled with a few Far East Asian bangers. Big hitters done brilliantly. A full rack of ribs with smoky maple and bourbon barbecue glaze or crisp beer-battered hake and chips. A well thought out steak selection and a bespoke burger menu as well as pan-fried sea bass with chilli, ginger and rice noodles. Salads, ramen and veg options abound. The beef rib comes recommended with a killer mac'n'cheese accompaniment, but pick of the meal was the moules marinière. A big ol' bowl of plump mussels wallowing in a creamy, garlicky elixir served with one (and you'll ask for a second) slice of lightly charred sourdough. One of my all time favourite dishes and one that so often tanks, this side of the Chunnel.
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN...
If you experienced (and it is an experience) taut 2021 restaurant drama Boiling Point then you'll know the level of awesome discomfort well-made movies can place on an audience. It's a one-shot masterpiece that's available on Netflix if you've not had the (dis)pleasure yet. This year a TV series-cum-sequel will air with returning cast and crew, the action focussing on new head chef, Carly, as she navigates being at the helm of her own restaurant having sous cheffed for Stephen Graham's, erm, problematic Andy in the film. Reprising her role is Vinette Robinson with many of the kitchen team in the movie following her to her new Dalston-based venture. The series picks up six months after the tumultuous end of the movie. MAC is continuing its run of form in bringing big previews to Brum as it not only screens episode one on September 21, but also follows it up with a live, onstage Q&A with director Philip Barantini (who's got a lot to answer for about my heart rate) and actors Stephen Graham (pictured) and Hannah Walters. Tickets are from £12.50 and don't hang about because these will fly out the door like a well flung stock pot. Book
Venue: Sunday Lunch at Orelle, 103 Colmore Row; B3 3AG; web Choice: Three courses (£48) Chooser: Maia
I heard rumour that someone who knows someone cooks a nightly roast. Nightly. Ooo-ee. For me there’s a specific joy in not cooking one, so I jumped at the chance of sampling Sunday lunch at Orelle. I couldn’t shake visions of toppling yorkshires, cascading gravy and sexy slices of pinkened meat since a fateful Sunday in Brecon, tortuously eye-balling what was probably the best I’ll never have. And who has the time these days to make that on Sundays, let alone nightly?
Not my mother, that’s for sure. So up we soared to the 24th floor and glorious, clear views of our dear city. The deal’s a goody: two courses (£42) or three (£48) every Sunday, unhindered by time or kids running rampant. Grown-up Sunday lunching.
Greeted by casual but attentive staff, we immediately pushed the boat out and ordered six oysters (£28). Another day, there’s caviar – a rotating option to spesh it up a bit. Normally, I’m ‘nude oysters and wallop of tabasco’, but golly these were a surprise. A sharp mignonette (fancy shallot vinegar) lifted grassy dill, along with a gorgeous pop of salted gooseberry – just right with the creamy Cornish oysters.
Next, we chose land and sea, with accompanying wines (not included in the deal). My beef tartare was a creamy tang of heat, with an adorning forest of mini-mushrooms and flowers. It was pretty. Admittedly it’ll never meet GOAT-level tartare in San Sebastian, but that’s another day, another country. This was a little too creamy, vaguely reminiscent of burger sauce, but it was enjoyable nonetheless, with potent, chunky beef and a faint marmite. The crab was all white meat, in a not-too-sweet dressing that allowed it to sing a capella; no brown meat to drown it out.
And the roasts: two decent slices – beef and pork – and a gratefully received sharp apple jus with the belly pork. One slice was all fat, but easily rectified after a heads-up. The beef was perfect-pink and properly tasty, and its requisite Yorkshire pudding was cloud-light, kindly leaving room for the rest. Really it’s all just a vessel for gravy, right? And on that note, top marks for anticipation. After first pour – before even inhaling to speak – we were asked if we needed another. Please and thank you.
Potatoes were bang on: crispy and plenty between two. I’d have liked a few more carrots – three seemed skimpy – but I’m quibbling. Cauliflower cheese fans rejoice: this was fabulous with a cheese sauce that tastes properly cheesy. We both had seconds.
A whacking great lemon mousse and mouth-wateringly zingy sorbet finished me off. The other, white chocolate with a strawberry sorbet, was sublime in its simplicity. The sighs were so hefty, the next table asked which to choose. Two obliging fingers went to the white chocolate.
Is this a standard roast? Probably. But the flanking dishes elevate it far beyond ‘just’ a pub roast. And of course there’s the view. The childish excitement of trying to spot your house is a novelty that ain’t wearing off. The room bubbled throughout with chuffed bellies and big smiles. For £48 and a service that makes it feel that little bit more special than your average roast, it’s worth the treat. Menu
Birmingham Heritage Week starts tomorrow (Sept 8) and runs until Sept 17, making it not a week at all. If you ignored our July 28 call to action — shame on you — then some of your preferred mooches inside beaut Brum buildings may be fully booked, but there's still lots of options. Handily organisers have slapped red plasters all over the sold out events so you can easily see where availability lies and all events that don't need any booking at all can be found here. —
Digbeth party venue, Luna Springs, will undergo a full transformation this Halloween, with a custom-built indoor scare maze. My idea of a living hell — and probably exactly their idea too — the jump scares commence Oct 18 and run until Nov 4. It's a firm 'no' from me. —
A new whisky tasting series from the Grain & Glass crew is coming to Kings Heath's Grace + James. First one is £25 and runs on Sept 14. More —
Digbeth burger den Hanbao has launched a BOGOF offer every Wednesday to Friday from now until the end of the month. Details —
Fried chicken doyens Bonehead will be hosting what I believe is called WINGMANIA at their Stirchley sister site, Deadbeat, but I can't be 100% sure because the font made my head hurt. Either way, I'll be there. Sept 6 to 10.
WORDS: Tom Cullen, Claire Hawkins
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