Food critic Richard McComb reflects on the demise of a Birmingham institution
On one of the last occasions I visited The Bucklemaker, I was served crispy red mullet, wonderfully juicy Isle of Arran scallops and Aberdeenshire pickled herring, knocked back with vintage Champagne.
The event was arranged by a local Birmingham fish supplier and Seafish, the UK seafood authority, and the genial host, Nick Crudgington, long-time boss of the St Paul’s Square restaurant, was in usual sparkling form.
What a difference a few months make. When my phone rang this week and Crudgington’s name popped up, I presumed he wanted to take a jocular swipe at one of my food reviews. Far from it. Crudgington doesn’t bitch and back-stab and I like him for that. So when he said he had a scoop I was intrigued. “Fire away,” I said, expecting the announcement of a new dish involving langoustine tails, curry oil and black pudding.
“The Buck’s gone bust,” he said. I waited for the punchline. There wasn’t one.
When I met Crudgington at his place yesterday lunchtime, he was in a subdued mood. The wooden front-door to his landmark cubby hole, an underground chamber of fine food and banter, was uncharacteristically locked. When he answered the door and led me down to the bar and restaurant, the spring had gone from his step.
“They’re sorting it all out now... Closing it down,” he said. They? Who are they? “The liquidators,” he replied.
Standing at the bar were two number-crunchers from Begbies Traynor, specialists in corporate recovery, winding up, selling off and making the best of a bad job. There seems little chance of breathing new life into The Bucklemaker now. The belt has been tightened one notch too many for this once-bustling venue.
The specials boards, listing the restaurant’s mouth-watering dishes, were stacked against a wall. Fresh rock oysters, oven-baked wild sea trout (a personal favourite) and Cornish crab with lobster chowder, Avruga caviar and white truffle oil. The dishes won’t be cooked in here again, not barring a miracle, and I’m not sure even Crudgington is capable of that.
Lavish Champagnes are listed at the bar – £65 for Laurent Perrier Rosé, £98 for Bolly. Now they will be sold by the liquidator before the bubbles go flat.
Crudgington stood over me by a table and lit up a cigarette. The cutlery, napkins and glasses were set for lunch. Ever the host, he offered me a glass of wine but, for once, I didn’t have the stomach for it. It’s horrible seeing a man born to the business of entertaining hit the buffers. The emotional toll of the restaurant’s financial collapse was self-evident in his tired, bloodshot eyes.
What’s it been like, I asked, the past 24 hours? “I cried my eyes out yesterday afternoon. I got pissed last night. I am going to go home this afternoon and I’ll probably do exactly the same after I’ve had a meeting with the staff,” said Crudgington.
The kitchen brigade and front of house team had temporarily decamped to a nearby pub to drown their sorrows. “They’ll be back later to tear chunks off me,” said Crudgington.
A couple, oblivious to the wake taking place around them, strolled into the bar and waited to be served. “Sorry folks. We’re not open at the moment,” said Crudgington. They walked out, bewildered; and bewilderment is a good way to describe the situation.
Crudgington, who is 52, said he took the decision to close The Bucklemaker, which is in its 22nd year, before the debts got any worse. In the end, he admitted it was a relief to close the place he had invested so much time and money in.
The place employed four in the kitchen and four out front. “They are owed wages. They will get redundancy pay, so hopefully it will cushion the blow,” said Crudgington.
And what of him. “I am absolutely skint,” he said. “All of the money I have earned I have put back into the business to try to get it going. I cannot do anything more.”
A major issue will be the settlement of The Bucklemaker’s lease, for which Crudgington said he is personally liable. He renewed the tenancy five years ago – and it has another 20 to run. At the time, the business was doing well – “Ticking over nicely” – but the economic climate has changed dramatically. Referring to the global recession, Crudgington added: “Who foresaw this? I didn’t.”
When I put it to Crudgington that he had suffered from the corporate sector reining in its entertainment largesse, he refused to be drawn. “I can’t blame anyone for this,” he said.
James Martin, a partner in the Birmingham office of Begbies Traynor, was unequivocal, blaming “insufficient patronage” caused largely by the recession.
Mr Martin said: “The Bucklemaker had an excellent reputation and a loyal clientele. But recently it had been struggling for numbers and, facing the quieter summer period, was forced to cease trading as of today.”
Crudgington is a restaurateur through and through and has other interests in the city via his joint partnership in Turners, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Harborne. He said the Harborne business, specialising in extraordinary fine dining and a niche clientele, was separate from The Bucklemaker, which was always his baby.
He walked away from The Bucklemaker before, in the early 90s, when he thought it was going to go bust. He worked for receivers for a while, trying to assist failing restaurants and bars but returned to the helm. The current irony has not escaped him.
So might he make another go of The Bucklemaker once more, pluck culinary triumph from the teeth of recessionary disaster?
“Phoenix out of the fire?” said Crudgington. “They [the staff] all want me to. But I don’t know just know. I am not in a position to think about it.”
The future, then, looks uncertain for one of most colourful characters in Birmingham’s food and drink sector. But you’d be a fool to bet against Crudgington’s handsome grey mane and chirpy voice returning. It is said the only creatures to survive a nuclear holocaust will be cockroaches.
When they brush themselves down after Armageddon and fancy a stiff one, they might find Nick Crudgington has beaten them to the bar.