As Broad Street enters a poll for the Best Foodie Street in Britain, Food Critic Richard McComb makes an unconventional plea: don’t vote for Birmingham.
Emerging from a multi-storey car park into an Arctic blast, one of the first restaurant signs to catch the eye is Nando’s.
The menu offers ubiquitous theme-park style fare, from burgers and peri-peri chicken to pittas. I wouldn’t mind so much if this was one of the low points of dining on Broad Street, although strictly speaking this is just off Broad St, in Bishopsgate Street. But Nando’s is, in fact, one of the highlights.
As I walk on, I note The Lovely Bones is showing round the corner at Cineworld. Oh, for a lovely bone to gnaw in the midst of this gastronomic wasteland.
Why am I bothered? Well, Broad St, in case you’ve missed it, has been shortlisted in the Best Foodie Street category in the first Google Street View Awards. This spurious, meaningless contest wouldn’t matter a jot if it wasn’t being promoted by the world’s most powerful internet search engine.
And so the horror dawns that gourmands in France, Japan or Dudley might take this seriously. Visitors to Birmingham might actually think Broad St is the best the city has to offer when it comes to dining; and that would be shameful.
Crucially, this Google food award isn’t a joke. I thought it was iffy but have checked it out and it appears to be legit. Google has amassed what on the face of it appears to be an informed and sane judging panel. Its members include Richard Harden, co-editor of Harden’s restaurant guides, Nicholas Lander, the Financial Times restaurant correspondent, and foodie Henrietta Green, founder of FoodLoversBritain.com.
According to Google: “The winning street should offer a unique mix of mouth-watering options which could include fine dining, cafés, market stalls and delicatessens, all covering a diverse mix of food types and price points.”
Or the winner could simply offer kebab shops.
Broad St is up against locations such as Charlotte Street in London, which has the two Michelin-starred Pied A Terre. Of course, Charlotte Street’s got nothing on the holy trinity of Tika Tika, Bombay Mix and Burger Bite which occupy adjacent sites on Broad St. The first and the last sell kebabs and fish and chips; Bombay Mix has a 25 per cent off Ladies’ Night, which I think means 25 per cent is taken off the bill, rather than female customers’ clothing. To wear a quarter less than the norm for Broad St would be a rare feat although it is far from fanciful. At the other end of Broad St, the Walkabout bar is preparing for an evening of glamour girl mud wrestling arranged by a lad’s mag. It’s the “UK’s dirtiest tour,” apparently. The Bar, next-door, has “Horny Crumpet” on Wednesdays, which I don’t think is the type of snack bread one toasts.
There are a number of prominent boarded up sites along this gaudy strip. There’s a placard for a “late night opportunity” next to the Grosvenor Casino. Next door, or it may be the same property, The Breakfast Club has shut up shop. A faded legend across the filthy windows proclaims: “People Make The Party.” They do – and they’ve gone.
However, we get to the heart and soul of Broad St cuisine at Oh Velvet (“Champagne, porter & fine wines”): buy any two meals for £5.95. Choose from cottage pie and peas, a Bounty Burger (that’s bacon and cheddar) or, that quintessence of gourmet dining, a fish finger sandwich.
Over the road, Big Bite is bigging up its “giant fillet,” which, looking at the picture, could be chicken, or fish (“fish-chick?”), with hash browns, for £2.99. Big Bite doesn’t do irony. Its motto is: “Love Taste.” As I look up at an image of a fat-saturated pizzas, a nun-looking short person asks me for change for the bus. “For the love of God. Blessed Jesus ...” she mumbles. I slip her the cash, one good deed in a street of culinary sin.
Back over the road, there’s a whopping great hoarding covering another vacant site. Stare through the prison grills, through which people have poked chips, and you spy a bomb site of a car park. It’s like a scene from Blitz Britain. There’s a cracked pot housing a plastic conical privet outside Boujee, whose dress code, smudged by rain, stipulates “smart, creative and stylish” clothes, but no hoodies, visors or “big chains,” thereby ruling out 50 per cent of Broad St’s habitual lageristas.
I could go on but just about everything down here is as cheap, and as varied, as chips. The food is either all-you-can-eat gluttony or priced so cheaply you have to wonder where the hell the ingredients are sourced. The Brasshouse offers a Sunday roast and drink from £4.99. Don’t bother with the invite.
The one real exception – and its presence is jarring – is the modern Indian restaurant, Pushkar. Whether you like the interior design or not, the restaurant dazzles and the food is good. So good, in fact, you wonder why the place opened in Broad St.
Mike Olley, Broad Street manager, mounts a vitriolic defence of the area’s culinary credentials and I’d expect him to do nothing less. “We are not some kebab ridden high street. We have got some jewels and gems up here,” he says.
He knows his stuff, too. Olley has a palate for fine food and has appeared on Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me, with his Wensleydale ploughman’s with beetroot medallions and a dish of wild mushroom and lime chicken.
Olley makes the point that the Broad St Business Improvement District (BID) includes Brindleyplace, and therefore encompasses restaurants such as Edmunds, Bank, Cielo, Piccolinos and Thai Edge. The BID, it is true, also includes the ICC, the NIA, Symphony Hall and the Hyatt, which has a very good restaurant, Aria, and a very good chef, Brett Sandland. There’s a fatal flaw in Olley’s argument, however. Google’s judges have shortlisted Broad St, not the Broad St BID area, as Britain’s Best Foodie Street. Brindleyplace, the Hyatt and the entertainment venues are irrelevant in this respect. Furthermore, you won’t meet a single diner heading to Edmunds, Aria or Bank who will say to friends and colleagues: “I’m eating out on Broad St tonight.” They will say: “I’m off to Edmunds ...”
That’s because Broad St is kebabs and southern fried chicken and burgers – which is fine, but it’s not real food – and this is what Google’s voters will be voting for, or against, not some rarified notion of good dining. Public perception is an issue, although Olley disagrees. He insists Brindleyplace is intrinsically linked to Broad St in the popular consciousness. “In the last five years since we have cleaned this place up we have always and only ever banged on about Broad St in terms of the area meaning Brindleyplace,” he says.
If that is the case, the BID team still has some work ahead of it.
It is also a fact that restaurants and cafes contribute just four per cent to the coffers of the BID initiative, via an annual levy. That’s only three per cent more than car parks. The contribution is dwarfed by offices (48 per cent) and pubs (24 per cent). These figures tell their own story about the BID’s spending priorities.
I am not – I’m really not – knocking the work being undertaken by Olley & Co. Major projects that would have breathed new life into Broad St have stalled because of the recession. Latest reports suggest the £500 million Arena Central project, featuring apartments, bars and restaurants, might not be completed until 2030.
Work on Regal Tower, featuring the city centre’s tallest building, on the corner of Broad Street and Sheepcote Street, is due to start at the end of the year. The £125 million, 656ft tall building, is due to include a luxury hotel, apartments, a restaurant and boutique shops. But seeing is believing. Until then, it’s all talk.
Meanwhile, plans for a “rapid transport solution system” (basically, a big bus) for the Broad Street look some way off being realised.
Cash-shortfalls and the property slump are not the issue with the title of Best Foodie Street, though. The issue here is this: if Broad St is crowned the top foodie location, what kind of a warped view of Birmingham’s dining scene will thousands, possibly millions, of internet users get?
What message will be sent out to the Michelin chefs and all the other good restaurants, like Lasan and Opus and Edmunds, if they are overlooked in favour of kebab hell? What message will go out to the catering students at Birmingham University College, who are being nurtured and trained to drive on the city’s culinary revolution?
For these reasons, as well as the inevitable national humiliation heaped on Brum should it win, I won’t be providing the web link to vote for Google’s foodie gong.
If you do find it, do Birmingham a favour – and vote for Liverpool.