Rock cakes in a shed, underground art and conceptual cocktails: a Brummie insiders’ guide to Birmingham

<span>No Outsiders family festival at the Midlands Arts Centre.</span><span>Photograph: Kate Green</span>
No Outsiders family festival at the Midlands Arts Centre.Photograph: Kate Green

Birmingham food destinations to watch

by Kirsty Bosley

‘Anyone for cowboy butter?’: lunch with Joe Lycett at one of Birmingham’s hottest restaurants

University College Birmingham alumni Kasia Piątkowska and Ben Robinson-Young are serving modern Italian small plates at Tropea, sprinkling Mediterranean magic on wicked local produce. The cosy neighbourhood restaurant plates up sunny dishes that make you forget you are opposite a swimming baths on Lordswood Road.

On the Breadline
Not a restaurant but a garden shed, On the Breadline is full of heart and soul, a perfect place to pack a picnic en route to Sutton Park. Baker Sebastian Clough whips up gorgeous bakes (including his nan’s recipe rock cakes) and his sister hands them over in their little wooden summerhouse at Hillcrest Farm.

Indian Cafe Racer
Hidden behind a curtain at the back of an old pub, Indian Cafe Racer serves sublime Indian street food from its tiny kitchen. Service is wonderful, the £6 dahi puri are gorgeous and there’s a Royal Enfield bike in the dining room on which you could ride off into the sunset if the boss didn’t love it so much.

You can’t mention Birmingham’s food scene without honouring those who have held it up for generations. Shababs is one of the last bastions of the famous balti triangle, cooking flavourful curries fast in two-handled dishes and serving them up in the same hot pans. From 1987 to for ever, never take your eye off Shababs.

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The best theatre, dance and comedy venues

by Janice Connolly

The city apparently needs to sell off its assets, but I think losing arts venues is a really shortsighted way to do it. Art is not a luxury item: it’s essential, and when times are tough it’s even more important. There are lots and lots of great places in Birmingham, so I should say that it’s been very difficult to pick just five. But if I have to choose…

Hockley Social Club provides a stage for lots of things: comedy, spoken word, poetry slams, cabaret and dance. They’ve had Birmingham Royal Ballet on there, and recently had an event with Cold War Steve. It attracts lots of different ages, has an incredibly friendly atmosphere and provides great food (run by the people behind Digbeth Dining Club). Everybody loves it. I can’t stress how much it represents Birmingham.

The Old Rep on Station Street was one of the first purpose-built repertory theatres in the country and it’s steeped in history: Laurence Olivier, Julie Christie and Albert Finney have performed there. Now it puts on comedy nights – you can see people like Reginald D Hunter, and it does theatre and Christmas shows. It also has scratch nights for independent theatre companies to try out ideas.

If you’ve been asking yourself “Whatever happened to alternative comedy?”, it’s alive and well and upstairs at Cherry Red’s every month. It’s an old Victorian building by the back of the station, and a stalwart of the Birmingham comedy scene. It’s a little hub of creativity: independent, hippy-ish, non-dressed up… my kind of place.

The Blue Orange theatre in the Jewellery Quarter is a small independent place, and its raison d’être is to showcase new drama and writing from the city. Later this year it will be showing Can’t Stop Carrying On, a one-man show about the life of Carry On creator Peter Rogers – a sellout at last year’s Edinburgh fringe and it’s going again this year.

The Glee Club is a spacious comedy venue with two stages: a studio for up-and-coming acts and a large main room for established ones. I recently saw Paul Foot there doing his Edinburgh show Dissolve: I went with my husband and my son and his girlfriend and we had a brilliant time. It attracts fantastic acts – it’s the Comedy Store of Birmingham.

  • Comedian, actor, and founding member of the award-winning theatre company Women & Theatre, of which she was artistic director for more than 40 years. Performs standup in the guise of her housewife alter ego, Mrs Barbara Nice.

The best Brum bars and pubs

by Matt Arnold

The drinks scene at the moment is probably the most exciting in the country. Over the past few years the city has picked up several awards – last year, in the world’s biggest cocktail competition, three of the 10 UK finalists were from Birmingham.

Lucky7 is a newly opened, Japanese-inspired cocktail bar: dimly lit, intimate, serving bar snacks like wasabi peas, fried chicken and caviar. It’s run by Rob Wood, probably one of the first people to really do cocktails correctly in Birmingham, and his partner Kyndra Vorster. The drinks are super-conceptual: “Toast” is like an espresso martini done to the nth degree.

Couch in Stirchley is an incredible neighbourhood bar. It just picked up UK best bar team at the Top 50 awards. Its most popular drink at the moment is a white grape gimlet: short, sharp, boozy, served in a rocks glass. It’s almost akin to a glass of water in appearance, but don’t think it doesn’t have any flavour, because the brightness just pops from the way they treat the grapes.

If you need a fun pick-me-up before you jump on a train, the Fox & Chance is a welcoming, speakeasy-esque bar by the station. It has a lot of classic cocktails, often with a twist. It does the best Irish coffee in the city.

The Wellington is the kind of old-school Midlands pub most of us would have grown up in: the lights are a bit too bright and the music’s a little too quiet. But it’s a hidden gem, especially in the summer: it has an upstairs balcony where you can sit with a few friends and have a really good cask ale, and two pub cats that roam around.

Arch 13 is an independent wine bar that does incredible cheese boards and wine flights, and a rotating crumpet menu.

  • Arnold is the co-owner of Passing Fancies in Digbeth along with Eve Green. In 2023 he won GB bartender of the year in the Diageo world class cocktail competition, while Class magazine named Passing Fancies new bar of the year and best bar in the Midlands and East Anglia

The best gig venues for pop, rock and jazz

by Kofi Stone

Birmingham is very eclectic: there’s a wide variety of sounds making waves. Punch Records has been working on Legacy, a project documenting the city’s hip-hop history. I definitely feel proud to be from Birmingham: I want to show the world what Brum has to offer.

Mama Roux’s has a really grand interior design, almost like a smaller Brixton Academy. You’ll catch a lot of up-and-coming artists – I’ve seen hip-hop and R&B acts play there, but they get a wide spread of genres. You get quite a young, vibrant crowd.

If you’re looking for something that has jazzy, soul vibes, the Night Owl is a great venue. I like it because it’s intimate and feels quite homely inside – it has a nice pink decor. The Temptations and Roy Ayers have both performed there, and I’ve seen a lot of local acts. There’s also a good night there called Dig?.

Hare & Hounds is in the heart of Kings Heath. I had my first ever freestyle on stage there, with a fellow Brummie artist, Soweto Kinch. There are two rooms, the bigger one of which has a capacity of about 250, and they curate the DJ to match the type of artist playing. And there’s a really good pub downstairs.

The O2 Institute has been around for a while. I actually supported the late Mac Miller there in 2012, back when it was the HMV Institute. I also supported Loyle Carner there. It’s an amazing venue. I’ve seen a lot of gigs there: Maverick Sabre, and UB40 – Brum town legends. It’s a lovely place to watch live music, and they do club nights there too.

The Sunflower Lounge is probably the smallest of the five: it’s where artists might have their first ever gig. It ranges across the board from metal to jazz, so it caters to all musical needs. It’s right in the heart of the city. It’s got a nice bar, a lot of music posters. It’s got a real good energy to it.

  • Stone is a rapper whose sound melds hip-hop, jazz, R&B and soul. In December 2023 he released his debut album, Nobody Cares Till Everybody Does; his latest single, May Sound Crazy, features the late poet Benjamin Zephaniah

The pick of the city’s art galleries

by Matt Nation

Birmingham has a great history of producing artistic talent: from Edward Burne-Jones and the pre-Raphaelites in the 1800s to the BLK Art Group in the 1980s. And while the city’s well-known galleries and museums such as Ikon, the Barber Institute and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery are always good to visit (though the latter two are currently undergoing building work), there’s constantly lots of other interesting things going on including a vibrant underground scene.

Eastside Projects was founded in 2008 in a former cabinet-maker’s premises on Heath Mill Lane in Digbeth. It is an artist-run space with two galleries and regular events. It recently hosted a project from Kitty Finer, in collaboration with Fierce, called Artists Behind Bars, where a bunch of artists ran their own bars for the night. Eastside also puts a lot of emphasis on nurturing artists and curators including a scheme called Extra Ordinary People where young people gain experience of working in the art world. Nearby, a new gallery, Prayer Room, whose founders include artists that came up through Eastside, is one to watch.

Centrala art gallery and creative space was set up by and exists to celebrate central and eastern European migrants. On Digbeth First Friday – a monthly event where galleries in Digbeth have exhibition openings and events – Centrala is generally where the party’s at. You can have Polish dumplings and see a show from someone from that part of the world who’s made their home in Birmingham. They have a lot of thought-provoking, political artwork.

Stryx is a female artist led studio, project and exhibition space. It’s very grassroots: it runs a community cafe, and has just launched a creative play session for children. It bridges the gap between a traditional art space and how artists can engage with communities.

The MAC (Midlands Art Centre) is much longer established than the others but if you’re talking about important visual arts venues in the city, it has to be mentioned because it makes art accessible to everybody. Recently I loved its exhibition of outsider artist Madge Gill’s work, The Clouds Will Burst the Sun Will Shine Again. The MAC was also the location for the second series exhibition of Grayson Perry’s art club. Through conversations Joe Lycett had with him about Birmingham, and why art maybe doesn’t thrive here but needs to, Grayson made the decision that Birmingham would be the perfect place for it. That validated people here.

  • Matt Nation runs Industrious Artists, helping creatives develop and sell products as an extension of their practice. He also runs the design brand Provide