Londoners tend to look down their noses at Birmingham, much as New Yorkers dismiss Boston or Philly. But thanks in large part to its burgeoning food scene (as of this fall, the city has more Michelin stars than any other English city outside London), not to mention its famed Balti Triangle, packed with over 50 South Asian restaurants, Londoners, as well as the rest of the world, are starting to reconsider the Brums. Its cultural offerings can keep pace with the capital’s (there’s the world-renowned Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, plus a rock scene that launched Ozzy Osbourne and Duran Duran), and September saw the opening of a much-anticipated $300 million public library (it looks like a stack of Legos wrapped in mesh and houses a Shakespeare Memorial Room, with an impressive collection of Shakespeareana). Birmingham also lays claim to one of the U.K.’s biggest and oldest jewelry quarters, the famed Cadbury chocolate factory, and something else London definitely doesn’t have: very few tourists.
Distance from London:Two hours and ten minutes by car; one hour and 24 minutes by train.
Where to Stay: $: The 73-room Japanese pod-style Bloc Hotel (from $72; blochotels.com) is located right smack in the buzzy jewelry quarter. $$: Expect a slightly business-traveler-oriented vibe at Hotel La Tour (from $158; hotel-latour.co.uk) with its modern, wood-accented rooms. $$$: Located on the 23rd and 24th floors of the city’s famed Cube building, Hotel Indigo (from $199; hotelindigobirmingham.co.uk) offers a luxe stay with floor-to-ceiling windows in all the rooms, plus the Michelin-starred Marco Pierre White steakhouse.
The East London of Birmingham
In the eighties, entrepreneur Bennie Gray and his son Lucan began converting a cluster of derelict custard factories in the once industrial Digbeth neighborhood into a space for the city’s young artists, actors, and musicians to convene. Today, the area is known simply as the Custard Factory and feels like some amalgam of East London and Dumbo: Its cobblestoned streets are peppered with an eclectic assortment of music venues, record stores, and a great Saturday-morning flea market, plus over 400 small digital agencies and media companies that have set up shop. Here, the younger Gray’s guide to exploring the neighborhood.
“Start off at Frankie Johns vintage-clothing shop, Urban Village (Gibb St.; 224-7367), which has been around since the nineties. Johns specializes in clothes from the sixties and seventies and personally hunts for the stock. There’s also a ‘try before your buy’ record bar with more than 5,000 records.”
“Among the dozen or so galleries in the quarter, one of the most notable is Eastside Projects (86 Heath Mill Ln.; 771-1778), an ever-evolving space run by a group of practicing artists who pull in well-known talent from around the world like Dan Graham, Mike Nelson, and Liam Gillicks, and currently Cao Fei, a new-media artist from China. A large-scale, jagged building-within-a-building, ‘Pleasure Island,’ created by artists Heather and Ivan Morrison, functions as a communal space for performances and general hanging out.”
“I love the Digbeth Dining Club (Spot*light, Unit 2) that takes place every Friday in a vintage-furniture-adorned warehouse in one of the Victorian railway arches that are distinctive to the neighborhood. Run by Jack Brabank, whose aim is to introduce the best locally sourced food stalls to the masses and to keep it as diverse as possible, the Club offers everything from soul food to pizza to Jamaican fare. One of my favorite stalls is the Meatshack. They do the best burger you’ll ever taste—28-day-aged beef, sourced twenty miles from Birmingham, cooked fresh right in front of you, and on a brioche bun.”
“Cap the night off at the Rainbow (160 Digbeth High St.; 753-1818), a pub that recently expanded to a music venue, taking over a warehouse next door as well as a cellar space, a courtyard, and a scaffold yard that’s set against the backdrop of towering Victorian railway viaducts. The heavy hitters of Birmingham’s local indie-music scene play here, like Peace (just signed to Columbia Records), Troumaca, and the Twang, who will return to the Rainbow in December.”
“Not Your Standard Chippy”
Adam Stokes, the 32-year-old responsible for the newly Michelin-starred eatery Adam’s (21A Bennetts Hill, 643-3745), is known for his witty take on classic dishes (think scallops with pork crackling, baby leeks, and grapefruit). Here, Stokes’s favorite eateries that offer updated takes on Birmingham classics.
“At Cherry Reds (88-90 John Bright St.; 643-5714), which just opened a new outpost in the city center last month, the mood is relaxed and quirky. You pick up your own cutlery and sit at mismatched tables, chairs, sofas, and bar stools. Yes, they have traditional thick-cut bacon, black pudding, and pies of the day, but they also do have an amazing veggie and gluten-free selection, including the Linda McCartney ‘sausage’ (from her vegetarian line of food), and a wonderful grilled haloumi-cheese-and-mushroom breakfast sandwich.-
“At Lasan (3–4 Dakota Buildings, James St., 212-3664), located in the jewelry quarter, chef-director Aktar Islam has raised the profile of Indian cooking in Birmingham. The restaurant has contemporary décor with modern art and stylish furniture. Islam uses subtle spicing and unusual combinations of ingredients—like the pan-fried bream on garlic-scented spinach and new potatoes in spicy Bengali-tomato-and-coriander-scented broth.”
Fish and Chips
“Chamberlains Fish and Chips (8 Wolverhampton Rd., 429-7709) is not your standard chippy. Try the cod or haddock that’s encased in a crispy batter (right); it’s been cooked in beef dripping—but you can ask for it to be made with vegetable oil or without gluten. Try one of their newfangled creations like haddock with spinach parcels and salmon and pesto bites.”
“Located in a large converted church in the Balti Triangle, Mughal e Azam (Stratford Rd., 777-9348) brings in award-winning chefs directly from Pakistan, who make dishes that feel very modern, many made with fresh ginger, green chile, and coriander. I love the minced chicken with chile, coriander, and cashew nuts, and the lamb haandi, which is pieces of spring lamb with yogurt and garam masala.”