Words by Helen Knott / Pics from Ed King
In recent years there have been a number of newspaper and web articles hyping up Birmingham’s food scene. The story stays pretty consistent: the city has four Michelin-starred restaurants (that’s four more than Leeds, Liverpool and arch-nemesis Manchester), is home to the Balti Triangle and Cadbury, and has apprently ‘established a strong reputation’ for street food.
And it’s this street food scene that we’ve gathered here to enjoy today, as Digbeth Dining Club (DDC) celebrates its third birthday. If you’ve never been to DDC before the idea is pretty simple; every Friday night, founders Jack Brabant and James Swinburne invite food traders to pitch up in the courtyard of Spot*light – one of the Rainbow Venues. On a normal week there are six different stalls, all tucked away under a railway arch down a Digbeth side street. A few times a year they also host larger events featuring DJ sets and live performances.
Tonight is DCC‘s third birthday; one of these larger events. There are more than twice as many stalls as usual and the road has been closed off to create a bigger space. The traders offer an array of different cuisines: Thai, Mexican, Greek… pies, pizza, pancakes… barbequed, baked, braised… and despite all that choice, all I’ve really got my heart set on is a burger. It takes a bit of time to find them, but eventually we end up at The Meat Shack, who, it seems, make burgers so popular that they don’t need to bother with branding. They know that us discerning burger fanatics will sniff them out, sign or no sign.
This being DDC, the burgers on offer are pretty far removed from those run of the mill burger vans you encounter on roadsides. I end up with a 100% Hereford beef burger, on locally sourced brioche bread, accompanied by a locally produced slice of cheese. And it’s pretty tasty. The beef is juicy and smoky, the bread is soft and moist, the cheese is smooth and creamy and the relish cuts through everything with a refreshing sharpness. Be prepared for the grease though. This is a burger so greasy that standing next to the stall doesn’t steam my friend’s glasses up, it greases them up. Lovely.
But pleasant as the burger was, I’m not convinced that it was worth the ridiculously long wait. Yes, queues are a nice opportunity to chat to strangers, catch up on a bit of iPhone admin, plot how to take over the world; but a half hour wait for a burger is way too long. I actually don’t care about watching it get cooked in front of my eyes – I see enough of that sort of thing cooking my own dinner every night. Unless the cooking process is particularly theatrical, (and I’m talking naked flames and go go dancers) I just want the food to be ready for me to eat as quickly as possible.
Queuing is a regular bugbear for me at DDC. You queue to get in, queue for food, for drinks, for the toilet… even making your way through the packed crowd involves a certain type of pseudo queuing. If queuing were an Olympic sport it could find its home here, such is the variety and volume of queuing opportunities on offer. But I know, it’s a Friday night, I need to relax and go with the flow. And if relaxing and going with the flow needs to happen while stood in a queue, well so be it.
After the burger I duck outside the bustle for a quick chat with DDC’s Jack. He’s a friendly chap, rightfully proud of his hard work over the past few years. He explains that DDC currently works with around 40 traders, who have to go through “rigorous tests” to be added to the books. He explains, “It’s not just about the food, it’s about the personality, the social media and how they sell themselves as traders as well. We always look for people who have the complete package.” In return, the traders have access to some healthy crowds and benefit from being associated with DDC, which Jack describes as a “badge of honour”.
Jack seems to have a knack for picking quality food too; a number of stalls, including Fybin & Loin and The Vegan Grindhouse, have recently started residencies with local venues, while others, such as Original Patty Men, have gone on to win national awards. For Jack DDC is not just about quality of the food, however, but also the feeling of togetherness that sharing food can create: “You can mingle with people of different age ranges and backgrounds. Birmingham is such a multicultural city, but you can come here and have something that represents your background. Everyone is welcome.”
Jack has more partnerships, with people such as the Hare & Hounds and Birmingham City University, in the pipeline – hopefully sseeing DDC pop up in other spots around the city. He’s even looking further afield, at the possibility of setting up similar events in other cities. Most importantly, Jack wants to do “more of this, where people can just embrace a good time and have a good evening out”.
I certainly did have a good evening, and as I wander home I think perhaps those articles about Birmingham’s food scene aren’t just hype after all. Maybe our food scene is ‘one of the best in the country’. Maybe people like Jack are ‘leading the way’. And hey, if not, well at least we’re getting some pretty good burgers out of it.
For more on Digbeth Dining Club, visit http://www.digbethdiningclub.co.uk/
For more from Spot*light, visit http://www.therainbowvenues.co.uk/venue/spotlight/