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James Brennan

James Brennan

Contributing journalist, UK

Articles (10)

The 25 best bars in Birmingham

The 25 best bars in Birmingham

There are some marvellous bars in Birmingham. England’s second city is a perfect fit for old-fashioned boozers, but dismiss the stylish side of town at your peril. The best bars in Birmingham are every bit as refreshing as those found in more heralded cities to the north and south. Birmingham, ignored once more? Colour us shocked. Actually, scratch that, we’re too busy enjoying perfectly-mixed cocktails to care.Birmingham certainly knows what it is doing when the sun goes down. Whether it is a craft beer and pinball combo for the inner hipster or restaurant drinking dens mixing food and booze like never before, Birmingham is at the head of the UK nightlife table. Get ready for this place, because it is certainly ready for you.

The 16 best Indian restaurants in Birmingham

The 16 best Indian restaurants in Birmingham

Now we’re talking. From Bombay-style street food and sweet centres to Gujarati vegetarian cafes and progressive Indian fine dining, Birmingham has it all when it comes to Indian cuisine. Nobody is surprised to read that, of course, as Birmingham has long been known as England’s curry capital, but that doesn’t tell half the story. Did you know that the humble balti was invented in Sparkbrook in the ‘70s? You do now. Gorging on incredible Indian food might just be the best thing to do in Birmingham. The city’s gastronomic scene covers a lot more ground these days, but the best Indian restaurants in Birmingham still demand your attention. We’ll see you there.   

The 25 best things to do in Birmingham right now

The 25 best things to do in Birmingham right now

England’s most underrated city? That all comes down to personal perception, we’ve never underestimated the brilliance of Birmingham. What is the best way to describe England’s second city? Awesome, for a start, but Brum is more accurately a cultural force packed full of diversity. The best things to do in Birmingham cover heaps of ground, make no mistake about that.Birmingham covers all sides, from Michelin stars to street food and fine art to flash graffiti and beyond. Add a brilliant selection of independent music venues and more sport than you can shake your fist at, and you’ve got yourself a city to fall in love with. Watch out for those pesky Peaky Blinders though…  

The 23 best restaurants in Birmingham you need to try

The 23 best restaurants in Birmingham you need to try

You don’t need us to tell you about Birmingham’s famous Balti Triangle, although we’re more than happy to sing the praises of magnificent curry at every possible opportunity. Still, there is more to England’s second city than Anglicised curry, with an ever-growing range of excellent establishments pushing culinary boundaries and making bellies happy across the city.Birmingham might just be England’s most underrated city, something that is definitely true on the culinary side of the ledger. Come for the Balti Triangle, stay because you need to discover more about the city’s burger obsession or spectacular street food spots. The best restaurants in Birmingham? Look no further.

The 6 best desi pubs in Birmingham

The 6 best desi pubs in Birmingham

When Malcolm X visited Smethwick in 1965, he found a community fraught with racial tensions. Asian migrants were not welcome in some bedsits, shops and those most English of institutions, local pubs. Fast forward 50 years, and many of those Birmingham pubs have been transformed – saved, even – by entrepreneurial British-Indian Sikhs. Revitalised with traditional Punjabi food and a unique spirit of optimism and inclusion, here are the best desi pubs in Birmingham and the Black Country. Want to make a crawl of it? There’s a whole host of superb craft beer joints and other cocktail bars in Birmingham.  RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best bars in Birmingham

Meet Foka Wolf, the Birmingham Banksy

Meet Foka Wolf, the Birmingham Banksy

I’m standing in a dimly lit corridor in a studio complex somewhere in Birmingham, and I’m looking into the eyes of Foka Wolf. He’s laughing about getting death threats for his ‘Voodoo Classes for Kids’ paste-up. ‘People were saying they were gonna kill me because, you know, religious people had taken offence at it,’ he says. ‘Someone from a church left a message. He didn’t sound too happy. It’s obviously black magic and that doesn’t go down with people that well. But that’s part of the reason I do it.’ The enfant terrible of our street art scene has been busy recently. To use Brummie parlance, the artist’s scathing brand of razor-sharp street satire has spread all over town like a mad dog’s shite in the past 12 months – on walls, lampposts, windows and hoardings. There was the poster on an abandoned shop front asking: ‘Are you Brexit ready? Bunkers from £9,000. Flame-throwers. Child traps!’ I’d done a double take before realising Foka Wolf had struck again. For a second there, I was quite interested in the flame-throwers. It wasn’t long before Wolf’s work spread out beyond Birmingham. One Instagram post even showed an ‘Over 75s No Rules Deathmatch’ poster slapped on the marble façade of Trump Tower in New York. Understandably, Wolf’s real identity is a secret, for now at least. He says his influences include the artist David Shrigley, Viz magazine and Chris Morris’s satirical TV classic ‘Brass Eye’, and he buys into the DIY punk aesthetic. ‘There’s a cut-and-paste old-school

Things you only know if you’re a Peaky Blinder impersonator

Things you only know if you’re a Peaky Blinder impersonator

Roy Short, 50, and John Brophy, 54, are Birmingham’s foremost Peaky Blinder impersonators. What does exactly does that entail? We asked them just that – and they taught us a whole lot more.  The real Peaky Blinders were a gang that actually existed.Roy: ‘They ruled Digbeth and Bordesley Green from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, and did a lot of gambling and fighting. Some were locked up in Steelhouse Lane police cells.’ They got the name because they sewed razor blades into the peaks of their caps.John: ‘And so do we. They are metal and they do show, but they’re just props. They’re not sharp. We have guns as well, but they’re not real. We sometimes take fake rifles and handguns to events, just for effect.’ You have to shop around for authentic Peaky Blinders clobber.Roy: ‘Our attire consists of a three-piece suit, cropped trousers, workmen’s boots, a long black coat, pocket watch and chain and, of course, the trademark cap.’ John: ‘We search vintage and charity shops and the internet. We even go to car boot sales, where you can pick up knuckledusters and guns – obviously, they’re all decommissioned and antique. A lot of people sell country and western stuff so you can get shoulder holsters and things like that.’ You’d better prepare for a lot of attention.Roy: ‘We have a lot of blokes asking for photos. Once one flash goes off people start queuing up. They buy us drinks. We have bus and taxi drivers putting their thumbs up. Old ladies in bus stops say we remind them of th

The top things to do in the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham

The top things to do in the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham

If the historic hotchpotch of listed buildings, boutiques, bars, restaurants, galleries and museums that is the Jewellery Quarter was in most other cities, they’d never stop polishing one off about it. According to English Heritage, Europe’s largest cluster of jewellery businesses is a ‘national treasure’. But to Brummies – those shoulder-shrugging masters of the colossal understatement, bestowed with oodles of knockout Birmingham pubs and high-class restaurants – it’s just ‘alright’. Locals take it in their stride that people have been making shiny things here for more than 500 years, or that it was once the centre of a global pen nib trade that brought literacy, academia and schoolkid subversion to the world. It’s the home of ACME whistles, which you’ll know the sound of if you’ve ever been to a football match or been chased by a Victorian policeman. And according to legend, it was from the Jewellery Quarter that the Kray twins were given their marching orders out of Brum, although probably not before they’d been sold a sovereign ring or four. Cut off from the city centre, Berlin-wall style, by the ring road, the JQ has an urban village atmosphere. From the serenity of St Paul’s Church, in the city’s last remaining Georgian square, to the bustle of Constitution Hill, it’s a place to work, play, linger and explore. In short, it’s pure gold.RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Birmingham

How to eat like a local in Birmingham

How to eat like a local in Birmingham

Think Birmingham, think balti? We certainly do. The Balti Triangle is literally on the map. However, there’s so much more to the city’s culinary cachet than just curry houses and desi pubs. There are Michelin stars dotted all over the place, the coffee scene’s booming, and it’s difficult to know where to even start with brunch in Birmingham. So here are the absolute best Brummie eating and drinking experiences. Some go back centuries, some are cutting-edge and contemporary – but everything is moreish. From fine dining to street food, this is how to eat like a Birmingham local. RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best restaurants in Birmingham

The best things to do in Birmingham in spring

The best things to do in Birmingham in spring

When it comes to things to do in spring, blooming Birmingham is something of a showstopper. With its winding canals and excellent parks – not to mention all of JRR Tolkien’s magical old stomping grounds – this city is a living, breathing fairground that never stops giving. Stuck for what to do after visiting one of the best restaurants in Birmingham, or fancy a detour before trying one of the many excellent Birmingham bars – or indeed a big-hitting museum? Then this list will have you covered. Whether you’re more into cooking classes or pub crawls, this is our pick of the city’s most glorious spring thrills.  RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Birmingham

Listings and reviews (2)

Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals

4 out of 5 stars

If this retro restaurant-cum-cocktail-bar were a beast of the night, it would be the Birmingham Bull with a mullet and shoulder pads, charging at your preconceptions of stuffy fine dining. Chef Alex Claridge of The Wilderness has gone all 1980s with his second venue, and it’s like stepping back in time. Following our tradition of never taking yourself too seriously, a lurid neon sign said ‘swanky fine dining’ but the ‘S’ kept flickering off. That was the first joke. Another sign above the open kitchen screamed ‘It’s only fucking food’ and neon-stripped corridors evoked David Lynch, but thankfully more ‘Twin Peaks’ than ‘Eraserhead’. Highlights included a dish called Not Another Fucking Balti (he likes a swear, does Alex), a rich quail, mushroom and chicken liver parfait under a creamy butter chicken sauce topped with puffed wild rice. But then came a slightly dry pan-fried salmon dish, upon which half a potato stood on the sidelines like a dork at a school disco. We were holding out for a hero as Bonnie Tyler blurted over the speakers, and it arrived with the small but pink and moist fillet steak, enlivened by a sweet massaman sauce, with some ace black garlic gnocchi made to look like black pudding. At times the food was a bit like the early days of synth pop: lots of experimentation, not enough tunes. But it was immense fun, with upbeat and welcoming staff and a cracking atmosphere.

Opheem

Opheem

4 out of 5 stars

When Aktar Islam was at Lasan, his innovative Indian food won out on the ‘Great British Menu’. But one award that has eluded the Brum chef is a Michelin star, which might be why he’s recently gone it alone and all-out with Opheem. In his own words, this plush new restaurant and bar is ‘me, unleashed’. But that’s not to say the chef is charging round the tastefully appointed room with a meat cleaver. Even the amuse-bouches confirmed that, creatively, he’s holding nothing back – a sesame-seed biscuit bomb of strawberry and intense spice jolted my taste buds into gear. The starter, a gloriously crispy soft shell crab in caraway seed tempura, was one of the chef’s award winners, and rightly so. But even that was upstaged by the moist chargrilled nuggets of goosnargh chicken on a bed of earthy bulgur wheat with perky spring onion and pickled gem broccoli. My laal maans main was another signature dish that surpassed its billing. And the Herdwick lamb loin was florid pink, tender and jacked up with tandoori flavour, while the smoked mathia chilli and bone marrow sauce doubled down with full-on blasts of sweetness and heat. In contrast, the tandoori monkfish was understated but firm and dewy, lifted by some tangy curried gourd and a subtle coconut and fish tamarind sauce. A gold leaf-strewn bonbon of rich Manjari chocolate with passion fruit ended things on a high. As we left, walking under a quirky constellation of bulbs, we felt sure Michelin would soon see the light at Opheem.