Pop-up restaurants represent one of the most refreshing additions to the UK dining scene of the past five years – and one of the most annoying.
Temporary restaurants in sometimes vacant, sometimes partly occupied premises, have given young chefs and hipster entrepreneurs low-cost opportunities to test the market. Do black pudding sliders work? Just stack them up on a Saturday night and see if they fly, or dive-bomb.
I love the philosophy of the pop-up, a democratic, Stick It To The Man motivation, bypassing the corporate world of lock-in leases, sterile branding and poorly refined, poorly delivered dining.
Those with talent can gain a foothold in a market that has tired of faux sophistication; good luck to them if they succeed. We are in the midst of the inexorable rise of the casual dining culture and there are huge opportunities for passionate teams with the necessary culinary skills, business acumen and vision.
But like any movement, there are those who look to exploit the spirit of the pop-up. We get self-styled chefs of dubious training and no apparent reputation launching “residencies” (surely one of the most ludicrous developments in ego-driven cheffiness) as well as businesses with clearly ambitious plans barely concealing their aspirations under the guise that “we’re just doing a pop up for now…” No more pop tarts, please.
Thankfully, the team behind Birmingham’s latest pop-up are the real deal – not least because they’re not entirely sure what they are doing.
It’s not that the partners behind The Butchers Social in Harborne are clueless. Far from it. Mike Bullard, who has been a chef lecturer at University College Birmingham, and Jamie Desogus are established chefs whose CVs include stints at lauded restaurants including New York’s Le Bernardin and Per Se and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. And West Bromwich Albion Football Club.
The duo have taken over the former Walter Smith’s butchers in the High Street and have plans to turn the unit into an exciting new restaurant blending ambitious cooking with informality. They have been trying out the format with, yes, a pop up, at Harborne Food School and reports are positive.
But before the developers move into the old butchers later in the summer, Bullard and Desogus have a vacant building on their hands. They can cook, Harborne has hungry mouths, an affluent catchment area and a High Street pretty much devoid of stripped-back urban cool.
Thus was the idea of The Butchers Social born: a pop-up banging out chicken wings of all flavours, local beers from Two Towers Brewery and G&T’s with Langley’s No 8 brewed locally at Warley.
For the first two nights, spread over two weekends, The Butchers Social concentrated on multiple-flavours of wings (lavender and Szechuan, black treacle, soy and sesame, maple barbecue) at £6 for half a kilo and £10 for a kilo. The food was stepped up for the Easter weekend, when the venue opened over four days, including for brunch.
I had a good kimchi roast pork bap on Friday, having watched the free range Staffordshire piggy being lowered into the slow cooker on Thursday night.
The pork was perked up with Asian spices and had good heat; the bread was functional. A promising work in progress.
The pork was also served in traditional style with apple sauce and stuffing. My tip: ask for crackling and pack it inside the bun to get some snappy, fatty texture. I drank a pint of Two Towers’ Chamberlain Pale Ale, which went far too quickly.
There is seating around sanded down, wooden pallets that have been DIY assembled into tables. There is standing down one side and there are sofas and more pallets in a back room. It’s rough and just about ready and it is all the better for that.
I returned with my family on Easter Sunday for “brunch and bubbles,” enjoying a bottle of Prosecco to celebrate Polly’s birthday.
We worked our way through the corned beef hash and fried egg (£7.50), eggs Benedict with bacon (£6.50) and, due to dietary requirements, fried eggs and bacon rather than a bacon buttie (£3).
Everything was freshly prepared and simply presented. The corned beef hash was very good.
By midday Sunday, Bullard looked like he’d been working non-stop for four days, which is pretty much what he had been doing.
Inevitably, there will be a drop off after the initial interest but I can’t see The Butchers Social being anything other than a success. The problem for Bullard and Desogus will be what to do when attention turns to converting the old butchers shop into a full-time restaurant with a very different food and service offering.
Based on the early success of The Butchers Social, if the partners don’t keep doing what they are doing at another nearby location, someone else will. There is clearly a ready market in B17. If you butcher it, they will come…