Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a special place created by food-lovers, for food lovers. People would come from far and wide to visit this special haven, feasting on the finest street food dishes from the best traders in the land. Those of us not from that land would hear the tales and the legends, ruing the fact we didn’t live closer and occasionally making the pilgrimage into the big city to get just a morsel of that fabulous food.
Enough of the fairytale stuff, you get the picture. For years Digbeth Dining Club has been the envy of plenty of us who live on the periphery, wishing that we too could have street food events on the same scale and of the same calibre. There must have been a lot of us wishing that same wish, because in recent years, Digbeth Dining Club has grown far beyond its original setting and now offers a whole range of events that have made it easier than ever for those of us in Coventry and Warwickshire to get to.
One of those is Coventry Dining Club, which is currently back in the impressive setting of the environs of Coventry Cathedral. The other is the Open Arms – the same idea but at Warwick Castle. Yes, that childhood favourite of anyone who lived in this area growing up and can’t think of a better treat than sitting amid the castle walls, pint in hand, filling your face with the best food around.
If you go anywhere near social media, you’ll have seen a billion pictures of the Open Arms – dubbed by some as ‘Britain’s best beer garden’. It sold out for 12 weeks straight last summer and appears to be heading the same way this year. The setting is stunning and it’s the perfect way to get your mitts on some of the best food the Midlands has to offer from different traders at the top of their game each week.
The idea is simple. You book a table for your group – which is any number up to six – then show up together, take up residence at your table and spend the evening filling your face. Drinks are table service and for food you wander out to where the traders are lined up and choose what you want.
Negative Norberts will tell you that drinks are expensive – they are a bit, but if you want a Wetherspoons booze binge then you should probably head there. There’s also no shelter so if it’s rainy you’ll struggle. And even if it’s not, I’d advise taking blankets and wrapping up warm so you can enjoy your food without worrying about spilling anything because your hands are shaking so much.
For those of you who may not have been treated to picture after picture of Warwick Castle in all its splendour, or all sorts of food from katsu curry to fried chicken with ramparts in the background, here’s a little peek at what we had a few weeks ago when we tried out the Open Arms.
I first tried these guys not long ago at Square in Rugby and they may well be one of my favourite traders of the minute. Whether it’s their crispy, faultless fried chicken wings that I had previously, the hybrid of fries piled high with teriyaki beef and topped with pickles (left above) or their classic chicken Katsu curry balancing crispy coated, moist chicken with a slightly sweet, fruity sauce, these guys don’t seem to put a foot wrong.
But that was before I got my chops round the impressive Katsu Sando recently which may have changed my future food choices forever. If anyone ever thought a sandwich was just a sandwich, I defy them to try this and stick to that belief. You won’t. Trust me.
Wallace and Sons
I tried Wallace and Sons a few years back at the marvellous Canteen street food event in Leicester. I think they were my first bao experience so they’ll always have a place in my heart. I remember the bao themselves being lighter before, but the fillings were bang on – especially the pork.
Us Midlanders are blessed with amazing burgers. Flying Cows, Stripclub Street food, Libertine Burger are just a few of the brilliant traders we have serving us the best patties man or woman could ask for and I’ll confess to thinking I’d seen it all. Then I tried Yardbirds Chicken and was reminded that no, you never know it all.
The best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted, moist, crispy, fresh-tasting and without a hint of excess grease or old oil, sandwiched in a quality bun with just the right proportions of toppings that drip down your face without drowning out the flavour of the star event. A lesson in chicken burgers and another addictive dish to add to the list. That’s if I’m not burying my face in some of their chicken and waffles – a challenge I feel it would be rude not to try one day.
Bournville Waffle Co.
And so to dessert. No, there aren’t just three savoury traders at these events, but yes, you will over-eat and end up having to miss some out. It’s one of those simple facts of life – a bit like the fact that the train from Rugby to Birmingham will always, always, always be late, or that there will always be one ingredient for a recipe that you thought you had but in fact you didn’t.
Bournville Waffle Co. have been on the street food scene for years turning out Belgian waffles buried underneath a mound of indulgent toppings. They epitomise what street food is for me – a simple idea, done well, over and over again without fail. You may think you’re hardcore enough to eat a whole one of their desserts to yourself. I doubt you will be, and if you are, you’re a better scoffer than me. Here’s the Munchies version that we shared between four, plus a fruity little treat that I stole a picture of from someone else.
One of the highlights of events run by Digbeth Dining Club for me is that they don’t just plough into a local area and take over – they work with that area to give a platform for local bars, restaurants, cafes and street food traders to stand on with them. A rising tide lifts all boats and all that.
With that in mind, it would have been utterly remiss of me not to stop for a coffee from Jack’s Shack, a local Warwick business that has fought valiantly over the past year to survive the storm that is COVID, hand delivering coffee and cakes and treats to people across the town as well as plenty of smiles along the way.
To see them not only enjoying support from the local customer base they’ve worked so hard to build, but to benefit from crowds piling into the town for an event like this, is exactly why I’m a fan of Digbeth Dining Club and events like the Open Arms.
Some people may see it as the simple chance to eat great food, drink drink and get out and about again. But for some of us, it’s the perfect chance to support independent traders and rejoice in being able to see them back doing what they love. I’ll put my hand in my pocket for that.
[I paid in full for my tickets for the Open Arms and for food from the traders when we were there]