The Barton Arms is a pub that has existed for well over a hundred years, standing proud on a main road in a part of the city full of history and neglect. Inside is beautiful — as handsome as any pub in the city — a sprawling mass of Victorian tiles cast in hues of yellow and burgundy set to different shades by the magnificent stained glass windows. The tables, huge things cast from heavy wood, impossible to fill by any food order whilst sat on the slightly worn chairs. They serve food here: Thai food to be precise. Have done for twenty years, which must make it — along with the awful and now deceased Thai Edge — one of the original Thai restaurants in the city. It is a menu that still reads like it is their opening day; big on basic descriptions and with heat specified by the universal scale of chillies next to each dish. It’s affordable at all times, though particularly at lunch and on Tuesday evenings when two courses arrive on one plate for eleven quid.
I am there on a Tuesday night. Sat in the sprawling room that’s empty at the start and not-busy-enough by the time I leave at 8pm. Maybe it’s this quietness that explains the non-service. Literally non service at times. By the time I can find someone to order prawn crackers they have my food in their hands. By the time the crackers arrive I’ve almost finished eating. They manage to bring me the wrong drink and feign surprise when I question it. Yet they do this with a cheeriness that I cannot get cross over.
The food is mostly good. Wholesome and with zero pretence, it is a bargain for £11. One has mushrooms on toast that are just like prawn toast in appearance, a touch sludgy in texture but with decent flavour. It shares its space with rice and yellow curry, bright with garlic and lemongrass, the feeling is that they aren’t cutting corners here with the base ingredients. It’s a good yellow curry, not ground-breaking, but the result of a well-made paste and quick cooking of the meat. The other plate has two meagre chicken skewers with a very good satay sauce, more rice, and a stir fry of chicken with holy basil, garlic, some veg, and chilli. All of it can be found better elsewhere, though at a combined price of twice, maybe thrice, this price.
And that about sums up The Barton Arms. Birmingham has caught up and surpassed the food over the last twenty years, whilst the pub has had to contend with being no longer essential to the way of life in an area that has seen many casualties. Yet it keeps going. A Thai restaurant found within a Victorian boozer somewhere between Villa Park and the big Matalan. It’s the most unlikely of stories and yet quintessentially Brummie at the same time. At this price it’s hard not to enjoy being a part of it.