Hamish Smith is at the New Bar of the Year, Passing Fancies. He chats to owners Matt Arnold, Eve Green and Tommy Matthews about what increasingly feels like Birmingham's flagship bar.
There are few winning formulae for the would-be bar owner, but creating a serious product in an unserious environment is one of them. Matt Arnold, Eve Green and Tommy Matthews’ Passing Fancies in Birmingham is just that – seriously serious and unserious in equal measures.
Yes, they’ve got rotovaps, centrifuges and sous vides – and they know how to use them – but they make a drink called Adult Ribena and one that combines champagne and Stella. On the surface they serve fancy small-plate food, but actually it’s out of a small kitchen without a trained chef. And if from the photos this looks like a self-important venue – almost a high-end restaurant space with an open kitchen – it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a bar in a former custard factory in the scruffy but loveable Digbeth.
Custard Factory has transformed in recent years into a cradle for start-ups, buzzing with venues and creative types (even celebrities: Joe Lycett has his office in the building and is a regular) who spill out into the shared courtyard. The space is glass-surrounded on three sides so, busy or dead, there’s no hiding. “We joke that we’re like a fishbowl,” says Arnold. “But we want it to be the opposite of a dark speakeasy down a staircase. Let’s be open. Let’s be loud. Let’s be completely different.”
If there is a theme, it’s a loose one. Quite literally – the trio wanted to recreate the loose, casual vibes of a kitchen at a house party. And they’ve done it. The space has a communal feel, an island bar allowing for customers to mill around the bartenders. It feels barrier-free, inclusive. And it’s so much more than the kitchen table in a restaurant – customers aren’t here to watch a show, they’re in one.
But if there’s one thing that’s not reminiscent of a kitchen at a house party, it’s the drinks, and for that we’re thankful. This trio know how to make cocktails. Green is the emerging talent – she won her first comp and was a Challenge Champ at World Class this year. Her partner, Arnold (professionally and domestically – they are parents to two parrots, five parakeets and two dogs), is fast establishing himself as one of the best drinks makers (and drinks presenters) around. This year he joined an elite group of bartenders to have won World Class GB. And Matthews, already with the likes of The Edgbaston and Couch on his CV, is one of the best-known bartenders in the UK.
Arnold fills us in: “Our drinks at Fancies are designed around two things: clarity and accessibility. We only ever work with fresh ingredients and that allows us to really dive into the depth of flavour that peak produce can offer. Our drinks are always presented with a description of three identifiers and the lower down the menu you find yourself, the heavier the flavours. For example, for our Short & Stout, at the bottom of our list, is described as Walnut – Stout Caramel – Scotch.”
The menu changes not at the whim of the bartenders, but through what they can buy at the St Martin’s market – a couple of minutes from the bar. “This not only pushes us creatively but also, whether it’s your first time as our guests or you’re a certified Fancies veteran, there’s always something fun and exciting for you to dive into.”
Ingredient led, yes, but they have fun with their drinks too. The Adult Ribena does sound a lot like something your housemate might fashion. But here, it’s going to be good. “It’s based around the first drink myself and bar manager Charlie made together six years ago, when we were uber fresh,” says Arnold. “It’s essentially a jumped-up blueberry Sidecar with fortified kumquat and an acidified honey from our roof. It is then clarified with both the enzyme pectinex and spinning it through a centrifuge at 3200rpm. Scientific, right? However, when we sat down to taste it, we all thought it tasted like an adult version of Ribena – and one of our bestsellers were born. Technical in process, clear in flavour but accessible to all.”
The food here is a few steps up on your average house party kitchen too. Actually it’s a step up on your average bar – Passing Fancies was a finalist in the Food Menu of the Year category at the Class Bar Awards earlier this year. And amazingly, the food is put together by bartenders, not trained chefs. At opening the dishes were devised by a consultant chef, whose plates would be recreated by the team. Long story short, the chef later became Green and the quality has been maintained to the point that the guests haven’t noticed – not negatively anyway. Not that Green calls herself a chef. She has no formal qualification in the kitchen, but she clearly has an eye and a palate for cooking. What comes out of their corner kitchen is some of the most ambitious dishes of any independent cocktail bar, anywhere in the country.
The approach is to pre-prep dishes so that they can be finished and served in five minutes. “It’s been such a learning curve – it’s insane,” says Green. “But it’s been fun, I love it.”
What she lacks in experience, she makes up for in attitude – there seem to be no pre-conceived ideas or barriers around what bar food should be. Instead, there’s ambition in bundles: “Sometimes recipes don’t work – we put them together and you think, how on earth are we going to recreate that in service? If I’m not there, can someone else finish it off ? Anyone can cook a nice plate of food but it’s about recreating it quickly in service, so picking the recipes is 70% of the battle.
“Just like our drinks programme, our food offering is fluid,” says Green. “We approach our local traders and see what cuts of meat and fresh produce are at their peak, bring it back to the bar and work on a bi-weekly menu. That being said, there are a few staples of our menu. Our burrata dish with fried squash, pickled sultanas and crispy sage has picked up a bit of a following.” Another favourite is arancini with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and truffle. These are big dishes from a small kitchen.
The first bar launched, like a band’s first album, is the best reflection of its owners’ personalities. Passing Fancies is no different. It speaks to the owners’ shared bar philosophies, a parcel of everything they’ve learned to that point, wrapped up altogether. But as perfectly harmonious as this three-way (professional) marriage is, it was a chance happening. Matthews was due to open a different place altogether. “I had a concept with a chef that fell through – I was a bit down in the dumps,” says Matthews, who had actually seen two other sites fail to materialise since he started looking in 2019.
By 2022 they were all in the same position – Arnold and Green had been looking for about a year too. When Matthews was offered the Passing Fancies site, he brought them in.
“We sat down and smashed business plans together,” he says. Within minutes they were discussing names. "We just thought the same,” says Matthews. “We had the same views on hospitality, on what’s wrong with it, what needs to change and what we can do differently. We agreed conceptually on how we see bars.” Within four months, they’d be opening a bar together.
Bar fit-outs normally cost in the multiple hundreds of grand, but not Passing Fancies. And that’s not because they cut corners (they sanded them), nor because they have useful backgrounds in law, building or design. They managed to open on the cheap because they got stuck in on the small stuff and got help with the big stuff. “One thing we are good at is knowing what we’re not good at,” says Matthews. They also know some very talented people who wanted to work with them. You can’t put a price on being likeable. “The community vibe was there from the start,” says Matthews in summary. It must have been – the bar (not including the kitchen) was opened on less than £60k.
And the site wasn’t even a bar before. They had three months to make a furniture shop a cocktail bar. “There weren’t even toilets and we didn’t even know if we had the plumbing to put a toilet in,” says Green. That could have been a problem, but Matthews tapped his way around the floor with a hammer and struck gold. Well, actually a waste pipe. “I’ve never been so excited to smell backed-up methane,” says Matthews. “It saved us thousands.”
When they opened, it wasn’t just as a bar. From the start the trio wanted Passing Fancies to be a hub of the community. “We refer to ourselves as a “community-led venue”, which refers to a number of things: the community in our bar, our local community and our industry,” says Matthews.
“Passing Fancies is the only bar in the Midlands which has a rotovap, a centrifuge and loads of other lab kit under the same roof. But instead of using this as some sort of competitive advantage, we’re of the mindset to just open it up to everyone who wants to try it out. There’s a certain level of training we’d need to give bartenders who’ve never used equipment like this before, but it’s pretty low cost to me when you consider the aim. We’re up-skilling, sharing ideas and techniques. We’re investing in our community’s future.”
And they mean it. The dynamic is one of support for the industry, but also as a team. They want to create an environment which people want to come into, and as owners they give each other the space they need to pursue other career goals. There’s no ego here. And between them, there’s no lack of ambition, but it’s done without the pretence, the big-name bartender bullshit. “We want to be industry leading, no-nonsense hospitality,” says Arnold. “Come in and see us. Bring your friends, bring your mum – please bring your dog. We’ll bring the vibes.”
Twelve months in and Tommy Matthews, Eve Green and Matt Arnold’s bar already feels like it’s matured beyond its name – Passing Fancies isn’t going to be a temporarily affair. As a hub for Birmingham’s community and a platform for three of the most likeable and talented operators out there, Birmingham is head over heels in love with the place. There are few who aren’t.