Birmingham Two Ways: Part 2, BLOC Hotel & York’s Bakery

If Hotel du Vin isn’t your thing, or you’d like a cheaper alternative for your stay in Birmingham, then BLOC Hotel might be the answer you’re looking for. Might. Ah, what to say about BLOC? It’s a very interesting concept: adapting ideas from the best design in hotels around the world, and distilling down into a more cost-effective option. BLOC seeks to offer pared-down chic at great prices.

When Chloe and I went to book our rooms for the SCAE superheat, it was very last minute. Checking price comparison websites for hotels in Birmingham turned up a pretty scary spread – most of the hotels were over £70 at this point, even the Travelodge. I’ve stayed in Travelodges before and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’m not paying £70 for the “privilege”. I was pointed in the direction of BLOC Hotel and to my surprise, their rooms were much cheaper than almost anywhere else we could have stayed that didn’t look totally run down and scary, or was 30 minutes outside of town. I booked it, told Chloe our rooms were sorted, and prepared myself for 4 intense days of photos.

I arrived to Birmingham late in the evening the day before the superheat, the smell of coffee grounds embedded in every fibre of my clothing and tiredness radiating throughout my body from a 10-hour day of making coffee at an event. As I hopped into a taxi to the Jewellery Quarter (enough of a walk that I couldn’t deal with it in my pitiful, aching state), Chloe called me to say that she had checked in and was meeting up with a mutual friend for drinks a short walk from that hotel. Then she added in an uncertain voice: “The hotel is… interesting.”

The idea behind BLOC is, obviously, minimalism. The lobby has a glass front and is actually quite cool looking, with illuminated blocks embedded in the ceiling, seemingly about to fall down onto the floor. There are various ottomans and couches for sitting and socializing in the lobby (because as we found out, you can’t really fit more than two people into the rooms at once) but not much else besides those, a vending machine, and a communal coffee pod machine. When I got to the room, my first thought was that “block” was a very apt name. The bed took up pretty much the entirety of the space, with a small bedside table, and a minimal amount of space (about 5 or 6 feet) between the bed and door that served as entryway, closet, suitcase storage,  dressing area, etc. The bathroom, or rather wetroom, was a partially-frosted cubicle with one entire wall being a mirror. Interesting, indeed.

Thankfully BLOC hotel was just a crash pad that Chloe and I spent very little time in over the next few days, and I think that is the purpose of it. This isn’t the kind of hotel room where you spend luxurious evenings stretched out on the bed, admiring the décor, spreading the contents of your suitcase across the room just because you can.  It’s the kind of place where you come back after a long day, take a shower last thing before climbing in bed (hoping the entire bathroom will have dried out a bit before you go back in the next morning), and browse TV channels on the large screen in the wall as you drift off to sleep.

Oddly enough, my biggest objection to BLOC was the fact that I was sharing a room. It’s no penthouse suite, but if it was just one person in the room, it’s a perfectly suitable space, with enough plugs to charge your laptop, phone, and camera (or multiple cameras in my case), and a bed that is both huge and surprisingly comfortable. At these sorts of prices in other hotels, you’d probably be stuck in a lumpy, scratchy double or single, but BLOC offers king-sized beds that I happily would have starfished in had I been alone.  And as for the wetroom, that was the worst part about sharing. Whoever used the bathroom second had to deal with a completely soaked room. We requested a few extra towels from the front desk to dry off the floor (because one thing I hate more than anything else is standing water on the floor) which made me feel a bit wasteful, using towels just for the floor. That being said, if you’re less OCD than me, you might be fine with that. I will say that the shower is pretty great – it’s a monsoon/rain shower hidden in the ceiling, and it’s better than about 90% of any hotel showers I’ve ever dealt with.

So the verdict? BLOC is perfectly fine for solo trips where you need affordable comfort and will be out and about most of the day. If you do decide to share, I hope you know whoever you’re sharing with pretty well, or it’s going to get awkward really quickly.

BLOC doesn’t have any facilities for breakfast, and neither did Millenium Point where the superheats were being held, so we were on our own to find sustenance. We called a taxi, not wanting to face the pouring rain, and made a beeline for York’s Bakery. Being the coffee snobs we are, we asked around for the best specialty shops in Birmingham and York’s was one that came highly recommended. While London may like to think of itself as the center of the specialty revolution in the UK (and this may have been the case a few years ago) the truth is that places like Bristol, Brighton, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, and more all have growing specialty coffee communities of their own now that deserve attention and recognition.

We dashed from the cab to the warm embrace of the cafe, noting all the signs that let us know we were in a good place: bags of Caravan beans piled high behind the counter, a La Marzocco Linea humming quietly beneath stacks of thick ceramic cups, stacks of mouthwatering cakes and treats, a brew bar menu that included Aeropress and V60, and a brunch menu that included shakshuka. In my opinion, shakshuka is the ultimate brunch dish (besides eggs Benedict). Chloe and I ordered a shakshuka each and the same Caravan Ethiopian Yigacheffe prepared two ways: Aeropress for me and V60 for her. Both cups have the signature nose of blueberries, but subtle nuances in flavour come through because of the different brew methods. Personally, I preferred the fuller-bodied V60 cup, but both were delicious and quickly finished, as were the pans of shakshuka. Served with hunks of sourdough on the side, the cast-iron pans were filled with cumin-spiced sauce and plenty of slices of red bell pepper, sprinkled with coriander, and topped with two perfectly wobbly eggs. Despite feeling famished and loving every single bite of the dish, I filled up quickly and couldn’t quite get every last morsel. Chloe gets a gold star, though, for leaving her pan so clean that it could have been mistaken for a freshly washed one.

Although I didn’t return the next night for dinner, a few of the other London coffee people did and had rave reviews for the pizzas. And the baked goods… my goodness, if you go here and walk away without having tried the salted caramel brownie, then something has gone very wrong. York’s also has a great selection of teas and beers (including Kernel); in rooms further towards the back are bookshelves and a stack of board games, ready for use should you choose to settle in for a few hours on some of the comfy armchairs. It seems like a great all-around place, offering coffee and breakfast in the morning, then transitioning to a spot where you can meet friends, grab dinner and drinks, and hang out at night.

Sadly, most of my time was hoovered up by the competition and I spent almost all of my Birmingham trip at Millenium Point, a fair walk away from anything else. As much as I wanted to pop out during breaks and visit other coffee shops, it just wasn’t possible. Plus, lots of the best baristas were with us at the competition anyways! One thing is for sure – if you love coffee, Birmingham is a city that deserves your attention. I hope to visit there again very soon to discover more of the best coffee the city has to offer, as well as exploring the city itself.

If you have a burning desire to know what coffee shops you should visit in Birmingham RIGHT NOW, then lucky for you, Brian of Brian’s Coffee Spot has written about more cafes here!

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