Not long after Andy moved in with me in a flat in Brighton, we went for a weekend walk around town. In the middle of one of the most popular streets- Gardner Street- there was a man sat at an upright piano wearing a giant red heart costume. He was playing surging melodramatic ballads with his eyes closed and his foam getup flopping around his ears. There was no basket for money or sign alerting us to a worthy cause. He had transported his piano to town, wheeled it into the street and struggled into his giant heart because he wanted to entertain us or because he enjoyed it or both. This, Andy said, was ‘peak Brighton’- eccentric, outlandish, totally bananas and absolutely standard for this small city. As Whitman might say, Brighton ‘contains multitudes’. I lived there on and off for six years and rarely went out without seeing something that was ‘peak Brighton’.
We finally moved out of the city two weeks ago to try out a bonkers idea of living in the South of France. So far we love our new home and we’re glad that we’ve left England but we also recognise that Brighton is a special place. It’s a town where everyone is accepted and you can expect to see a little of everything. A two minute walk through the streets will deliver up every nationality, sexuality and age group, musicians, students, tourists, drunks, yuppies, punks, Hare Krishnas. When I first visited in 2002, it was the only place I’d ever seen gay couples walking hand in hand openly. Now, that’s commonplace in most of Britain, but it was still unusual enough then that it stood out to me. I was impressed by a place that allowed the unconventional to be conventional without making it ordinary. Famous for its political activism, pebble beach, Gay Pride March, month long Brighton Festival and The Great Escape (the British version of SXSW), there are a lot of extraordinary things here to fill a visit.
There is a rough edge to Brighton, undeniably, it’s a tough town. The rents are nauseatingly expensive, a beer costs almost the equivalent of an hour’s work at minimum wage, and because of tourism and the density of cafés, it’s a beacon for anyone looking for work. It must have the highest ratio of cake to inhabitant in all of Europe.I haven’t done the research but I feel that the most interesting places often have a mix of incomes; it creates tension but it also adds the diversity needed to breed culture, tolerance and great food. Brighton is diverse and not your average British town. To help you narrow down your choices and get your own ‘peak Brighton’ experiences, I’d like to share some of the places that stand out for me and that I’m going to miss now that I’m gone.
I Just Love Finding New Places to Eat:
Purezza is the one place in town that I would eat every single day if money were no object. It’s an incredible pizzeria that also happens to be vegan. Their sourdough bases are gently charred in a huge igloo shaped wood fired oven and then served with vegan cheeses made on site. I’ve only ever had dough that tasty and soft in Venice. All of the basics- dough, red sauce, mozzarella- are delicious and then they add inventive toppings like smoked beetroot, pea pancetta and sriracha, without overwhelming the pizzas. I recommend the Fumosa, the Popeye or the Pesto Manifesto. Make sure to find room for their tiramisu or chocolate calzone (when it’s on the menu…don’t be above begging here).
The Hope and Ruin is an odd mishmash of a place. The music is loud and the decor is trying too hard, which means that none of the seats are comfortable or the right height and the walls are covered with the scattered possessions of an 80s teenager. It has a certain manic charm though, with a great small music venue upstairs, big windows to watch people go by and excellent vegan junk food. The kitchen is run by Beelzebab and their specialty is vegan hot dogs. Start with an order of fried gherkins and then keep it simple and go for the chilli cheese dog. Their cheese is sickly and gooey just like the nacho cheese of any greasy diner- their secret is they mix their vegan cheese with vegan mayo- and the wieners are smoked tofu. (FYI- The seitan kebab is pretty good but needs more sauce and less red cabbage). If you’re desperate to try something quirky, add some peanut butter jelly fries- a cross between satay and classic pb&j.
Taj The Grocerdoesn’t at first seem like an obvious choice for a place to eat, it’s a large Middle Eastern grocery store, but their deli counter is too good not to include. A little bit out of the centre, about a seven minute walk from the main shopping centre Churchill Square, it should be on your list of places to visit even if you’re not hungry. Wander round their amazing mix of international produce and stock up on kala namak (for vegan scrambled tofu that tastes uncannily like eggs), black pepper sriracha, and tinned jackfruit. Get the best crispy falafel I’ve ever had in a wrap from the deli counter and go sit on the beach. Or get my favourite, the chana dal, with some veggie samosas, take it all back to your hotel and dig in for one of those take away feasts that leaves you sated and gassy. Careful, the sauce stains everything bright 70s orange.
Bankers Fish & Chipsis not on the seafront but it is the best fish and chips in town. Even as a vegan, I love Bankers, but then I consider chips a weekly staple. One very important thing that Andy taught me is that amazing chips are even more amazing in a wrap. If it’s sunny/warm enough, buy some wraps from the Waitrose on the way, then order a large chips and lots of ketchup to share. Go sit in the park opposite or two minutes away on the beach. There is also a sit-in restaurant if you don’t fancy balancing your food on your knees and eyeballing hungry seagulls. (Harry Ramsden is a surprisingly good backup nearer the beach or Buddies if you’re desperate for the full greasy paper plastic table experience, and it’s open 24 hours).
Moksha is great if you want a really good brunch. There are a million brunch places in town and if you want a traditional meat or veggie option then you can also try Bill’s (it’s super busy on weekends), Silo (chic, sustainable and minimalist) or Billies (tiny greasy spoon style café). For a vegan brunch however, Moksha is my favourite. Order the vegetarian breakfast without the eggs (they’ll substitute for avocado) and a side order of the homemade hash browns.
Glazed fills a hole (pun intended) in the vegan food market- vegan dessert. Glazed make vegan doughnuts, which may well be a trending food stuff where you live (Damn you Voodoo Doughnuts in Austin) but even in vegan-friendly England, vegan dessert options are few and far between. I’m not just recommending Glazed because they’re the only choice, the doughnuts are delicious. Their tiny café is tucked away off of London Road, which has recently seen independent businesses popping up thanks to new student accommodation nearby. They often sell out of doughnuts by the end of the day, that’s how great they are. My favourites are the Lotus biscuit and the chocolate orange. Anyway, it’s worth leaving the North Laines and wandering down to London Road and the streets around Glazed to explore The Open Market, the string of local charity shops, and to take a walk around The Level.
Boho GelatoDon’t even consider the competitors, Boho is the best ice cream parlour in town. They make real Italian style gelato in a staggering array of traditional and innovative flavours. For non-vegans the carrot cake is incredible, and for vegans the peanutbutter sea salt caramel is the one.
Coffee & Shopping:
Before you amble round town, you need coffee. Hard as it may be to believe, Brighton has even more coffee than cake. After extensive research, my recommendations for strong coffee and strong wifi are Bond St Coffee, The Flour Pot Bakery or Small Batch (I think their 7 Dials or Norfolk Square branches are the nicest to sit in).
After that, I would walk through the North Laines from Bond Street to Sydney Street. In Bond Street there is Silverado, a lovely jewellery shop and a branch of Oliver Bonas for bright, stylish homeware. Then Gardner Street- look out for a piano playing giant red heart- has Vegetarian Shoes where you can buy vegan alternatives to Doc Martens and Lust! for an unembarrassed selection of sex toys. On the corner of Gardner Street is the famous local healthfood store Infinity Foods which has a great range of ethical cosmetics and an excellent bakery. The next Laine is the charming but narrow Kensington Gardens. Despite the slow moving crowds, it’s worth walking down because of Resident, one of the best music shops in the UK, and Snooper’s Paradise a huge two-floored junk shop. As you cross over Gloucester Road to reach the last of the Laines, stop in at Yashar Bish to look at their Moroccan jewellery and homeware or InHouse Space for their designery homeware. Finally, spend a happy hour browsing through Dave’s Comics, Books for Amnesty and Pen to Paper (you can never have too many notebooks) on Sydney Street.
Brighton is a great place to hunt for second hand and vintage clothing. My top finds have been either from the beautifully curated collection at Wolf and Gypsy, the gigantic local branch of Beyond Retro, or the Oxfam on North Street. If you have a bit more money to spend and you’re looking for a special occasion outfit, then try Hope and Harlequin.
Given its political activism, you would expect Brighton to have some good sources of ethical brands, and you would be right. The impeccable Our Daily Edit stocks Veja trainers, The Nude Label‘s beautiful minimal underwear and Armor Lux‘s archetypal striped tops. You can also try on some People Tree clothing and a range of interesting fairtrade brands at Fair.
Drinks and Bits & Pieces:
All of our friends laugh at us but one of our favourite pubs is The Post & Telegraph which, yes, is a Wetherspoons. As I mentioned above, Brighton is an expensive place for a drink with your average pint priced somewhere between £4.80 and £5.40, so this Wetherspoons, while not the most stylish of Brighton’s many many pubs and bars, is always cheerily full of people, sells an amazing selection of British, European and craft beers for around £3.50 and does chips that rival Bankers. Oh and they have an app. Which means you can order from your table and they bring your pint (and chips) to you. Usually in less than a minute.
Brighton’s LGBTQ+ community is large and historied and a fantastic side effect of this active community is the city’s drag scene. For the best drag, in a real front room style pub, then take the time to seek out The Grosvenor. This tiny drinkery is down a side street, not far from Bankers and Small Batch Norfolk Square, and on a Friday and Saturday night it has some of the best local drag queens singing their guts out to an enthusiastic and oddball crowd.
I have only had cocktails a few times in Brighton, but they were excellent, so I can happily recommend Plateau and The Plotting Parlour (expect to pay £9-£10 a drink). Both places really know their stuff, so if cocktails are your thing, then you won’t be disappointed.
For the best baguette, chewy brown sourdough loaf or (non-vegan) patisserie visit Real Patisserie.
Don’t bother with the Sealife Centre, it’s rubbish and overpriced. Do bother with the Brighton Museum next to the Royal Pavilion, the main collection is varied, interesting and free. Also, look at the Royal Pavilion, it’s nutso.
Finally, be careful when eating any food out on the street or on the beach- the seagulls have their sandwich stealing swoop down to a fine art.
Photos The Royal Pavilion during Brighton Festival, Brighton Beach, Pride Parade, Purezza, The Hope and Ruin, Glazed, Boho Gelato, The Flour Pot Bakery, Resident Music, Dave’s Comics, Wolf and Gypsy Vintage, The Post & Telegraph, Plateau.