It may have been trying to shrug off its ‘London by the Sea’ nickname since receiving city status in 2001 – and as we’ll soon see that it has good reason not to be considered as London’s off-shoot – but Brighton’s proximity to the capital is arguably a benefit to its hospitality market.
An hour’s train journey from London, Brighton is easily accessible for leisure-seeking day-trippers or weekenders and is home to a large number of the capital’s commuters.
Both demographics look to spend money on eating and drinking out, as does the city’s large student population and its predominantly creative workforce, so they need outlets in which to do so. Brighton certainly doesn’t fail them.
The city, which welcomes 8.2 million visitors every year, a figure which dwarfs its 300,000 strong local population, has a vibrant restaurant scene that offers a wide variety of cuisines to diners and has, on the whole, weathered the recession well.
“It’s been a difficult time for the whole of the UK over the last few years," says VisitBrighton’s marketing manager John Carmichael. "However, Brighton is more resilient than many cities – there have still been lots of new openings throughout the city over the last five years.
“Brighton has always had a cosmopolitan feel about it, but there seem to have been more unusual restaurants opening up here, as well as those that support the British trend and focus heavily on provenance.
“What is interesting though is that a lot of the developmental and interesting stuff in restaurants and pubs is happening outside the city centre. You’ll find pockets of places opening in neighbourhood areas like Kemptown or Seven Dials, so you’ll find more than anywhere else, that there’s a real sense of support for local businesses.”
There is a strong independent market in Brighton, but restaurant operators with a strong presence in London have also chosen the city as their next target for expansion, partly because it is the closest city to the capital and partly because its population is more open to trying out new things.
The London-based Vietnamese restaurant chain Pho took the plunge two years ago, taking on a site next to Jamie’s Italian. Peter Ilic’s Little Bay restaurants followed suit the following year with the opening of Little Bay at Umi hotel on the seafront.
This week, the so-far London-based Craft Beer Co will also be dipping its toe in Brighton’s water with the opening of its new site at the former Florist pub.
Craft Beer Co. owner Martin Hayes said the city seemed the ‘natural’ place’ to open his next pub outside the capital.
“Brighton has traditionally had a reputation as a bit of a test ground for people looking to expand out of London, but for us it seemed like the natural place to go because the market is right for a craft beer pub,” he says.
“We‘re not here because it’s London by the sea – Brighton’s a very different place to London and the people choose to live here because it is so different to London, but the people are similar in many ways.
“People come to us in London because we offer a quality product. In Brighton, people seem to have the same respect for craft beer and are interested in provenance, so we hope that it will be as well received.”
Hayes may well have chosen the right place for this next venture. The Great British Pub may be under threat across the country, but in Brighton the traditional boozer appears to be bucking the trend.
While the city centre has its fair share of chain pubs and bars doing a brisk trade catering for the hen and stag parties and the pre-clubbers, individual pubs are scattered around on street corners, serving locals or tourists who have wandered, not that far, off the beaten track.
Carmichael says: “Bars and traditional pubs are both continuing to open here in Brighton, whereas we hear that in many places they are closing.
“What’s good is that the independent pubs do well here, not just the chains. There’s an independent spirit running right through Brighton, in everything - and that includes the pubs.”
While it has an adventurous, open-minded and sociable local population who keep its restaurants and pubs trading, it is the growing number of tourists and the weekend breakers who keep the city’s hotels and bed and breakfasts in business.
Brighton held onto its number 10 spot for the second year running in the VisitBritain survey of most popular UK destinations for international tourists and judging by the level of investment hotel companies are making into new and existing properties in the city, they are expecting that number to increase or remain steady at least.
Accor has just started work on building a 140-bedroom Ibis hotel next to Brighton’s railway station and a Doubletree by Hilton is rumoured to have signed on a site close by while the Hilton Brighton Metropole is the latest of the city’s existing hotels to invest. Just this week it relaunched its bar and terrace as part of a £4m upgrade.
“All of the major hotels here have put significant investment into their properties recently,” says Carmichael. “It’s good to see them have enough confidence in the city to put that money in.”
One hotel company that invested in Brighton is now reaping the benefits. Boutique hotel brand MyHotels opened its Brighton hotel four years ago within the city centre. Occupancy is now at 90 per cent during the week and 100 per cent at weekends and it doesn’t seem to be changing.
“Brighton is a great city, there’s always something fun and vibrant going on here and people are drawn by all the great events it has. We are so pleased to be here,” says MyHotels marketing director Imran Hussein.
Read all of our articles on hospitable cities here