Trapped in Neverland: the Strange Case of Food in Coventry City Centre

Britain is an ageing society – though living in Coventry, you’d struggle to believe it. The city is a young one. At an estimated 33.1 years (2015 figure), the average age here is almost seven years below that of England as a whole.

One of the reasons for this relatively youthful profile is the phenomenal growth of the university. The city centre population is already heavily student-dominated; and with more accommodation towers climbing skywards all the time, it’s a trend that seems set to become ever more pronounced.

In many ways, it’s a positive development. Young people bring energy, vibrancy and creativity, and if they stay on in Cov after graduating, their skills will boost the local economy and fuel economic growth. In terms of the city’s food offering however, their presence is, perhaps, proving to be a more mixed blessing.

Why? Well, expansion of student numbers might be less problematic if, before these new trends began to gather pace, the city centre already had an established independent food sector robust enough to provide alternatives and balance. But it didn’t. And now a combination of exploding numbers of hungry 18-24 year-olds and a city centre that is, in food terms, practically virgin territory, has created a feeding (in every sense) bonanza. Unfortunately, in the rush to exploit this booming (but comparatively unsophisticated) student market, much of what’s on offer is little better than low-quality garbage; and even at its best, is too-often bland, generic and predictable.

Take the planned new developments at Cathedral Lanes. Originally conceived as a shopping centre, Cathedral Lanes has, since 2015, been busily re-inventing itself as a ‘restaurant quarter’, and now boasts a trio of major-league national chains: Cosy Club, Las Iguanas and Wagamama. But they take up only a part of it. The rest is occupied by the heroically obstinate Wilko’s – which has stubbornly refused to be ousted from its prime location – or is disused (unless you count the pop-up charity shop currently gracing the unit that was formerly Blacks).

According to plans submitted by the site’s owners however, transformation is on the way. A further seven restaurants (plus gym – you might need it) will be added to Cathedral Lanes’ existing portfolio, bringing the total to ten. Seven new restaurants for Cov city centre?! I should be jumping for joy, shouldn’t I?

Yes and no. I’m no fan of Cathedral Lanes’ clunky architecture, but if we grudgingly accept that it’s here to stay and we’re lumbered with it for the foreseeable, there are definite positives to take away from this. Foremost amongst them is the plan to reanimate the conservatory and terrace area round the back, whose current state of semi-dereliction is, considering it overlooks one of the most genuinely picturesque corners in the entire city centre, little short of criminal. But the main reason my feet are staying firmly on the ground, is that – while nothing is known for certain as yet – the signs are that most if not all of these new restaurants will be chains.

Because look at the evidence. You’ve got a past history of filling the place with chains; you’ve got big name restaurants gagging for the a piece of the action and equipped with the financial resources and brand recognition to get up and running quickly; you’ve got the local paper practically wetting itself with happiness at the prospect of more chains; and you’ve got the City Council Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration tantalising us – like an indulgent daddy in the run-up to Christmas – with the prospect of ‘welcoming more well-known names’.

Well I certainly won’t be welcoming them. For someone well into middle age, one the most disorientating aspects of Cov city centre is that, at least as far as food is concerned, it won’t let me be an adult. The relentless focus on the cheap and the formulaic traps all of us, irrespective of our chronological age, in a Neverland of unwanted, inappropriate pre-adulthood that is both patronising and deeply insulting. The Cov Telegraph’s and City Council’s mildly desperate-sounding happy-clappy-aren’t-you-lucky pretence that chains are great – no, really, they are! – simply amplifies this message, and fools no one.

So OK, I’m a middle-aged woman; I’m used to being ignored. But while planners and developers can shrug their shoulders and say that Disgruntled of South Cov will just have to suck it up or shove off to Leamington if she’s that bothered, I doubt they’d take the same attitude towards visitors – many of whom will be older and will find cheap, student-orientated restaurants actively off-putting.

And that, my friends, sums up the challenge facing our city centre: how to create a food economy broad enough to appeal to a much-needed cross-section of diners, when local demographics are irresistibly urging the market to chase the student dollar and nothing else?

I’m not anti-university or anti-student – I would, arguably, be incapable of penning this finely-honed, tightly-argued prose if I had not once been a student myself. I see the current situation as a function of the Law of Unintended Consequences rather than the result anything more sinister. After my State of the Nation post, some commentators told me the city’s restaurant scene was still in its infancy and all I needed to do was sit tight and wait for it to ‘mature’. I just hope they’re right. But slavering over an enormous, inexhaustible supply of under-25s, the market has little incentive to look further afield or, in other words, ‘mature’. Meanwhile, those of us who already are ‘mature’ find ourselves ever more alienated.


Godiva’s, Coventry

Interviewed by Midlands What’s On magazine ahead of his upcoming appearance at next month’s Coventry Food and Drink Festival, Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Jean-Christophe Novelli observed that ‘a good variety of local cuisines will undoubtedly encourage more people to spend more time in the city. Good city-centre restaurants act as great ambassadors for the city and its local producers – they really put it on the map!’.

I wonder if he realises just how little attention our own city centre has paid to this sensible – not to say obvious – advice from someone who knows the industry inside out? Where food is concerned, the council’s biggest enthusiasm has always been for chain restaurants, with their uniformity and ability to assure nervous diners that they’ll know exactly what they’re getting even before they step through the door.

One independent that is bucking the trend – albeit rather feebly – is Godiva’s in St Mary’s Guildhall, which stocks one of the city’s few authentic traditional delicacies, the Coventry God Cake. Positioned somewhere between an apple turnover and a mince pie, the God Cake is thought to have been around in one form or another since the fourteenth century; so it’s entirely appropriate to find it on sale at the Guildhall – which, dating as it does from about 1340, is of approximately the same vintage.

On the day I visited Godiva’s, a selection of tempting pastry triangles was displayed (I’d hesitate to say ‘proudly’) under a cake dome near the entrance. Though prominently labelled ‘Coventry God Cakes’, a bit more flag-waving for their history and provenance would have been nice. (They’re actually made by Nuneaton-based Heritage Cake Company, who have also revived a number of other local sweet-treats including the even less well-known Coventry Corporation Custard.) Why is Coventry practically the patron saint of keeping your head down?

And the same criticism could be applied to the café itself. Located in the vaulted undercroft or basement area immediately beneath of one of England’s finest surviving medieval guildhalls, this is a unique seven-hundred year-old gem of a space with enormous potential. So why is it (God Cakes excepted) dishing up the same dull old fare I could get anywhere?

In a continuation of this spring’s flavourless soup theme, the weary tomato and red pepper offering I had at Godiva’s was was a poor tribute to a vegetable which, when its essential tomato-iness is allowed to condense and intensify, can produce some of the most show-stopping soups of all. The specks of red pepper submerged in its depths were too tidgy to add anything, while the paradoxically enormous croutons jostled for room like icebergs in a pond. Weirdly, they appeared to have been browned on one side only, which also made them disarmingly soft. (Fool that I am, I thought the whole point of them was to contrast with the texture of the soup.)

My fusilli pasta in some ways suffered from the opposite problem: the ‘tomato, mushroom and basil sauce’ was gratifyingly thick and rich, but had gone so heavy on the basil that it was difficult to taste much else. Meanwhile the thick layer of melted cheese topping the oblong serving dish put me in mind of a sardine tin, and almost had me reaching for a key to peel it back; and the sense in which my perennial – and perennially uninspiring – iceberg lettuce and cucumber side-salad was ‘seasonal’ remains a mystery.

Jean-Christophe Novelli’s point is that local farmers, growers, artisan makers and the like should ideally work hand-in-hand with independent restaurants to showcase each other, attracting consumers and other businesses alike and acting as an economic stimulus for the entire region.

None of this can happen, however, when almost all restaurants and cafés are clones that prize predictability (and price) above all else and purchase centrally in order to maintain them. Independents in great locations like Godiva’s need to wake up and seize to the opportunity that this obsession with conformity is gifting them – the opportunity to offer something different and to support other local businesses. But a half-hearted display of pastries is not enough. It’s a whole philosophy and it deserves vociferous, passionate champions who are ready and willing to get excited about it – for God’s Cake!

Godiva’s, Bayley Lane, Coventry CV1 5RN. Home made soup of the day with a warmed crusty roll, 3.65; Fusilli pasta in a tomato, mushroom and basil sauce with garlic bread and seasonal salad, 5.95.

The Millpool, Coventry

What convinced me that I had to try The Millpool, as I browsed its online menu, was the inclusion, in its starters section, not of dull old leaden-footed ‘soup of the day’, but of something altogether more mercurial: a free-spirited flash-soup reluctantly pinned down as ‘soup of the moment’. Soup of the moment! How could I possibly resist?

Recent refurbishments are very much of the moment too. One day, I don’t doubt someone will present a doctoral thesis on how the rise of social media, and its making public of that which was previously private, was mirrored in our early twenty-first century obsession with living in the architectural equivalent of goldfish bowls. Until then, the large glass box kicking out the front of what is still essentially an estate pub – albeit one that’s now selling itself as much on ‘British dining’ as on traditional booze – is possibly the most on-trend eating environment that Coventry has gifted us so far.

Speaking as a hipster legend then, I’m mildly disappointed to be shown to a table in the original pub, rather than the modish extension. Taking my seat, I find myself surrounded by a lot of people – plus the usual eclectic background of wood, brick, grey paintwork, deep-fringed, boudoir-ish lampshades and Robbie Williams belting it out. The actual moment however, as I learn when I order the famous soup, currently belongs to tomato and oregano.

Now I do realise that thanks to Brexit, the upcoming election is basically a stab in the dark on how to survive the single most unpredictable and perilous period of Britsh Post-War history; and that expressing all that in soup-based format is a big ask for anyone, let alone an estate pub off the Binley Road. But having tasted this woefully underseasoned offering, I can only conclude that it represented a commentary on Theresa May’s alleged strategy of boring the nation into voting Tory.

So while I applaud the kitchen for apparently making soupe du moment themselves, I’m sorry to say that – rather like forcing us through years of anxiety, uncertainty and pain, only to emerge with nothing to show for it but a bill for a hundred billion Euro-smackers – it all seemed like frustratingly wasted effort. Frustrating because it could – and should – have been channelled into something that was actually worthwhile.

And on the subject of Europe, there’s also the soupçon of an Italian Job theme going down in here. (Non-Coventrians may be unaware that the famous car-chase-through-sewers scene was filmed not in Italy’s Alpine foothills, but in Coventry’s own Stoke Aldermoor, just down the road.) The bonnet from a mini is cemented above the servery hatch, and the film’s best-known one-liner is traced onto a wall. So is it in homage to the city’s Italian connections that they’ve included ‘Spinach and Ricotta Tortellini with steamed greens, cheese sauce and Parmesan shavings’ on the menu? God knows.

To be honest, it could just as easily be an homage to a Stoke Aldermoor cheese toastie. Because in an inexplicable move, what might otherwise have been a decent-ish dish seemed, at the last minute, to have been blasted under a scorching grill. Molten Parmesan shavings, as a result, had welded the tortellini into practically a single unit; the cheese sauce was reduced to rubber; and the pasta had dried out. Nutmeg was present but – because the melted cheese was overpoweringly strong – was detectable only if you unpacked the tortellini and ate the dainty filling unaccompanied. The unfortunate steamed greens, meanwhile, had been vaporised out of existence entirely and the whole thing was sitting in an unlovely puddle of melted fat.

I appreciate that with an average twenty-one pubs a week closing in the UK, times are tough for places like The Millpool; you can’t blame them for looking to food as their route to salvation. But in doing so, there is a risk is that they’ll create an unwieldy hybrid with neither the character of the old pub, nor the thrill of a good restaurant. The cooking here, though predictable, does have potential – but grilled tortellini? Man, that’s a step too far isn’t it? You were only s’posed to blow the bloody doors off!

The Millpool, Hipswell Highway, Coventry CV2 5FR. Soup of the Moment, £3.75; Spinach and Ricotta Tortellini with Steamed Greens, Cheese Sauce and Parmesan Shavings £9.95,

The Establishment, Coventry

The late Peter Cook reputedly said of The Establishment, the Soho nightclub he founded with Nicholas Luard in 1961, that its name was ‘the only good title I ever came up with’. All the more reason then, for the bar/grill/restaurant now occupying ‘the only remaining 18th century public building of architectural distinction in Coventry’ to want a piece of the action. But while Cook’s Establishment gained notoriety as home to a new breed of irreverent comedians and satirists, would its Coventry namesake give me anything to smile about?

Well, the expression ‘called to the bar’ certainly gets a whole new meaning in here. This impressive Georgian sometime County Hall was functioning as a courthouse as recently as the mid-1980s and displays all the architectural splendour you’d expect. The sympathetically-restored double-height bar recreates many of the features of the old court, including judge’s dais, royal coat of arms, public gallery and dock; an offshoot eating area is located in what was once a cell.

On the other hand, the nick is not usually noted for its oversupply of rays of sunshine; and one of the handicaps this listed building grapples with as a leisure venue involves its relationship to natural light. The imperative of protecting court proceedings from streetside gawpers means the windows in the bar, though large, are positioned way above pavement level. Unless it’s warm enough to brave the terrace, you can forget about watching the world go by over a quiet drink.

For obvious reasons, the main restaurant, occupying a former exercise yard, doesn’t have windows either. Instead, it has a huge lantern light in the ceiling, spanning almost the entire space. It’s a clever solution that makes for an interesting dining area – and one whose seclusion from prying eyes creates a delightfully naughty frisson. They should play up to it more. What about a jungle of potted plants that simultaneously echoes the horticultural inspiration of the roof light and creates even more screening?

Because – considering the enchanting uniqueness of this place – the sobriety of the dark panelling and furniture seems rather depressingly safe. And unfortunately, that goes for the menu too. I mean, I’m not seriously (I don’t think) suggesting they make a big thing of ‘porridge’ or a speciality of ‘jailbreak pie’ (possibly or possibly not containing a file), but surely they can show a bit more imagination than bog-standard burgers, pizza and ribs? Especially as, within the limitations of the form, my veggie stacker burger was pretty good, and showed an unexpected flair for vegetarian technique.

It was billed as ‘a tasty veggie patty of lightly spiced spinach and chickpeas, topped with sour cream and mint dip and tempura zucchini strips’. And divested of its suffocating white overcoat, a perky, coherent burger did indeed step out, bursting with nutty, earthy flavours of raw chickpeas. The spicing could perhaps have done with being a bit less light – I couldn’t really taste anything except a faint suggestion of mint, which seemed to be coming from the burger rather than the dip – but the tempura vegetables were whisper-light. Whose bright idea it was to stuff them between a burger and a bread roll, where they were not only flattened by weight but soggified by steam, God only knows. Elsewhere, cubes of watermelon would have benefited from not coming direct from the fridge, but the chips were a triumph: crispy, fluffy, decent size and properly golden – some of the best I’ve had in Cov.

So why, despite that, did I still leave The Establishment feeling frustrated? Because in a city centre whose restaurant scene is in dire need of a bit of wow factor, this place, with its intriguing history and unusual spaces, is ideally suited to provide it. Instead, it gave me an interior that, for all its careful refurbishments, still felt underexploited, and a menu that, while boasting a welcome panache in its execution, was still no different from what I could have got in a sub-average pub. I’d love to see The Establishment do better than this. As to whether the Cov city centre food environment will ever give it an incentive to do so – you guessed it: the jury’s still out.

Update June 2017: The Establishment is set to close this month ahead of refurbishment and re-opening as a new branch of the Slug and Lettuce chain.

The Establishment, The Old Courthouse, Bayley Lane, Coventry CV1 5RN. Veggie Stacker Burger, £9.45.

Update: The Establishment has now closed and is re-opening in late August 2017 as a branch of the Slug and Lettuce chain. Yawn.

Cosy Club, Coventry

My big beef with bar/restaurant chain Cosy Club has always been the same: beneath the innocuous, snuggly-wuggly handle of the first half of its name lurks a concept that’s inimical to women. The clue? The second half of the name of course. So while its carefully-crafted image is a laid-back and endearingly kooky vision of ‘mansion splendour meets village hall eccentricity’, its real inspiration seems, to me at any rate, more likely to be the infamously misogynistic world of the gentleman’s club.

You understand it the minute you sit down and look around. You will be dining, you can’t help but notice, under the watchful eyes of many antique portraits – the majority of which depict conspicuously successful men. So here they are then: be-suited men, be-medalled men, men showing off their status-symbol gee-gees. Rather uncomfortably sharing a wall with a youthful-looking Prince of Wales, looms out a sternly disapproving Prince of the Church.

And if you still haven’t got the message yet, sad-eyed hunting trophies surveying the scene from on high are here to reinforce it for you, as are pictures of early aeroplanes, flown, one assumes, by intrepid men. Of their smaller number of female counterparts, one is starkers – but as she’s John Collier’s Pre-Raphaelite rendering of Lady Godiva, I suppose we can excuse it, just this once, as a dash of local colour.

Unfortunately, Cosy Club’s penchant for befitting architectural grandeur (its Birmingham branch is housed in the neo-classical pomp of a Grade II-listed former bank) comes slightly unstuck here in Coventry, where it’s forced to slum it in neo-Legoland Cathedral Lanes. ‘Cleverly clashing’ is how its website fronts out the jaw-droppingly brutalist bare-concrete ceiling. Yeah right. In reality, it has me doing a double-take and wondering if I’ve inadvertently walked into a re-fit.

Having said that, this huge first-floor space with its ‘4.7 miles of reclaimed wooden floorboards’ is genuinely likeable, and the big-windowed balcony allows excellent views over the modernist citadel of Broadgate (made all the better because from this angle, Cathedral Lanes itself is not part of it). So in spite of everything – and although I’d really rather not – if I do-or-die had to pick a favourite amongst Cov city centre’s chain restaurants, this would be it.

Possibly it’s age-related. 1970s mood-music creates an ambience my generation finds reassuring; and according to some calculations, mansion house plus village hall adds up to the comforting certainties of the traditional pub. And certainly there is a refreshingly large contingent of people my age in here, including a smattering of suits. (As an aside, I’ve often thought that one of Cov’s many dining deficiencies is that there is nowhere really impressive for businesspeople to schmooze prospective clients over lunch).

For my own lunch, I choose the Oriental Sesame Noodles with with baby spinach, pak choi, red chilli, marinated carrot, sesame dressing and halloumi – mostly because it sounds like a car-crash. I mean (imagine this next bit delivered in John Torode’s incredulous Masterchef Round One hiss if you like) stir fry with cheese?! Really? Salty soy, backbone of oriental cuisine, against salty Mediterranean halloumi? Should I put an ambulance on stand-by while I’m waiting?

In fact, it’s not as quite as injurious to my blood pressure as I’d feared. It is salty – but the toffee-ish tahini dressing (it’s a well-travelled dish – it also boasts redoubtable northern European red cabbage) buffers it somewhat, plus the halloumi comes in smallish, well-scattered pieces. My main concern is that the task of offsetting the saltiness falls to the noodles and vegetables alone and – nicely-cooked though they both are – their flavours are neither strong nor complex enough to provide anything but minor relief. The £12.95 price tag makes it pricey for Cov.

So it makes no sense. By rights, I should loathe Cosy Club – the concept, the so-so food, the fact that it’s a Cathedral Lanes chain. But I don’t. I’m guessing it’s because in Cov city centre, there are so lamentably few venues to match its casual, bistro vibe. Probably that says more about Cov than it does about Cosy Club.

Cosy Club, Cathedral Lanes, Coventry CV1 1LL. Oriental Sesame Noodles, £12.95

The Stag and Pheasant, Coventry

As an unaccompanied female from cosseted south Cov, I admit that entering an unfamiliar pub just off the Foleshill Road takes me slightly out of my comfort zone. But as I nervously round the corner into Lockhurst Lane, the only thing to accost me is a warm hug of spicy aromas that envelops me and guides me, gently but quite irresistibly, towards the Stag and Pheasant.  I’m no longer in control here. And once I reach my goal and step inside, I’m happy to report that all my worries are promptly knocked into a cocked karahi. Because this place is brilliant.

OK – it’s a rub-a-dub: the décor is functional (and sagely red and white), it’s noisy from various big screen TVs that are perma-tuned to the full house of sports channels*, and blokes are wandering around with pint pots in their hands. If you’re looking for a romantic meal à deux with your nearest-and-dearest, you might decide the Stag and Pheasant isn’t quite ticking all the boxes. But for fabulous, value-for-money grub in a relaxed and unpretentious setting, Coventry has yet to show me anything finer.

I hesitate to call it a ‘desi pub’ only because this doesn’t seem to be what it calls itself (it calls itself a ‘bar and restaurant’), and I’d hate to cause offence by describing it in terms it eschews. But clearly it is, at the very least, quite similar to a desi pub. It’s recognisably a pub – it has a bar, it has a darts board, it serves beer: what more d’you want? – but instead of tired old steak-and-chips and predictable veg lasagne, it has this banging Punjabi menu.

Or perhaps that should be ‘British-influenced Punjabi menu’. Because the inspiration for the ‘famous chilli cheese naan’ that I uncharacteristically plump for instead of rice (well it’s gotta be famous for a reason, hasn’t it?) to accompany my vegetable dhansak seems to be none other than the cheese toastie. In this incarnation however, bland British comfort food is given a glorious boot up the backside by feisty chilli, then brought round with dazzles of chopped coriander. I briefly wonder if the concept could be pushed a bit further (full English chilli naan?) but dismiss all other thoughts as I dive into my dhansak**.

Which – intentionally or not – continues the fusion theme. Billed by the menu as a ‘sweet and sour dish cooked with lentils’, the ‘sweet’ element seems to come mainly from a surprise addition of pineapple chunks, reminding me vaguely of my mother’s anxious attempts at culinary sophistication back in the 1970s. Anywhere else, it might trigger a few gifs’ worth of raised eyebrows and tutting; but at the Stag and Pheasant, I don’t care.

No, really – I don’t. And not just because this is terrific curry (although flavoured as it is with a complex, singing spice mixture of cumin seeds and coriander, it’s certainly that), but also because the pub has such a great atmosphere. Everyone in here – from the friendly, welcoming bar staff, to my fellow-diners in the restaurant, to the regulars knocking it back in the tap room – seems to be having a good time. You’d have to be much more committed to the miseryguts cause even than I am, not to just go with the flow and enjoy every minute of it.

A few years ago, the Stag and Pheasant was threatened with closure. Thanks to a bit of imagination and foresight by a British Indian drinker who couldn’t bear to see his local go to the wall, it’s now a thriving community hub that, in bringing together and celebrating what’s good about two distinct cultures, has magically created something everyone can love.

In the Black Country, where desi pubs originated, the phenomenon was recently the subject of a successful arts and history project. For the mooted ‘golden mile of food’ meanwhile, this savvy, grass-roots, something-for-everyone model might, with luck, be pointing the way forwards. Well, a girl can dream can’t she?

*Non-sports fans, might want to give this place the swerve when major sporting events are on TV.

**The kitchen will happily tailor the heat of its curries to personal taste, but be warned that what they call ‘medium’ would still be regarded by some as pretty hot. Not a complaint; just a heads-up.

The Stag and Pheasant, 13 Lockhurst Lane, Coventry CV6 5PD. Vegetable Dhansak, £5.95; Famous Chilli Cheese Naan (unless you’re very hungry, this is well big enough for two), £2.75.

Toro’s, Coventry

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that when the visionaries of Coventry Cultural Strategy went up the mountain and saw, spread out before them, the Foleshill Road become a golden mile of food, what they were actually seeing was not a simple expansion of the current offering, but diversification and possible gentrification. Key to this thinking is, I suspect, the Coventry Canal.

Because it’s true that compared to cities like Manchester and Birmingham, which have re-imagined their canal heritage as showpiece leisure and entertainment quarters, Coventry’s canal, running behind the Foleshill Road as far up as the old Courtauld’s factory, is a criminally under-utilised asset.

You might argue that one reason for this is because development has already been tried – and hasn’t completely worked out. So yes, the Canal Basin is pleasant enough, and is home to a thriving community of small businesses – plus the fabulous Tin at the Coal Vaults performance venue – but few-and-far-between are the times when you could truthfully describe it as ‘buzzing’.

All that may be about to change, however. The emergence of Bishopsgate student village and plans for improved access to the canal from the city centre – including a not-so-fond farewell to that kamikaze footbridge that spans the Ring Road between Bishop Street and Leicester Row – could, in turn, open the door to further canalside development.

A stroll along the tow path certainly reveals scope for bringing in the bulldozers – although large-scale opening up of the canal frontage from the Foleshill Road would require millions of pounds in investment money and re-location packages for existing businesses, and have a potentially shattering impact on the peace and quiet of surrounding housing estates. In the short-term, maybe it’s more realistic to take a closer look at what we’ve already got. Which brings me to Toro’s.

OK – fess-up time: despite my usual open-mindedness, I did not have high hopes of Toro’s. It’s just not my kind of place. A halal steakhouse chain with an incongruously Spanish name and a casual disregard for the proprieties of the English language (‘Toros ™ is a new concept in itself in the UK’ witters its website ‘however the recipes and heritage go back well over 100 years ago’) is never going to do it for a vegetarian grammar snob like me. But for once, I’m not really here for the food. I’m here to see what they’ve done to the General Wolfe.

The last time I was in this iconic building was a year or two before its demise as a pub, at a wake for a West Indian funeral. Proudly commanding its corner, it was still your classic late-Victorian boozer then, with small, fuggy drinking areas, plush seating and – bizarrely but oh-so memorably – the contents of the great man’s wardrobe in display-cases round the walls. All gone now, of course. Now it’s just a big, featureless dining hall – magnolia walls, wood panelling, enormous chalkboard detailing how to carve up a cow. I’d say it’s echo-y, except it’s not the echoes of the waitress’ clacky heels I’m listening for. It’s echoes of the past.

Because this place has a riotous, high-octane history. In its time, it’s welcomed generations of new arrivals from all over the globe; it’s been a landmark music venue and a Two-Tone engine-room. Anywhere but Coventry, it would be celebrated as a vital, must-visit destination, and making memories still. Instead, it’s this rather sad restaurant, where I ate undercooked chips slimed in day-glo orange piri-piri (Why? Just…why?) and (my only other option) a Mediterranean salad garnished with dried basil. The video for Ghost Town, or so it’s said, was worked out in the bar; now the bar’s a ghost itself.

The irony of a pub in a migrant area, whose name lionises an agent of Britain’s colonial might, is not lost on me. But perhaps it’s that very edginess that encapsulates why the General Wolfe was such a legend. If food is the new rock’n’roll, why can’t it rise again as a restaurant that draws on the energy, creativity and diversity of the old pub – and maybe, just maybe – starts them on a new journey down a golden mile of food?

Toro’s – I wish you well. But you are not that restaurant.

Toro’s Steakhouse Coventry, 551 Foleshill Road, Coventry CV6 5JW. Mediterranean Salad, £4.99; Piri-Piri chips, £3.00