What is it with vegetarian restaurants and natural light? While the rest Middle England has seized on Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam’s whimsical 1970 track Into White as its architectural inspiration, and set about replacing bricks and mortar with not just windows of light, but also walls of light, roofs of light and even karzis of light (someone, somewhere), I – for the second time in little more than a week – have just eaten in what might as well have been a dungeon.
Billed as ‘Coventry’s only vegetarian and vegan space’, the café at Ego Performance Company was something I had to try. It’s not a place you’d simply stumble upon; you have to know it’s there. A turning off already-unpromising Bishop Street leads you past an Embarrassing Bodies special edition for the built environment: scruffy loading bays, weedy fire escapes, boarded-up back entrances and sunless corners where someone’s chucked the entire contents of a plastics recycling bin, it looks like.
In keeping with the ‘mean streets’ theme, the building I’m looking for is guarded by a bristling and unambiguously ugly metal fence. If you can screen that out though, this is actually a rather fine piece 1960s design. Before entering, I pause to admire the flat roof, the cool bank of grey and blue glass juxtaposed with expanses of solid brick, and – in subtle counterpoint to their straight lines – the concrete canopy trammelled to a curve and punched with portholes. You wouldn’t think so now, but this was once the antidote to urban decay; it spoke of a tidy future: tessellated, technological.
Through safety-glassed double doors, I find myself in a broad corridor that acts as part of the café’s seating area. Further along, it opens out into a lounge. There are no windows; uncertain daylight filters in only from the doors, now way back down the passage. The décor – cleverly playing up to needs must – is appropriately boudoir-ish: black floor, black ceiling, chintzy chairs and a huge mirror. Completely negating the effect is the breezy pop music issuing from the sound system. It reminds me of that frenetic get-off-your-arse stuff that blares out down the ice rink.
A group of women relax around one of the tables. They seem to be regulars; when they want desserts, they simply go behind the counter and serve themselves. The local postman, wandering in, flops down on a sofa and sets about making a roll-up. A cat strolls in, then back out again. The postman and the women share pithy opinions of mutual acquaintances. Everyone is perfectly friendly, but I still feel like an intruder.
The menu is limited and unadventurous, but very cheap. Nothing costs more than a fiver. I choose vegan burger. (I’d have had quorn chilli if I’d seen the specials board before I ordered. Why did they position it so you’ve got your back to it when you’re standing at the bar?) Faced with the task of whittling down the various salad accompaniments on offer to just two, I go with cous cous, and tomato and onion salad with a vegan pesto dressing.
The burger seems to be composed mostly of mashed potato, with vegetables mixed in and a crispy golden coating holding the lot together. Its bland, nursery-tea feel warns that given enough exposure, you could probably start to develop guilty cravings for it. That alone is enough to put me off coming back here. Basil has impacted the vegan pesto to a fair extent, but it seems excessively – and distractingly – oily. The cous cous is speckled with a few bits of something red and tastes mildly of cinnamon.
This place is only open two days a week. I’m unsure what the point of it is. Is it there to make a profit? Or is it just a comfy canteen for people involved with the performance venue? Maybe future events will be the decider. Much of the area is currently being bulldozed prior to redevelopment as – this being Coventry – a student village. I do hope this brilliant building survives. With an influx of potential new punters, a re-vamped café could really take off. There’s a loading bay out front that’s crying out for a make-over. Bi-fold doors would look a treat.
Ego Arts Venue, Cook Street, Coventry CV1 1JN. Vegan burger with choice of two salads, £5.