A walk round Coventry city centre can be a disorientating experience. Successive waves of redevelopment and re-tweeking, often with scant regard for existing structures, have blurred the clarity of the post-war reconstruction plan, and created a cluttered and disharmonious streetscape. Positioned like a rock in a river, one of the very worst offenders is the egregious Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre, late otp. Resolute and four-square, it effectively interrupts any tentative conversational flow between the blocky formality of Broadgate and the older, more organic thoroughfares beyond, with its single unique contribution being, according to one commentator, ‘to moon its servicing backside towards the cathedral’.
Drapers Bar is a welcome respite from this madness. From across the street, it resembles a huge rusty camper van with its roof extended. But look more closely, because – with a knowing wink to passers-by – the architecture of this place is actually mixing the drinks for another, better-known local building. Clad in deep red sandstone and finished with flourishes of turquoise patina, what we have here is nothing less than a cheeky secular homage to Basil Spence’s modernist monolith just around the corner.
What I love about Drapers is that it is a fully realised concept – a Drapershaus, if you will. Every last detail of furniture, fixtures and fittings is carefully designed to be of a piece with a coherent, unified vision. It’s quite a nostalgic vision: in their colour and outline, the pale wooden tables and chairs and bespoke fitted benches stir comforting memories of the school rooms of my infancy and the soporific notes of Fauré’s Dolly Suite. The polished concrete floors and the blackboards beside the bar whisper the same theme. Current tastes for light and airiness and space are recognised, but this isn’t fashion. This is timelessness-in-the-making.
I sit on the mezzanine, at a built-in table that protrudes like a small wooden tongue from the rail overlooking the double-height bar. Above me, the curved, plywood-panelled ceiling. To my left, a row of watchful windows keep Earl Street under the eye. On an August afternoon, I could quite happily mellow-out in these seductive surroundings for the rest of the day. But I suppose there’s work to do.
My ‘sweet potato and spring onion chilli cakes served with basmati rice and a dressed mixed salad’ bring me back down to earth with a bump. I wish I knew what perverse culinary logic persuaded them that it would be a good idea to serve up a dish that essentially consists of two large balls of breadcrumb-coated mashed potato accompanied by a huge pile of boiled rice. Presumably not the Atkins Diet Recipe Collection.
Served with yoghurt dip, smaller versions of the cakes might have worked as a starter. Dense and ungreasy, they manage to deliver on both elements of the sweet’n’heat ticket, but I find only fleeting traces of the promised spring onion. Instead, kernels of sweet corn emerge – an odd addition, given the potato is sweet already. Maybe chef thought it needed texture. What it really needs is lubrication – it’s crying out for lubrication in fact – but the only nod in that direction comes from a small pot of watery, sludge-coloured goo that I take to be some kind of relish.
As it seems to have forced entry to my plate without bothering to inform the menu, I don’t really know who to finger for the multiple crimes against dining contained in this receptacle. Mint remains a heavily-disguised prime suspect (I can taste it, but I can’t get a visual – there’s nothing green to be seen), cumin a possible accomplice and something burnt is definitely coming the heavy in the background. The whole thing’s thoroughly unpleasant and I don’t want to eat it. Which is why, unusually for me, I can’t finish my meal. It’s just too dry.
Back outside, I walk home through the living wreckage of big ideas, grand plans, promises that this time it’s gonna work – the eternally-disappointing and the newly coming-to-beautiful cheek-by-jowl. How did such an optimistic founding vision go so sadly awry? It reminds me of something, but I can’t think what.
Drapers Bar, Earl Street, Coventry CV1 5RU (no website). Sweet potato and spring onion chilli cakes served with basmati rice and a dressed mixed salad, £7.50