A warm September lunchtime and we’re off to Coventry’s Creative Quarter, located in and around Far Gosford Street. At its hub is the so-called FarGo Village, a collection of independent retro/arty shops and cafés grouped around a ragged courtyard and covered ‘market’. Noting that one of its denizens staged a ‘Father Ted Day’ last week, sceptics amongst my readers might scoff that creativity in Coventry is about as convincing as a Chinese community on Craggy Island – but they’d be wrong. Recently-released figures suggest the venture is attracting increasing numbers of visitors, and it regularly hosts a variety of well-supported cultural and food events.
And I’m a fan. I’ve been here several times now, and I think it’s exactly the kind of place Coventry’s crying out for. As well as acting as a focus for all kinds of creative people, it provides space for the type of alternative, independent retail outlets that the city centre, hostage to blandness, so conspicuously lacks. As you would expect though, I’m not without my reservations.
First of these is the area where FarGo is situated. Physically separated from the city centre by the university, and with a ring of new student accommodation blocks already up or under construction, there is a risk that FarGo will eventually be swamped by its bigger neighbour, (wrongly) perceived by locals as nothing more than the cultural industries arm of the university and dismissed as yet another development that’s ‘just for students’.
These concerns are all the more acute when you consider that FarGo’s other neighbours are inner city Hillfields and Lower Stoke. Residents – many of whom probably have more pressing concerns than how to upcycle that tired old dressing-table – might well be wondering what the Creative Quarter ever did for them – especially as the logical next step is gentrification, with its attendant good and evil. It’s worth remembering that for a city of its size, Coventry has undergone remarkably little gentrification, so this would be something of a test bed.
My second reservation, after eating at Urban Coffee Company, FarGo Village’s main food outlet, is the quality of dining experience on offer. When I say ‘converted warehouse’, you might be thinking sunfilled loft. Think again. This converted modern warehouse is a cavernous, chilly-feeling barn. Fun lighting and a collage of musical instruments arranged over a distant wall are a drop in the ocean of echo-y concrete floor, spartan pine furniture, uninsulated aluminium roof and chipboard fittings, and do little to soften them. There isn’t even any music.
From the newly-revamped menu, I choose the ‘vegan stir-fry with asparagus, shiitake mushrooms and sesame seeds’, commended as a ‘good choice’ by the young lady behind the bar. My friend and I then sit down and – even though the place isn’t that busy – spend the next fifteen-to-twenty anticipating the arrival of our food.
My stir-fry, when it eventually puts in an appearance, is emphatically not, as promised, a ‘good choice’: an unappetising almost-black colour with a dense, sticky texture and worst of all, an unpleasantly intense salty after-taste. This, I fear, is going to be almost as dehydrating as a big night out at the real ale taproom next door, and considerably less enjoyable. Despite arming myself with an extra bottle of water, I can almost feel the headache setting in as I eat.
The problem (or Problem Of The Week, as I’m thinking of naming a new Coventry-restaurants-specific regular feature) is too much black bean sauce. About three jars too much to be precise, and there was me thinking vegan food was healthy. Duh! Eating this has very likely put me on the road to lifelong dependence on industrial quantities of max-strength anti-hypertensives.
Ultimately, the question is: who is the target diner? What we’ve got here might be OK for your trendy but impecunious hipsters, but if you want to pull in the older, more discerning crowd with the higher disposable incomes needed for to make Creative Quarter a success, you’ll have to do better. As it is, I feel like UCC is quietly telling me that FarGo isn’t for oldsters like me – the opposite of the message that economic profiling would suggest it should be giving. Maybe they hope I’ll go away and have a stroke.
Urban Coffee Company, Unit 7, Fargo Village, Far Gosford Street, Coventry CV1 5ED. Vegan stir-fry with asparagus, shiitake mushrooms and sesame seeds, £5.95.
Update (Jan 2017): Urban Coffee Company has now closed and been replaced by the Dali Tapas Bar.