OK, OK – as a vegetarian, I accept that I’m unlikely to be the sort of diner that ’experts in steak’ steakhouse chain Miller and Carter is trying to target. And truth to tell, in this temple to the carnivore, I don’t feel particularly comfortable. It’s not just the awareness that merely by sitting here, and handing over my hard-earned cash to the blood-soaked bastards as if I wanted to reward their murderous activities for God’s sake, I am, in some people’s eyes, supping with the Devil. It’s actually more fundamental than that: the whole place has an oddly infantilizing effect on me.
Partly, it’s the décor. The faux beams, the dark furniture, the red lighting and the brandy-glass-shaped candle holders – also red – on every table are inescapably reminiscent of Berni Inns, those icons of 1970s sophistication that are clearly encoded in Miller and Carter’s DNA. As a young-ish teenager I’d be taken to such places by my parents, ostensibly as a ‘treat’ (but really because they couldn’t think what else to do with me) and after their friends’ ritual questioning about school, there I’d sit – totally excluded from the adults’ conversation. Through the distorted glass of bottle-bottom window panes in that classic shade of cellophane yellow, I’d spend the entire meal trying to decipher what was going on outside.
It’s also a very masculine environment. The seating is leathery. The carpets are red. The walls are covered in stylised pictures of lone bulls, and though they paw and bay and bestride their backgrounds as four-square gods, their outlines are filled with criss-cross lines like multiple meeting crosshairs. We can shatter them, say those lines. We can dominate them in a show of strength, dismember their soft constituent parts and serve them here, at this restaurant on a grimy junction of the A45 next-door to Premier Inn Coventry South. It all feels horribly self-congratulatory.
And I am mildly intimidated. Unlike me, alone here with no baggage except my solitude itself, my fellow-diners are visibly marked by dense experience. A couple of dark-suited groups appear to be part of the same après-funeral gathering, but sit at widely-separated tables and are barely on nodding-terms. What I am seeing? Two hermetically-sealed compartments of a complex life, nervously revealed to each other now it’s all too late? Or a single family, at war with itself? ‘It’s grown-up stuff’, the voices of Miller and Carter whisper. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’
The menu, unsurprisingly, is not designed for vegetarians: we’re outsiders and don’t forget it. But, on the basis that burgers are supposed to be a thing here, I go with the flow and order ‘sweet potato and red bean burger topped with cucumber ribbons & sour cream’. The burger is certainly large – I can hardly get my gob around it – but it turns out to be mostly flab.
Underseasoned sweet potato has simply been been mashed, mixed with whole red kidney beans, and covered in a crunchy coating of unknown provenance (Nuts? Dunno. Doesn’t taste of nuts). The whole thing then spent so long waiting on the pass that the accompanying fries are almost cold. And describing the lumps of cucumber that sit atop it as ‘ribbons’ is a misapplication of language on a par with deploying the same jaunty metaphor to describe the thundering A45 beyond the windows. The bleakness of this place is almost overwhelming.
I don’t belong here; but more and more – I’m starting to believe – the world belongs to those who do. I get my coat, and and head out into the fading light.
Miller and Carter, Kenpas Highway, Coventry Cv3 6PB. Sweet Potato and Red Bean Burger, £10.50