I was a few restaurants in to writing Coventry’s first restaurant review blog when alarm bells started ringing. I ate in a place I had expected to be very, very good; it turned out to be very, very bad. If even a supposedly ‘good’ restaurant couldn’t get it right, what did that mean for everywhere else? What had started life as a blog about vegetarian food suddenly started taking off in an unexpected new direction.
And the more I ate out in Coventry, the clearer it became that the city has a huge – but entirely unacknowledged – problem: there are almost no decent restaurants. Independents? Hardly any. Modern British? In your dreams. Chef who can pull in the punters on the strength of name alone? Now you’re just being silly. The so-called ‘British food revolution’ has passed Coventry by. Realising this made me see what my blog was really about: articulating it.
OK – you might say ‘why does this matter?’. If Coventrians don’t want to pay for fancy food, that’s up to them, and if you don’t like it, you can p*** off to la-di-da Leamington. I think there are a number of reasons why it matters, but the most pressing is in the context of the City of Culture bid. In a nutshell it’s this: you can’t invite people to the city with promises of unique cultural experiences, and then expect them to eat in mid-price chains.
Because these days, people are accustomed to better. They want the Wow Factor: original concept, clever cooking, fresh flavours, artistic presentation, beautiful surroundings, attention to detail, local sourcing. My home town, with a population approximately one fifth of Coventry’s, delivers literally dozens of independent restaurants that tick all these boxes and more; Coventry – virtually none. The world has moved on and our city hasn’t even noticed.
And – crucially – visitors will also be looking for a package. Sure, they could go to Leamington for their gastronomic fix, and they’d find some terrific restaurants; but if they have tickets for an evening event in Cov and want dinner first, will they really put up with going to another town and then rushing back (with all the headache of locating two separate parking spots)? And are Coventry 2021 organisers happy to see their spend leave the city and go to South Warwickshire instead? Coventry is missing an enormous economic trick.
And unfortunately, there is precisely zero acknowledgement of this in the recently-published Coventry Cultural Strategy, a document which – while admirable in many ways – has its head buried deep in the sand where food is concerned. Mentions are fleeting and smack of desperation. Instead of recognising that the chain restaurants in the city centre are having a laugh at our expense, there is a tone of almost pathetic gratitude to them for honouring us with their presence at all.
Elsewhere, the Foleshill Road is potentially a ‘golden mile of food’ apparently – but there are zilch ideas on how to make this a reality. It’s as if, with five minutes left before the thing was due at the printers, some office junior suddenly noticed food was a big nada, asked his boss what to do – and was told ‘Oh, just bung in something about the Foleshill Road. Nobody’ll notice’. Well I noticed. And I have a few questions.
Like what is actually meant by ‘golden mile of food’? Is it a euphemism for ‘lots of Indian restaurants’ (as in Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile’)? If so, that’s fine: as long as we’ve moved on from the 1980s (and I don’t just mean tearing down the flock wallpaper – I mean in terms of food), there is loads to love about quality Indian. But a thriving South Asian sector is only part of the solution – visitors will be looking for more variety than can be offered by one cuisine alone.
At the heart of the problem is the received wisdom that Coventrians aren’t interested in food, and won’t pay for it. This perceived lack of market prevents quality restaurants from setting up; but it also means that when visitors arrive from places with richer food cultures, they swiftly decamp again because there is nowhere here that can meet their expectations. So round in circles we go.
I think this dilemma is a false one, and we need to smash it: a local market does exist – but at the moment it’s invisible because it’s draining away to other towns. What we’re crying out for is someone to take the plunge and set up a really great, independent modern restaurant in Coventry. It’s a city of nearly 350,000 people for God’s sake! The opportunity is immense! And it doesn’t even need to be super expensive. Just as an example, check out this menu, from a restaurant in Liverpool. It’s no more expensive than Las Iguanas, and look at the rave review it gets!
As to where it should go, I would suggest either vibrant Nightlife Central Spon Street, or the area around Fargo Village. Both are easily accessible, and Far Gosford Street in particular is a buzzy, upcoming area that already attracts people with an appetite for independent shopping. I think it’s safe to assume the same people would be up for be sampling independent restaurants too.
And as well as that, let’s stay positive about the biggest story in the city centre. In restaurant terms, the phenomenal expansion of the university could be bad news: a mainly student population is unlikely to support pricey high-end dining. On the other hand, an influx of South East Asian students has led to a growth in the number of restaurants catering to their home cuisine. Encourage these restaurants to develop beyond their original target market, and your local speciality is right there.
Assuming the Foleshill Road can somehow pick up the slack is not just lazy; it’s a measure of how little understanding the writers of the Cultural Strategy have of food culture. They don’t even seem to have grasped just how far behind Coventry is – do they visit other towns? I appreciate that the restaurant sector is private enterprise led and that the council cannot simply command it into existence. But there must be ways of creating the right conditions and taking the initiative. Let’s see some ambition!
Because this is no time for complacency: we must act soon. The situation is urgent, and four years is not a long time for restaurants to set up, establish themselves, build a reputation and act as beacons that attract competitors and raise standards further. Our only hope of achieving it is to start work now. Or do we want to be a laughing stock come 2021?
— Jay Rayner (@jayrayner1) January 4, 2017
I will be continuing my reviews in 2017, and in a new series, will be exploring the Foleshill Road restaurant scene in more detail.