Ha! Didn’t think you’d see me eating in a chain again did you? Not now my head’s been turned by quality independent action at Esmie’s and feyn deyning at Turmeric Gold! So fair enough, I’ll hold my hand up: my presence here has less to with ascending the pinnacles of Coventry’s gastronomic delights than it does with taking one last look at the World Food Quarter.
What was the thinking behind the World Food Quarter, I wonder? Were there dreams of hepcat media types from nearby BBC Cov and Warwicks turning it into an enclave of after-hours sophistication? Or were there visions of eager tourists, fresh from visiting the Priory Visitors Centre, studying menus and choosing which country to visit for lunch?
None of this has come to pass. The media types, like everyone else, have homes to go to and kids’ teas to make; and the Undercroft, in words from the City Council’s website as deadening and dispiriting as the atmosphere here, is ‘closed pending the outcome of an Expressions of Interest process concerning the management of the centre’.
Canny old Nandos is, of course, far too savvy to rely on the World Food Quarter alone to supply its passing trade. So although it has a large conservatory-modernist extension backing into the second of the three descending plazas, its main entrance is round the other side, on busy Trinity Street. It’s also bagged one of the best buildings, a restored Victorian ribbon factory, with all its potential for stripped-back post-industrial chic.
Given that history, I don’t know if it’s appropriate – or ironic – that eating here feels a lot like being on a conveyor belt. I arrive as the lunchtime rush is tailing off, but although it’s a huge airy space of bare-brick walls and bold colour schemes, it’s still pretty full. Age renders me invisible to the youthful waiters, gliding about as if on rails. I have to ask them to clear my table of detritus left by previous occupants.
The food isn’t awful. It has no doubt survived enough focus-group tasting sessions to make sure of that. I just wonder whether ‘eating experience’ is top priority amongst whatever boxes are there to be ticked at these events. Because it perturbs me slightly that my ‘Beanie Burger’ is alternatively available in pitta and wrap form.
Which in turn makes me wonder if its most important property is not taste, but a texture pliant enough to bend to these varying demands. I imagine (quite erroneously I expect, but the mind goes where it will) a workstation covered with huge sheets of ‘beanie’, like 12mm carpet underlay and about as lively, ready to be cut according to order.
My chosen incarnation arrives. I’ve never understood the logic of serving a burger in a crusty bun. You have to bite down so hard to get through the bread that the burger just squirts out the side. Otherwise, all the advertised ingredients appear to be present – although the menu’s promise of ‘pulsating’ lentils takes some justifying (unless it’s a hilarious pun). In my mouth it feels flat and sticky. The taste is generic overseasoned fast-food heat. If that’s what you want, woo-hoo.
Passable however is my side of Supergrain Salad. Imaginative elements like pearl barley, sprouted mustard seeds and what I conclude are tiny black corn kernels impart a satisfyingly earthy, chewy feel.
Back outside, Priory Place is its usual sclerotic self. A pair of herberts loiter. The entrance to the Priory Visitors Centre is a rough sleeper’s den. If Shakespeare visited Coventry (and it’s almost unthinkable that he didn’t), he would have come here, to this under-exploited city centre void, once an important religious site. And what, I wonder, would he say if he could see it now? How about ‘All the World Food Quarter’s a Stage’?
It could work. To get the lifeblood flowing here again, how about promenade performances snaking through the interconnected spaces, a summertime Globe Theatre in the high-shouldered lower plaza and revitalised restaurants round the edge? The eyes that saw the greatest phrases the English language unroll beneath their gaze have looked on this place! Surely that needs celebrating with something worthier than a bottle of piri-piri sauce?
Nandos, 1-6 Ribbon Factory, Trinity Street, Coventry CV1 1FE. Beanie Burger with Supergrain Salad, £7.85
Stop Press: Good news! The Priory Visitors Centre is due to re-open soon!