An oft-made observation about Coventry is that even its own citizens take a perverse delight in talking it down. Take a look around the city centre’s food offering, and you can see why. When you’re constantly bombarded by the message that cheap (and not necessarily cheerful) is good enough for you, it’s not going make you feel great about yourself or your city.
Typical is this week’s subject, Ivy House on Jordan Well. As soon as I approach the bar to order some lunch, the barman starts pointing me in the direction of my cheapest option: the ‘gourmet burger and drink’ for £6. I feel mildly irritated.
The thing is, I like a bargain as much as the next person. As a habitual tightwad who rarely buys clothes from anywhere except the charity shop, I can hardly claim anything different. But I do get tired of this default assumption round Coventry that cheapness (rather than value for money, which is not the same thing, but is exactly what the discerning shopper finds in the charity shop) must be the sole criterion of anyone who eats out. It’s not just because this is a student bar; it’s all-pervasive. And it’s demeaning, and it drags the city down.
As for Ivy House itself, well, over the years it’s endured so many name-changes that I’ve stopped trying to keep up. But through it all, one thing has remained constant: viewed from the outside, it has always worn the slightly provisional air of a saloon bar of the Old West. Partly it’s because it’s not brick-built; amongst the older buildings that surround it, its simple box design, flat roof and cladding (current colourway: grey, with a dash of astroturf) suggest a contingent, possibly temporary structure, of a piece with the wild frontier. Mostly though, it’s that deck that fronts directly onto the street. Surrounded by wooden picket, it’s the perfect spot for a passing cowboy to hitch up his horse.
Sadly, the tentative Wild West connection evaporates once you get inside, in favour of a clean-lined but disappointingly anodyne grey, white and bare wood look. Unlike The Phoenix down the road, which bases its student appeal on a general but arguably outdated grunginess, this place, chasing much the same market, is bright and modern and restricts its solidarity with youthful rebellion to a display of conventionally anti-establishment screen prints on the walls, and a tie-up with a nightclub.
My ‘gourmet’ falafel and spinach burger, resting on a bed of hummus and topped with salad, arrives in a ‘brioche bun’ accompanied by a dab of coleslaw, some onion jam and a pot of decidedly limp fries. Ivy League? Not quite.
Felafel, believe it or not, work best as…felafel – they don’t respond well to burger-isation. Thinness and shallow frying distort the crispy-outer-fluffy-inner ratio. And while specks of chopped spinach might provide a carb-heavy student diet with welcome prods towards its ten-a-day, in taste terms their contribution is zero. Onion jam, meanwhile, exemplifies another modern fad I don’t really understand: that of making vegetables taste sugary.
The fact is I’d stop reviewing places like this if alternatives existed. The food is always the same and despite what it says on the menu, you’re never going to get anything remotely ‘gourmet’ because the target market is students. I’ve no problem with restaurants knowing their market – and I’ve no objection to students, whom the city needs for its future. My question is more: why am I, as a non-student, not considered to be a market as well?
Walking around the city centre, past the chains and the cut-price offers, I feel like I’m being forced back into a sort of pre-adulthood that I actually left behind over thirty years ago. Denying me the right, through lack of choice, to decide for myself what I value most when I eat out is profundly infantilising. But it’s also worse than that. The message I’m getting is that I’m not worth anything better – or even that I don’t exist at all. I’m a grown-up, for God’s sake! Why should I have to put up with this? No wonder Leamington’s thriving.
Ivy House, Jordan Well, Coventry CV2 5RW. Gourmet burger £6.