IKEA, Coventry

Ah, so this is where everyone’s hiding! City-wide, restaurants lie empty and wasted; but here, even at 2pm on a soft spring afternoon when ancient nature beckons staid humanity to far more joyful japes than traipsing round an outsize warehouse stacked with stuff it doesn’t need, this vast canteen on Floor 6 is doing steady business.

I use the word ‘steady’ advisedly. If I said the place was ‘busy’ or ‘bustling’, I might convey an excitement – a thrill, even – that simply doesn’t exist. Despite the huge dimensions and buzz of people, there’s a curiously muffled quality to the ambiance. The combination of enormous space, big windows, uncluttered white simplicity and dabs of sunny yellow playfulness is so non-threatening it almost lulls you back to nursery days. Is that IKEA’s secret?

A real-ale enthusiast of my ken used to go all misty-eyed about pubs frequented by that Holy Grail he called ‘a good social mix’. He should try coming here. It’s full of all sorts of people, from mums with toddlers, to retired couples, to a high number of lone women (depressing for me, as an habitual lone female diner, that it’s only in places like this that others of my ilk feel comfortable to eat alone), to the pair of charm-merchants at the next table, guffawing over an internet dating site.

‘Man – there’s mature…and then there’s old’ reasons one of them, ogling the profile of some unfortunate woman who’s probably about thirty. I wonder how they’d classify me? ‘Relic’? They needn’t worry though: I couldn’t fancy either of them if I tried. Others have come here specifically for the gastronomic experience. I know this because they ascended with me in the lift and followed me to the restaurant. Unlike me, I assume they don’t have the excuse that they’re conducting research. Because – based on the food I was served – I’ve no idea why you’d eat here if you didn’t have to.

‘Toughness’ is a quality more usually associated with meat than with vegetables. Badly-cooked veg – like the three bears’ beds – can be too soft or can be too hard; but until I sampled the eponymous veggie balls of IKEA’s ‘veggie balls served with wheat pilaf and grilled vegetables’ offering, toughness was a problem I’d encountered but rarely.

I suppose it was because they were so small. They were all crust and little filling. The cosh of whatever cooking process they’d endured had cowed the chick-pea mass at their hearts into a shuttered, defensive shadow, sullenly yielding nothing but a sort of dogged, off-the-shelf savouriness.

Surprisingly perhaps, given how dry and salty the veggie balls were, the dish was served without sauce. I don’t know if it was chef-y calculation or just luck that the accompanying wheat pilaf and grilled veg (it came as an integrated whole) was on hand to ride to the rescue. In other circumstances, I might have derided it as ‘soggy’ and ‘waterlogged’; here, it was a saviour in an hour of need.

I look round. The budding Romeos have been replaced by a woman grabbing mouthfuls of salad between keeping up her end of a phone conversation. If you really push me, I suppose I can see the allure of IKEA: it’s a blank canvas. Anonymous and forgiving (though so architecturally non-standard that I can never enter it without noting in my stomach a small but molten pit of trepidation that I will never re-emerge from it), it can be whatever you want it to be. For some, I suppose that’s comforting; but my problem is – it doesn’t work for food. Anonymous food tends to be uninteresting food.

There’s one thing that may yet draw me back though. My reward for bagging a seat near the window is a panoramic view, looking eastwards over a city centre whose eyes have been drawn elsewhere. Like a mass rally at at ‘70s car plant, concentric rings of redevelopment – the strutting, the shuffling, the sprawling – cluster raggedly around the precinct citadel, awaiting its signal. I follow their gaze. On the ground, so much feels like random jumble: piecemeal, mundane, clueless. Up here, it makes a kind of sense. Cov city centre: the wonderful everyday.

IKEA, 2 Croft Road, Coventry CV1 3AZ. 10 veggie balls with rice pilaf and grilled vegetables, £3.50. Scoop peas, 50p.


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