So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that when the visionaries of Coventry Cultural Strategy went up the mountain and saw, spread out before them, the Foleshill Road become a golden mile of food, what they were actually seeing was not a simple expansion of the current offering, but diversification and possible gentrification. Key to this thinking is, I suspect, the Coventry Canal.
Because it’s true that compared to cities like Manchester and Birmingham, which have re-imagined their canal heritage as showpiece leisure and entertainment quarters, Coventry’s canal, running behind the Foleshill Road as far up as the old Courtauld’s factory, is a criminally under-utilised asset.
You might argue that one reason for this is because development has already been tried – and hasn’t completely worked out. So yes, the Canal Basin is pleasant enough, and is home to a thriving community of small businesses – plus the fabulous Tin at the Coal Vaults performance venue – but few-and-far-between are the times when you could truthfully describe it as ‘buzzing’.
All that may be about to change, however. The emergence of Bishopsgate student village and plans for improved access to the canal from the city centre – including a not-so-fond farewell to that kamikaze footbridge that spans the Ring Road between Bishop Street and Leicester Row – could, in turn, open the door to further canalside development.
A stroll along the tow path certainly reveals scope for bringing in the bulldozers – although large-scale opening up of the canal frontage from the Foleshill Road would require millions of pounds in investment money and re-location packages for existing businesses, and have a potentially shattering impact on the peace and quiet of surrounding housing estates. In the short-term, maybe it’s more realistic to take a closer look at what we’ve already got. Which brings me to Toro’s.
OK – fess-up time: despite my usual open-mindedness, I did not have high hopes of Toro’s. It’s just not my kind of place. A halal steakhouse chain with an incongruously Spanish name and a casual disregard for the proprieties of the English language (‘Toros ™ is a new concept in itself in the UK’ witters its website ‘however the recipes and heritage go back well over 100 years ago’) is never going to do it for a vegetarian grammar snob like me. But for once, I’m not really here for the food. I’m here to see what they’ve done to the General Wolfe.
The last time I was in this iconic building was a year or two before its demise as a pub, at a wake for a West Indian funeral. Proudly commanding its corner, it was still your classic late-Victorian boozer then, with small, fuggy drinking areas, plush seating and – bizarrely but oh-so memorably – the contents of the great man’s wardrobe in display-cases round the walls. All gone now, of course. Now it’s just a big, featureless dining hall – magnolia walls, wood panelling, enormous chalkboard detailing how to carve up a cow. I’d say it’s echo-y, except it’s not the echoes of the waitress’ clacky heels I’m listening for. It’s echoes of the past.
Because this place has a riotous, high-octane history. In its time, it’s welcomed generations of new arrivals from all over the globe; it’s been a landmark music venue and a Two-Tone engine-room. Anywhere but Coventry, it would be celebrated as a vital, must-visit destination, and making memories still. Instead, it’s this rather sad restaurant, where I ate undercooked chips slimed in day-glo orange piri-piri (Why? Just…why?) and (my only other option) a Mediterranean salad garnished with dried basil. The video for Ghost Town, or so it’s said, was worked out in the bar; now the bar’s a ghost itself.
The irony of a pub in a migrant area, whose name lionises an agent of Britain’s colonial might, is not lost on me. But perhaps it’s that very edginess that encapsulates why the General Wolfe was such a legend. If food is the new rock’n’roll, why can’t it rise again as a restaurant that draws on the energy, creativity and diversity of the old pub – and maybe, just maybe – starts them on a new journey down a golden mile of food?
Toro’s – I wish you well. But you are not that restaurant.
Toro’s Steakhouse Coventry, 551 Foleshill Road, Coventry CV6 5JW. Mediterranean Salad, £4.99; Piri-Piri chips, £3.00