The late Peter Cook reputedly said of The Establishment, the Soho nightclub he founded with Nicholas Luard in 1961, that its name was ‘the only good title I ever came up with’. All the more reason then, for the bar/grill/restaurant now occupying ‘the only remaining 18th century public building of architectural distinction in Coventry’ to want a piece of the action. But while Cook’s Establishment gained notoriety as home to a new breed of irreverent comedians and satirists, would its Coventry namesake give me anything to smile about?
Well, the expression ‘called to the bar’ certainly gets a whole new meaning in here. This impressive Georgian sometime County Hall was functioning as a courthouse as recently as the mid-1980s and displays all the architectural splendour you’d expect. The sympathetically-restored double-height bar recreates many of the features of the old court, including judge’s dais, royal coat of arms, public gallery and dock; an offshoot eating area is located in what was once a cell.
On the other hand, the nick is not usually noted for its oversupply of rays of sunshine; and one of the handicaps this listed building grapples with as a leisure venue involves its relationship to natural light. The imperative of protecting court proceedings from streetside gawpers means the windows in the bar, though large, are positioned way above pavement level. Unless it’s warm enough to brave the terrace, you can forget about watching the world go by over a quiet drink.
For obvious reasons, the main restaurant, occupying a former exercise yard, doesn’t have windows either. Instead, it has a huge lantern light in the ceiling, spanning almost the entire space. It’s a clever solution that makes for an interesting dining area – and one whose seclusion from prying eyes creates a delightfully naughty frisson. They should play up to it more. What about a jungle of potted plants that simultaneously echoes the horticultural inspiration of the roof light and creates even more screening?
Because – considering the enchanting uniqueness of this place – the sobriety of the dark panelling and furniture seems rather depressingly safe. And unfortunately, that goes for the menu too. I mean, I’m not seriously (I don’t think) suggesting they make a big thing of ‘porridge’ or a speciality of ‘jailbreak pie’ (possibly or possibly not containing a file), but surely they can show a bit more imagination than bog-standard burgers, pizza and ribs? Especially as, within the limitations of the form, my veggie stacker burger was pretty good, and showed an unexpected flair for vegetarian technique.
It was billed as ‘a tasty veggie patty of lightly spiced spinach and chickpeas, topped with sour cream and mint dip and tempura zucchini strips’. And divested of its suffocating white overcoat, a perky, coherent burger did indeed step out, bursting with nutty, earthy flavours of raw chickpeas. The spicing could perhaps have done with being a bit less light – I couldn’t really taste anything except a faint suggestion of mint, which seemed to be coming from the burger rather than the dip – but the tempura vegetables were whisper-light. Whose bright idea it was to stuff them between a burger and a bread roll, where they were not only flattened by weight but soggified by steam, God only knows. Elsewhere, cubes of watermelon would have benefited from not coming direct from the fridge, but the chips were a triumph: crispy, fluffy, decent size and properly golden – some of the best I’ve had in Cov.
So why, despite that, did I still leave The Establishment feeling frustrated? Because in a city centre whose restaurant scene is in dire need of a bit of wow factor, this place, with its intriguing history and unusual spaces, is ideally suited to provide it. Instead, it gave me an interior that, for all its careful refurbishments, still felt underexploited, and a menu that, while boasting a welcome panache in its execution, was still no different from what I could have got in a sub-average pub. I’d love to see The Establishment do better than this. As to whether the Cov city centre food environment will ever give it an incentive to do so – you guessed it: the jury’s still out.
Update June 2017: The Establishment is set to close this month ahead of refurbishment and re-opening as a new branch of the Slug and Lettuce chain.
The Establishment, The Old Courthouse, Bayley Lane, Coventry CV1 5RN. Veggie Stacker Burger, £9.45.
Update: The Establishment has now closed and is re-opening in late August 2017 as a branch of the Slug and Lettuce chain. Yawn.