People sometimes ask me why I don’t use a scoring system for restaurants in Coventry. We haven’t time to hack our way through this forest of verbiage, they grumble. A simple, at-a-glance marks-out-of-ten for food, ambience and value for money would give us everything we need in one easily-digested bite – and is exactly the kind of considerate reviewing everyone appreciates most.
The problem is: I would have to create two separate systems. A ‘Cov only’ system that, taking account of the embarrassing poverty of the city’s dining-out scene, would give a ballpark figure on how good, bad or indifferent a restaurant is for Coventry; and a ‘universal system’.
Aimed mainly at visitors and others in a position to compare our local offering with that of more sophisticated food cultures, this latter scale would effectively function as an exercise in expectations management. Or as a big neon sign-post pointing at the quickest route to Leamington. Because – to deploy an appropriately post-Eurovision metaphor – most Cov restaurants competing on a national stage would struggle to garner more than a big fat nul points.
Playwrights in the city centre is a case in point. Located in a row of older buildings near the cathedral, with large mullioned windows overlooking a quiet cobbled street, this is definitely a contender for that most elusive of Cov City Centre accolades: a nice independent restaurant – the sort of place that well-brought-up students might choose for entertaining mum and dad.
And mum and dad would probably feel right at home: natural pine tables and high-backed wooden chairs channel a faintly earth-mother vibe that was last current in the 1970s. That’s not necessarily a criticism, by the way – I’m quite partial to a pine table, and indeed, Playwrights might get away with this look if the rest of the décor were sufficiently knowing or interesting. But it isn’t.
Safe, diffident paintwork in mushroom, grey and carefully controlled scarlet seems to hang back even from itself. Rather than the expected bold theatrical theme, a series of inoffensively twee Rosina Wachtmeister musical cat pictures adorn the walls and an armful of bare twigs leaps from an aluminium vase by the window. Mood music is a barely-recognisable R&B mangling of ‘Imagine’. Believe me – regular eating out in Coventry has condemned me to a life of little else.
One area where Playwrights deserves to be congratulated is on its extensive dedicated vegan menu. Rather than the predictable roster of ‘carnivore-classics-minus-the-meat’, it would be good to see a few more dishes where vegetables are the stars in their own right; but the fact that Playwrights is doing this at all is, for Coventry, little short of miraculous.
News that soup of the day is ‘sweet potato’ is not, however, cause for rejoicing unrestrained. The general sweetening of vegetable offerings that I’ve noticed over the last few years (sweet potato chips instead of traditional chips is another near-ubiquitous example) is boring, down-dumbing and an insult to the complex adult palate. Under the circumstances, I should perhaps be relieved that the soup placed before me at Playwrights, while smooth and velvety and boasting a lovely terra cotta hue, doesn’t actually taste of very much. The accompanying bread is hard round the edges.
The ‘mixed vegetables served in a creamy sauce, topped with a puff pastry crust, with new potatoes’ that I choose for my main is similarly bland. The vegan puff pastry is an oddly pallid thing, formed of gossamer layers that slide across each other like discarded silk stockings – only to turn as chewy as old corsets once you get them in your mouth. Apart from the beautifully firm and earthy baby new potatoes, the vegetables are mostly too soft for me, but the sauce is thick and creamy enough, just about, to be comforting.
The thing about Playwrights is, it’s a homely restaurant; what I ate here wasn’t far in advance of what I could make in my own kitchen. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it’s concerning that it’s as good as Coventry gets. What if you want to leave home for a life of adventure? What if you want Eurovision? Too bad. You’ll just have to make do with Listen With Mother.
Playwrights, 46 Hay Lane, Cathedral Quarter, Coventry, CV1 5RF. Soup of the day, £4.50; Mixed Vegetables served in a creamy sauce. Topped with a puff pastry crust, with new potatoes, £9.50