I know very well how ridiculous this sounds, but:
So it was Lovely Paul’s birthday, and being humble as well as lovely, he decided that after a day out at the Birmingham Sea Life Centre peering at otters, all he wanted was dinner at Pizza Express. Seemed worth coming back to Coventry for, so we could just hop in a taxi home straight after dinner. We didn’t bother with a reservation because a) who makes reservations at Pizza Express? and b) what Pizza Express is booked out at 7pm on a Friday?
As it turns out, we now know the answer to the second of these questions. It’s the kind of Pizza Express based in a city centre with not much else in it. Our other options were: The excellent Turmeric Gold on Spon Street (so excellent we go there all the time and fancied something different). b) the Blue Bar and Bistro (nearby, but small and we, perhaps unfairly, assumed it would also be booked up) c) Browns (usually too busy with student drinkers on a Friday night to relax in over dinner), and a couple of places that we discounted because their “vegetarian option” was a dish of flabby pasta that I could do better at home.
That’s about half a dozen restaurants, including a couple of bars/chains that aren’t really restaurants at all. In one of the UK’s biggest city centres. No wonder Pizza Express is so bloody popular.
And here’s the other thing. We would have had quite a walk to get to most of those other places. From one edge of the city centre to another. While some of the suburbs have busy little hubs of bars and restaurants, Coventry City Centre itself is desolate after dark. The shopping areas turn grim and forbidding, with the odd tiny beacon of enjoyment calling from across the deserted precincts. The nice places to go are let down by the expanses between them.
I have established myself with the council as the kind of beady-eyed busybody who likes filling in surveys, and every now and then they ask for suggestions about the city centre. I usually tell them that part of the problem is that all the shops are shut by 5.30pm, making vast swathes of the place look post-apocalyptic. And there is no one area where restaurants and bars are concentrated. The square where the BBC is had a good try, but I think the problem there is it’s inaccessible by car - everything but Nandos seems to have shut down now. There is a nice area by the theatre which seems like it should have a choice of establishments, but all it contains is a Bella Italia.
I can’t help comparing Coventry to Leicester, a city centre which also suffered in the war (though it wasn’t as comprehensively obliterated), but which is bustling with independent shops, cafes and restaurants. Despite having a broadly similar immigration pattern to Coventry, Leicester is famous for its curries, while Coventry boasts just one or two good Indian restaurants. (incidentally, Coventry possesses a vastly impressive guildhall, but you have to wait for the annual Heritage Open Day to see it. Leicester’s, interesting though smaller, less well preserved, and less soaked in history, is open all year round.) What’s going on here? I’m not a town planner, I can’t put it right. But when they rebuilt this city, the architects intended it to be an enjoyable place to be, full of life and business and entertainment. The nature of city centres all over the country, even the world, is changing rapidly. I hope councils and governments and businesses see this as an opportunity for ideas, not just for decay.
Maybe if we lived just out of the city, in Earlsdon, or the developing Far Gosford Street area, Paul would have had a birthday dinner out. As it was, we went home and ordered a takeaway. It was excellent.