Friday, 21 June 2013

The City Arms

The Round Wimpy in the Coventry Precincts was my favourite cafe. The City Arms in Earlsdon was my favourite restaurant. It was where our grandparents would take us as a special treat. About five minutes' drive from their house, the City Arms was at the bottom of Earlsdon High Street, next to a roundabout: a hub dividing affluent, leafy, unchanged Coventry from its bomb-shattered heart. Not far away, as a child, my father had ridden his bike into "Devil's Dungeons", an exciting dip in the ground, surrounded by woodland.

I think the City Arms was a Berni Inn or its equivalent. Dark upstairs, red plush everywhere, it epitomised the nineteen seventies. But we spurned the cloying sauces and over-rich gateaux which went with the territory. The meal would not vary as far as I was concerned: rump steak with chips on patterned oval plates followed by vanilla ice cream in small silver bowls with a thick raspberry sauce and a scattering of nuts on top.

My younger brother once decided that he wanted just the sauce and nuts in a bowl with no ice cream. When this rather sparse-looking dish arrived, Grandfather was a little anxious about whether this was really what William had wanted. My brother appeared to be entirely content.

The waitresses were only too happy to serve the grandparents taking out their small grandchildren. "Aren't they kind bringing us all this lovely food?" my grandmother insists that I piped up on one occasion, a story she dined out on for years afterwards.

It was at the City Arms that I learned the concept of having a steak cooked to a diner's specification. Of all people, it was Granny who told the waitress that I would have it cooked rare. Of all people because neither Granny nor Grandfather could bear their meat cooked rare. But Granny knew that if I was my parents' son, the prospect of my wanting beef cooked into grey dryness was remote. Rare. I wasn't sure what rare meant. I wanted it red. And rare, I discovered, meant red. But with pleasing grill lines seared on top.

When I sat the entrance exam for King Henry VIII grammar school, my friend Rachel told me that if she passed the exam, she would be rewarded with a meal out and a box of chocolates. I repeated this to my mother, quite possibly in the hope that I would be offered a similar bribe. Instead, my mother was horrified at the prospect. "Imagine how she'd feel if she failed!" There was only one logical consequence. Merely for sitting the exam, I was taken out for lunch afterwards at the City Arms. And, as it turned out later, I managed to secure the lowest mark in Maths of all the candidates and thus failed to get into the school. But this had not stopped me from securing my rump steak, ice cream and box of Black Magic, with the best chocolate of all inside: the liquid cherry.

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