Reading is a place where it’s easy to get a meal, but not always easy to get a good one.
It’s not that we don’t have restaurants; we have loads. Just head to the Oracle, stand on the arching bridge that connects the shops to the cinema and look – every chain you care to name, on either side of the canal. But that’s the problem, really. We have, it can’t be denied, a lot of chains – from the well-established to the just starting up. We are in the forefront of expansion for chains, too: the first Bill’s outside Brighton was here, the first Five Guys outside London is opening in the Oracle soon.
In some cases we have more chains than anybody could ever need; right now Reading has two branches of Bella Italia (is this really necessary? you might wonder), two branches of Pizza Express. And that’s before we get on to the cafes and fast food joints – two McDonalds, three Burger Kings (there used to be four), four Caffe Neros (there used to be three, before they took over one of the four branches of Burger King), four branches of Costa Coffee (two of them in the Oracle, one a stone’s throw from the Oracle) and four branches of Starbucks.
One reason why people go to the chain restaurants so much is that they’re a known quantity. A Pollo Ad Astra at Pizza Express on the Riverside is going to be much the same as a Pollo Ad Astra on St Mary’s Butts or in Bristol, Bath, Banbury or Birmingham. This is especially true in Reading, because if you’re looking for help or guidance in terms of where to eat, well, there isn’t much.
You can consult the local paper, of course. But the reviews in there are all comped and the editorial policy appears to be not to publish a critical review. What that means in practice is that the same places come up again and again – a high-end freebie here, another trip to a suburban curry house there – and the bland write-ups mean you come away with no idea whether, if you were spending your own money, you would be wasting it.
This doesn’t deter them from their other editorial policy: make sure the cost of every item is clearly listed. I had the burger (what is it about burgers which so fascinates the local paper?) which at £9.95 was juicy and good value. My partner had the mushroom risotto (£8.95), which he thought was slightly underseasoned. It can feel a bit like reading a shopping list, half the time, instead of a review.
So, you can’t trust the local paper, because it likes all the places it reviews, can tell you the price of everything and the value of nothing. Where else can you go, then? TripAdvisor?
TripAdvisor is a curious one, and there’s a big debate in general about how trustworthy it is for restaurants: many bloggers, and restaurant reviewers for that matter, are not fans. Partly this is motivated by distrust about the democratic nature of TripAdvisor – it is the ultimate expression of Web 2.0 in some ways, just like Goodreads and Amazon reviews – and an elitist view that people as a whole don’t know best. That said, there’s some validity to the criticism. Sometimes, a restaurant’s success on TripAdvisor isn’t always about the food, or the service, but about how good they are at mobilising support on TripAdvisor (on a recent meal out, we thanked the waiter and he specifically asked us to leave a good review on TripAdvisor if we enjoyed it).
Is TripAdvisor a good guide for restaurants in Reading? Well, yes and no. A quick look at the site illustrates the problem neatly. At the time of writing, the top three restaurants in Reading are (and have been for a while) Whittington’s Tea Barge, Café Yolk and Tutti Frutti. All of them are establishments with something going for them but are they restaurants? Some of the restaurants in the top ten – Mya Lacarte, Kyklos, the Bladebone – are very good places, but it’s hard to escape the fact that TripAdvisor feels very hit and miss.
So the local paper can’t help you and TripAdvisor is a bit of a lottery, but never mind, because there are always blogs, right? Well, no again. Reading has never had a restaurant blog that I know of – well, not until now, because that’s what I’m here for. Welcome to Edible Reading.
Reading’s isn’t a stagnant restaurant scene by any means. We don’t have the regular turnover of restaurants you’d get in a bigger city, but there is still enough change that there’s something to write about. Kyklos, the new Greek restaurant in King’s Walk, opened earlier this year. So did The Lobster Room on Valpy Street. House Of Flavours, in the old Mangal spot on Kings Road, has been open for a month or so. Five Guys – which may or may not turn out to be terrible, depending on who you read – opens later this year. None of the new places, so far, have been reviewed anywhere. So I reckon there’s a gap in the market for a restaurant blog.
I don’t claim to be an expert – and I’m not sure I’d trust anybody who told you they were – but I eat out fairly often, I love food and, crucially, when I have a bad meal it’s my own money I’m wasting. What you can expect here is weekly, unbiased reviews of all kinds of restaurants in Reading (and possibly the surrounding area) and – if past experience is anything to go on – some very shoddy photographs of food. All comments and debate are encouraged, here or on the Twitter feed (@EdibleReading, of course) and if you have any suggestions for places you recommend, or have always wanted to go to but aren’t sure about, do leave a comment, Tweet at me or send me an email (EdibleReading@gmail.com).
Should be fun, shouldn’t it?