Café Yolk

Café Yolk stands apart from all the other places I’ve reviewed so far in one important respect: it’s the first establishment I’ve visited that was completely full. When I arrived, at Saturday lunchtime, practically every table was occupied (except for the ones outside which seemed a bit hopeful on a crisp November afternoon) and it took a little while before I could sit down and peruse the menu, written out, blackboard-style, on the back wall.

To understand why, you need to look beyond this little, attractive-looking café, tucked away on the edge of Reading’s leafy university area, and wander into the altogether more weird and wonderful world of the internet. Yolk, you see, is incredibly popular. Active and engaging on social media, they are (at the time of writing) ranked second in the whole of Reading on TripAdvisor: a glowing review goes up every few days, all praising the breakfasts, which are said to be the best in Reading. How could I resist going to see what the fuss was about?

The first thing I noticed, apart from how busy it was, was just what a loud room it is. It’s all hard chairs and bare walls, and that many tables of people chattering away creates an almost deafening cacophony. Yolk has definitely made the most of its location, and most of the clientele are students; skulking in the corner I felt a bit like I’d wandered into an episode of Skins by mistake. The tables are bog-standard café issue (mine hadn’t been wiped when I sat down – always a nice first impression, that) and the chairs were the kind of rigid stacking kind you wouldn’t want to spend too much time on, but all of that is beside the point, right? Because it’s all about the breakfast.

There are no paper menus, but looking at the blackboard the emphasis was definitely on breakfasts and burgers, the latter described as the “lunch menu”. Once the queue had cleared away (which, bizarrely, took some time – where were they all sitting? Was there a secret basement I didn’t know about?) I went up and placed my order; full English with well done bacon and a Swiss cheese and Portobello mushroom without toast. I had to repeat my order, as if I’d asked for something extremely complicated.

There was no coffee because the machine was broken that day, so I got two large teas. This gives me an opportunity to indulge in my first rant of this review, because Café Yolk charges extra for a large tea. You might think I’m a bit odd for objecting to this, but I think this is nothing short of a scandal. It’s hard to imagine a product cafés make more money on than tea. I know how much it costs to buy a box of teabags, and how much it costs to boil a kettle; charging one pound fifty for the privilege is verging on extortion at the best of times. But an extra twenty pence for a little more water? Really, it’s taking liberties with a good proportion of your customer base. Anyway, I took my two cups of hot water with a teabag in them, each costing me the best part of two pounds, and walked all the way to the other side of the café to put milk in them.

I know, I know, I’m whinging. But it’s beside the point, right? It’s all about the breakfast.

Our food took a reassuringly long time to turn up – nobody wants to feel the ping of a microwave is involved in the most important meal of the day – and the chap delivering the food was cheery and keen to bring over any extras (butter, sauces etc.) which was a nice contrast to the counter service.

The full English, which costs five pounds ninety-five, contained all the staples: a rasher of bacon, a sausage, a fried egg, half a tomato, a mushroom, some baked beans, toast and sautéed potatoes. For me, the quality of a breakfast stands or falls on the meat products and these were middling at best. My rasher of back bacon (why is it never streaky?) wasn’t well-done in either sense of the word, although looking at the bacon arriving at other tables it wasn’t quite as pink and flaccid as theirs. The sausage had the smooth bounciness of cheap supermarket produce – although at least there were some herbs in there so the taste was good, even if the texture wasn’t. The baked beans were good (school dinner style, cooked in a pan so they’re a little bit mushed, exactly how beans should be, in my opinion), although it shouldn’t be difficult to get baked beans right. The toast was thinner, whiter and cheaper than Miley Cyrus. Overall it was edible and sufficient but there’s no pleasure in eating that many calories with so little flavour. I didn’t find myself, at any stage, thinking “My! I am literally eating the best breakfast in Reading.”

Cafe Yolk 1The omelette, though, was really poor. A good omelette is thick, seasoned, gooey in the middle, folded over and full of wonderful things. What I got instead was a thin frittata, no seasoning, cooked completely through and rolled into some kind of surreal egg spliff. The Portobello mushrooms were in the middle, gently staining everything a murky grey. And the cheese? Rather than grate cheese into the omelette mixture, which might have made it taste of something, three slices had instead been draped on top of the whole affair, seemingly minutes before dishing it up. The irony of a place called Café Yolk doing something so awful to eggs wasn’t lost on me. Apparently their eggs are free range, and from a local farm; it’s a pity they don’t treat them better than this.

Cafe Yolk 2They should thank their lucky stars they aren’t called Café Mushroom, because the mushrooms were even worse. They seemed to have been prepared by someone who liked neither mushrooms nor cooking. Well cooked mushrooms are an amazing thing – all dark and sticky and savoury, salted, peppered, buttery, maybe with some Worcester sauce in there to complete the magic. These, instead, were flabby, drippy things, a limp parody of what I’d been hoping for. They were “cooked”, in the sense that they weren’t raw, but not cooked in the sense of having been prepared by a chef. If it wasn’t for the overpowering taste of vegetable oil I would have thought they’d been microwaved.

My omelette came with the toast I told them I didn’t want. I didn’t eat it.

I think I must be missing something about Café Yolk. It’s a lovely spot, with loads of potential, and it clearly knows what it’s doing. It’s identified a market, it’s got a strategy, and it is doing very nicely out of it. Maybe if I was a student this would be my favourite place in the world. But it’s many years since those happy days, and for me this was just a greasy spoon pretending to be something better. I left it wanting better: better ingredients, better service and above all better cooking. You can get better breakfasts at Bill’s or Carluccio’s, and you can get more honest breakfasts at dozens of cafes across Reading. I think Café Yolk is best summed up by the bacon that came with my Full English – they class that as well done, and maybe they believe it, but I don’t. If that puts me out of step with the rest of Reading, so be it.

Café Yolk – 5.2
44 Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA
0118 3271055

https://www.facebook.com/cafeyolk

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17 thoughts on “Café Yolk

  1. Stuart

    I dunno about “best breakfast in Reading” (that seems a bit overhyped to me) and it hardly seems apt to compare Cafe Yolk with big places like Bills or Carluccios…

    …but it is a great place for what it is.

    A nice, local, cafe. Living locally I often bump into the owners and staff in the street, they’ve always got a smile and a hello. Just as they do “in store”

    It is always busy, and not just with students. Parents with kids, retired people, workers taking a break etc. etc. you must have just been unlucky that day (I was there for coffee in the morning and faced the broken machine too! And we’re most definitely not a group of students!

    I’ve always enjoyed breakfast there, and my standard mug of tea is plenty for me, I’ll keep going back, as will all the satisfied local customers. Would travel across town especially to visit? Nah. But, like I said, that’s not what it’s there for.

    1. That’s fair enough. I do think it’s perfectly apt to compare it to bigger places though. There’s no reason big places have the monopoly on good food or good service – in fact across Reading you see quite the opposite! – but Yolk really fell short on both when I was there. Especially the food, which was worse than nothing special, I thought. Perhaps I was unlucky, but I wouldn’t go back to find out.

  2. John

    I really liked Cafe Yolk, thought the food was fantastic.

    My only issue is that the cafe itself is too small. It was completely packed, we had to plan a few days ahead and wake up early just to avoid a queue.

    I imagine it’s because they have lots of seats outside for people, but in winter I think they will struggle more.

  3. Molly

    Hilarious review, ERrr just don’t recognise the place you’re talking about!
    Yeah, they’re busy, but the place is also meticulous clean – especially their approach to tables. You’re quite right that a good breakfast can be judged by the quality of the meat products – you loose much credibility for not being able to spot a quality butchers sausage when you eat one (I know the local company that supply them).
    Perhaps you’d been hitting the wacky-backy – you’d have to be to think Bill’s sausages are better!
    The guys at Yolk are doing a great job, appreciated by locals and students alike (I’m a local) – totally agree about the ‘large tea’, will have words with them about that, and I’m sure they’ll sort it out, as they listen to their customers; as they did when the majority of us expressed a preference for back and not streaky bacon with the breakfasts, also supplied by the same butchers 😉
    Seems the place just isn’t for you – or perhaps it was just the wrong sort of buzz – but I for one, totally agree it’s the best little cafe in Reading, by far xXx

      1. Jeff

        What utter Nonsense!!!

        I’ve recently moved to Reading fro west London and have been missing the variety of great little independent cafes available there. I recently stumbled across cafe yolk after trying almost very thing Reading has to offer and was relieved to find this great little cafe, offering great quality and fantastic prices. The quality of there breakfast is second to none!! After inquiring about there sausages which are fantastic, I found out that there from Vicars Games, the same butchers that supply the same sausages to Selfridges and liberty’s in London, hardly cheap quality supermarkets – wouldn’t you say. It is a small place and could do with being bigger. The place is always full, which speaks volumes, so you will expect it to be load.

        They have outdoor seating for those few that enjoy a smoke with there coffee and have now extended this with enclosed heated seating so that they can accommodate the demand for people wanting to eat here – locals and students alike.

        The owners are always welcoming and I’ve yet to come across a better cafe in Reading. For someone who writes food reviews you should have all the facts and support Independent establishments. Reading needs more of them!!!

  4. Whoa, that’s quite the sales pitch there Jeff! Yolk should hire you.

    I’m glad you’ve found a place you love, but like I said when I went the sausages were poor. If they have someone in the kitchen who can make Vicar’s sausages taste like that (and do that to eggs and mushrooms) they’re in the wrong job.

    With respect, ER is all about supporting independents. I very rarely review chains, and I want to see good independent places succeed. But being an independent restaurant isn’t a get out of jail card for poor food, value or service. Earley Café, on Cemetery Junction, is every bit as independent as Yolk, after all.

    Apart from that, I guess we’ll have to agree to differ. I will say again, though – Yolk is lucky to have so many vocal customers sticking up for them. Especially ones who know so much about how Yolk is run and where it buys its ingredients.

  5. Molly

    Not quite sure for the reason of your bafflement ER, Yolk have a loyal following amongst their patrons for some pretty simple reasons; they serve good quality local produce, they work hard to make their customers happy and they engage – not just on social media, but face-to-face. They talk to their customers and tell them about the food and its provenance, presumably ‘cos they’re proud of it. It’s neither rocket science, witch craft nor conspiracy.
    There are a couple of other places in Reading that are similar in this approach; Whittingtons Tea Barge and Tutti Frutti also stick out as customer centric local businesses – I for one am all for supporting them, as I feel they do a terrific job.

    I’ve got much less time for keyboard warriors who snipe at hard working independent businesses trying to make an honest buck whilst delivering a service that makes people genuinely happy.

    1. That’s fair enough Molly, I am all for businesses like that too, but I’m afraid I found the food disappointing and I can only review the meal I had on the day. I’m not a keyboard warrior, I’m a blogger who stands by my opinions and didn’t approach Yolk or this review with any malice. I’m sorry you feel differently.

  6. In the interests of balance, it’s worth pointing out that “Jeff” (who commented on my review earlier), from the email address he gave when commenting on the blog, is in fact a chef at Café Yolk according to his Facebook profile! When I told him he should get a job there I didn’t expect him to do it quite this quickly 😀

    I’m sure all the other comments are from bona fide people who have no connection to Café Yolk… aren’t they?

  7. Went along recently but didn’t review it because I was so hugely hungover I wasn’t really in a frame of mind to do it justice. It’s fine, but if it was in town it wouldn’t be doing nearly as well. Its location is genius, the place was rammed full of students when I went.

  8. FoodInsider

    I totally agree with your comments ER. This place delivered a very average breakfast with even worse service. They seem to care more about PR / social media than about cooking. I live locally, but would not recommend to anyone.

  9. I’m with Stuffin. I live 2 mins away (and am from the student group, though supposedly ‘mature’ at 25 – lol). I don’t tend to eat there, because – it’s nice food (student here..!) but £6 for a big meal is still a fair amount compared to getting the ingredients and making myself when I can do as well, and I’m skint. (Also agree about the tea pricing!)]

    On the other hand – as a relatively frequent customer with a regular drinks order, the staff definitely got to know me pretty quickly, and are always really friendly and engaging, which is something I value very highly. It’s a nice thing to feel able to build up some sort of vendor-buyer relationship in a café, when Starbucks is the mainstream leader (…and most of my friends are out of town and so I inevitably end up there).

    I also find the environment/clientele to be friendly and interesting. I tend to visit on my own.. Obviously a large proportion of clients are big groups of students dealing with hangovers after a night out – but I’ve never felt awkward for being on my own, or even especially uninvolved? Idk, it’s just a place I feel comfortable in, and I know I am guaranteed a friendly welcome and recognition by at least one person in the main café area, who will engage me in conversation with genuine interest.

  10. I’m with Stuffin; as a student (albeit ‘mature’ at 25, snort) it’s my local caff (2 mins away). I don’t generally eat there – because, well, I’m skint, but I am a decent cook, so could cook a meal of equal quality in the same time for a lot fewer £££. Except the potatoes, I don’t have the patience to do potatoes like those. *bows to the sautéed potato*. (The tea thing really bugs me too)

    I will sometimes get coffee to go. It’s not the best coffee, but it’s not the worst. What really DOES sell it for me, is the staff. They learned my order and myself quickly, and always genuinely engage me in conversation. I normally go on my own – this isn’t my real name, just my blog name, and I don’t know that they have asked my name, but they recognise me (despite wildly changing hair) and know my degree, they remember a couple of big things that have happened since I’ve been visiting them and ask about the aftereffects – I just get the feeling that they care about their customers. I know every time I walk in, there will be someone to greet me with a look of recognition and a friendly smile and to ask how I am in a non-generic way – and given most of my friends are out of town and when I do meet them, I get dragged to Starbucks, it comes as a welcome relief.

    Best breakfast in Reading? No. Best coffee in Reading? No. Best location in Reading? Probably. Best staff in Reading? Not my place to say that, but I’m bloody happy.

  11. Peter Bowyer

    I made my first visit to Yolk recently, and I thought it worth noting that several of the niggles you refer to seem to have been addressed. I overheard a choice of back or streaky bacon being offered; the toast was chunky slices of bloomer rather than the anemic white sliced in your picture, and they have laminated menus to peruse at your table rather than the blackboard. Service was a bit patchy (weekday mid-morning) with coffee taking too long to show up but otherwise definitely good. I’m no fanboy, definitely don’t work there, but would gladly eat there again.

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