Reading’s changed a lot in the last few years, but in many ways the café scene has changed the most of all. Actually, I remember when it was all fields: no big chains, just old school frothy coffee and stewed tea merchants like Platters and Chelsea Coffee House (of that generation, only Rafina really remains). Then came the big players: Coffee Republic (remember them?); Costa; Starbucks and Caffe Nero. Not to forget the upstarts: Picnic and Workhouse. But still they keep coming – so now we have Shed and My Kitchen, Nibsy’s and Tamp Culture. And there are more recent arrivals, rare outposts of small chains, like Artigiano which opened just before Christmas and Yumchaa – almost alone in specialising in tea – in the Oracle. Oh, and Siblings Home in Caversham, opened less than two weeks ago and looking like an intriguing mixture between a Hoxton café and a branch of Labour And Wait. Back in the nineties, every time you looked there seemed to be a new pub in Reading. Twenty years on, it feels like we might soon be saying the same about cafés.
The one that always seems to get forgotten is Lincoln Coffee House, a way down the Kings Road, past the library and a little out of town. I admit I do enjoy making the less obvious choices, and I have a soft spot for the underdog, but actually I picked Lincoln for this week’s review for two very particular reasons. One is that they specialise in bagels, and I’ve always had a fondness for a sesame seeded bagel. The second, just as importantly, is that I’ve long felt that Lincoln probably does the best tea in Reading.
Admittedly that’s not a big challenge, but even so I’m fed up of paying two quid for a bag and some hot water or, worse still, two pounds twenty for the same bag in a little more hot water. I can see the expertise in a properly made cup of coffee but it’s so rare to get good quality loose leaf tea in a pot that Lincoln should be applauded for that if nothing else, even if their selection of teas isn’t huge.
I’ve realised recently that a lot of my reviews talk about the restaurant being a “long, thin room”. I’m afraid Lincoln is another of those (maybe it’s all the Victorian property in Reading), but it’s attractively done, with a smart wooden counter on one side and a tasteful tiled grey wall behind it. Along the other wall are some rather fetching stylised drawings (a bit reminiscent of Simon Drew) about coffee and chocolate, two of the things of which they’re particularly proud.
It all falls down a bit with the furniture – all high stools and boxy tables which seem somewhat haphazardly laid out (the tables for four just don’t really seem to fit in such a narrow strip of space). The window ledges would be lovely places to perch and watch the world go by, but the tables are so badly arranged that it’s a struggle to sit at them.
As I said, I’ve always liked a bagel even though they seem slightly out of fashion – like goatees and Friends, they were huge in the 90s but nobody seems quite as interested any more. The only other place in town that used to do them, Bagel Shaq, closed down (possibly due to crimes against spelling) and now, if you really do find yourself craving a bagel, it’s either Lincoln or the little booth in the station whose name escapes me.
The bagel selection is quite a compact one – a few breakfast options and less than half a dozen others – but I didn’t mind that at all. I went for the “Manhattan Munch”, chicken, bacon, avocado and Swiss cheese all toasted in a sesame seed bagel. It was delicious – creamy avocado, salty bacon (cooked well, no rubbery rind here) and diced chicken in mayo topped with melted Swiss cheese. The other choice, the pastrami melt, was also very tasty – wafer thin pastrami, Swiss cheese, a little piquant red onion and glorious vinegary slices of gherkin, another weakness of mine. Presentation was also very pretty – on a slate (I know they bring some people out in hives but they’ve never bothered me) with a little pile of salad. I’m not a huge fan of friseé, but it was at least nicely dressed.
So far all good, but here’s the problem. A bagel is not a big thing: even taking into account the hole in the middle, they’re no bigger really than a bread roll. Traditionally, what they lack in diameter they make up for in depth – I’m talking Scooby Doo style, inches of filling barely contained in the bagel, the contents messily spilling out. For the OCD among you, the bagels at Lincoln are not like this: the filling in the Manhattan Munch was a finger’s width deep, the pastrami in the other bagel was gorgeous, but it was wafer thin and only a few wafers thick. When those two bagels, eaten on the premises, come to £10 that’s a bit of an issue, and it’s not one that putting it on a slate can overcome.
Still, there’s always the tea: Lincoln’s tea is by Waterloo Tea Company, from Wales of all places, and Lincoln offers a selection of green teas, black teas and rooibos (I’m not even going to attempt the plural of that word – rooibosses? rooibos? I seem to have attempted it and it’s all gone wrong: let’s move on). No Earl Grey, which would have been my first choice, so on this visit I had Assam, loose leaves in an attractive glass pot with an egg timer to tell me when it had finished brewing. The timer probably made it a little too strong for my liking – my fault rather than Lincoln’s, I’ve always preferred my tea baptised rather than steeped – but I was still very happy with the rich, smooth, almost malty flavour. I just wish I’d poured it sooner.
I’m told that the latte was very good – “better than Picnic and not as good as Tamp” – although apparently there wasn’t any latte art (surely only hipsters care about that?) The beans, I’m told, come from Nude: maybe that means something to you, it’s all Greek to me. Another thing worth mentioning is Lincoln’s impressive hot chocolate – made with real high quality single estate chocolate flakes rather than artificial-tasting powder. I didn’t have one on this occasion, but from past experience they’re bloody magnificent (I also have a friend who swears by Lincoln’s mochas, so there’s that too).
Service was a bit confusing with a total of four people behind the counter at one point or another, but it was very enthusiastic and engaging. I was delighted to see quite an influx of people while I was there, including more than a few regulars. Lunch for two – two bagels, two drinks, came to a touch over fifteen pounds.
I’m not entirely sure who Lincoln is aiming for with its location and its pricing, and I’m not entirely sure it’s me. A way out of town, surrounded by office buildings, closing at 5pm Monday to Saturdays and closed all day Sundays, it may be that actually they’ve decided to cater to takeaway sales for local workers rather than the sit-down, eat-in lunch trade. If that’s the case, all power to their elbow. But for me personally, I felt that – however much I liked what they’d done with the space and however tasty the bagels were – they weren’t doing enough to put up a fight against their competitors in town, chains or independents. I could get an overstuffed sandwich from Pret or a fresh Cornish pasty from Picnic, less than five minutes down the road, for less money and I don’t think I would have compromised on quality. They still get huge credit (and a couple of points) for making an effort with the tea, and I’d go back there for drinks if I was in the area, but overall the bagel seems to be an appropriate metaphor: all very nice, yet it feels like there’s something missing.
Lincoln Coffee House – 6.6
60 Kings Road, RG1 3AA