Dolce Vita, Eclectic Games, Forbury Gardens, John Lewis, Kyrenia, Launchpad, Pepe Sale, Progress Theatre, pubs, Reading, Reading Festival, Reading Minster, Reading Museum, restaurants, shops, South Street, The After Dark, The Allied Arms, The Nag's Head, The Reading Forum, The Retreat, The Salvation Army, Tutti Frutti
No review this week, I’m afraid. Every now and again work is just too busy, or holidays get in the way and it’s just not possible for me to get to a restaurant (not somewhere new, anyway), form a critical judgment and knock out a couple of thousand words. But I couldn’t leave you completely in the lurch so instead I thought I’d do a bit of a departure – a feature which isn’t entirely about eating and drinking.
As regular readers will know, I absolutely love Reading and if there’s one thing that really cheeses me off it’s people running it down. So this week I’ve decided to do one of those Buzzfeed-style articles that are all the rage with the movers and shakers and give you a not remotely exhaustive or definitive list of the things I love about this eccentric, deceptively characterful town of ours. Hope you enjoy it, and by all means chip in in the comments section with everything I’ve forgotten to mention, or the things that would make your personal list. Ready? Got a cup of tea handy? Right, off we go!
1. John Lewis
I’ve always felt that John Lewis is the closest thing Reading has to a cathedral and, like many Reading folk no doubt, I’ve always had an almost visceral loyalty to it as an institution. I’m not sure there’s any more heartwarming experience than strolling down Queen Victoria Street to see its distinctive façade and clock coming into view (although it’s just as distinctive from the Oracle side with its weird, almost pagoda-like sloped roofs).
But, of course, it’s really about what’s inside and what’s inside is everything you could possibly want. I know everyone is sad about Jackson’s closing, and that’s fair enough, but really, John Lewis is the place you can buy whatever you need from duvet covers to board games to scented candles to cameras to pretty much anything else. Whenever anyone asks me “where should I go for X?”, the answer’s nearly always John Lewis.
It’s not quite as lovely as it used to be since they dolled the place up, but it does give rise to one of my favourite John Lewis stories. When they did their refit they got rid of the grand old curvy lifts like pods that took you from the top to the bottom of the department store. The new ones, which I don’t like so much, are your stereotypical glass boxes but – and only John Lewis would do this – they let the staff name them. Have a look next time you’re in one of them.
And before you say anything: yes, I know, it will always be Heelas to me, too.
2. The Retreat
The recent hoo-ha about whether Reading served lots of bad beer spectacularly missed the point that not only does Reading have a magnificent beer culture, punching well above its weight, but it also has some of the finest pubs anybody could hope for. I know purists might well pick somewhere else, and we could be here all day debating, but The Retreat is probably my favourite. I’ve had some magical evenings here, there are always interesting conversations going on all around you and it’s a truly lovely place to drink a pint, eat some jalapeno pretzel pieces and chat with friends, play cards or just read a book and watch the world go by. Especially nice if you happen to be there on a night when ukulele practice is going on, I find. Oh, and the landlord is a twinkly delight.
3. Dolce Vita
I’m not sure there’s anything to say about Dolce Vita that I haven’t already said, but as a place to go for any kind of meal in Reading – big ones, little ones, even solo ones – it’s pretty much impossible to beat. The food is a great combination of reliable favourites and regularly changing nice surprises, the service is uniformly downright superb and it literally never lets me down. It’s almost the only restaurant left in what’s currently still called The Walk (but will no doubt soon be called Atlantis Palace or some other such horror) but whatever you think of the rather baffling way that mall is managed, I think they’re too sensible to muck with Dolce Vita.
4. South Street
No surprises here, I’m sure; I was delighted when South Street was saved, and just as delighted to watch a whole community come together to fight for it. Over the years I’ve seen all sorts of things here, and I can’t think of an arts centre that puts on such a brave, eclectic and consistently interesting programme of events. So I saw Alan Carr here before he was famous (he was exceptional) and Mumford & Sons (I was dragged to that one). But I’ve also seen one-person shows about hair extensions, or driving a clapped-out car to Rome, or about orbiting the moon on your own. I’ve seen folk music and cabaret, political comedy and, most recently, an amazing woman with Tourette’s make a whole audience shout the word “biscuit” in the sonic equivalent of a Mexican wave. I can’t imagine all that happening anywhere else.
5. Reading Museum
I have a real soft spot for Reading Museum. Every time I go I seem to find something new, and every time I go I realise it’s far too long since I last went. The changing exhibitions are always interesting, there’s lots of interactive stuff for kids, it gives you a proper sense of place and, of course, there’s the full size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry (or, to try to appeal to Buzzfeed readers, “one of the first ever graphic novels”). It’s well worth going for the guided tours of the tapestry every Saturday when the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff whizz you round it explaining that it’s actually an embroidery and telling you the fascinating story of how Reading came to own a copy – and how close to destruction the original came (you also find out how the prim Victorians who made the replica knitted some y-fronts on the copy to ensure there was no full frontal nudity: fun for everyone).
6. Tutti Frutti
I’m sure pretty much everyone loves Tutti Frutti and it’s not a controversial choice. But it belongs on this list. My friends who drink coffee say Tutti Frutti’s is surprisingly good. The ice cream is knockout, whether it’s peach and amaretto, or Kinder Bueno (phwoar!) or Greek yoghurt and lemon curd (double phwoar!) or some of the more interesting experiments like blue cheese and honey (don’t knock it til you’ve tried it). But also, it’s about the service. Paul and Jane are both lovely – he is like an old-fashioned shopkeeper and she is a hyperactive whirlwind of enthusiasm and delight. The people they hire are unfailingly friendly and interested without being fake. I’m no fan of the soulless hangar that is the new Reading Station: give me the slightly crumbling, tacky bit with Tutti Frutti in it any day.
Homelessness in Reading is an increasing and increasingly upsetting issue. Launchpad do incredible work in this area, and so much more. I wouldn’t eat at Cosmo for anybody else.
8. The After Dark
I’ve been going to the After Dark for longer than I care to remember, as I suspect have many of its regulars. I love their Eighties night (which is, let’s face it, on most of the time) – where else could you experience Crash, You Can Call Me Al, and 99 Red Balloons in quick succession? I love sitting in the back bar with an ill-advised double and mixer (because, as they like to remind you, the After Dark’s drinks prices haven’t changed in a Very Long Time) watching the great and the good preparing to make a serious assault on the north face of the dance floor, no doubt murdering the chorus of Take On Me in the process. I still love evenings that end up here, even if it’s a decision that doesn’t seem quite so sage the following morning. Oh, one other thing: some of the times I’ve gone recently it’s been worrying quiet. Use it or lose it.
9. The architecture
So much of it is lovelier than it gets credit for. So, in no particular order: John Lewis, the Town Hall, Queen Victoria Street, the Oxfam Bookshop, Waterstones on Broad Street. Seriously, just look up some time. And then there are all the beautiful streets and areas further out from the centre: Eldon Square, School Terrace, New Road, The Mount, the alms houses off Castle Street. I could go on.
10. The first pint of the year in the Allied Arms beer garden
You know the year is changing for the good when that magic moment arrives. You finish work, you’re in town, you go to the Allied and it’s warm enough to sit outside without the heaters on. Usually only just, of course, so you sit there in your coat convincing yourself that it’s plenty sunny enough. But the point is that that first al fresco drink is seminal, because soon after that there will be long lazy Friday evenings there, trying to bag one of the sunny tables at the back, taking it in turns to thread your way to the bar and come back with an array of pints and packets of pork scratchings, Monster Munch, Scampi Fries and Quavers. The jukebox is playing something good (unless some prog-loving spoilsport has put on Shine On You Crazy Diamond, as Allied regulars are wont to do) and you can almost convince yourself that this summer is the one that will last forever.
11. The Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols
At the other end of the spectrum, Christmas in Reading for me isn’t about the festive food materialising in John Lewis, or our worryingly tacky Christmas lights going up. No, it’s that wonderful moment on a Saturday in November when you reach the front of Marks & Spencer to find the Salvation Army brass band, in a little throng, spotless in their uniforms, parping their way through In The Bleak Midwinter. I defy you to sit through that and have your cockles unwarmed.
12. Pepe Sale
Pepe Sale was the first restaurant I ever reviewed for Edible Reading, and it will always have a special place in my heart. Some of that is about Marco, the supernaturally charming front of house: sometimes I just want to kidnap him, take him home and have him talk to me while I make myself baked beans on toast; I’m not sure how anyone could not like him. But of course, it’s more than that. It’s also about the fresh filled pasta, the music bread with oil and rosemary, the antipasti with a single salty piece of fried pecorino on top, the roast suckling pig with light, crispy crackling. And a bottle of a cracking Sardinian red, and a glass of Mirto Rosso after (or instead of) dessert. Like Dolce Vita, it’s a good example of how a restaurant, if it’s terrific enough, can flourish in the unlikeliest of locations, like a beautiful flower poking through a crack in the pavement.
13. The Nag’s Head
The Nag’s Head is the perfect example of how a pub should be run. It’s almost never empty, it has a constantly rotating array of beers and ciders and everyone in there is friendly, happy and having a fantastic time. Sharing tables with strangers is positively encouraged and I’m yet to have a bad evening there. In summer, you can even sit outside, an experience so pleasant that you can quite overlook the fact that you’re basically drinking in a car park. They don’t really do food but the pies aren’t bad and the pulled pork sandwiches are also meant to be pretty decent. On some of my most recent visits I’ve seen a chap there wearing a t-shirt saying “DRINK MEAD AND PRAISE ODIN” and drinking his ale out of some kind of horn, or a tankard made up to look like a hollowed out skull. What, I ask you, is not to like?
14. Not going to the festival
Walking through town on festival weekend, going home and having a shower. Can’t beat it.
15. The Reading Forum
I love the Reading Forum so much. Back in the old days, there used to be the Reading Post, and its website was easy to comment on and lots of people did. But as it changed, I think more and more people ended up at the Reading Forum talking about everything from shops, to restaurants, to local news, from the Reading Bridge to the journalistic standards of some of our local websites. In the interests of full disclosure, I put a link to my review up every week and there’s always some discussion. People don’t always agree, but they’re unfailingly lovely about me spamming them. Best of all, discussions frequently meander off topic, so I’ll post a review of a restaurant and it will gradually morph into a conversation about somewhere long closed, or what a pub used to be called, or something completely different. I absolutely love that.
16. Reading Minster
Many people have never been inside Reading Minster, which I think is a real shame. The volunteers who show you round clearly genuinely love the place and it’s got some real history to it. Some of it dates from the tenth century and when Reading Abbey was destroyed, some of the pillars were rescued and moved to the Minster, along with some other materials. One Saturday evening last year, I was wandering past it when I found it was open late at night, so I stepped in off the street and found an oasis of calm. Lit candles were placed along the aisle and around the altar, soft music was playing and the whole thing was quite exceptionally beautiful. I couldn’t believe that a minute away was the pulsing noise of Pavlov’s Dog, or the Purple Turtle, two places which wouldn’t feature on this list. But Reading Minster definitely belongs on it.
17. Forbury Gardens
Well, it’s just handsome isn’t it? Another of those milestones of summer is when Forbury Gardens stops being somewhere you just walk through and starts being somewhere you spend an afternoon, lolling on the grass, reading the paper, watching people significantly younger than you having what they class as fun and just relaxing in the sunshine. I love afternoons like that, just as I love Reading’s rather eccentric celebration of Bastille Day in the Forbury every year. But – and if you’ve read the one about the Salvation Army you probably already know this – I also especially like Sundays in summer when a brass band camps out in the bandstand and fills the air with music.
18. Eclectic Games
I could have mentioned many of Reading’s independent retailers – The Grumpy Goat, perhaps, Shave and Coster or Adrienne Henry. But I’m not sure Reading has a more touching success story than Eclectic Games. I’ve been shopping there since it was under the horrendous seventies obelisk that was the Foster Wheeler building, and I’ve followed it to the market square and now into its new home on Smelly Alley. I’ve bought so many wonderful games there (Munchkins, Codenames, Ticket To Ride, I could go on…) had so many excellent recommendations from Becky and Darrell and, as a result, had so many thoroughly entertaining evenings. Seeing them completely demolish their fundraising target when they moved last year was a heartwarming example of how sometimes Reading is on to a good thing and more importantly, that Reading residents know that.
19. Progress Theatre
Tucked away near the university, Progress feels like a better-kept secret than it should be. I’ve seen so many top-notch productions there, from Entertaining Mister Sloane to Proof to God Of Carnage. I especially love sitting up at the back (legroom, don’t you know) watching everything unfold on the stage, watching something intimate yet brilliant. That’s before we get on to another of Reading’s best annual events, Progress’ outdoors Shakespeare at Caversham Court. Merry Wives Of Windsor was one of my favourite nights out last year.
I’ve often said that restaurants aren’t about the best food per se, or the best room, or even the best service. They’re about where you have the best times. And, for that if nothing else, this list wouldn’t look right without Kyrenia on it. I mean, it is some of the best food in Reading (the kleftiko alone would guarantee that, or the chargrilled octopus). And it is some of the best service. And actually I love the room, especially if you get a table in the window looking back into the room with all its bustle and happiness. But more importantly, it’s where I’ve had some of my best times. Put it this way: I’ve reviewed a lot of restaurants for Edible Reading, and many have been very good. But Kyrenia is where I go on my birthday.