It’s not good, on a Wednesday night, to be the only people eating in a restaurant. Immediately alarm bells start to ring: what does everyone else know that I don’t? Is it bad? Is it safe? What am I doing here?
Another good question is what year is it?, because although it’s 2016 everywhere else, in Smokin’ Billy’s it seems to still be 1995: there are nachos and loaded potato skins on the menu and a five foot high fibreglass model of Marilyn Monroe near the bar. All very glory days of TGI Fridays, I guess, and so 90s that I expected to leave the place to see Café Iguana in full swing opposite (how I miss the Rome toasted sandwich with garlic and herb potato wedges), to be able to head to Edwards’ or Bar Oz down by the train station for a final drink.
The Marilyn theme wasn’t confined to the statue: there were pictures and quotes from Marilyn everywhere (along with random electric guitars and Norman Rockwell prints on the walls) a testament to Smokin’ Billy’s previous incarnation as Monroe’s. According to the nice chap at the bar it was renamed nearly two years ago but otherwise very little has actually changed – same menu, same décor, same chef.
Looking at the menu I could quite believe that it was two years old, judging by how sticky it was. Popping to the loos down the badly lit corridor at the back (no signs on the toilet doors, incidentally, which could be tricky after a couple of drinks) it was apparent that the stickiness extended to the floor – so much so, in fact, that I could see my footprints on the laminate. That said, the kitchen looked clean and the Score on the Door was five out of five (I won’t lie: I was crossing my fingers when I came back to order, hoping the rating wasn’t also two years old).
It would have been wrong not to order the potato skins – many things from the Nineties have been rightly consigned to the rubbish bin of history (Noel’s House Party, Mad Dog 20/20, every record ever released by Jimmy Nail) but I think the time is right for loaded potato skins to make a comeback. Sadly, Smokin’ Billy’s is not the right stage for it: we ordered them topped with barbecue chicken and expected a thin crispy potato skin, hollowed out and filled with good stuff. The topping, such as it was, was reasonably good (hard not to enjoy barbecue chicken and cheese), but when the thing your loaded potato skin is loaded with is, well, potato you’ve accidentally ordered jacket potato as a starter. And nobody wants that, surely?
Similarly the garlic mushroom and cheese quesadilla was more Ocean Colour Scene than Oasis. A Mexican toasted sandwich is a great idea in theory but this didn’t work in practice because the mushrooms were just a bit odd: leathery with a weirdly metallic aftertaste. I’m not sure how recently they’d been sautéed or whether that was the problem but something about them really wasn’t right. Hard to detect any other flavour in the quesadilla either, with the mushrooms singing so loudly and so very out of tune. Each starter, served on a massive plate which itself looked deeply 90s, came with a ramekin of sour cream topped with a slice of lime and sprinkled with paprika. Somehow the whole thing felt more Tex-Meh.
Another warning bell followed: the waiter cleared our plates away and offered to bring out our mains pretty much immediately. We managed to agree a five minute wait but I couldn’t help worrying and wondering that all that meant was that our mains were sitting on the pass gradually getting less appealing. After all, how could they be ready to come out straight away if they weren’t already ready? As it was, five minutes wasn’t enough to make me feel anywhere near prepared to eat more food: those jacket potatoes in disguise sat heavy on the stomach.
By this point my expectations were pretty close to the (sticky, laminate) floor, so I’m happy to report that the main courses were – if not exactly amazing – far better than I had feared. Pulled pork was pretty decent: served on the bottom half of a burger bun (a bit random, but never mind) the pork was properly shredded but with enough texture to see what it had been, and just about on the right side of moist and soggy, smoky and sickly-sweet. Only just, but I was expecting far worse.
It came with coleslaw (served in a lettuce leaf for no reason I can think of), sweet potato fries, mini sweetcorn cobs and onion rings. Most of it wasn’t half bad – the sweet potato fries, lovely and crispy, stood out and the onion rings were surprisingly good given that their uniform shape made me suspect they’d come out of a freezer. The corn on the cob though was actively awful: watery, chewy and – if I’m being really honest – strangely fishy-tasting. Not sure how you get that sort of flavour into a corn on the cob, by accident or design, but either way you really need to stop. I’d be surprised if it had been either fresh or freshly cooked. The orange slice on top of the pulled pork, however, was fresh. An baffling choice of garnish, I know, but at least it was easy to discard.
Another surprise: the burger wasn’t bad either. I am no burger purist and I’m sure if you were you could find plenty wrong with this one – it was served medium-well according to the menu but I thought it was more cooked through than that. But it was pretty pleasant, with loads of cheese (cheddar, I think, rather than a yellow American slice), some decent bacon, more of the onion rings and a barbecue sauce which, as with the pulled pork and the barbecue chicken in the starter, was nearly too sweet and synthetic but just about on the right side of the line. The bun was allegedly a brioche and managed the feat of looking like one without tasting like anything of the kind, but I didn’t mind it.
Only those diabolical mushrooms from the quesadilla, making an unwelcome return appearance, wrecked proceedings. But also, I really liked the chips, against my better judgment. Again, their regular shape suggested they’d been chipped in a factory, stuck in a bag and bunged in the freezer but they’d been beautifully fried – crunchy-fluffy and perfect for dipping in some barbecue sauce. Was what I experienced enjoyment or relief? Tell the truth, I’m still not sure.
Service, from an idiosyncratically coiffed young man wearing what looked like a cravat, was friendly, chatty and personable. But we were the only customers so some of the lapses were hard to understand: it took a while to order, our mains were seemingly ready the moment our starters were finished yet after we finished our mains our mostly empty plates were in front of us for what felt like an eternity. I think he was chatting to his friend at the bar – which is lovely and all, but his friend wasn’t ordering food or paying a bill (an activity which also took longer than it should have done). And yet I quite liked the charming amateurism: as with everything else, I wanted to like Smokin’ Billy’s a little more than I actually could.
There was no drinks list (when I asked the waiter he said “but I can list all the drinks for you”, which kind of sums the place up) and when I got to the bar the selection of soft drinks was woeful (two flavours of J20, cans of red bull and fizzy drinks from the siphon). So I had tap water, which came in a jug with ice without having to be asked – although no water glasses, so I had to have it in a wine glass: yet more randomness. My companion had a pear cider, from a bottle (he didn’t trust the pumps). Both of us would probably have been a lot happier with a bottle of Hooch. Those were the days. The total bill came to forty pounds.
If I had gone to Smokin’ Billy’s in 1995 I would have thought it was amazing. The world was a more innocent place in the 90s and we were all so much more easily pleased. Ben’s Thai, Utopia, RG1, actual cinemas in town that weren’t grubby multiplexes, Orient Express down by the Antiques Centre, Trader’s Arcade… the list goes on and on. But in 2016 Reading is a more complex and discerning place, and although I was rooting for Smokin’ Billy’s I couldn’t help feeling that places elsewhere do these things a lot better. Bluegrass across the way has pulled pork sewn up. The Oakford does a better burger. Literally everywhere does better drinks. So if a friend or a colleague dragged me back to Smokin’ Billy’s although I might complain, I’d probably enjoy it while I was there, and tell myself I was being post-modern. But really, it made me glad to live in the now – still missing the 3Bs and Café Iguana, mind you, but delighted with how far Reading has come.
Smokin’ Billy’s – 6.5
61 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG