Tipsy Bean

Why isn’t Caversham, you know, nicer? It’s supposedly the most prosperous, chi-chi part of town and yet wandering round there on a drizzly Saturday I couldn’t help but see it as a handful of streets largely lined with missed opportunities. It’s almost as if the presence of a Waitrose writes a cheque the rest of the place can’t cash. Yes, there’s a good pub (the Fox And Hounds, of course). Yes, there’s a decent butcher and a baker: no candlestick maker that I could see, although there is a terrific old-school hardware shop. And, as is well documented, it has a handful of decent restaurants – Kyrenia and the newly-installed Papa Gee, mostly.

But beyond that, it all felt a little flat. The precinct has been tidied up, but still has the same shops as before. Siblings Home – a perennial favourite of mine which felt like the kind of establishment Caversham ought to have – has closed down, now just a sad empty shell at the bottom of Hemdean Road. There is a large purgatorial Costa, if you want coffee. The independent bookshop has closed down too. There’s a delicatessen, yes, but it seems to be in a perpetual state of closing and reopening; I don’t remember ever having walked past when it was actually trading.

And what else? Up Prospect Street, past Bina’s dated façade, it was nail bar after nail bar and the delights of “BBs Hair Salon” (is it as good as “Just John” on Grovelands Road, that’s the question). This should be Reading’s Hampstead, or Reading’s Crouch End. So why isn’t it?

The two establishments trying to buck this trend both opened last year, within two months of one another and only a few doors apart. In the blue corner, there’s Nomad Bakery, offering sourdough bread and an innovative, constantly changing lunch menu with many vegetarian and vegan-friendly options. In the past it’s teamed up with semi-retired preserve-maker and market organiser Caversham Jam Lady, and brilliant fudge purveyors Hartland Fudge. A year on, its windows are still steamed up, it’s still full of happy families enjoying thoroughly virtuous lunches and Laura, the proprietor, continues to pop up at a variety of interesting venues offering tasting menus.

That would be the obvious choice, so instead this week I opted for its lesser-sung neighbour Tipsy Bean. Tipsy Bean opened last August with backing from ex-Apprentice winner, and former co-owner of sadly-missed Caversham restaurant Mya Lacarte, Yasmina Siadatan (although the exact nature of her association with the project was never entirely clear – and I’m none the wiser having Googled it). It aims to capture an all-day market by offering coffee and lunch before morphing into a wine bar and cocktail joint in the evening, and has decided to sum this up with a name which is possibly the only thing I’ve ever seen which manages to be simultaneously smutty and twee. I turned up with my trusty sidekick Tim (who is neither smutty nor twee) in tow to check it out.

The décor was bizarre and baffling. The front section near the big windows, with exposed brickwork and plenty of natural light, was nice enough but beyond that things got a little strange. The back room (and you can literally see the join) was another matter: the floor looked like unfinished chipboard, the ceiling seemingly made of disused pallets. Not in a calculated, knowing way, more in a manner that suggested they’d run out of money halfway through doing the place up.

Run out of ideas, too: the wall opposite the long bar (behind a handsome button-backed red banquette running the length of the wall) was just covered in mirrors. This can be a good way of letting light into a dark space, as anybody who’s read ELLE Decoration can tell you, but the overall effect is ruined when you scrawl slogans on them in childlike writing with bright pink pen. YOU LOOK GREAT! said one. SOUP OF THE DAY – WINE said another. Mirror Mirror on the wall, Who’s the TIPSYest of them all? said a third. Who has the biggest migraine, more like.

I’m afraid there’s more. Here’s a question for you: what do Marlon Brando, Cirque Du Soleil, The Beano and Banksy have in common? They all feature on the walls of Tipsy Bean, as part of a selection of pictures chosen seemingly at random. There were also the words “Margarita”, “Mojito” and “Tequila” on the walls in what looked like a mosaic made from dead mirrorballs. To top it all, an armchair was plonked in the far corner, completely on its own, with no tables or other chairs around it.

“It’s not shabby-chic, it’s not industrial chic.” I said. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. I wish I understood this place.” said Tim in reply, as if already hung over.

Still, it was doing a good trade with couples and families pretty much filling the front room and a few tables near the bar occupied, so we took our interior design hats off and had a look at the menu. It’s broken up into sections – Tipsy Sandwiches, Tipsy Boards, Tipsy Salads and so on – and although the tipsy motif made my toes curl, it was really good to see Tipsy Bean crediting and listing its suppliers, the majority of which were local. Meat is from Jennings, bread from Warings and cheese from the splendid Pangbourne Cheese Shop down the road. I was tempted by “Tipsy Pizza Bread” until I saw that it was nothing of the kind, instead being a variety of stuff on toast, so Tim and I both went for a toasted sandwich and a coffee.

“Shall we have some ‘Tipsy Sides’ as well?” I asked.

“Not sure I see the point. They’re just the component ingredients for everything else.”

As so often, Tim was right. We could have had some more bread and butter, or some more superfood crisps, or some grilled halloumi (there is a lot of halloumi on the Tipsy Bean menu), but they all felt a bit unnecessary.

The coffees arrived first – a latte for me, a black Americano for Tim, with a little heap of amaretto biscuits on the side.

“You should try one of these, they’re a nice touch.” I said.

“They’ve probably given us these to counteract the taste of the coffee.” Tim said. “It’s burnt.”

He was right. The coffee was properly bad – acrid, nasty, transport-caff stuff. Nowhere near as good as their neighbours in Nomad, but in all honesty nowhere near as good as Costa either. Given that coffee even features in the name of the place I was surprised that it was done this poorly – if they took the same approach to the “Tipsy” element as they do to the “Bean” all they’d sell would be Mateus Rosé and White Lightning.

Based on all this you’d expect the sandwiches to be woeful, and the signs weren’t good when they turned up on miniature breadboards. They came with “Luke’s superfood chips”, which turned out to be perfectly acceptable tortilla chips, free of gluten so that coeliacs and fad dieters also got the opportunity to feel ambivalent about them. There was also “Dudman’s salad”. Normally, I don’t make reference to my photos in the review but in this case I’d draw your attention to the picture below and say that, if anything, there was even less salad than the photograph would suggest. A shame actually, because it was nicely dressed and really quite enjoyable: this may be the first time I’ve ever said “I liked it, but I do wish there had been more salad”.

So, time for the surprise – the sandwiches were lovely. Simple, well-done and effective. The sourdough was golden on the outside, slightly oozy with butter and cheese. The prosciutto in it was good quality – dry, not floppy and plastic. And the cheese, although there wasn’t masses of it, was delicious. Also, it was a big old sandwich – using sourdough meant a sizeable cross-section, which in turn meant that it wasn’t gone in two bites as some toasties (at Nibsy’s, for instance, or Pret) can be.

Opposite me Tim waxed lyrical about his toasted Ploughman’s, with ham cheese and pickle. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of heating up pickle, but Tim was very happy with the result. “It’s lovely”, he said, “ever so slightly caramelised. And it’s great ham and cheese.” I’m still not entirely sure whether our delight at the sandwiches was partly baffled euphoria because we expected them to be as half-arsed as everything else, or whether it’s because they were genuinely excellent. Maybe it was a bit of both. But to give credit where it’s due, my conversation with Tim for the next couple of minutes went a bit like this.

“That’s a good sandwich.”

Silence.

“It is, isn’t it. It’s a really good sandwich.”

More silence.

“Man, that’s a cracking sandwich.”

And so on. All well and good, but the sticking point was the price. My sandwich was six pounds, and six pounds for sandwich with a solitary layer of prosciutto and some cheese is very steep indeed, whatever the provenance of your produce. A little handful of salad and some gluten-free tortillas is insufficient smoke and mirrors to conceal that, especially if the mirrors have slogans scrawled on them in bright pink ink. Tim’s, presumably because it had the impudence to contain three ingredients, cost even more at six pounds fifty. To put this in perspective, those sandwiches are more expensive than Shed, than Pret, than Costa, than almost anywhere I can think of (maybe the ones at Nomad are even costlier: it’s a possibility, although hard to be sure as they don’t publish their menu online). Lunch for two – two coffees and two sandwiches – came to just under seventeen pounds, not including service. It’s hard to see that as good value, let alone a bargain.

Speaking of service, I should say a word or two about that. Everyone behind the counter was very young, perfectly pleasant and highly skilled at not being there when you needed them. It was impossible to attract attention to pay because they were all too busy standing behind the bar chatting away to each other, possibly because the lunch rush had thinned out by then. A couple of young women came in and went up to the counter to ask if Tipsy Bean was recruiting, and the staff were also too busy chatting away to each other to field that enquiry: I was tempted to ask one of them if they wanted to audition by getting my bill.

I wonder whether Tipsy Bean benefits from Caversham having so few nice places for lunch and coffee. If you picked it up and dropped it in town, I don’t think many would go there for lunch. Maybe it works better as a wine bar in the evening, but I really didn’t get it as a lunch spot. If anything, it made me feel a little sad for Caversham: I complain all the time about mediocre places being considered “good enough” for the town centre when we shouldn’t settle for second best, but until I ate at Tipsy Bean it never occurred to me that Caversham might have the same problem.

If only it had been better. That’s the price businesses pay for not being good enough: if Tipsy Bean had been better maybe we’d have had another coffee, or some cake, or settled in with a glass of wine and carried on chatting away. But if Tipsy Bean had been better, I wouldn’t be writing this. Instead we went for a stroll up to Balmore Park and took in the gorgeous view across town because, although Caversham might not be Hampstead, Balmore Park is definitely our Parliament Hill. And then we beetled off to the Fox And Hounds where, in true Fox And Hounds fashion they were playing wall-to-wall Bowie. Tim had a magnificent stout that tasted of chocolate and salted caramel, I had a fizzy cider like the heathen I am and we both wondered why the rest of Caversham couldn’t be more like The Fox And Hounds. Or Waitrose. Preferably both.

Tipsy Bean – 6.5
18 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JG
0118 9471300

http://tipsybean.co.uk/

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22 thoughts on “Tipsy Bean

  1. Stewart Webb

    Great review! Nice potted, and at times true, preamble of the state of Caversham and its eating places. I live in Caversham and out eat here quite a lot, but have never been tempted to darken the door of the Tipsy Bean, your review has confirmed exactly what I thought the place would be like. Nice, but too expensive and trying to pander to a clientele of, dare I say it the young/retired Waitrose bunch. Nothing wrong in that, and good luck to them, just not for me. As you say, far to much halloumi going on! I have a similar problem with Alto Lounge, but I have eaten here, just not very much! Well done again

  2. Have had coffee and cake in there a couple of times. The coffee was good, the cake outstanding. Not cheap, but that seems to be the problem through Cav. Agreed, the centre could use a facelift, especially when town is a bus ride away. Work is in progress though, and the precinct is much improved.
    When we stroll into Cav, we tend to end up in the Alto Lounge, which is nice of an evening, looping back through to the Fox… which is an absolute gem.

  3. Angela Grey

    As one of the ” retired Waitrose bunch”, I also think theTipsy Bean coffee is crap. And Nomad Bakery is a place that can’t make up it’s mind what it actually is. A bakery? Selling only unremarkable sourdoughbread? Odd.

  4. So odd. Perhaps there are two Tipsy Beans? I don’t recognise much of this review. The coffee is great, as is the attentiveness of the staff.

    What the hell is ‘chi-chi’? And how can you be an ‘ex-‘ winner? Buck up.

    And what’s wrong with Costa? Or are you just a snob?

  5. Caversham “should be Reading’s Hampstead”?? No it flipping well shouldn’t!

    You might want to call bits of Caversham “chi-chi” (I wouldn’t – horrible phrase) but most of it isn’t. It’s shopping area reflects what it is – a social mix. And that’s why it works.

  6. Oh dear, that’s what comes of typing when cross. One’s punctuation goes astray. I can’t seem to edit my previous comment, so please shuffle the apostrophes to suit your own preferences!

    1. Karen

      I agree the coffee is below par, I don’t like sitting in the back half, if the window seats aren’t free I don’t go in. I’m still in mourning for Siblings home, pleeease return, Caversham needs you!

  7. Sarah Wells

    As an ‘regular’ customer of tipsy bean I can honestly say this article is completely contradictory to my experiences and in fact I believe the article contradicts itself.

    Firstly, i’d like to agree with your comment about the salad, it is lacking slightly I would also expect a bit more. However, with regard to your comments about the prices I believe they are completely unfair and this is where I believe you contracdict yourself. You seem to praise them for using local suppliers, yet on the other hand criticise their prices. Based on the fact they are an independent shop rather than a chain franchise (like many of the comparisons you have used) I feel it’s extremely unfair to expect prices to be as competitive as those chain shops such as pret, as you mentioned. The local suppliers they use also means that the produce like you state is of high quality and likely expensive. Everything as I’ve seen is made by the staff on site and is not mass produced and much larger than any of the portions you get at places such as pret and costa. From my experience the service is extremely good and tend to offer table service when possible. Unlike many of the places you have chosen to compare them to. Which in turn could also account for the slightly higher prices, especially as they do not include any service charge on their bills.

    With regards to the coffee and I can say that is very good. Perhaps at first was slightly weak but (I’m not sure if they’ve changed brand or approach) is a lot better. I particularly enjoy the coffee and cake deal that they offer, for a modest price of £3.50. The cakes I may add are extremely nice and I believe homemade and delivered daily.

    Thought I’d stick up for tispsy bean, as I believe this article is on the whole very inaccurate of my experiences there

    1. Six pounds, or six pounds fifty, for a toasted sandwich is just not competitive. It wasn’t good enough to justify the cost. Apart from that I can only go on my experience of the place, and the review accurately reflects that.

      1. Sarah wells

        For the sake of argument I checked the prices of both costa and tipsy bean this morning. I wanted a cheese and tomato toast and a flat white so I checked the prices for both before ordering. Costa comes in £6.40 for both and tipsy came in at £7.70. Yes tipsy is more expensive, but like I said much larger and comes with side salad and crisp. As well as all the produce being fresh and not massed produce. As well as having table service. In my opinion £1.30 really isn’t much more to pay for better food and real service but maybe that’s just my opinion

      2. It comes with a few tortilla chips and a minuscule helping of salad, and costs £6 or £6.50. And I’m no fan of Costa but even their coffee was better than the stuff at Tipsy Bean.

  8. Great review and enjoyable read, thank you. Just a touch harsh on Caversham, which is being judged against the elevated reputation it seems to have acquired elsewhere in the area. When you compare to North Woodley/Sonning, there must be a similar population and demographic yet that area has no commercial area to speak of.

  9. Leeiams

    Great review, spot on accurate. Caversham centre should be able to do better than this – there’s enough disposable income to sustain more places which get it right (Siblings?!). I once paid £8.50 for a toastie in Nomad- it was nice but for that kind of money I’d expect it to be the best I’ve ever had…

  10. Becky N

    If you’re going to review an eating establishment, maybe stick to your experience of it, and it you’re going to merge said review with a scathing attack on the whole area, maybe look at some of the reasons why there might have been a decline in continuity in recent years. HIGH rents for example, have made it difficult for businesses, or so I am led to believe. We are not Hampstead, or Crouch End and we don’t want to be.

    1. I don’t really think it was scathing, despite your laudable defensiveness about where you live. It’s good to see you agree that there’s been a decline, anyway. Thanks for the pointers on how you think a review should be written, but I think I’ll stick to writing reviews the way I have for the last four years. Useful feedback, though.

  11. Jon M

    Tipsy is a bit of an odd mix of a place. I’ve been a couple of times and found it a pleasant enough place for a quiet drink. Not tried the food though. My wife went with friends recently on a Saturday evening. It was quiet, and they were seated and provided with drinks nicely enough. However, they then sat chatting with empty glasses for a long time. She said if someone had come to ask of they wanted more drinks they’d have happily ordered more (it wasn’t busy, and the staff were just standing around chatting). On top of that, another group tried to come in about 20 mins before closing time and were discouraged from doing so, being told they wouldn’t have time to finish their drinks A bit weird when a business doesn’t seem keen to maximise trade. Actually I’ve hear a few people say they’ve closed early previously.

  12. I’m quite bemused by the response to this review. I took away the following few points when reading it.

    – The Coffee isn’t as good as Costa, which it really should be at minimum if you’re paying the price of a fancy indie rather than a standardised chain
    – It’s ruddy expensive and you don’t get all that much
    – Caversham isn’t bad but could be nicer

    The way the comments panned out, you’d have thought the review was mainly a stinging attack on Costa (I really didn’t pick up a single negative vibe about it) and Caversham, which manages to simultaneously bash the concepts of chains and of independents.

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