Feature: 20 things I love about Reading (2019)

Back in April 2016, I wrote a piece on the 20 things I loved about Reading. Remember 2016? The good old days – before the constant merry-go-round of elections and referenda, back when the world felt a little sunnier and Twitter felt a lot happier. I could go on, but it will probably make us all sad.

Looking back at my list from 2016, much has changed and an updated version is long overdue. Some of the places which made my list last time have closed: Dolce Vita, for instance, which stopped trading in June last year to the disappointment of many. Even sadder was the closure of Tutti Frutti in late 2017, my favourite Reading café which sold the best ice cream for miles around.

Some things have changed to the extent where they no longer make my top 20 – I’m sure the After Dark, under its new management, is a wonderful venue but it is no longer the place of my many happy memories. Similarly Kyrenia has been Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus for several years now, and its phenomenal front of house Ihor has moved on. The Reading Forum has degenerated into a seemingly never-ending conversation about Reading’s crime rate, Wetherspoons and the inevitable B word.

More to the point, town has changed a lot since 2016. As restaurants have closed, more have opened to take their place: the good (Kungfu Kitchen), the bad (Lemoni) and the ugly (Chick-Fil-A). Smaller, more interesting chains have moved to Reading. Our coffee culture here has – figuratively – exploded, as has a street food culture that has led to residencies in pubs, cafes and restaurants and in some cases (like Geo Café and Vegivores) a permanent home. For each thing we lose in town, there is always an equal and opposite reason to celebrate.

And so, without further ado and in alphabetical order, here’s my list of twenty things I love about Reading. It’s by no means exhaustive, and half the fun is chipping in with everything I’ve missed, whether it’s the farmers’ market, Christmas carols at Reading Minster, the Beer Festival, having a mocha at C.U.P., Reading Library, the number 17 bus or any of the dozens of other things I couldn’t quite find room for. Leave your favourite in the comments!

1. The Allied Arms beer garden

Some things about Reading never change, and for as long as I can remember the Allied has been the place you go to after work on a sunny Friday to start your weekend. You grab a table, your friends join you and the rest of the evening is pint after pint, packet of snacks after packet of snacks and song after song on its splendid, idiosyncratic jukebox (Camouflage by Stan Ridgway or Rock Me Amadeus, anybody?). I know the Allied has its fans all year round, but for me summer is when it really comes into its own.

2. The architecture

Reading really is prettier than you think, and I don’t just mean the obvious examples like the Town Hall and – well, I like it anyway – the Blade. Everywhere you look there are beautiful buildings, streets and enclaves – Foxhill House on campus, or the gorgeous houses of New Road up by the university and School Terrace in the heart of New Town. Stunning streets like Eldon Road with the grandest semi-detached houses you’ll ever see in your life, or redbrick Queen Victoria Street running from the station to John Lewis, itself a fantastic building. I could go on: Reading Minster is impressive, the Royal Berks grand, Great Expectations faintly ludicrous. So much to look at – no wonder the occasional Reading Instameets set up for photographic excursions around town are never short of things to photograph (I still miss Kings Point and the Metal Box Building, though).

3. Bakery House

Now over four years old, Bakery House is one of Reading’s best and most reliable restaurants but, more than that, it is a genuine institution. Perfect for solo dining, dinner for two or sharing masses of mezze with friends, they’ve kept up an impressive standard since day one. At lunchtimes their shawarma wrap is an absolute steal costing less than most other sandwiches in town, and in the evenings their boneless baby chicken, fresh from the charcoal grill with chilli sauce, rice and a sharply dressed salad, is one of the best single plates of food you can eat in town.

4. Blue Collar Food

I was sniffy about street food last time I compiled this list: Blue Collar has changed that. Popping up in the Market Square every Wednesday, this collective of traders, marshalled by the tireless Glen Dinning, has had a lasting effect on Reading’s food scene. Some of his star players still turn up every week – I’m a big fan of Purée’s challoumi wrap, the chilli chicken from the Massita and Peru Sabor’s excellent food – but he’s also done invaluable work giving street food traders a springboard to move into permanent premises. Not only that, but over the summer Feastival (and its spin-off Cheese Feast) transform the Forbury into the gastronomic epicentre of town. Blue Collar is now also running the matchday food at the Madejski, but I still hold out hope that we might see them in more permanent premises in the New Year.

5. Breakfast at Fidget & Bob

Sunday morning brunch at Fidget & Bob really is one of my favourite things about living in Reading. I’ve never known anybody scramble golden buttery eggs with as much skill as they do, their bacon is superb and their sausage – a square loaf of sausagement baked in the oven and served in delectable slices – is worth the price of admission alone. It boasts one of the warmest welcomes in Reading and if you go on Sunday there’s the added bonus of kouign amann, Breton pastries by Barebaked Bread which are sweet-salty layers of pure joy. The coffee’s excellent, too.

6. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen

It’s very strange to think that Clay’s has been around for less than eighteen months because, more than most Reading restaurants, it feels like it’s always been there. It’s difficult to cast your mind back and remember that Chicken Base used to be in that site or, even before that, the lovely Bodrum Kebab. It feels like Clay’s is probably Reading’s favourite restaurant, and I think that’s down to a combination of many things. The food is fantastic, and superb value, and involves a quality of ingredients and spicing that they don’t shout about enough. The menu is innovative – where else in Reading could you, across a whole year, eat quail, rabbit, pheasant, squid and crab? But also, I think it’s about the modesty and humility of the whole exercise: you sense that maybe they don’t quite realise how good they are.

7. Forbury Gardens

I wouldn’t trust any list of this kind that didn’t have the Forbury in it. In summer it’s everybody’s second garden (unless you live in a flat, in which case it’s your first garden). There’s nowhere quite like it for relaxing in the sun, reading a book, having a picnic, celebrating Bastille Day, taking part in WaterFest – even though it always seems to rain for Waterfest – drinking a Froffee from the AMT in the train station (that one might just be me), eating street food from Blue Collar or just gazing up at the blue sky and the trees overhead. It’s even nicer now the Abbey Ruins is open again – it just feels like everything is as it should be.

8. Harris Arcade

We have lots of independent cafés in the town centre, and some independent restaurants, but nowhere near enough independent shops. With the notable exception of But Is It Art, the Harris Arcade is where you find most of the good ones. I’ve lived in Reading long enough to remember when there was the Traders Arcade, with Enchanted where you could buy your incense and crystals and a café on the first floor, but Harris Arcade still captures some of that spirit – whether you want to buy comics from Crunch, records from Sound Machine, hats from Adrienne Henry, cigars from Shave and Coster, cheese and beer from the Grumpy Goat or ephemera from JIM. If only more of Reading’s retail scene was like the Harris Arcade – and while we’re at it I’d love an independent bookshop, a beer café and a few more boutiques.

9. John Lewis

I know this might seem like a prosaic choice to some, but I stand by what I said last time round: our branch of John Lewis is the closest thing this town has to a cathedral (especially the lower ground floor which does seem to sell pretty much everything you could need). It has a sense of calm and class so lacking from the Oracle or the Broad Street Mall, and I don’t think you really appreciate how lovely it is until you visit a town unfortunate enough not to have one. Most shops seem to start celebrating Christmas the moment September is over, but when the Yuletide paraphernalia appears in the ground floor of John Lewis, you know the festive season really is on the way.

10. Launchpad

Other charities are available, but there was no way Launchpad wouldn’t make my list. The amount of homelessness and begging in Reading was upsetting enough back in 2016 but over the last three years it seems to have got even worse. Launchpad offers legal advice, drop-in services, training support and so much more for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. But there’s more: back in January, Launchpad announced that it had built five brand new flats for people in need of long term accommodation, their first building project. Reading about it I felt incredibly proud, both of them and of our town.

11. The Nag’s Head

The Nag’s Head is widely held to be Reading’s best pub, and it’s not hard to see why. A wide, constantly changing range of cask and keg beers, ciders if that’s your bag, regular tap takeovers, food events in the garden (yes, yes, it’s a car park) in the summer and a friendly crowd pretty much every night of the week. A few pubs do a few things better, but nobody gets it quite as right across the board.

12. Pepe Sale

Rumours over the summer that Pepe Sale was up for sale threw much of Reading into a panic. Shortly after, it transpired that there was no substance to them but it at least gave Pepe Sale the rare opportunity to experience a mass outpouring of grief while it was still very much alive and kicking. It’s a class act – consistent, consistently full and always doing the classics well while keeping up an always interesting specials menu into the bargain. We will miss it when it’s gone, one day, but in the meantime the suckling pig and crab ravioli are still there, waiting for you to renew your acquaintance. Every town has an Italian restaurant or four, but how many have a Sardinian one?

13. Progress Theatre

Progress Theatre is best known for its summer Shakespeare productions, finally restored to their rightful home in the Abbey Ruins (I went this year and thoroughly enjoyed King Lear, although I’m still recovering from the spectacle of my friend Jerry, playing Gloucester, having his eyes plucked out). But the theatre up on the Mount is still a lovely, intimate and inventive place to watch interesting amateur productions. I loved their rendition of Top Girls earlier in the year and am very much looking forward to Hangmen next week. And now that Kungfu Kitchen is just down the road, your pre or post-theatre dining problem is solved too.

14. Reading Museum

Reading Museum remains a fantastic way to while away an hour in town, and the recent refurb (and new exhibition on some of Reading’s defining objects) has been very nicely done. It’s fantastic for kids and grownups – my 80 year old Canadian uncle thoroughly enjoyed dressing up there when he visited in the spring, although I’m not sure which of those categories he falls into. The replica of the Bayeux Tapestry gets all the attention, but I have an enormous soft spot for the display cabinet showing off Huntley & Palmer biscuit tins from across the decades.

15. Reading Old Cemetery

My list in 2016 didn’t have much in the way of open spaces. I must have changed in the last three years because I’m much more fond of Reading’s outdoors and Reading Old Cemetery is one of my favourite places for a meditative amble, even if I’ve never bumped into one of its legendary muntjac deer. It’s golden and peaceful in summer, and starkly beautiful in winter. There are lots of very touching gravestones and memorials, but the picture above shows probably my favourite, that of Bernard Laurence Hieatt. He has his own Wikipedia page, which is worth a look – it’s safe to say that he achieved a lot more in twenty-one years than most of us have in far more than that.

16. The Retreat

If the Nag’s Head is Reading’s best beer pub, I think the Retreat is probably Reading’s best classic pub. Saved this year by a consortium of locals, it remains a true one-off on a little backstreet not far from the Kings Road. The back room is where you sit if you just want to talk to your friends, or read on your own. The front room, though, is my favourite – there, regulars and newcomers engage in random conversations about all sorts, presided over by Brian, the now legendary landlord who if anything is even more charming now than he was three years ago (woe betide you if you swear in front of him, mind). There’s regular music, there’s jazz on Sundays and once a year in the summer the Morris dancers cavort away outside before making themselves comfortable in the back room and singing some very bawdy songs indeed.

17. The Salvation Army brass band at Christmas time

There are still few sights in Reading as heartwarming as the Salvation Army brass band, assembled outside Marks & Spencer, playing Christmas carols in November and December. Always unfailingly polite and impeccably turned out, they make Reading feel properly festive and it’s well worth watching, breath turning to fluffy clouds in the cold air. More Salvation Army brass bands and fewer god-botherers miked up and standing on a box, that’s what I say.

18. South Street

This is hardly a controversial choice – South Street enjoys a special place in Reading’s affections after it was rescued from the threat of closure following a huge outcry of public support (very much the town’s answer to 6 Music, and probably with a very similar fan base). It really does offer a terrific range of music, theatre, art and comedy and has widened its range still further over the last couple of years with its regular Beer Fridays (in collaboration with the Grumpy Goat) and its excellent annual Craft Theory Festival which brings together beer, street food and music in one unmissable package.

19. View Island

I’d never been to View Island until I was introduced to it through the writing of the irreplaceable, much-missed Matthew Farrall. Just past Caversham Lock, it’s an astonishing place, simultaneously wild and peaceful. You feel like you could be miles from anywhere, and yet you’re ten minutes from town. It’s been left to get almost completely overgrown and yet you can still sit on one of its blue benches, lost in your thoughts, watching the river flow.

20. The Workhouse courtyard

Long before Market House opened its doors, promising you booze, food and coffee at any time of the day, those in the know spent summer days going to the courtyard outside Workhouse Coffee. One of town’s most successful natural suntraps, you can sit there with coffee and cake from Workhouse or order Bhel Puri’s fantastic vegetarian street food and eat that al fresco instead (I recommend the chilli paneer, crispy bhajia, Punjabi samosas and a vada pav chaser). And if you want a beer in the sunshine? The bar at the George Hotel can rustle up a crisp pint of Estella. Who needs the Market House anyway?

The Pantry

Once upon a time, in the town of Reading, there was a bar called the 3Bs. It was named after the three famous alliterative cornerstones of Reading – beer, biscuits and bulbs – and, for those of us who remember it, it was one of the best bars there was. It was part of the Town Hall, and long before the Oakford ever opened it was the place you congregated in after work – unless your friends wanted to drink in O’Neills, in which case you made new friends. When the tables appeared outside, near the statue of Queen Victoria, you knew that summer was on the way.

It even featured, albeit briefly, in the opening episode of 1997 police show Crime Traveller, around the 3:45 mark in this video, as maverick cop (aren’t they always) Jeff Slade, played by ex-EastEnders bad boy Michael French, zooms through the Town Hall Square on a motorbike, scattering people and tables as he pursues a generic baddie in a boxy car all the way to the Queens Road car park. Around that time I was temping in Apex Plaza (which also features in the chase sequence) and it was all very exciting. As I recall, my brother bought a sandstone-coloured blouson, trying to emulate Jeff Slade, but it was all a little too Sergio Georgini. Ah, the Nineties.

My favourite memories of the 3Bs, in as far as I can remember anything, were of Bohemian Night, its weekly live music evening. A friend and I would always turn up early, sit near the front and drink almost enough to make the music sound good. Compered by AF Harrold (now a published author, then a jobbing performance poet working in Blackwells – remember when we used to have a Blackwells?) it was the Reading’s Got Talent of its day.

This involved various earnest acoustic solo acts and duets, a little spoken word, a shouty man who called himself “Preacher John” and another chap called “Reverend John H” who did an extremely offensive song about the sadly departed Princess Of Wales. There was also a bewildered pensioner called “Mr David” who would shamble on stage and perform roughly half a joke without getting to the punchline and then start singing snatches of My Way. It looked like he may have slept in a bin.

Only at Bohemian Night could a young chap wearing a fuzzy wig bound up to the mike, all puppyish enthusiasm, and announce “I’m Dunstan McFunkstan, and I’ve got a bag of comedy!” (if he honestly did, it was empty). And that’s before we get to the performance poetry, which was usually my cue to go up to the bar. Every now and again someone with genuine talent would show up at Bohemian Night and I’d enjoy their act, safe in the knowledge that I would never see them again. I loved it: I went every week without fail.

All good things must come to an end, and the 3Bs closed in 2011. Then, last July, the council announced that it would be reopening in the autumn. Signs were up by October 2018 declaring that it would be called Lains. Well, the council is as good at opening restaurants on time as it is at filing accounts, because it wasn’t until September this year that it finally opened, having changed its name in the meantime to The Pantry. The council’s announcement was full of the usual buzzwords about how the “Executive Chef” (why a café needs an executive chef is anybody’s guess) would use local produce to create a “scrumptious and inventive menu”. That was all the incentive I needed to take a trip down memory lane one weekday lunchtime with my other half Zoë, herself a fan of the 3Bs from back in the day.

It may have opened a year late, but the fit out really is lovely. At the front, where the bands used to play, there’s an attractive banquette and all the chairs are tasteful and muted, as is the paintwork. It was weird to look at it so transformed, but simultaneously quite heartwarming to see it back in use. There was still an icy blast every time the door opened and closed though: some things never change.

Menus are on the table but you go up to the counter to order. There’s a brunch menu, most of which is available all day, pizzas (which are “baked in our stone based oven”, whatever that means), three salads which you can pair with quiche, a sausage roll or a Scotch egg and a “sandwich of the day” (fish finger, on my visit) and “international dish of the day” (goulash).

The selection of cakes looked quite appealing, but the whole thing reminded me of something: I used to work somewhere where the staff canteen was run by facilities company Gather & Gather, and the menu here felt very similar, only more expensive. I wanted a pizza, but the gentleman behind the counter told me that they were out of pepperoni – I concealed my incredulity – so we ordered two things from the brunch menu, to find out whether the Pantry might be the brunch spot central Reading has long needed.

While I waited for brunch to arrive, I sipped my latte – a truly dire coffee, burnt and bitter and well below the standard of a Pret, Nero or Costa, let alone Tamp or Anonymous. Quite a few members of staff, all in their branded aprons, milled listlessly around the café, dusting unoccupied tables, making the smallest of adjustments to the position of the menu on the table, all kinds of random things to keep themselves busy because the truth was that the place was hardly rammed.

What customers there were were either parents with kids (half-term, of course) or people considerably older than me: no hip young gunslingers to be seen. It reminded me, more than anything, of the John Lewis Café, with the general complacence of not wanting to be any more than Only Just Good Enough. Perhaps the food would change that, I thought.

When it arrived and was set down in front of us by one of the serving staff, one obvious thing was missing: cutlery.

“We’ll need some cutlery for that” I said.

“It’s up at the front by the counter” she replied, without making eye contact. I waited for the second half of the sentence until, after what felt like quite some time, I realised that there wasn’t going to be one.

“Right. I’ll go all the way up there and get it then” I said, leaving aside the second half of my sentence, namely while you carry on dusting tables and being spell-bindingly bad at customer service. It was one of those moments when, like Tim from The Office, you just wanted to look sidelong at a camera in complete bafflement.

I had gone for “pulled pork waffle with spicy beans” and it truly was a miserable specimen. The waffle was lukewarm, doughy and stodgy. The majority of it wasn’t covered with anything – sauce or melted butter – and in the middle was a damp clump of what you could loosely call pulled pork. It was a pretty miserly helping, wet and claggy with big white globs of fat in it (I took them all out and put them to one side: my plate was collected later on without comment). Some crudely torn salad leaves were plonked on top, possibly as a garnish and possibly as concealment. I’m currently thinking about writing features on the best brunch in Reading and the ten best things you can buy for under a tenner: you can safely say this dish won’t feature in either.

“The waffle feels like a gimmick” said Zoë, attacking her dish. Her waffle came with smoked salmon, cream cheese, avocado and lemon zest. There was plenty of salmon, but it was extremely bland with no real hint of smoke. The avocado was as cold, hard and joyless as senior management. The lemon zest was a lovely idea but it wasn’t clear it had ever really made it on to the plate. More of that bloody foliage had, mind you.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Meh. I wouldn’t have it again. And it’s definitely not worth eleven pounds twenty.”

She was right (and charging that extra twenty pence was downright odd). You could get an infinitely better brunch at Fidget & Bob for far less money, miles better pulled pork at Bluegrass and for that matter the Lyndhurst’s chilli beef nachos are streets ahead of either dish and they cost less than seven pounds. As it was we both finished our meals, with no real enthusiasm, and a sense that I’d just wasted money, time and calories.

“It’s a shame your coffee was so crappy” said Zoë. “I can see this might be a nice place to come for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.”

“Those are literally the only two things they can’t fuck up.” I said, as we watched a mother at a neighbouring table treating each of her kids to a bowl of what looked like oven chips – hardly “scrumptious and inventive” but at least, at two pounds a pop, better value than anything we’d eaten. The whole thing – two brunch dishes, a latte and a cup of green tea – came to twenty-five pounds, not including service. I’m depressed to say that by the time we left, the place seemed to be filling up.

If I had to sum up the Pantry, I suppose the easy way to do it is to say that it’s exactly what you would expect a café designed by any local authority, let alone this local authority, to be like. It’s bland, inoffensive and unimaginative. How an “executive chef” came up with something so nothingy I will never know; it’s a step up from jacket spuds with cheese and beans, I suppose, but only just. The brunch menu is one smashed-avocado cliché after another, the pizzas are a vanilla bunch (all of them more expensive than Franco Manca). Across the whole menu I didn’t see a single shred of evidence of creativity, or seasonality – unless it was goulash season and nobody told me – or anything other than tepid box-ticking. And let’s not even get on to the Pantry’s website’s absurd claims that the dishes are “prepared using artisan methods” – even if they do seem to have recruited artisanal table-dusters.

What really frustrates me is what a wasted opportunity the Pantry is. The council could have opened something which actually celebrates and adds to Reading’s food culture, rather than paying lip service to it with a clunking name. Just imagine what Glen Dinning could have done with that space if they’d let Blue Collar run the café, rotating street food traders with a licensed bar in the evenings: at a stroke, they would have had one of the most exciting venues in town. But no, instead you can enjoy pepperoni-free pizzas, burnt coffee and even more uninspiring waffle than you get in the council chamber. So it goes.

I’ll leave the last word to Zoë: “Maybe it’s called the Pantry because it’s pants”, she said.

The Pantry – 4.9
The Town Hall, Blagrave Street, RG1 1HZ

https://thepantrytownhall.co.uk/