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