I’m delighted to announce an ER readers’ competition in partnership with The Lyndhurst.
Sheldon, Dishon and the team at the Lyndhurst have worked wonders since taking the pub over last year, and many of their dishes have rightly become celebrated across Reading. It seems impossible to talk about them without mentioning their magnificent home-made nachos topped with slow-cooked chilli, or the delicious beast that is their chicken katsu burger.
But the specials are just as good, and when they hosted a readers’ lunch last year they showed off even greater range. I still remember the courgette flowers, stuffed with ricotta and fried with a light, delicate batter. I also often think about the beautifully simple beetroot and goats cheese course they served up before a rhubarb dessert as tart and clever as a Dorothy Parker quip.
I felt like the pub was starting to really spread its wings and show everybody what it could do when the virus cruelly pressed pause, and I was delighted when they returned in early June with a takeaway menu. Many of my favourite dishes were on there – that katsu burger and the nachos – but they’d not been idle in lockdown, dreaming up new dishes which travelled better but still tasted spectacular.
I’ve already raved about the Lyndhurst’s pork tacos and that ancho chile relish, but I’ve ordered so many other brilliant dishes from them – a Scotch egg cut with sobrasada, giving it a superb Iberian kick, or beer can chicken with more of that ancho relish on display (top tip: order a whole chicken even if you can only eat half – the rest will make for a brilliant sandwich the following day, with more of the relish and some of the Lyndie’s spectacular guacamole).
The Lyndhurst announced that they were reopening for eat in trade on the 4th July but even before that, when they started doing deliveries and takeaways, they put Tweets up on Sunday afternoons offering to deliver free Sunday lunches to elderly and vulnerable people living close to the pub. Now that restaurants have started to open the Lyndhurst has been nothing but supportive, relentlessly Retweeting and amplifying Reading’s other independent restaurants and cafés. A rising tide lifts all boats, and the Lyndhurst is definitely doing its part.
In preparation for today’s competition I felt it was only right to order takeaway from them again (for research purposes, obviously) and I can safely say that juggling eat in and takeaway orders hasn’t affected the Lyndhurst’s mojo one iota. The Scotch egg has, if anything, improved with further tweaking, my fish and chips was bloody marvellous but best of all, I had my first takeaway dessert since lockdown began. My chocolate and cream cheese brownie was a soft, deeply indulgent treat and the raspberry coulis that came with it added a fantastic fruity sharpness. It deserved better plating up than I managed, but I was in a hurry to eat the damn thing.
So, on to the competition. First prize is a three course meal for two people (excluding drinks) at the Lyndhurst or, if you would rather, a three course meal for two to take away. There’s also a runner-up’s prize of dinner for two at the Lyndhurst’s Thursday curry night – curry, rice and a pint – again, either to eat in or take away.
To enter, all you have to do is this: write me no more than 250 words on your lockdown food highlight. That could be your favourite takeaway, a meal you’ve fallen in love with cooking during lockdown, an ingredient or recipe you’ve discovered with time on your hands or anything else for that matter. I’ve spent quite long enough banging on about takeaways or learning to make hash browns: now it’s your turn! Email your entry to me – firstname.lastname@example.org – by 11.30am on Friday 24th July.
As regular readers may remember, I don’t judge the competitions myself to ensure complete impartiality. On this occasion, I’m delighted that Glen Dinning, the man behind Blue Collar Street Food, has agreed to do the honours. All the entries will be sent to Glen anonymously, and the results should be announced on Friday 31st July.
As usual, the judge’s decision is final, no correspondence will be entered into and you’re more likely to get a rent rebate from John Sykes than you are to influence Glen in any way. I would feel sad that I can’t take part myself, but the standard for these is always very high and I really wouldn’t fancy my chances. Best of luck to everybody taking part – I can’t wait to read your entries! – and thanks again to Sheldon, Dishon and the team at the Lyndhurst for such a generous prize.
One of the strangest things lockdown has done is to literally shrink my world. Like everyone, I imagine, I’ve got heartily sick of doing the same walks every week, tracing the same routes time and again with only minor variations. For the last three months, the perimeter of my world has changed completely, and Reading has become a tiny place. It’s bounded to the west by Watlington Street, and I’ve only crossed the river to the north a couple of times for walks.
Like so much of what we’re living through, the effect is downright weird. I know rationally that the scruffy charm of Katesgrove, the grandeur of the Bath Road and the Stepford roads of Kennet Island still exist, but to me they might as well be Oxford, Bristol or even Prague. They’re now just places I don’t visit, places where other people live. It’s a sad consequence of four months of isolation, to feel disconnected from much of your home town, especially during a time when it has felt under attack, literally and figuratively.
Most of my strolls have been around east Reading, around the Old Cemetery and the university during the day, or doing circuits of Palmer Park closer to sundown. I’m lucky to have so much green space near me, so many options to choose from – I imagine it’s a very different matter in west Reading, where you mostly have Prospect Park – but even so the monotony and the constant house envy get a bit much after a while. It’s always nice to accidentally run into someone you know on walks like that. You aren’t allowed to visit them, or go for a walk with them, but if you chance upon them it’s okay to stand awkwardly, two metres apart, and catch up for a while, leaving joggers to circumnavigate your impromptu bubble.
Last week Zoë had a week’s holiday, so we finally stretched the northern and eastern edges of the map, crossing the Thames and wandering up Prospect Street, across to Balmore Rise to look out over a Reading full of landmarks I haven’t visited in such a long time.
Then we skirted the edge of Emmer Green, with its almost-fancy Budgens. We passed the whitewashed Grace Church, an oddity which looks like it has been picked up from Andalusia and plonked on the Peppard Road. We cut through the beautiful private roads of Caversham, gorgeous houses with just the faintest whiff of smugness, before wandering home through Sonning and down the Thames Path. Twenty-thousand steps later I was exhausted, happy to be home and craving a beer, although I didn’t have one because I didn’t want to undo all my good work.
On another day we did the Thames Path in the other direction before crossing the A4 and making our way into Woodley, over the bridge impossibly high over the railway tracks, Brunel’s handiwork visible in both directions.
Was this really where my brother, my grandfather and I clambered down to the side of the tracks, the best part of forty years ago, and my grandfather threw a two pence piece onto the tracks just before a train hurtled over it? I remember it when he picked it off the rails minutes later, all flattened and warped, a Dali creation, or at least I tell myself I do, but it feels like it happened to somebody else. Nowadays, there’s no easy way down and signs everywhere, with the Samaritans’ number on them, discourage people from taking the difficult route.
This week, on a warm evening, we finally headed west for the first time. We made our way down South Street, crossing on to London Street where I lived for many years. The blinds my ex-wife and I had so much trouble getting fitted all that time ago still hovered close to the bottom of the big sash windows, like tired eyelids. Outside Bakery House, Mohamad was talking to a customer and I could see, walking past it, that there were customers inside. It was strange, though, and I didn’t know whether to be happy they had so many customers, or uncomfortable that they had so many customers, or sad that there weren’t more. In truth, I was probably all three at the same time – but that’s nobody’s fault, and just the way things are.
It still seemed too strange to walk down Broad Street and the heart of town, so instead we cut down Church Street, past the Quaker Meeting House and the Church of St Giles. Jesus looked downcast, gazing down from his wooden cross, but he was bathed in evening sunlight all the same, as if he was giving Katesgrove his blessing. On another, happier evening we would have turned left and gone up the hill for a pint or two sitting on the tables outside the Hop Leaf, but now it’s by no means certain that the Hop Leaf will reopen at all. We may have done quite a few things for the last time, without even knowing it.
We walked up Bridge Street and I saw the Oracle for the first time, still almost as deserted as it had been the week before lockdown. Further up, just past the council offices, an enterprising food van was selling Madeiran food, all bolo de caco and chouriço. I wasn’t prepared for the sight of every table outside Zero Degrees being occupied, and I found it jarring. That’s not me judging people who are going to pubs at the moment – everyone has to make their own choices about the risks they’re happy to take – but it was strange to see a scene I hadn’t witnessed in a long time, people out and enjoying themselves. Not normality, but something that could pass for it, from a distance.
It was a similar situation in The Horn, Brewdog and The Sun, and then we cut right, looking at the Hexagon and the bizarre allotments where the Civic used to be. That end of town has always looked a little bit post-apocalyptic, which maybe means it’s less incongruous right now than, say, the Oracle. The new open-air Union Square street food market was boarded up that evening, and looked like something out of Mad Max.
There were a fair amount of diners in Sushimania, the waiting staff all masked up, and the signs were up announcing Pepe Sale’s opening on Thursday. The tables in the front window had bottles of Birra Moretti stacked on them, and I thought how nice it would be to be at a window seat with a crisp bottle of beer, trying to work out which of Pepe Sale’s specials was the most tempting. You can easily get through a whole beer doing that, without quite making up your mind. I miss evenings like that.
From there our route took us down the Oxford Road, and I’ve never been so pleased to see the Oxford Road in my whole life. Even if I wasn’t on my way to the Nag’s, it was just nice to see something that resembled bustle and normality. But even then it was a little too normal for my liking: too much bustle, too much crossing sides, or walking in the road. Before long we cut up a sidestreet and went up Brunswick Hill, another road full of irritatingly attractive houses, before reaching the tree-lined boulevard of the Bath Road. Florida Court looked as beautiful and as deco as always, green roofs tastefully lit by the last of the evening sun.
It was surprisingly emotional – happy and sad – seeing all these parts of my hometown that had been beginning to fade in my mind. Zoë and I kept stopping and taking pictures, even though they were of things and places we knew well, because it was just nice to be taking photos at all, of something new. Zoë is the first person I’ve gone out with who takes photographs, and at the end of a walk you get to compare shots. We both usually think the other’s pictures are better. Generally hers are better.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I know it’s a bit melancholy, but I think this time is more difficult than when we were in strict lockdown. I liked lockdown, once I got past the worries about catching the virus and where my next supermarket shop was coming from. Like many people I relax better within a bit of structure, and it was good to have clear rules, clear dos and don’ts.
But this? This is something different.
I envied my friends who ventured out at the weekend, to pubs and restaurants and taprooms, but I wonder whether they felt as if life was going back to normal or whether it just clarified how far away from normal we are. Because walking round parts of my town made me realise that things aren’t back to normal, and they never will be. All that is a thing of the past. The sooner we all get used to that the better, although as a notoriously change-averse individual I fully expect to find it harder than most.
It brought home everything I was banging on about last week: that Reading, and the country, will be changed forever by what has happened this year. Some of the places you love won’t make it, some of the shops you like to visit will be shuttered, some of the cafés you drink in will close and some of the smiling faces that have served you will have to find work somewhere else.
I wonder whether all of the investment planned in the town will happen, whether we really will get a bowling alley or a decent swimming pool or lots of whizzy shit where the Broad Street Mall is now. Perhaps parts of it will become like the Bristol & West Arcade, tangible evidence that not every egg becomes a bird. I wonder if our landlords will step up, or sink even further in the town’s estimation. Only time will tell.
What I hope doesn’t change is the people. I put something mopey on Twitter on the way home from my walk and before long I realised that I wasn’t alone. It was quite all right and perfectly natural to find this period more difficult than lockdown, people told me. Now you could see other people going on holidays you didn’t want to take or drinking in pubs you didn’t want to visit – at least not yet – it was the end of furlough for FOMO. Someone else described it as “fake lockdown”: “It adds the feeling that I should be doing more”, he said.
The irony. Recently my friend Mike told me that he felt he had wasted his lockdown, not reading any of the books he wanted to read, or watching all the films you must watch before you die, or learning another language. And now we all have to worry that we’re wasting our fake lockdown, too. You have to hand it to us: as a species, we really are so good at sabotaging ourselves.
I wish I could wrap up a piece like this in a pretty bow that sends everybody away happy, but it doesn’t always work that way. Right now, it shouldn’t: life for many people is still hard and it’s going to be difficult for quite a while. Glossing over that insults everybody’s intelligence. The struggle for our independent businesses is just beginning, and the worst thing we could do is fall into a complacent groupthink that everybody is out of the woods. The best thing we all have is one another, and we need to hang on to that. Maybe life online is all about building an echo chamber or a virtual group hug, but perhaps it’s up to you to decide which one you want it to be.
“The things we enjoy and the way we enjoyed them are still out of reach” was how somebody put it to me on Twitter, and I think that’s a wise way to sum it up. I saw my mum and my stepfather on Sunday, on adjacent benches in Harris Garden. It was emotional to see them in three dimensions, not just flat images on a Facetime call, with occasional lag or jitter, but I still couldn’t hug them goodbye. That says it all: still out of reach, indeed.
When I got home from my expedition, I went to the freezer and fetched myself a Solero. I maintain that a Solero is about the best way to eat a hundred calories there is – all mango and ice cream, like a portable lassi. They’re just the right size, so sweet and so satisfying, and unlike many happy gastronomic memories – Nice ‘N’ Spicy Nik Naks, or shrinkflation-adjusted chocolate bars – they’re still every bit as lovely as they used to be.
I’d love to say that they serve as some kind of metaphor – that some things are always good, and cannot become jaded, or that you can always find a moment of sweetness amid the gloom. But that’s probably overselling it, because sometimes a Solero is just a Solero. Even if it’s not the most uplifting conclusion I’ve ever written, it’s still one of the best pieces of advice I can give you: have one next time you get the chance. Kindness, community and Soleros. You could do a lot worse, you know, if you’re looking for guiding principles in the months ahead.
Steph Weller is an independent theatre and festival producer. She has been involved with many of the Reading arts scene’s most high-profile recent events, including the Reading Fringe Festival, the Reading on Thames festival, Magical Reading and productions by Rabble Theatre and Reading Rep. She nurtures the development of new theatre, and last year she spent 12 months as one of the Old Vic 12, developing new musical Black Power Desk. She also creates work as Working Birthday with writer/performer Natasha Sutton Williams (responsible for, among other things, FreudThe Musical, also performed at Reading Fringe). Steph lives in New Town with her partner.
The Reading Fringe has gone digital as a result of Covid-19, having received public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England. It will host a wide range of events from 17th to 26th July.
What have you missed most in lockdown? Spontaneity – being able to go for a rambling stroll and pop into a pub as the mood strikes. Meeting a friend for coffee. Deciding to sack off cooking and treating myself to a meal out. All these things are privileges, and I value them more than ever.
What’s your favourite thing about Reading? There’s a fierce spirit of “just do it” – our independent scene is a great example of that. People just getting out there and doing it. And the town is richer for it. I so, so hope our independent scene survives this current crisis.
I also have to quote my eloquent mate who says: “I kind of like that Reading’s gems aren’t flashy or obvious. As a town it makes you work at discovering its charm, in the form of the river and canal-side walks (which are seriously under-advertised), the indie food offerings, the creative arts etc. Reading is like the moody emo kid at secondary school – you need to invest time and effort in understanding it, but your effort is well rewarded and you’ll reap the benefits of the relationship for years.”
That about nails it, I reckon.
What’s your earliest memory of food? I’ve a dreadful memory for these kinds of things. I do remember being on holiday with my parents in Greece when I was very, very young. My dad had gone on a fishing trip and when he returned he was offered a delicacy: a freshly cracked-open sea urchin (I presume it was a delicacy – they might have just been taking the piss). It was scooped out onto a hunk of bread and looked, to my eyes, like a big gloopy veiny ball of snot. To my dad’s credit, he ate it. Despite the fact I didn’t even taste it, it was such a visceral sight that I remember it far better than anything I actually ate.
How do you think Reading’s cultural scene has changed since you first arrived here? When I moved here in 2000 to take a job at the uni, I didn’t really expect to find much of anything in the way of culture: much like most people, I had a very narrow, not terribly positive (or accurate) view of Reading. But I quickly became aware of the strength of the visual arts and the craft scene. Back then, jelly still had a presence along the Oracle riverside with the Jelly Leg’d Chicken art gallery, and I thought it was so cool that there was this proper arty, independent gallery right in the centre of the town.
But at heart I’m a theatre girl and, although I loved watching theatre at the likes of South Street, I wanted to get my hands dirty, so I started hunting out opportunities to get involved in and make theatre. So I came across Progress Theatre, where I spent many happy (and busy!) years, and which I credit with giving me a load of the skills I’ve needed in my professional career.
I think what’s changed is that now it just feels like there is more of everything – we have a thriving professional theatre scene creating exciting new work and providing opportunities for performers and other creatives. And of course we have more festivals than ever, covering a wide range of interests – as well as the Fringe (still a relative newcomer compared to some!), you have music at Are You Listening?, Readipop and Down at the Abbey (to name a few). And then there’s the Dance Reading Festival, the Children’s Festival, the Earth Living Festival, Waterfest, East Reading Festival, Here Comes the Sun – and more! AND that’s not including all the great food and drink festivals that tantalise us each year.
If you’d asked me five or six years ago if I thought I’d be able to sustain a professional producing career from Reading, I would have said absolutely not, I’d have to move to a Big City. But I’ve been freelance since 2014 and all my income now comes from the theatre and events industries, which is testament to the opportunities that exist (of course, I know that now is not a great time to have a career in those industries – but hey, let’s stay positive!)
What was your most embarrassing moment? Ummm, I wet myself at Brownie camp when I was a kid. I was too scared to go into the outdoor toilets, cos they were full (and I mean full) of spiders. So what’s a girl to do..?
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten? Oh now – I’d say it was my first Michelin experience, back in 2011. It was at 21212 in Edinburgh, and I’d booked it as a surprise for my boyfriend at the time (I’m so nice). Everything about it was perfect: it wasn’t too frou, it was welcoming and cosy, the staff were warm and attentive, and of course the food was so delicious and so surprising. I know this is what you’d expect from any decent restaurant, but it was my first time in a Michelin one, and I was a little apprehensive as to what to expect!
I loved it so much that I emailed them afterwards for a copy of the menu (I knew I’d forget what I had otherwise) and to remind me of the blue cheese I had, as it’s the only blue cheese I’ve ever enjoyed (Bleu d’Auvergne, if you’re asking). It also introduced me to the delights of truffle honey and to Tokaji. Both of which are found in loads of places now, but back then, to a Croydon girl, they seemed the height of decadence. It also means I’m now one of those poncy wankers who orders a dessert wine when everyone else thinks they’ve finished drinking.
The Reading Gaol project: important development for the town or costly white elephant? I think if we could get our hands on it – and we could fund it – it would be an absolute boon. There are some brilliant creative, ambitious minds in this town and I genuinely believe that in the right hands that site could be an absolute asset in terms of cultural impact and engagement, creative industries employment, and tourism. It’s big and it’s ambitious – but Reading is totally up to the challenge.
Where will you go for your first meal out? I was going to say how I’m chomping at the bit to get back to Namaste Momo – I credit Kamal with introducing me to food with spice and warmth that I can actually eat. But I see he’s back delivering again, hooray (serves me right for not being on Twitter much!) But in all honesty I hope that my first meal out of lockdown will be at a friend’s house – I so, so miss the simple pleasure of enjoying (someone else’s!) home-cooked grub followed by a good ol’ natter on the sofa afterwards.
What is your most unappealing habit? Apparently I have a bad habit of going full Andrex puppy with the bog roll – not sure how I manage it, but it often just… unravels after a visit.
The Reading Fringe Festival receives hundreds of applications every year. What’s the most weird and wonderful one you’ve seen? I’d use the term eclectic, rather than weird! One of the roles of the Fringe – of art and culture in general I guess – is to challenge perception and encourage people to experience things they might not have had the opportunity to experience before, or have shied away from because, well, they might think it’s “weird” or not for them.
A great example of this was a couple of years back – we were hosting the fantastic ice musician Terje Isungset from Norway. Terje creates his own instruments from blocks of ice that have been carved from icebergs, and then plays them. When you tell people about it, well, people think the whole concept sounds if not weird, then a little, umm, unusual. And when you tell them you’re hosting it at the height of summer, well, they then start to think you’re crazy. Fortunately loads of people took a punt on the weirdness, and the concert was a magical experience – ethereal, atmospheric and moving. And that’s what the Fringe is about: embrace the weird and you may discover something wonderful!
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? Oooooh – Sandi Toksvig (my hero), Mary Anning (dinosaurs!), Michaela Coel (hilarious and outrageously talented), Hollie McNish (what a way with words), Sam Neill (he’d bring the wine), and my mum. She’d have a riot.
What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)? Anything prawn cocktail flavoured: and although I love the flavour of Skips, I prefer the crunch of the McCoys Sizzling King Prawn.
What one film can you watch over and over again? Gross Pointe Blank! It’s effortless – performances, writing, direction – just an absolute joy.
What are you proudest of in your professional career to date? I’d say last year, getting to spend a year with the Old Vic developing a new musical about the history of the British Black Power movement – we shared an hour of material back in December, and watching (and feeling) the audience respond to it was fantastic. I really miss the electric energy that comes from watching live performance in a room with other people.
Who would play you in the film of your life? It’d have to be that Reading-born girl with the killer eyebrows – Kate Winslet!
What is your favourite smell? That cool, fresh smell you get when you’re on the water, particularly on a river. A mix of the water, a breeze and the smell of trees and plants along the riverside. Love it. As an aside, I have a friend whose favourite smell is fish food flakes, which so boggles my mind I feel the need to tell everyone.
Tell us something people might not know about you. I finally passed my driving test in 2018 at the grand old age of *ahem* – so you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Where is your happy place? Right now it’s walking along the Kennet and Thames to Sonning. It’s keeping me sane at the moment! But in general it’s nowhere specific: so long as I’m with someone who’s making me laugh – proper, belly-aching guffaws – I’m happy.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food? I can’t resist a meat pie or a scotch egg. If I could buy shares in the Caversham Butcher I would – and those shares would be in scotch eggs.
Describe yourself in three words. Optimistic; over-eager; daft.
We made it, everybody! Clap yourself on the back, congratulate yourself on your pluck and guts and book that table in the Allied for tomorrow, because lockdown is over. The pubs are starting to reopen – with the exception of killjoys like the Retreat with no gardens and selfish buzzkill merchants like the Purple Turtle – and although quite a lot of restaurants are yet to announce their plans, the good times are clearly just around the corner. I may not have got my holiday to Greece this year (I should have done a Stanley Johnson and just flown to Bulgaria before smuggling myself in: another trick missed) but who cares? The summer of fun is just about to begin.
Except. Except. Except I think we all know it isn’t really like that, and this stage of proceedings feels especially febrile. Hundreds of people are still dying every day – only in England, mind you, not in our more sensible regional cousins – my friends in Leicester (hi Adele, hi Mark!) are right back at square one and I don’t know about you, but the triumphalism coming out of some sections of the national press feels jarringly at odds with how I feel. I’ve spent nearly four months at home and I don’t remotely feel like the end is in sight; instead I have a growing, nagging suspicion that we’ll look back on lockdown, comparatively speaking, as the golden age.
Personally I’ll be at home tomorrow night, drinking some fantastic beers (I recently finally joined Untappd, which makes me a late adopter in much the same way as Mark Zuckerberg has lately adopted scruples about hate speech) and eating a takeaway from Namaste Momo. They do open for customers tomorrow as it happens, and I wish Kamal the best of luck, but I’d still rather get my fix delivered to my front door.
I’ve been thinking about the road ahead a lot this week, and some of this feels especially difficult for me to say. I love restaurants, I miss restaurants and I want nothing more than for restaurants to do well – especially the ones to which I’ve become rather attached. I wish I could be excitedly announcing all the reopenings, saying “see you there!” and racing you for that early table. I wish this was a diary post about that – it takes me back to nearly three months ago when I was writing about where we’d all go for our first post-lockdown meals. With hindsight, we all knew so little about how painful this would be: perhaps that’s for the best.
I can’t be that jingoistic cheerleader, because I think our restaurants are being hung out to dry. The decision to let them reopen is like the decision in March to tell people not to visit them (without actually closing them, of course). It is all about the government withdrawing support and leaving them to fail on their own two feet, and creating the illusion that life is going back to normal rather than the reality that it will. No more grants to fend off those greedy landlords, no more furlough payments for staff: restaurants are on their own now. It’s even worse – if that’s possible – in the arts: but that’s another story, albeit one closely linked to hospitality.
When I asked about this on social media, at least half of my followers said they didn’t plan to go into a restaurant for the time being. Couple that with the huge limitations that social distancing will impose on seating, and the admin involved in managing your customers, not to mention the risk that you will have to shut down when one of your customers or members of staff – probably from weeks ago – tests positive for Covid and the picture looks fraught with difficulty. Restaurants might feel they can’t say this publicly, so all the rhetoric is about how they can’t wait to have you back and see your faces (which I’m sure, by the way, is true) but could you blame them if, privately, they were shitting themselves?
This raises questions for all of us. Restaurants may have plenty of head scratching ahead about how they change their practices, but I think we also have to do some thinking about how we plan to support restaurants. Shrinking violet Jay Rayner started a debate about it this week when he grandly announced on Twitter that he was no longer going to publish negative restaurant reviews. He wasn’t prepared to kick anyone in hospitality at a difficult time like this, so if he didn’t have anything nice to say he wouldn’t say anything at all: if he went somewhere and didn’t like it he just wouldn’t write about it.
Would I do likewise? It’s a moot point right now, but an interesting one nonetheless. It’s different for Jay Rayner – he writes reviews that can genuinely boost or close restaurants (and has the ego to match) and I can see he might feel that with great power comes responsibility. But if you don’t tell people to avoid somewhere bad, isn’t there a risk that they’ll go there instead of all the lovely places you know about? And is thinking that literally everybody in hospitality is wonderful and doing their best to give you a fantastic evening a dewy-eyed act of self-deception? I’m sure, post-Covid, there will still be shysters and chancers, people ripping off trends or exploiting diners.
A lively debate on the subject on the ER Facebook page was fascinating but left me little clearer about my own views. Some people thought that a positive outlook like Rayner’s was just what was needed for the times ahead, others reckoned that there was a world of difference between an honest, constructive opinion and a hatchet job. One person very nicely said that my negative reviews tended to be nuanced (thanks Lucy, cheque’s in the post) – I wish that was true, but even I know that I can sometimes put the boot in. Would that be acceptable, post lockdown? Or would I just get told off because, ultimately, those restaurants pay wages and contribute to the economy, even if the food is bobbins?
Whether the state of affairs changes my habits as a reviewer, there’s no question that it can, will and (arguably) must change all of our habits as eaters. I’ve read a lot about how the age of the influencer is over, with bloggers (including local bloggers) rethinking their position on PR opportunities and gifted meals. And that’s right, I think, because it comes with a growing awareness that the restaurants that can still afford to do that are the chains. If you read my blog, you probably at least slightly share my values around independent businesses. If you do, I think there’s a lot to be said for thinking hard about your attitude to chains – especially big chains – from now on.
Make no mistake, the battle for market share in the months ahead will resemble a war zone, and the chains are going to do their best to kill independent businesses right out of the blocks. When Prêt announces that you can prepay £20 for 20 coffees, it wants to survive by clambering over the corpses of all the CUPs and Workhouses in towns across the country. When Camden Town Brewery – owned by giant multinational brewery AB InBev – gallantly offers to give free beer to pubs, they are trying to establish a stranglehold that forces smaller breweries out of business. We’re going to see this trend over and over again for the rest of this year.
In “peacetime”, I’m as partial to a Pizza Express or sitting at the belt at Yo! Sushi or drinking a Prêt mocha as the next person (unless, of course, the next person’s Prince Andrew). But we’re not in peacetime any more, and the luxury of having this plethora of choices is one we no longer have. In honesty, it was never one we really needed.
Everybody has to make their own choices, but I look at it this way: only so many businesses will survive all this, so you have to spend every pound with the businesses you want to survive. That was always true, even before Covid – especially with margins in hospitality as slender as they are – but it’s quadruply so now.
I had a conversation on Twitter a few weeks ago with someone about the mighty Kungfu Kitchen. “I like the look of their menu, but I’ll wait until I can eat in” she said. I had to point out, with the best will in the world, that if everybody takes that attitude your opportunity to eat in might be – to put it euphemistically – limited. I felt a bit like Bob Geldof at LiveAid, banging the table, saying “give us your fucking money”. But it’s true, and it’s important.
I think people’s mindsets are maybe slow to catch up. You see that in the recent news that Reading might well get a branch of Wendy’s at some point next year, news which caused an entirely disproportionate amount of buzz. “It will be nice to have another option”, said someone I follow on Twitter.
With respect, no. We have enough options already, more options than we need. We are going to lose a lot of those options as things stand, without a big faceless American chain coming in and selling everybody square donkey burgers. “But the jobs”, people say. Well, there is that. But those twenty or so jobs are a drop in the ocean when you think of all the companies and retailers making thousands of redundancies, and I bet you our independent restaurants and cafés treat – and pay – their staff miles better.
Of course, as sure as night follows day, Berkshire Live published an excitable article about Wendy’s (and promoted it five times in one day on Twitter) in the same week that they pretended to care about independent businesses with their bare minimum Twitter campaign. “Tweet to us about your business and we’ll share it with our 93,000 followers” said an organisation that has spent over twelve weeks publishing practically nothing about the independent businesses we already have.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. But of course, a proper outfit with links to the community would have followed people and businesses, engaged and would know this stuff already. They wouldn’t have to launch a desperate campaign which involves you doing all the legwork so they can just Retweet it.
What have they been doing in lockdown, exactly? Not their podcast, that’s for sure: they recorded an episode about “our pivoting independents” at the start of April which they couldn’t even be bothered to promote on social media. And since then? Complete radio silence. Perhaps Berkshire Live, part of what used to be Trinity Mirror but is now the disingenuously named “Reach Plc”, is another organisation that people don’t really need any more, like those other big chains with genuinely no interest in the communities they serve.
The response to their Twitter appeal, incidentally, was exactly what you’d expect from a company with zero interest in its audience: a wedding video company in Essex and an organisation called “The Dick Incider” (I suspect the latter isn’t real, but I’m surprised they didn’t just Retweet it anyway).
Speaking personally, I plan to pick the businesses I want to survive and relentlessly support them where I can. I hope everybody does the same. If you split your spend between, say, fifteen different restaurants the grim reality is that some or all of them may fail. There are no guarantees in what lies ahead, but if you zero in on a smaller number you give them the best possible chance of making it through all this.
That doesn’t mean you want the rest to go under, merely that there are limits to what anybody can do. I would be sad if, say, the Prêt outside the Oracle closed: it’s a favourite of my family’s, so I’ve been there far more often than I might from entirely personal choice. But I would be devastated if we lost Anonymous, or Tamp, or Nibsy’s.
Every town will be faced with these choices, and it will be a real opportunity for Reading to show what many of us have always said, that it’s more than a chain town. Imagine if everyone had the tacos at the Lyndhurst instead of Taco Bell, ate at Pepe Sale instead of Prezzo, went to Bakery House instead of Comptoir Libanais. It’s always been important, but it won’t ever be as important as this.
I don’t know if it’s much of an exaggeration to say that it’s a battle for the soul of Reading, and you need to pick which side you’re on. You can sneer and run the town down, if that’s your thing: god knows you’ll find an audience that shares what passes for your values. Alternatively, you can play an active part in making it the place we all know it can be. Which would you rather?
Of course, that leaves me with the difficult decision about what I do next. I won’t be reviewing restaurants, not for now anyway, and I’ve already ruled out takeaways. I’ve really enjoyed writing during lockdown, and I hope that alternating the diary posts with the weekly interviews has given everybody something to read (and possibly something to skip, or take exception to). I’ve been hugely encouraged by the response to the diary posts – especially the many kind comments, Tweets, messages and emails – and I know that the interview posts have had a fantastic reception.
So the interviews will continue for the foreseeable future, and I’m open to carry on writing some kind of diary for as long as people want to read it. But blogs are no different to all the restaurants, pubs, breweries, cafés and bars out there: if you want them to be around in the months ahead you have to use them and promote them. Otherwise you’ll end up in a town of Wetherspoons and Caffe Neros, of Taco Bells and Berkshire Lives. I lived in a town like that, once. It was Reading in 2013, before we got some self-belief and a lot of brave, risk-taking entrepreneurs. I don’t personally want to go back there. Do you?