Last week, in part one of my review of the year, I wrote about all the restaurants and cafés that had closed and opened in 2020. But really, the story of this year in Reading’s food scene is the story of all the restaurants and cafés that don’t fall into those two categories, the ones who have hung in by the skin of their teeth and made it to the end of 2020 – businesses that began January aiming for “thriving” but, at some point over the last twelve months, downgraded their ambitions to “surviving”.
It’s easy to forget, as we all pause for breath at the end of the year, just what a torrid time hospitality has had. This time last year, Reading was a very different place. The biggest blot on the landscape was our benighted branch of Chick-Fil-A, already announced as due to close at the end of its six month “trial” lease in March but still, for the time being, selling chicken and homophobia (only not on Sundays). I never went to Chick-Fil-A, but it’s hard to imagine a meal there could have been as diabolical as my trip to Taco Bell in February.
If you stop to play it all back, the contortions that restaurants, cafés and pubs have had to go through seem like some kind of awful fever dream. In March they were told that they wouldn’t be closed by the government, but that they would have to stay open while that same government told their customers to stay away. Shortly after, they were closed in the first of so many u-turns, but there was then an agonising wait to hear the details of the financial relief available; at least one of Reading’s more popular chains decided to lay their staff off immediately, only to hurriedly rehire them once the furlough scheme was announced.
The furlough scheme brought some relief, as did some of the grants and business rates relief, but one thing that’s often overlooked is that a reasonable proportion of the aid package came in the form of loans: facing a deeply uncertain future, hospitality had to go into debt to gamble on its own survival. What followed was over three months when restaurants were completely closed, except for takeaway and delivery. Some restaurants decided not to even do that, some took time out to consider their options and some began making the first of many, many changes to their business model (I can’t bring myself to use the word “pivot”, especially as many of our businesses showed so much grace – outwardly, at least – that it looked more like a pirouette).
On Kennet Island, Fidget & Bob moved to selling groceries, produce and beer along with its fantastic range of sandwiches, coffee and cake. The other side of the river, Geo Café began a veg box delivery scheme, driving to a London market at four in the morning and then doing long hours making drop-offs all across Reading: very welcome at a time when many were shielding and delivery slots were well-nigh impossible to snag (eventually they got their own van in the café’s distinctive livery – I called it the “Kete-van” after its owner, until she told me to stop).
Another notable business in the early stages of our first lockdown was Valpy Street. Some restaurants have always had their own takeaway or delivery capability, and others – especially some of our chains – have always partnered with someone like Deliveroo or Just Eat. But for places like Valpy Street which had never done takeaway, they had to build this from scratch. One of Reading’s earliest adopters, they soon got busy and before long social media was abuzz with people enjoying their fish and chips and their roasts.
One of the most sought-after delivery slots was with Kungfu Kitchen, and there were few sights in 2020 happier than co-owner Steve standing at your front door, masked up, holding a bag of goodies. I soon became an expert in ordering KFK dishes that travelled well – that deep fried spicy fish, for instance, which would remain piping hot long after it was delivered, or the Xinjiang shredded chicken which was cold, spicy and (I later discovered) perfect crammed into a baguette the following day.
A lot of people were keen to see what possibly our most high-profile restaurant, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, did. And the answer, at first, was that Clay’s kept its powder dry. They took time out, put recipes up on Instagram showing people how to make simple versions of their dishes at home – even I tried one of them – and then quietly, without fanfare, went about donating large quantities of food to Whitley CDA.
(They weren’t alone, either: one thing that distinguished many of our hospitality businesses is that they still, against such a terrifying backdrop, found time to feed the town’s people in real need. Only last week, the Lyndhurst provided 30 Christmas dinners to people in Whitley spending Christmas Day alone: you would need to go to the Whitley CDA Facebook page to discover that, though, because characteristically the Lyndhurst hasn’t mentioned it anywhere.)
In May, Clay’s finally made a much-anticipated decision: it had no plans to reopen but would instead deliver vacuum-packed curries customers could reheat at home. Its website crashed on launch day with the volume of orders and soon Nandana and Sharat’s car became as keenly anticipated as the arrival of Geo Café’s Kete-van: one street in Reading organised a weekly communal order which was delivered centrally and then distributed to all the residents. This was the summer of 2020, when many of us got to know our neighbours better – either through WhatsApp groups, weekly clapping or, in my case, waving to Ted from around the corner as he walked the dog daily.
Another pirouetting business in May was Nibsy’s, which started delivering its DIY doughnut kits across Reading. Of all the things I learned in 2020, one of the most surprising was that Nibsy’s cherry bakewells didn’t make me miss gluten in the slightest, although once I’d finished them they did make me miss Nibsy’s cherry bakewells. Like many cafés, Nibsy’s gradually reopened for takeaway in June, and as summer came along there was a feeling that the worst was past and a gradual reopening – rightly or wrongly – was around the corner.
One of the most significant events of the year happened at its midpoint, and has nothing to do with hospitality but plenty to do with community. Like most people I was at home on the 20th June when I got word of an incident at Forbury Gardens, and like most people I watched it unfold on social media with a real feeling of unease and horror. A friend of mine was there when it happened, on a patch of grass just along from where the attack took place, and one of his friends chased the assailant out through the cemetery and down Friar Street. He messaged me about it as it unfolded, clearly badly shaken up by the whole thing. Other friends got in touch to check that I was safe, an experience I’m sure was shared by many.
What happened at Forbury Gardens was an attack on three friends enjoying the summer sun, in possibly the spiritual epicentre of Reading, but it was also an attack on our town and on all of us. And in the days that followed, all sorts of people tried to use it to further their own agendas. It was odd to see Reading on the news, or to hear vultures like Katie Hopkins talking about us as some kind of failed multicultural experiment. But the way the community united in the aftermath of that incident, and in particular the way Reading refused to allow it to divide or define our brilliant, diverse, happy town was one of the most beautiful things about this year, a wonderful moment coming out of so much sadness. I criticise the council a lot, goodness knows, but their handling of this – dignified and measured – was note perfect.
In July, our restaurants, cafés and pubs were told they could reopen, albeit with new restrictions imposed by social distancing and the need for Covid compliance. Restaurants all said how happy they were to be seeing their customers again, with masks and visors on nonetheless, but the whole thing was tinged with trepidation. Ever the cheery soul, I said at the time that I felt restaurants were being hung out to dry and that people should pick the restaurants they wanted to survive and spend their money exclusively at those places (I may have been overly gloomy: time will tell).
In August, restaurants were the saviours of the economy, completely Covid safe and eating out was a Good Thing, as the government introduced Eat Out To Help Out. Opinion was divided on this – I know a lot of customers, especially on social media, were convinced that business was booming and that they had eaten out far more as a result of the initiative. But the restaurant owners who spoke to me almost uniformly suggested it just meant that they were busier at different times. For restaurants, that tended to mean times when customers were less likely to spend money on alcohol.
One restaurant owner told me about a customer who turned up, spent the absolute maximum you could in order to get twice as much food, ate a tiny amount and then asked her to box it all up so they could take it home. When she expressed concern that they were circumventing the rules, she got a one star Tripadvisor review for her troubles. “I won’t miss some of the customers” she said, when the month came to an end. Others I talked to said very similar things.
The other big return of the summer was Blue Collar Street Food, which was restored to its rightful place on Market Place in June. Blue Collar had a year which you could see as emblematic of 2020 – two steps forward, two steps back. So we all celebrated in September when they took over the Friday market previously run by Chow (the right decision by Reading UK), followed by them hosting the regional heats of the British Street Food Awards later that month.
That was a wonderful weekend, highlighting some brilliant street food but also reinforcing just how strong our own street food scene had become. By this point, Blue Collar’s Glen Dinning had reinforced the market’s offering with some brilliant signings – Gurt Wings, for instance, on Fridays, doing the most terrific fried chicken and tater tots dusted with chicken salt, or Fink Street Food’s excellent mezze boxes.
The queue for Sharian’s Jamaican Cuisine (now renamed the Bissy Tree for reasons nobody could understand) was as long as ever, but now there was more competition elsewhere in the market. And although the market had lost some of its longest-serving traders – no more Peru Sabor, or Purée’s phenomenal challoumi wrap – a degree of continuity with the past was maintained when Georgian Feast returned to the markets on Fridays and the air was thick again with the beautifully acrid hum of ajika.
The other thing the Street Food Awards did which was so vitally important was to give Reading some civic pride, and an event people could look forward to and safely enjoy. In a normal year, we would all have been in Forbury Gardens enjoying Blue Collar’s Feastival, but this was the closest we could get. We celebrated Reading being picked to host the event, and Blue Collar’s triumph was our triumph too. Both days of the event sold out, and it went so well that Blue Collar was invited to host the final.
Another reason to be proud of Reading happened in August, when Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen finally launched a nationwide delivery scheme and we had to learn to share our treasure with the rest of the country. Positive reviews started to crop up on blogs, and with every collection you made at the restaurant, or at Fidget & Bob, Geo Café or (later) Double-Barrelled, being a Clay’s customer increasingly felt like being one of the first to know a secret that wouldn’t be under wraps forever.
All good things must come to an end, and just as it was expedient for the government to tell us all to eat out in August it became equally expedient to start to blame hospitality for the increasing rate of infection. The last weekend of October was the final of the British Street Food Awards but also the last weekend before a second lockdown took place in November. I was there with friends on Halloween and ate some absolutely beautiful stuff – a panko-crumpet scrumpet made of shredded pig’s head, topped with kimchee, a “Bangkok brunch” of spiced pork sausage with duck fat confit potato and tiny fried quail’s eggs, tacos and fried chicken.
Sitting in the garden of the Allied Arms in the cold afterwards, enjoying one last al fresco pint, it felt like summer was well and truly over. And it was, but this lockdown was different to the last. Blue Collar continued to trade on Wednesdays and Fridays, a welcome relief from time spent at home, and restaurants had honed their delivery capabilities by then. “Here we go again”, many of them said on social media, or words to that effect. They had done everything asked of them, taken painstaking precautions, and here they were again being told to close. Meanwhile, of course, the schools remained open.
The rest of the year, as we know, ended in tiers. When everything reopened at the end of the month, Reading was in Tier 2 and restaurants could stay open but only people from the same household could share a table. Restaurants were expected to police this, to add to their burdens. “We’re so excited to see you all again” was the overall message from restaurants – but who could blame them if, this time, the smile was more of a rictus grin? By this point, fatigue had set in: many of the restaurateurs I spoke to were just hoping to make it to Christmas in one piece and take stock.
And of course it was worse for pubs, who could only open if they were offering “substantial meals” and could only serve alcohol with those meals. Pubs scrambled to work up a food offering: Double-Barrelled’s taproom, for instance, rebranded as a “street food restaurant” so it could continue to trade. Others, like the Nag’s Head (possibly the safest post-lockdown experience I had this year) were forced to close because they didn’t serve any food.
And then, of course, the final blow. Reading was moved into Tier 3, which meant that yet again restaurants could only offer takeaway and delivery. It was one pirouette too many for some, who simply decided to close for the time being and put off decisions until the new year. A farcical twenty four hours later Reading was placed in Tier 4, which was like Tier 3 but without Christmas. Conservative estimates suggest things will stay this way until the spring.
The tone of many on social media was chipper, or at least phlegmatic, but the contrast between the public face and private misgivings was often clear. Double-Barrelled, for instance, put up a picture of their logo with the words “TAPROOM” and “STREET FOOD RESTAURANT” struck through, a clear (and funny) testimony to the constant one hundred and eighty degree turns required of hospitality all year. But on her personal Twitter account, owner Luci summed up the position even more succinctly. With a string of expletives.
There was still time for a couple more twists before 2020 limped to a close, both good and bad. In November, Blue Collar announced that Reading Football Club had terminated its contract to provide the food offering outside the ground on matchday, to widespread derision. The initial reports were that Compass Group, who serve the “food” inside the ground, were taking over – bad news for customers (and for donkeys, given how many of them have died over the years to provide Compass Group with burgers and sausages).
That was bad enough, but the suggestion that the contract would then be sub-contracted to a London street food operator to provide something similar to Blue Collar, only cheaper and less authentic, added insult to injury. The outcry that Reading FC had shafted an independent business – run by a season ticket holder, no less – in the naked pursuit of profit was loud, consistent and completely on the money.
Finally, there was a feelgood story a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the 13th December people fired up their browsers or opened their newspapers to find that Jay Rayner had reviewed Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in the Observer. It was a Christmas miracle, for a restaurant that was struggling to get by. Clay’s blog post on the subject tells the story better than I can, but it was the result of old-fashioned persistence: owner Nandana had emailed a number of restaurant critics and food writers asking if they wanted to give her food a try, and to their credit a couple of them – the Telegraph’s William Sitwell and the Observer’s Jay Rayner – had taken her up on the suggestion.
Of course, like everyone who has tried Clay’s food, they loved it and wanted to tell everybody. It reminded me of reading the email I had received from Nandana, nearly three years ago, telling me all about the restaurant they were planning to open. I clearly remember reading it and seeing all that passion for food, for recipes, and for telling stories, and I suspected even then that their food would be very special indeed. I wonder if Jay Rayner or William Sitwell had a similar feeling when they had received their own version of that email, many years later.
Clay’s was the first Reading restaurant to get a mention in the national press for over a decade – the last before that was Mya Lacarte, also in the Telegraph – and orders went through the roof. The following week when I turned up at the restaurant to collect my own pre-Christmas order I saw a front room full of vacuum-packed curries being crammed into boxes and envelopes, labelled and ready to go out for delivery. It was a heart-warmingly military operation. “This is probably just a flash in the pan” Nandana told me: I sincerely hope she turns out to be wrong.
This is by no means a definitive history of 2020 for Reading’s restaurants. I’m far too partisan a person to write that. And there’s so much that happened this year that I didn’t get to mention and there are so many people I left out. I didn’t talk about the stupendous deliveries I’ve had this year from the Lyndhurst, or rhapsodise about their gurnard tacos. I haven’t mentioned Bakery House or Namaste Momo, both of whom have brightened flat evenings at my house through the arrival of their wonderful food. I haven’t thanked Anonymous Coffee for teaching me to love making coffee at home, or congratulated Vegivores for managing to expand in such a difficult time.
And there’s so much that happened in the town that’s really outside the scope of this piece. The way Reading Fringe Festival managed to adapt to an online-only event, or the way that the tireless Louize Clarke did likewise with her Festival Of Digital Disruption, capitalising on Covid to land a roster of speakers you could never attract at a physical event.
I haven’t mentioned the joy I’ve received every time a Covid email arrives from the council with an increasingly ridiculous giant picture of Jason Brock looking grumpy at the top. And I never talked about the couple caught shagging in the window of the Hope Tap: surely the most fun anybody has ever had in the Hope Tap (irony of ironies, I’m reliably informed that the couple picked that spot because it was the only part of the pub not covered by CCTV, failing to clock that it was slap bang in front of the windows).
I still have a feeling that for all the difficulties of this year, next year is when we’ll say painful goodbyes to businesses and institutions that we love. And I still maintain that the best thing we can do is throw our figurative arms around the businesses we most want to see survive.
But perhaps the best thing to take away from this awful, mad year is how wonderful community can be and how it can show the best in people. Our independent businesses have been persistent, imaginative and resilient. They’ve been relentless in adapting, innovating and putting on a happy face, during months when personally I’ve sometimes found it difficult to even get out of bed. It gladdens my heart that we’ve made it to the end of the year without losing so many of the businesses that give our town its character and soul. We are lucky to have them: I hope that 2021 is the year when, as a town, we truly get to return the favour.