Café review: The Collective

Some of the most prevalent of Reading’s many cynics are people I like to call the Not Another Brigade. They crop up all the time: Not another burger place, they say. Not another coffee shop. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard someone say that, I could open a coffee shop of my own. Shortly after doing so, I’d hear enough not anothers to be able to open another, and another, and another.

Although when it comes to burgers, they might have a point. Aside from Gordon Ramsay’s new outpost where Giraffe used to be, there’s one opening on St Mary’s Butts in the old Pizza Express site, one on the Oxford Road opposite the Broad Street Mall, one more taking up the Sprinkles Gelato building next to Smash N’ Grab, itself another – that word again – burger restaurant. Oh, and Slam Burger on Christchurch Green, which will offer burgers called the Big Slam and – ridiculous name alert – the “Beef Wooper”. There was once a Black Country establishment called Kent’s Tuck Inn Fried Chicken. Slam Burger could learn a lot from them: if you’re going to be shameless, at least be funny with it. 

Coffee shops are a different matter. People have been saying not another coffee shop ever since C.U.P. opened next to Reading Minster, but now C.U.P. has another branch on Blagrave Street and a third, a recent addition, in the Broad Street Mall. We get new coffee places all the time. Compound Coffee is now operating out of the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, and something called “Artizan” (showing that swapping an S for a Z always makes a brand look classier) has opened in the building once occupied by Nineties throwback Smokin’ Billy’s.

It’s not a story of unchecked growth, though: the year hasn’t been without its closures in caféland. Earlier this year Anonymous Coffee pulled out of the Tasting House, shortly before the Tasting House pulled out of Chain Street. And only a few weeks ago punters heading for Tamp Culture outside the Oracle were surprised to find an empty space where the kiosk used to be. Tamp had upped sticks and left after over seven years trading at that pitch with no farewell: they’ve since put something on their website. Do these closures prove that Reading can’t sustain (not) another café, or is it just the circle of life?

One part of Reading that has traditionally felt poorly served for cafés is Caversham. There was a time when you had Costa and Alto Lounge, and that was pretty much it. Then in 2016 Tipsy Bean opened, serving something you could loosely describe as coffee, and so did Nomad Bakery. And for a while we also had Siblings Home, a little place on the Hemdean Road: I liked it a great deal, but its owners had a haphazard approach to some of the basics, such as being open when you’d expect them to be. Anyway, that flurry of activity didn’t last long – Nomad, Tipsy Bean and Siblings Home have all ceased trading.

But in more recent times, there’s been a new wave of cafés in Caversham trying to challenge the dominance of Costa. So now Geo Café, which is part cafe, part delicatessen slash general store, is where Nomad used to be, but you also have Gardens Of Caversham, a third branch of the Workhouse empire, in the old Lloyds Bank building. At the more traditional end of the spectrum, there’s the superbly named Nathan’s Nibbles. And up past the Griffin you’ll find The Collective, the subject of this week’s review.

It’s a combination of café and “lifestyle store” and it opened last summer, the brainchild of locals Sam Smith and Susie Jackson (although I gather the latter has now left the business). It’s built up a good reputation over the last year, even scoring a mention in cult coffee blog Brian’s Coffee Spot, and yet shamefully I hadn’t visited until recently, when I sat in their courtyard on a warm afternoon and had a coffee. I made a mental note that I should check out the menu, so I returned on a Monday lunchtime to see what the food was like.

The Collective has obvious kerb appeal. It used to be a newsagent, but they’ve done a fantastic job converting it to a double-aspect café and shop with big windows, and the overall effect is far more like something Scandi, or at least European, than any other café in town. There are a couple of tables outside on Church Road, a handful inside, and a courtyard out back which has the majority of the seating. Inside there are a fair few homewares on display, and a counter displays plenty of appetising-looking baked goods. You order at the counter, then take a number to your table.

My table was out in the courtyard, which is truly a gorgeous space. They’ve clearly put a lot of work and thought into it, with a lovely panelled roof letting in plenty of sunlight and keeping out any rain. I can imagine it being an attractive spot when the weather takes a turn for the worse, with plenty of tasteful overhead lighting which will help as the afternoons become gloomy. It felt very polished – I’m so used to cafés that open before they’re quite ready and always look somewhat unfinished, so it made a welcome change to go somewhere so fully realised.

And it was packed – I arrived just before one o’clock and got one of the last free tables. When I did, every table indoors was already taken and there was a decent queue building for the counter. It gave the whole place a companionable bustle, and I enjoyed sitting among the great and the good north of the river, although it did make me feel increasingly guilty about taking up a table all to myself.

The menu sensibly doesn’t try to do too much, with sections for brunch, sandwiches and salads. There’s nothing as pedestrian as a full English, and the brunches are more Granger & Co than Gregg’s. Prices range from six pounds fifty to nine fifty, and there’s a selection of sourdough toasties including a regularly-changing special. Suppliers are name-checked – not enough places do this – so you know that the bread comes from Rise, the bacon from The Caversham Butcher and the eggs from Stokes Farm. I didn’t clock who makes the cakes, so it’s possible that they use a selection of suppliers for those.

I was sorely tempted by the mushrooms, glossy with tamari and tumbled onto toasted sourdough, after seeing them arrive at a neighbouring table, but after mulling it over I opted for the bacon and maple syrup brioche French toast. And a good decision it was too: just look at it. 

Not bad, eh? But it didn’t just look the part – which is crucial, because this is a dish that’s easy to get wrong in many ways. You can over-soak the bread with egg, so that eating it becomes a stodgy chore. Not so here: The Collective wisely used brioche which made it airy, beautifully light. You can use back bacon – the enemy of brunches everywhere – but The Collective has gone for thick, crispy streaky bacon which was cooked bang on. Or you can be stingy with the maple syrup. So many places are, giving you one of those depressing minuscule cardboard cups, barely half-full, to trickle over. Here, the whole thing swum stickily in the stuff, exactly as it should.

This dish costs nine pounds fifty, the most expensive thing on the menu. That pricing could be seen as on the sharp side, and if you charge that much you have to get everything right, but The Collective did. I wouldn’t be doing my job as Reading’s answer to Craig Revel Horwood if I didn’t say that the icing sugar dusted on top was probably unnecessary, or that in an ideal world there would have been at least a third rasher of bacon, but those are minor details. It was a cracking brunch dish all the same, and one I’d order again without hesitation.

Coffee is by Extract, a Bristol roastery, and I liked it: definitely at or around the standard of The Collective’s neighbours. And, partly to test more of the menu but mostly out of greed, I’d also ordered a double chocolate brownie. I do wish people wouldn’t put the napkin under the cake – a hill I’ll probably die on, some day – but the brownie was impressive work, a brittle exterior giving way to a fudgy core, with tectonic plates of chocolate studded throughout. Only a slightly aggressive sweetness marred it a tiny bit: it either needed less sugar, or darker chocolate. But again, there’s a note of Revel Horwood to that observation, because I had to look hard to find any fault.

Service was a tad brusque when I first got there, for one obvious reason – they were rammed. But things got warmer and smilier as the café calmed down slightly, and the lady who took my plates away told me they weren’t usually anywhere near this busy on a Monday lunchtime. “Shouldn’t they all be at work?” I asked, fully aware of the irony in that. My meal – brunch, a latte and a brownie – came to just shy of sixteen pounds, not including tip. I walked home, propelled by a slight sugar rush, keen to get back and write this.

I was delighted to like The Collective as much as I did. It strikes me that all of Caversham’s cafés (well, ones that aren’t Costa, anyway) bring something different to the proverbial table. Gardens Of Caversham is for coffee purists, Geo Café has a particular and distinctive charm. Nathan’s Nibbles has an almost unimprovable name. But The Collective, it seems to me, is the natural successor to the much-missed (by me, anyway) Siblings Home – stylish and poised, with that interesting blend of hospitality and retail.

It also happens to cook one of the best brunches I’ve had in Reading – easily better, for instance, than Café Yolk’s. The contrast with Café Yolk is an apt one: The Collective is sleek and grown up, it buys good produce and it makes the best use of it. It feels very ‘Caversham’ – but, more than that, it reflects how Caversham would like to see itself rather than how it sometimes is (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I mean that as a compliment). So yes, another café. But more importantly, an extremely good one. Reading can always do with more of those.

The Collective – 7.9
25 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AA
0118 3272728

https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

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