2021: The Year In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the year Reading got a Banksy, it was the year Reading got a Wendy’s. 

And you could be forgiven, if you were a regular reader of Berkshire Live, for thinking Wendy’s was the only restaurant to open in Reading in 2021, given the huge number of puff pieces and free advertising our local webshite churned out this year. But actually, despite the most challenging year since, well, last year, we still saw a steady stream of restaurants opening here over the last twelve months. 

Many were chains slithering their tentacles towards the lucrative Thames Valley, which explains why this year Reading became host to Filipino chain Jollibee (home of the “Yumburger” and “Jolly Spaghetti”, which is made with chopped-up hot dog – count me out), Sri Lankan small chain The Coconut Tree, shouty Gordon Ramsay’s new burger place in the Oracle and Ji Chickens, a little Taiwanese-style fried chicken place which has established a Reading outpost in the mall literally nobody is calling Sykes’ Paradise. And just to show that hospitality never sleeps, our newest addition is Dutch chip specialists Chipstar who opened next to the Alehouse only last week. I’m told it’s decent.

These are the openings that will excite the council and Reading UK, because chains are what really make them lose their shit; the council’s tin-eared bid for city status this year actually celebrated the fact that we still have a Carluccio’s and a Pizza Express (which were, in their words, “forced to abandon other towns”) rather than talking about our vibrant independent food scene. That’s Reading Council for you – literally the only people still banging the drum for Pizza Express. Apart from Prince Andrew.

But I’ve been heartened that there are still independent businesses choosing to open in and around Reading. So in 2021 we saw Flavour Of Mauritius finally open on the Caversham Road, Mama’s Way offer a proper Italian delicatessen in town on Duke Street, ThaiGrr! start trading on Queen’s Walk and, a few doors down, Catford’s Compound Coffee open a second branch in the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, our new independent cinema. Out in West Reading, Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen began cooking at the Butler, the most exciting pub pop-up since the golden age of I Love Paella and Caucasian Spice Box.

Further afield, Tilehurst got an interesting-looking new café in the shape of The Switch and new burger restaurants opened all over the place – on Cemetery Junction, on Christchurch Green, on St Mary’s Butts. Blink, and you could miss a new one. We were also graced with not one but two vegetarian South Indian restaurants – Crispy Dosa at the top of the Oxford Road and Madras Flavours further along the 17 bus route, just next to the library (for a while this was not two but forty-five different restaurants: we’ll get to that later).

Possibly the shortest-lived new Reading hospitality business was Cult Antiques & Coffee, on the Tilehurst Road. Offering, as you would expect, antiques and coffee (along with baked goods from local Wolseley Street Bakery) it was perhaps a fusion too far because by September it was shuttered again. And most of our closures this year have been cafés: Anonymous Coffee stopped trading from the Tasting House, shortly followed by the Tasting House also leaving Chain Street. And after seven years, Nibsy’s decided to call it a day on Cross Street: a new business called YayLo, also gluten free, has taken over the premises. 

And finally, another very significant closure: Tamp Culture gave up its spot on Gun Street at the start of October. Tamp had been trading, pretty much, as long as Nibsy’s had and it’s difficult years later to imagine town being quite the same without them. And when you think that in a year Reading has lost Anonymous, Nibsy’s and Tamp, that’s a real blow for Reading’s thriving coffee culture; at least it might silence all those all those “not another café” blowhards Reading seems to be afflicted with.

But having said all that, cafés seem to have been particularly hit by the ongoing effects of the pandemic. When I thought about restaurants that bit the dust in 2021, the only one that sprung to mind was Lemoni. Did you even notice? And really, the main mystery is how it limped along for so long. The company was wound up in the summer owing, among other things, nearly £300,000 in rent. And now Lemoni is running two pubs, including the Bull At Barkham, under its brand name: I can only assume they have different suppliers there.

But if 2021 was a year when most of Reading’s businesses were treading water, running to stand still, it was also the year when finally our restaurants came to the attention of the national press. It started in July when the Mail On Sunday’s Tom Parker Bowles visited Kungfu Kitchen. 

Now, I’ve always had quite a lot of time for Parker Bowles: I’ve long thought that restaurant critics fall into two categories, the ones whose articles can be summed up as Look at me! Look at me! Me! Oh, by the way, I’m in a restaurant and the ones whose reviews are more Let me tell you about this restaurant I went to. Parker Bowles is that rare national critic who falls into that latter category, and I’m not just saying that because he described Edible Reading as a “golden nugget… among the sulphurous effluence of social media” (although I’d be lying if I pretended it wasn’t a factor).

Anyway, Parker Bowles loved Kungfu Kitchen and he clearly got everything that makes the place such a gem, from the uncompromising cooking to the magical welcome from Jo (he described her as “charmingly loquacious”, which is true yet probably doesn’t fully prepare Mail On Sunday readers for the KFK experience). And best of all? Jo had absolutely no idea who he was: to her he was just some guy who obviously knew his Sichuan food and wanted to enjoy what he described, quite perfectly, as a “30-napkin lunch”.

And it wasn’t long before Parker Bowles was back on a train to Reading, because in October he reviewed Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, a couple of months after their much-anticipated reopening. And if anything this was even more of a rave review: after making a bold attempt on the entire menu (the difficulty of narrowing down your choices is one every visitor to Clay’s understands only too well) he nearly ran out of superlatives. “I cannot tell you how much I love this place” he concluded, after, as with the menu, giving it his best shot.

Before Kungfu Kitchen and Clay’s the last Reading restaurant to feature in the national press was Thames Lido, four years ago in the Guardian. And before that? You have to go back to 2010, and a decidedly lukewarm (and entitled) writeup of Mya Lacarte in The Independent On Sunday. So for all of 2021’s drawbacks, it was the year that Reading’s food scene finally got some national attention – and what’s more, Blue Collar also featured in a piece in the Mail in October about the country’s most delicious street food. But that’s nothing: have you heard that we still have a Pizza Express and a Carluccio’s?

I was quite surprised to see my blog mentioned in the national press, but it wasn’t the only time in 2021. Back in April, when I was reviewing takeaways, I discovered that Madras Flavours, our new South Indian restaurant, was operating under multiple names on delivery apps. Tevye Markson, then at the Reading Chronicle, decided to run with the story and between us, like Woodward and Bernstein, we found a total of over 40 different brands operating from that single premises on the Kings Road, from Manchurian Magic to Indian Chimney, from Fatt Monk to my personal favourite, Soul Chutney.

The story went national and got picked up by the i, before the Sunday Times ran a full article about it with quotes from yours truly. They also featured a quote from the owner of Madras Flavours: “It’s all legal”, he began, which is an interesting way to start your justification. 

Anyway, 2021 was also the year that restaurants tried any hustle to keep afloat. In some cases that involved hiving off a section of your menu and pretending it was cooked by a different restaurant (Coco di Mama and Zizzi, for instance, or Blazing Bird and Las Iguanas). In others there was something weirder going on: did you know, for example, that if you order Gourmet Burger Kitchen on Deliveroo it’s cooked up in the kitchen at Carluccio’s? Maybe that’s why we still have a branch, rather than Reading’s eminent suitability for city status.

Being in the papers a couple of times was brilliant. But even better is that it’s been a bumper year for the blog, with more readers and page hits than ever before. At the start of the year when I decided to review takeaways – for a few months, just while I was waiting for everything to go back to normal – I had no idea it would lead to weekly reviews all year. 

I’ve tried the weird and the wonderful with an expanding cast of dining companions – whether it’s my friend Nick gamely ordering tiny snails at O Portugues, Graeme lucking out and coming with me to Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen or the welcome return of my old friend Jerry at Monty’s Café I’ve been incredibly lucky that people have wanted to come and try restaurants with me. And, of course, this is the year that my partner in crime Zoë has attained legendary status for her perceptive (and deeply Anglo-Saxon) assessment of many meals and takeaways.

It’s been a great year for food, too, and I’ve had many brilliant meals and dishes both on and off duty. Too many to mention, really, but plenty will stay with me for some time. Discovering Banarasi Kitchen’s excellent Indian takeaway down the Oxford Road, or revisiting Buon Appetito to find that at some point in the last five years it had become the best pizzeria in Reading (I still daydream about their Napoletana). Enjoying a magnificent prego steak roll at O Portugues, on the edge of Palmer Park, or the smoky, savoury joys of Chef Stevie’s jerk chicken, marinated for twenty-four hours and well worth the wait. And that’s not to mention the perfection of ThaiGrr!’s pork curry, or their crispy-skinned, garlic-studded fried chicken. Or La’De Kitchen’s beautiful pistachio encrusted lamb kebabs, another knockout find this year.

But it wasn’t just about new discoveries. A slightly greater sense of freedom this year meant the opportunity to revisit old favourites. Every single samosa from Cake & Cream, usually picked up after a mildly traumatic visit to the dentist, was a little wonder, and every portion of Gurt Wings picked up on a Friday from Blue Collar was a not-so-little wonder. Going to Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen on their reopening night was a surprisingly affecting reunion, and even if the dishes on the menu had gone up a level in terms of complexity and accomplishment it still felt like being reunited with an old friend – one who had done far more self-improvement in lockdown than I had.

I was also delighted this year, at last, to manage to get away a couple of times – which itself was about a mixture of new and much-loved places. Going to Bristol and eating again in Bravas, one of my favourite haunts, was terrific, but going to Marmo  for the very first time and eating one of my meals of the year was true bliss. Making one solitary trip to London and another to Oxford to revisit a couple of my very favourite places (Medlar and Pompette, respectively) was almost enough to make up for eighteen months away: I was relieved to see them still muddling through. And finally getting on a plane and going back to Malaga with my disgusting new blue passport made me happier than I can tell you.

My other highlight of the year was last month, when I held the first ER readers’ lunch in the best part of two years. It was at the Lyndhurst, as the previous one had been, because I’d always said that the next one would be back where we all ate pre-pandemic: not only that, but the Lyndhurst’s food (and their willingness to deliver it) has rescued many a Saturday night for me, to the point where it wouldn’t have felt right to watch Strictly Come Dancing without a TV dinner from the Lyndie. The weeks where they had skate wing in were happy weeks indeed.

The readers’ lunch, as I knew it would be, was a fantastic afternoon. It was properly emotional to see so many people – old and familiar faces – enjoying the Lyndhurst’s phenomenal food. ER readers really are a fascinating bunch, from academics to musicians, from rocket scientists to retailers, and my only regret doing the seating plan was that I couldn’t talk to everybody all afternoon (although they probably all had a far better time as a result). 

Even at the time, though, before Omicron was a Thing, I still had the same nagging feeling as I did back in March last year, that this was probably the last time I’d be out and about until the spring. After that Zoë and I went into semi-hibernation, and I thought we’d managed to beat the virus: her positive test a few weeks back, and subsequent hospitalisation, showed me that I’d spoken too soon. Fortunately she is on the mend – and we’ll both be spending the festive period taking it easy. I for one will be particularly grateful for everything I have, and determined not to take it for granted. Even before the events of this month, it’s been that sort of year.

It’s too early to know what sort of year next year will be: ever the pessimist, I think we have a challenging winter ahead. But even so, 2022 already promises more new openings. La’De Kitchen plans to open an “express” branch on Market Square and Black Sheep Coffee is taking over the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street. We’re still promised a new Greek restaurant in the Broad Street Mall, and Blue Collar’s permanent site should open next year after an inexplicable eight months waiting for Reading Council to grant planning permission. Apparently Rosa’s Thai is going to open permanent premises on the ground floor of the iconic Jackson’s Corner. And maybe we’ll finally get that branch of Leon, many years after they used to be good.

Another interesting development will be Kamal’s Kitchen on the Caversham Road. Namaste Momo never quite lived up to the promise of Kamal’s previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen, but this time he is going it alone. If he sticks to the Nepalese classics that made Namaste Kitchen so special, and doesn’t muddy the waters with the more generic Indian food he offered at Namaste Momo, it could prove to be a big hitter. 

But who knows what else next year holds? The one thing you can guarantee, I’m afraid, is that next year some restaurants will fail, and others will be more than willing to try their chances in the same location. There will be some bandwagon-jumpers, some awful concepts, some good chains, some bad chains and, probably out of nowhere, some real gems. And I’ll do my level best to help work out which is which. 

All that remains is me to thank all of you for reading over the last twelve months. It always pleasantly surprises me how many of you come along week after week to read the reviews, comment, share and spread the word. It all counts, and it’s all contributed to this being the most successful year ever on the blog. So whether you’re an avid reader, a skeptic, a lurker or a hater I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful, happy and healthy New Year. Stay safe, and I’ll be back in 2022 with the usual mixture of takeaway reviews, restaurant reviews, ill-informed social comment and very lengthy preambles. What more could you possibly want?

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