You’ll find many people who live in Reading that love the river. The waterways that run through and bisect Reading define it in so many ways, whether it’s the feeling of elsewhere you get when you cross the water and head north into Caversham, the brilliant, slightly wild seclusion of View Island, the experience of enjoying an al fresco pint outside the Fisherman’s Cottage seeing the world go past or even just watching the infamous Caversham Princess wending its merry, noisy way past the Bohemian Bowls Club, itself situated on Fry’s Island, slap bang in the middle of the Thames.
In lockdown I became a bit of an aficionado, strolling down the river past Caversham Bridge and looking enviously at the houses on the opposite bank, wandering round Caversham Court Gardens and watching the river flow or even just having a quick amble across the Horseshoe Bridge before the sun went down. On a particularly clement day I did the thing I always told myself I should and schlepped all the way along the riverbank to beautiful, traffic-clogged Sonning. Walking through the church yard, the pub just round the corner, it felt nothing like Reading at all. It’s true: we are very lucky indeed that our town is situated at the confluence of the Kennet and the Thames.
But all that said, for me the greatest tributary in this town has always been the number 17 bus route, the grand thoroughfare that cuts through Reading from east to west. I’ve always thought that there’s an almost infinite variety to that bus route, the distinctive purple double decker starting at the Three Tuns in the east, gliding past the prosperous houses off the Wokingham Road, running alongside Palmer Park and darting across the iconic snarl of Cemetery Junction, snaking through town, past the library and the Broad Street Mall.
Then it makes its way down the Oxford Road, through all that bustle and life, the skleps and the biryani joints, the barbers and the Indian sweet shops, the stalls on the pavement groaning with fruit and veg. And at the roundabout just past the KFC, it veers left and meanders through Tilehurst, finishing up at the water tower, another of Reading’s most distinctive structures. In east Reading the gas tower has played host to its last birds, and there’s an eerie emptiness about the space where it once stood, but in west Reading they still have their landmark, beautiful and graceful as ever.
People used to talk about how you could do a pub crawl along the 17 bus route. And of course you can, if you have a burning desire to drink at The Roebuck, The Palmer Tavern, The Outlook, The Wishing Well and the Pond House. Good luck with that, if it’s your bag. But for me, the 17 bus route more represents an incredibly rich seam of excellent places to eat and drink, all of them dead easy to reach on a bus which runs pretty much every seven minutes.
If you live anywhere near that bus route, you can get to all of these: Cakes & Cream; Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen; O Português; Smash N Grab; The Lyndhurst; House Of Flavours; Blue Collar Corner; The Nag’s Head; Buon Appetito; Oishi; Dee Caf and even Double-Barrelled. Who needs the Thames anyway? The number 17’s charms might be a little more rugged and raw than wafting down the river, but I know which is more accessible. More useful too, come to think of it.
The subject of this week’s review is almost right at the western end of the 17 route: The Switch is the Tilehurst café on The Triangle, in the heart of Tilehurst Village. And alighting from the bus on a Sunday morning the first thing that struck me was that the place was packed. There was no danger of me breaking the news of The Switch to the waiting Reading world: that ship had sailed, and it didn’t look remotely like a café in desperate need of another positive review.
And that’s because it isn’t one. It’s been open coming up for a year, and it’s clearly built up a following in Tilehurst – possibly beyond, too, because last week it won the “Prestige Award” – whatever that is – for best café in the south-east. Now, I’m always a bit dubious about these random awards, because there’s never much transparency about how and why they’re dished out. And, come to mention it, the wording of the piece announcing The Switch as a winner did sound like it had been knocked together by a committee on Mogadon.
“An enormous amount of time and effort has been spent by Chef Antony and the owners to ensure the dishes reflect the local area, famous for its luscious fields and free range meats, which have been painstakingly incorporated into the food on offer” it said. Ah, the legendary luscious fields of Tilehurst that we’ve all heard so much about. “The judges were particularly impressed by the consistency of excellence that permeates throughout every experience diners encounter at The Switch” it continued. And you thought my reviews go on a bit!
Anyway, I’d heard enough good things to want to try it. And having looked at the menu online what didn’t strike me was how they’d painstakingly incorporated all those free range meats, it was more “this doesn’t half look like the menu at Café Yolk”. And I thought it would be an interesting east/west comparison to see how it compared to its rival at the other end of the 17 bus route.
It’s quite a nice space inside, a pleasant neutral room with one feature wall with a neon sign showing the café’s logo. And actually all their branding is well done, clean and contemporary – the whole thing shows the kind of consideration and maturity you tend to associate more with chains. But it was a gorgeous morning, so I managed to bag a table on the small terrace out front. As I said, the whole place was rammed so it was a case of jumping in someone’s grave to grab a recently vacated table – not bad going at half ten on a Sunday morning.
The menu didn’t exactly scream luscious fields and free range meats, but it read extremely well none the less. You’d struggle not to find several things to choose between here: it has the traditional breakfast options, as you’d expect, a range of dishes on the sweeter side involving pancakes or French toast, an interesting brunch section and, if you want lunch, a small selection of burgers which also looked worth investigating. Prices are on the higher side, with most dishes starting at a tenner and climbing from there, but I think I might need to stop saying that so much: all of our supermarket bills are climbing, so why would we think restaurants and cafés are immune from that?
I was flying solo for this meal, so looking at the menu was more painful than usual as it was largely a bunch of options I rather fancied but had to save for a future visit. Half ten was a bit early to eat the crispy buttermilk chicken thigh burger, I decided. And I’d had French toast with bacon the day before – it’s a hard life, I know – so that ruled that out. A classic breakfast was tempting, but The Switch doesn’t name its suppliers and in my experience a bad sausage ruins a good breakfast. And last but not least, I decided against the loaded hash browns, even if they did come slathered in bacon, devilled cheese, garlic mayo and salsa.
But first things first, and the first caffeine of the day. Like Café Yolk, The Switch started using Anonymous to supply their coffee. But when prices went up, the two cafés took markedly different approaches: Yolk switched to Kingdom and slightly raised their prices, while The Switch stuck with Anonymous and raised their prices by a little more (and a sign on the wall by the counter namechecks Anonymous). Tasting my latte on a sunny Sunday morning, it was clear that The Switch had made the right decision. It wasn’t a perfect latte, the milk felt a little thin and the latte art had gone missing in action, but the quality of the beans came through. I didn’t mind paying three pounds fifty for this, even if it’s slightly on the high side by Reading standards.
When I first considered reviewing The Switch, a couple of months ago when I instead visited Dee Caf, I made some hackneyed disparaging comments about smashed avocado on toast. So for my brunch I decided to eat The Switch’s smashed avocado on toast, and now I’m going to eat my words. It was a fantastic dish – streets ahead of similar dishes I’ve tried at places like Yolk and Picnic and the closest thing I’ve tried in Reading to unlocking the genuine promise of this dish.
What I loved about The Switch’s smashed avo is that although it looked busy on the plate everything there was there for a reason and had a role to play. I’ve eaten a lot of smashed avo where all that’s been done is bashing the blessed thing into submission, and sometimes not even that, but this was superior, beautifully ripe and creamy and shot through with lime. The bacon (back bacon, but you can’t have everything) was a salty, crispy joy, and you got a darned sight more of it than you did with the equivalent dish at Yolk. Ditto both of the poached eggs, which were cooked spot on.
But it was also about the supporting players. The whole thing was dotted with racing green blobs of The Switch’s very enjoyable chimichurri adding a little zip and heat – next time I might order something where this is more centre stage. The fragments of Parmesan crisp added texture and more glorious salt, and even the crispy onions helped to add fun and definition to the dish. I didn’t even mind the foliage dumped on top, and the herby potatoes were a welcome side helping of extra carbs. If they came out of a packet, as I’ve long suspected Yolk’s do, it was a significantly better packet.
This is a dish which often gets a bad press, and I’ve been known to contribute to that in my time, but this was a superb example of what it can be at its best. Without the bacon it costs just shy of a tenner, and with the bacon on top it was thirteen pounds. And yes, that’s on the high side relatively speaking but when it’s done like this you don’t really begrudge them. At that price it ought to be good, and happily it is. My brunch came to just over sixteen pounds, and I’d do it all over again on Sunday in a heartbeat.
I should mention service because The Switch was all over that too. They moved me to a table outside when I asked them nicely, and when they wanted me to move to a different table so they could push two tables together and accommodate a bigger group they asked me nicely. They brought out a bowl of water for a dog-walking table nearby, and seemed to effortlessly look after everybody.
They were a lovely, happy team and I imagine they were busy that day; as I left there were people waiting to jump into my grave and nab my table, just as I’d done earlier that morning, and I’m sure I saw a few couples walk past, scan the situation, wander round the block and try again. People talk a lot about the Londonification of Reading, but in many ways The Switch felt more London than a lot of Reading places that are trying really, really hard to capture that feeling.
There’s not a lot more to say this week, you might be pleased to hear. I had a terrific time sitting outside The Switch eating my brunch, drinking my latte and doing my people watching. The demographic was a darned sight more mixed than you get at Café Yolk, so there were parents with young children, couples and friends enjoying brunch on the Bank Holiday weekend and one large group made up of three generations, the oldest of which were talking about the cost of living crisis as if it was someone else’s problem – which, as boomers, I guess it was.
So hats off to The Switch for building something with such broad appeal, and doing it so well. I don’t know whether the Prestige Awards have any real prestige, but regardless of that The Switch gets my vote. Normally with these things the temptation is to say “I wish I could pick it up and drop it on my doorstep”, but on this occasion I’ll refrain from doing that because it feels to me that it’s absolutely where it should be. Besides, it’s honestly no trouble to get there: it’s only twenty minutes from the centre of the best town in England, on the best bus route in the world.
The Switch – 7.9
19 The Triangle, Tilehurst, RG30 4RN