As I will probably say many times more before the year is out – apologies in advance for that – my blog celebrates its tenth birthday this year. August 2023 will mark a full decade since this website was registered and the first blog post went up, promising weekly independent reviews of Reading restaurants. I’m still trying to decide whether to do anything to mark the occasion, although I’m well aware that it’s far more meaningful to me than it probably is to any of you.
In most respects, 2013 was a year much like any other in Reading’s restaurant scene. Many of the establishments that opened that year have long since gone the way of the dodo – Kyklos, La Courbe and the Lobster Room, for instance, are now mere footnotes. And the landscape has changed significantly since those pre-Brexit days; some of the town’s institutions, like Mya Lacarte and the Reading Post, indelibly part of the fabric of the town back then, have since been consigned to the history books.
But my blog is not the only survivor of that year. Lincoln Coffee continues to trade on Kings Road and will celebrate a decade in December. A few minutes closer into town, House Of Flavours also hits the ten year mark this year. As does Five Guys: remember how excited everybody was about Five Guys, back in the day? And last but very much not least we have the Grumpy Goat, the subject of this week’s review.
Not that I would describe the Grumpy Goat as a survivor, because that doesn’t remotely do it justice. It has thrived over the last ten years, taking a chance on its little site in Harris Arcade well ahead of the growing interest in craft beer. Back then, two of its best selling breweries were Bingham’s and West Berkshire: neither is still going today. You have to remember that Grumpy Goat opened pre-Double-Barrelled, pre-Phantom, pre-Elusive Brewing, the year after Wild Weather started; Reading’s beer scene was in its infancy, to put it lightly.
Many years later the Grumpy Goat is one of the main players in a craft beer renaissance in Reading, plugged into all our local breweries, stocking fascinating stuff from further afield and running the hugely successful Craft Theory festival at South Street showcasing beers from Berkshire and beyond. In April, in collaboration with Blue Collar, it is bringing Cheese Feast back to Forbury Gardens for the first time since the pandemic.
It’s not just that, though. The Grumpy Goat outgrew its initial premises and in a bold step, and a boldly timed one at that, it moved across town to Smelly Alley in November 2020. You remember the winter of 2020, right? When Christmas was cancelled with about a week’s notice and we didn’t know what tier we were in? A brave time to open a much bigger shop, and no mistake.
Yet the Grumpy Goat got through that, and the following summer they started serving toasted sandwiches. They were everywhere on social media, it seemed – I saw photo after photo of golden crusts and oozing middles, all of which made me peckish. But they only had seating at a couple of barrels at that point, and for one reason or another I never got round to reviewing them.
And then the final piece of the jigsaw came last August, when the Grumpy Goat opened its long-promised upstairs bar, open daytimes and evenings, with plenty of seating and eight beers on draft. Shamefully I didn’t manage to visit it last year, but it was always high on my priority list for this one, so Zoë and I made a beeline there on Saturday to see how its toasties ranked in the pantheon of Great Reading Toasties, amid the likes of Shed and Madoo.
First things first, I love what they’ve done with the space. Whoever designed it has a terrific eye and it has a simple, sophisticated colour palette: gorgeous racing green panelling, crisp white tiles and dusky pink walls. It’s broken up into zones and split level – the big tables nearest the window have tasteful banquettes and the lower level, nearer the bar, is a mixture of high and low tables. When I saw pictures I wasn’t sure it would be a place to linger, but in the flesh it truly is. What’s more, it’s emphatically grown-up and really nicely done.
During the day, the menu mainly revolves around toasted sandwiches and a handful of cheese and charcuterie boards. They stop serving toasties at 4, and from 6 they add a handful of small plates to the options. All of this, again, seems well thought out and the choice is reassuringly compact. In the evening the items on the menu don’t feel like the main event – they’re something to have with beer – whereas at lunchtime it’s all about those toasties. It’s worth adding that for both the toasties and the cheeseboard, vegan options are available.
Prices, for the town centre, are slightly higher than average so a toastie will cost you between eight pounds and eight fifty, the boards are between ten and twelve. Bread and pastries are from Rise, and coffee is by Anonymous so the Grumpy Goat has done a bang-up job of teaming up with local independents.
Let’s start with the coffee, because it was revelatory. Anonymous not only provided the coffee but also trained the staff, and the end result was a latte which was right up there with any you can get in central Reading – glossy, beautifully made and wonderfully balanced. I don’t know whether the Grumpy Goat would necessarily want people using its upstairs as a cafe, but the coffee is worth a trip in its own right.
And credit to them for fully embracing Anonymous’ coffee – unlike, say, Café Yolk who started out using them before switching to the inferior Kingdom Coffee, no doubt for financial reasons. Speaking of financial reasons, the coffee was a little more expensive than at the likes of Workhouse but, for me, it was worth every penny.
On to the toasties, then. The menu lists five, one of them vegan, and there was a monthly special on too, although we didn’t try it. Zoë had earmarked The Blue, made with stilton, walnuts, apple and honey, before we even crossed the threshold and that probably tells you quite enough about it. I wasn’t offered a single bite, but the vocal enthusiasm it was greeted with was enough encouragement to order it next time, although I can take or leave walnuts. Similarly, if blue cheese isn’t for you I imagine you’ll give this a wide berth. All I can tell you is that it looked pretty good from where I was sitting.
I’d chosen The Classic, because I thought it was as good a place to begin as any. This was all about simplicity, so there were just the two ingredients – toasted Winchester cheese (one of my favourite hard cheeses) and candied jalapeños from the Preservation Society. The Grumpy Goat sells the latter, incidentally, by the jar and I highly recommend taking some home as, in my experience, they pep up pretty much everything.
It has to be said that the Grumpy Goat believe in doing a limited number of things extremely well, and if more restaurants and cafés adopted this approach the world would be an infinitely better place. So it was impossible to fault the toastie – perfectly done, burnished on the outside and a molten mess in the middle. Not for them the lukewarm centre or the schoolboy error of sticking a napkin underneath it.
In a way, it has to be perfect because it’s so visually unprepossessing – and although the bread is local sourdough it somehow looks a little unspecial, which is a pity. But the flavours were knockout; I might have liked more candied jalapeños, but I can eat the bastard things out of a jar, so my view on this is probably not to be trusted. Was it worth eight pounds? That’s a tricky one. Who knows what’s worth anything any more? Personally, I was more than happy to pay eight pounds for it.
And in that Reading toastie hall of fame, it definitely earns a spot on the podium. The best cheese toasties I’ve ever had were from a pair of sisters who used to knock them up at Blue Collar’s events under the catchy name of Gourmet Cheese Toasties. This was pretty close – perhaps not quite as big, rugged and hefty but still a deeply, deeply enjoyable lunch. I wasn’t sure about the celery with it: it made me wish for some pickled celery, really, to add a little sharpness, but the toastie was fantastic none the less.
We’d saved room for dessert so we had a couple of chocolate brownies, also made by Rise with the genius addition of a little of Siren Craft’s award winning Broken Dream breakfast stout. If I’ve had a better brownie in Reading, I honestly can’t remember it – this was a generous, fudgy, indulgent slab of sublimity with just the faintest whisper of coffee from the beer. Yours for three pounds thirty, and a steal at that price.
All told, our coffee, toasties and brownies came to just over thirty quid. In terms of Reading’s indies, that price probably puts it in the same bracket as Shed and Picnic, with better coffee than both and better value than the latter. Service was extremely good, very likeable and largely from owners Anne-Marie, who was working behind the bar, and Charlie who was behind the counter downstairs.
I did also try some of the beers, so for completeness’ sake I should mention that too. I loved the fact that everything was available in thirds or two-thirds – no big bloating pints here – and that there’s always an alcohol free option on the wall. I tried Elusive’s Brave Noise, which was a little too harshly piney for my liking, and a beautiful sessionable pale from Herefordshire’s Odyssey, a microbrewery I’d never heard of, before finishing off with a third of Good King Henry, a stunning imperial stout which set off that brownie perfectly.
Imperial stouts in particular always amaze me – that you can get a third of a pint of something so carefully and superbly made for less than the cost of a glass of crappy wine in most pubs. That said, the Grumpy Goat looks to have an excellent selection of wine too (although most of it by the bottle only) and if you want a beer from downstairs there’s a modest surcharge to drink it in. We were pretty much the first customers at noon and by the time we reluctantly headed back out onto Smelly Alley, a couple of hours later, every table was occupied and buzzing. Nearly every one had taken delivery of multiple cheese toasties.
I suspect many of you have already been to the Grumpy Goat, and so your reaction to this review might be a combination of what took you so long? and didn’t I say it was great? If so, well done: you win. Even so I was delighted to love the place as much as I did. If this was the end goal – and given the Grumpy Goat’s ambitions so far you wouldn’t bet that it is – it’s the culmination of ten skilful, patient years.
They’ve spent that time building a customer base and a huge amount of loyalty, experimenting, branching out, finding producers and partners, innovating through lockdown, expanding despite the dismal headwinds and finally, not a moment too soon, creating a beautiful space slap bang in the centre of town that isn’t a pub, isn’t a bar, isn’t a shop and isn’t a café. Why limit yourself, when you can do all four things so well at the same time?
So hats off to the Grumpy Goat for what really is an impressive achievement: it’s hard not to argue that the Grumpy Goat is easily the most significant thing that happened to Reading’s food scene back in 2013. As a fellow survivor of that year, I have to hand it to them.
The Grumpy Goat – 8.3
7 Union Street, RG1 1EU