I’m under strict instructions to find some new dining companions. Dragging poor Zoë out on a weekly basis to accompany me to restaurant X or Y, with all the cashflow and calorific consequences that entails, is apparently getting, in her own immortal words “too much”. The cost of living with me crisis. So I was told in no uncertain terms that this week’s review would have to be a solo mission. Make some more bloody friends, seemed to be the unspoken subtext.
Which was fine: I woke up on Sunday morning, feeling a mite jaded after a day spent introducing friends – relatively new ones, as it happens – to the delights of Reading, to Double Barrelled and the Grumpy Goat, to our brilliant beer scene and the equally brilliant number 17 bus. You forget how great this town can be, and it’s always a tonic to see it in the eyes of somebody else, even if that does involve going all the way down the Oxford Road to an industrial estate near a big branch of Screwfix. Whatever: I slouched out of the house, a couple of paracetamol freshly gulped down, badly in need of brunch.
Nothing quite hits the spot like a full English when you’re hanging out of your arse, and I had Richfields, at the end of the Caversham Road, in my sights. I’d been there just over five years ago with a then friend of mine who used to accompany me on reviews, Costanza to my Seinfeld, and we’d both had lunch dishes, even though it was more of a breakfast place. “I’ll make an effort to go back there for brunch next year” I said, but next year came and I didn’t. Ditto for the year after, and then of course the world changed entirely. But I’d always felt I ought to give them another try, that my review was getting out of date, and a slightly hung over solo brunch date with myself presented a perfect opportunity.
The inside hasn’t changed much since I went there last – they’ve taken down the Christmas tree, obviously – so it’s still a long space broken up into three similar rooms and tastefully done in orange and blue, banquettes running along the walls. When I got there, midmorning, the place was pretty full and it clearly does a roaring takeaway trade because there was a big queue at the counter and I had to wait a little for them to wipe down a table.
I bagged a table in the front room, because there was better daylight for pictures, but I came to regret it because the front door swung open and shut so often from a frequent stream of customers that it was a bit of an ice box. Still, I was pleased they were so busy. Initially I thought you had to go up to the counter to order, but I’d just happened to arrive at the same time as a lot of takeaway customers and a very friendly customer handed me a menu on his way to go up and order a coffee.
When I went back in 2017 I found the menu huge – too huge, honestly – and all over the place. There were brunches, of course, but also burgers and grill dishes, salads, a bewildering array that didn’t make you confident they could do it all well. Richfields in 2023 has sensibly refocused on brunches and most of the dishes sit in that category. They still do a couple of lunch dishes, curries, chillis and stews, and they have a bunch of toasties but the rest is very much variations on a theme: savoury brunches, sweet pancakes and a few breakfast wraps and burritos.
The drinks menu is big too – shakes, smoothies, hot drinks and, for the adventurous, Bloody Marys and mimosas (perhaps another time, I thought to myself). They did a variety of cakes and brownies up at the counter, too, although it wasn’t clear who make them: Richfields social media has suggested that they buy from Rise Bakehouse in the past, but they might not do so now. Richfields also sells its own coffee in big bags to take home, though it wasn’t clear who roasted it for them.
Apart from the regular blasts of frigid air from the constantly swinging front door, which was my fault for not picking a better table, it was truly a very agreeable place to sit and let the morning paracetamol slowly take effect. I’d brought a novel with me to read and pretend to be a better person than I am, but the people watching opportunities were rich and between that and my phone I had no choice but to be my usual shabby and slightly disreputable self.
The thing that struck me, watching people come and go, was just how universal Richfields’ appeal was. All age groups and demographics were represented, from young professionals who had wandered in from Little Wales, the maze of streets behind Caversham Road, to fiftysomethings from Caversham enjoying a companionable married brunch and bigger groups of students.
I thought this was enviable, to attract loyalty from so many different types of people, and in that respect it reminded me more of Tilehurst’s The Switch than the slightly Made In Chelsea antics of people frantically posing for the ‘gram in Café Yolk (bear in mind, though, that it’s me saying this: I’m positively ancient).
I’d ordered a orange juice and a latte and both came in around quarter of an hour. The orange juice was very good – the menu says it’s “fresh orange juice” but whether that means “freshly squeezed” or “freshly taken out of a bottle or carton that says ‘fresh orange juice’ on it” I have literally no idea. Either way I liked it a lot and it was badly needed, although with hindsight a Dr Pepper might have been more effective.
The latte was more problematic – it had that slightly bitter acrid top note that middle tier coffee in Reading often has, although I have to say too that it got better as it went along, which truly awful coffee never does. They charge less for a single shot latte but they didn’t ask me which kind I wanted – I’m guessing, though, that this was a double shot which would explain why it was a little harsh. It didn’t make me want to buy some beans, either way.
I decided to order the “Richfields Fry Up”, the reference breakfast, because I always think it’s a good yardstick. If this hadn’t been a solo visit I could tell you about the chorizo hash, the smashed avo, the eggs Benedict or even the “Hot Mess”, a sort of breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, chorizo and Tabasco. Sorry about that, although at least it should make for a shorter review (who am I kidding? We both know it won’t).
Now, normally in my reviews I’ll describe everything I’ve eaten and then pop a picture at the end as a sort of aide memoire – I ate this and this and this, and by the way it looked like this. But just to mix things up, let’s look at the picture first and then I’ll tell you what did and didn’t work. Not all of it, by the way, is readily apparent from the picture.
So first of all, doing the scam with a small plate to make your breakfast look enormous isn’t a con trick Richfields needs to pull. It is a massive breakfast and it needed a bigger plate. Without it, you were always playing the game of pushing one item out of the way so you could have a crack at cutting another and loading it onto your fork. I nearly lost several things overboard more than once.
In terms of the individual components, it was very much a curate’s egg. Bacon was back, unfortunately, but well cooked with colour and no hideous rubberband fat to chew your way through. Also good were the mushrooms, which maybe hadn’t been cooked to savoury depth as they could have been but were at least – and you can’t take this as a given – properly cooked and not sad microwaved things shrivelled in a meagre puddle of what passed for their own juices. I’d asked for poached eggs, and they were a strong point – nicely done with good shape and no hint of vinegar from the poaching.
The very best thing about Richfields breakfast is the hash brown. Unlike nearly anywhere I can think of, with the possible exception of Bluegrass BBQ, they make their own hash browns and it shows. They are glorious, big, irregular carby marvels. Richfields should be famous for them – they were head and shoulders above everything else on the plate – and yet they don’t make anything of them. I found that bizarre.
And last but not least, I didn’t like the sausage at all. It was smooth, browned and unappetising – I’d compare it to Robert Kilroy Silk if that wasn’t the most outdated analogy of all time – and, for me at least, actively not pleasant. I cut it, I chewed a bit, I decided if I wanted some more, I repeated the process a couple more times and decided to abort the mission. A little clear fluid wept from the cut end onto the plate, and I felt slightly icky. I don’t know what the meat content of this sausage was, but at a guess I would put it within a couple of percentage points of “nowhere near high enough”.
Would you believe me, though, if I said that wasn’t the biggest problem with this dish? I almost never talk about presentation because I think it’s an overrated aspect of food. The time spent making it look all pretty can be time you would otherwise spend eating the damned thing, and I’m never going to be one of those people who says oh, it’s just too beautiful to eat. Nothing edible is too beautiful to eat. Unless it tastes shite in which case yes, you might be better off not bothering.
But plating in brunch is important, because of the whole element of cross-contamination. I know some people like baked beans, and some people – like my other half – really do not. I know some people may think having the baked beans ring-fenced in a secure ramekin is overkill, but even those people – or people who rather like baked beans, like I do, would probably still want them to be at least slightly self-contained on the plate. Well, Richfields don’t believe in the barrier method: almost every single element of the breakfast was resting on an almost completely concealed lake of baked beans. I bet at least a few of you read that sentence and shuddered.
It sort of ruined everything. My preference is to plonk my poached egg on a slice of toast, so that the yolk seeps into the bread. Here there was barely room to do that, but also both my eggs were already tainted with baked bean juice. So were the two slices of cheap, thin white bread – I bet they weren’t from Rise – so much so that they were decidedly soggy. It even did its best to mar the hash brown. I think this breakfast was plated by one of two kinds of people: someone who fucking loves baked beans, or someone who doesn’t ever eat a full English. Either way, it was a huge error: when I finished my meal, all that was left was about a third of an iffy sausage and a lukewarm puddle of baked beans.
I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy myself. Richfields is a very nice spot, in an interesting part of town on the border of all sorts of things and if the coffee had been better, or the brownies had definitely been from Rise, or better still both I might have lingered longer, done some Olympic standard eavesdropping and even pretended to read my book (Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey: it was really good, actually).
Opposite me a table of four tousle-haired students were conducting an in depth post mortem on all the girls they’d failed to get off with the night before in a way that was sweetly post #MeToo with all the laddish menace of a chess club. Next to me three thirtysomethings were comparing box sets – I keep meaning to get round to Ozark – while the most middle class of them, bless her, ate her Hot Mess burrito with a knife and fork. It was all rather lovely.
But Richfields had put me in the mood for excellent coffee, in the way that reading Caitlin Moran might put you in the mood for Nora Ephron, and I knew I could get it the other side of Caversham Bridge, so I settled up and headed on my way. It came to just under seventeen pounds, with no option for service. I asked, and either the waitress didn’t understand me or it was included. I hope it is, because all the service I had was superb, and they were very, very busy.
I wish this was a better review, and I can’t help thinking that I actually had a more enjoyable meal five years ago when I went there for a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. I understand retrenching to brunches – Richfields is only open until three at weekends – but I just wish mine had been a little better executed. And when I compare it to Dee Caf or The Switch, or even Café Yolk for all its faults, it was slightly lacking. As I approached the Crowne Plaza roundabout I saw the Gorge, thoroughly rammed with people, the interior as reassuringly naff as ever. And I wondered if really, the main differences between it and Richfields were cosmetic.
All the same, I’m glad that Richfields was doing so well, and relieved that this review will no doubt be like water off a duck’s back to them. But the problem was the beans, both coffee and haricot. To get one wrong may be regarded as a misfortune; to err at both looks like carelessness. My top tip, if you go there, is an item tucked away in the bottom right corner of the menu: order a pair of hash browns from their Sides section and add some scrambled eggs and bacon. Black pudding, too, if you’re feeling decadent. By reckoning that will cost around half as much as the fry up, and be about twice as good. You’re welcome.
Richfields Deli & Grill – 6.8
211 Caversham Road, RG1 8BB