Bar review: Monkey Lounge

It wasn’t the most clement of evenings when I left my house and wandered through the streets of East Reading in search of Monkey Lounge, the subject of this week’s review. It was already dark at six o’clock, and there was a distinct, thin nip in the air – not see-your-breath cold, but close enough to remind you what see-your-breath cold feels like. It’s really not a reminder I wanted. And the leaves on the pavement of Erleigh Road, usually a golden autumnal carpet to rustle and crackle as you kick them up with your shoes, were a sad and sodden mulch, the last vestiges of a dreary day of stop and start rain. Make no mistake: summer is over, and autumn will be over soon, too. Where did 2022 go?

Monkey Lounge had been on my list for most of 2022 without ever quite reaching the top of it. It’s just along from Café Yolk, where Reading institution the Fruit Bat Bar used to be (I think I drank there once, over twenty years ago, waiting for my washing to finish in the launderette next door), but it opened back in 2020, the year when nobody in their right mind would have opened a bar or a restaurant. 

And yet it’s still going despite everything stacked against it. And that, for me at least, includes the name: it was originally called MNKY Lounge – yes, all capitals – but they’ve sensibly changed their name to the longer version. And no, they have nothing to do with the Lounge group which counts Caversham’s Alto and Woodley’s Bosco among its members (it’s a wonder the group hasn’t sent Monkey Lounge a strongly worded legal letter, to be honest).

Monkey Lounge first came to my attention properly at the start of the year when they sent me a message on Instagram. They said that they were well known in East Reading for their gourmet burgers and warm hospitality and wanted to know if one of my team wanted to try a complimentary meal there (bless them for thinking this blog is a team effort, but I’ve never been one of those saddoes who pretends to have multiple writers cobbling this together).

I declined, as I always do, but I did ask them to tell me more about their burgers. And that was that, because they never replied. But I’ve kept an eye on Monkey Lounge’s Instagram ever since. And I have to say, and I mean this with all kindness, that nothing about it would necessarily induce you to pop in for a meal. A lot of their Instagram feed is sports related, telling you which European football fixture you can watch next on their big screens, interspersed with the occasional picture of their food. 

And the food didn’t look bad, but it didn’t make you want to drop everything and make dinner plans. Although having said that the consistent message on Monkey Lounge’s social media, to be fair to them, is that they think they do Reading’s best burger. It’s a proud boast: the competition is fierce. It’s probably not true. But – and this was running through my mind as I dodged the giant puddles on London Road, and the cars planning to drench me with them – what if it was?

I must have walked past Monkey Lounge a hundred times over the past couple of years without going in. They’ve done a nice job of the outside – it’s covered, and extends across the front of The Wash Box, that launderette, and although there were no heaters it looked like a nice place for an al fresco pint. The big TV fixed to the wall was blaring out sports and the branding still said “MNKY LOUNGE”, which felt jarring (come to think of it, maybe they risk being sued by Donna Karan, too).

But the big surprise was the interior. It’s nothing fancy, a long thin space split into two rooms separated by a ramp, all high tables and stools. But despite that, the longer I spent in it the more I appreciated it. Sitting in the middle section, near the bar, I liked the buzz of it – it was actually pretty full when I got there just after six, and the whole thing almost had a speakeasy feel to it. I wondered how many people, like me, had traipsed along Erleigh Road without ever considering going in.

The bar had a good selection of gins and an interesting-looking cocktail menu, although the beer selection was slightly underwhelming: a couple of options by Camden, Beavertown’s Neck Oil and Corona on draft. They also do their own lager, but I asked the woman behind the bar who made it and she didn’t know. “We’re out of it anyway, I’m afraid” she said.

The menu, on a pegboard behind the bar, offered a small selection of mains, half a dozen burgers and a few more pasta dishes. It was almost compact enough to raise my hopes, but not quite: could they really do all that well? Did their slow-cooked lamb shank really have nothing to do with Brakes Brothers? As I went up to the bar to place my order, I did so more in hope than expectation but I decided to order what I’d been told Monkey Lounge was good at and let the chips – Cajun fries, in this case – fall where they may.

But before I did that, something happened which slightly changed my mind. Because I saw one of the wait staff walk past my table on the way to someone else’s carrying a board piled with chicken wings. And I have to say, they looked good. Big, rugged things, with real substance. And so, out of nowhere, I decided to order them along with my meal. The menu gives you a choice of half a dozen or a dozen, and for an extra pound fifty you can have them tossed in Monkey Lounge’s signature hot sauce.

“Just how hot is it?” I asked the guy behind the bar.

“Oh, it’s pretty hot. Not too hot, if you know what I mean, but it’s definitely hot.”

None the wiser, I decided to go for it. In for a penny, in for a pounding as my other half is wont to say.

Everything arrived together, around twenty minutes later – a good wait, an encouraging one. And if I have one recommendation for you above all others if you come to Monkey Lounge – and you might – it’s to pay their menu respect by ordering your dishes one after another so you give each of them your full attention. Because, as I was to discover, everything merited it. Far more so, in fact, than I expected.

Take my burger, for instance. I’d ordered the Monkey Burger (even with all letters intact, the name of the place is a problem), and it was difficult to tell at first glance, or from the picture below, whether it was going to be any good. But from the first bite I knew I was on to a winner. I’m afraid I’m going to praise Monkey Lounge’s burger by telling you all the things it wasn’t. It wasn’t too big or too sloppy. It wasn’t too smooth or too homogeneous. It wasn’t too bouncy, or crumbly.

That might sound like faint praise, but I promise it isn’t. With burgers I often notice what the restaurant has done wrong, but being unable to find fault with their burger I could move on to all the things I liked. The texture was perfect – reassuringly coarse but keeping its shape, with a nicely caramelised crust. The seasoning was spot on without being overwhelming, and overall the impression was a burger made of good beef and not much else. It wasn’t pink, as is the fashion elsewhere, but it was none the worse for it. 

And everything that came with it was just right – a good slab of salty back bacon, well cooked, not wan and rubbery. Decent cheese – cheddar at a guess, rather than the plastic American stuff. Good burger sauce, crisp iceberg. And long transverse slices of pickle, adding just enough crunch and acidity. The best burger in Reading? This might be news to you as much as me, but it was up there.

The chips exceeded expectation, too. No restaurant makes its own chips, unless it’s Honest (or possibly the Lyndhurst) but that really doesn’t matter as long as you buy in the good stuff and cook it well. Again, Monkey Lounge did exactly that. And again, that’s a rare enough occurrence that it deserves to be mentioned. They were crisp and fluffy, none of them were manky or offputting and a little dusting of Cajun spice lent another dimension (although it would have been lovely if they’d crumbled some feta on them – I’ve tried that combination elsewhere, and it’s next level).

Just to nit pick, and because it’s the only nit I could pick, one of Reading’s burgers deserves a better bun than this. It looked the part, all bronzed and speckled with sesame, but it wasn’t up to the task of containing the burger so every bite just pushed the filling out past the edge. A little thin, too, but replacing it with something more up to the task wouldn’t be difficult. In the end I ended up eating the last of my burger with a knife and fork, like an awful human, but it was worth it.

The wings were pretty decent too. They were, as I’d already seen, hefty specimens with a thick coating – maybe a little too thick – but the meat underneath was yielding. But the winner here was the Monkey Lounge’s hot sauce, which I loved – a proper hot, sour buffalo sauce with a good kick that built over time. If I was working there and someone asked me what it was like, I’d say that it will make your nose run and, by the end of your meal, your eyes water. Possibly marginally more helpful than pretty hot, not too hot but definitely hot, but then I suppose everybody’s mileage may vary.

My burger cost a tenner. The wings – half a dozen of them – cost seven pounds. When I’d finished I had another sip of my Camden Hells and paused for a moment. Had I just had a rather good meal, at Monkey Lounge? It did feel like it. Originally I was going to leave it there and slope off into the night, but the staff were so lovely – asking if I wanted anything else, showing genuine interest in what I made of the food – that I went up to order dessert.

“That was great” I said. “I really enjoyed that burger.”

“Thanks!” said the barman. “It’s not what you expect to find here, is it?”

“Do you make them yourself?”

“Yeah, we do. I don’t think they make the chicken burgers, but the beef burgers are made fresh in the kitchen every day.”

There it was. Ten months after I’d first asked on Instagram, I finally had my answer from Monkey Lounge. There’s too much hyperbole on social media, so you get lots of hucksters calling their dishes famous or legendary, when they’re nothing of the kind, or saying that they do the best such-and-such in town when that’s just wishful thinking. But finding out that a boast like that isn’t a million miles from the truth: what are the chances?

Oh, for completeness’ sake, I did have dessert. It was a red velvet cheesecake, so essentially a cheesecake with added red velvet sponge, topped with a layer of solid chocolate. And however indecent that sounds, funnily enough, is pretty much how indecent it was. They may well have bought it in, as they bought in the chips, but it was so enjoyable that I didn’t care, this strange megamix of two desserts rolled into one, with a gorgeous, thick, sugary biscuit base. They even brought me a little ramekin of double cream, and I loved them for that. This dessert cost four pounds fifty.

Own up, you didn’t have high hopes for this review. And that’s fine: I didn’t either. And yet here we are, close to the end, probably all a little dazed and incredulous. But it’s good that life still has the power to confound – imagine how depressing the world would be if you already knew how everything would turn out, and the ennui that would ensue. But at the end of it all I walked home, back down the Erleigh Road, about twenty eight pounds lighter and positively delighted.

And I realised what Monkey Lounge reminded me of, more than anything. Back when I used to go to Prague on holiday with my old friend Dave, there would always be an evening where he dragged me to a sports bar so he could watch Liverpool lose to some team or other – this was in the Noughties, when they did that a fair amount.

And if you could find somewhere with a big screen, cold beer and something like ribs or a burger to fuel the rest of the evening you could be very happy indeed (appropriately enough, Liverpool were playing the night I ate at Monkey Lounge). And believe me, it’s a compliment when I say that Monkey Lounge rather reminded me of nights like that. I wish their beer selection was better, and the closer I get to fifty the more I prefer chairs to stools, but in the scheme of things that’s all minor.

I’ve always found it odd the way the English differ from our American cousins. They like to say things are amazing, or awesome. We, conditioned no doubt by far lower expectations, prefer to use a sliding scale of badness. So things can be very bad, or rather bad, or bad. And then, at the more favourable end of the spectrum, they gallop along from not all bad to not half bad to not bad, really not bad or, if we’re really raving with enthusiasm, not at all bad.

And I fear I’ve rather pulled that trick with Monkey Lounge by describing all the mistakes they didn’t make and the traps they didn’t fall into. That says more about me than it does about them, and they deserve a better peroration than this. I’m sorry about that. But honestly, I enjoyed it a great deal. It wasn’t bad at all: not in any respect.

Monkey Lounge – 7.7
30 Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA
0118 9664222