Remember when years used to be, you know, normal? Me neither, but the fact remains that 2022 has been a little closer to what we used to consider normality than the couple of years that preceded it. 2020 was the year of the pandemic, of lockdowns and contact tracing, takeaways and tiers. And 2021 was the year of oh-no-it’s-still-the-pandemic, but one where some of us took more risks, got on more trains and planes and ate in more restaurants. The year when most of us got jabbed and double jabbed, showed off our stickers like brave soldiers.
And this year? Well, it’s not like 2019 was but it’s closer to it than we’ve been for a fair old while. In 2020 we watched Matt Hancock stand at a podium and tell us we couldn’t go to restaurants, in 2022 we watched him sit on a stool somewhere in distant Australia and eat genitalia on primetime television. How things change: two years can feel like an eternity, in some circumstances.
And yet there are still echoes of the past; I read in the news this week that Covid is sweeping through China again, with case numbers through the roof. We could be back in winter 2019 in no time, and as someone who started the year with a partner not long ago discharged from the Royal Berks – exhausted, fragile and injecting blood thinners twice a day – I’m desperately keen not to go back to anything even remotely like that.
The other bit of the wider picture this year, of course, is the cost of living. Rampaging inflation and energy prices have squeezed everybody, from gas bills to supermarket shops, and after the damage done to hospitality by Covid – and our botched recovery from it – another crisis was the last thing our cafés, restaurants and pubs needed. Industrial action on public transport, preventing some people from getting into town centres when retail and hospitality hope to earn much of their money for the year, must feel like the final straw.
This is all very gloomy on the brink of Christmas Eve, isn’t it? I’m sorry, let’s rein that in. And actually if there’s one feature that all my annual roundups seem to share it’s being cautiously pleased that the year just gone hasn’t been so bad, accompanied by dire predictions that next year will be awful. So far I’ve been wrong, and I’d very much like to be proved wrong again this time round. So far despite rising rents, falling footfall, rising prices and those Covid loans kicking in Reading has lost far fewer restaurants than you might expect: fingers crossed that’s the shape of things to come.
We did lose a few, though. The Aila, whose opening I talked about back in 2020 in a site I described as cursed, closed recently and a supermarket has opened in its place. Chipstar, which opened almost a year ago to the day, closed before reaching its first birthday: many of us never got to try the place, but they’ve definitely had their chips all the same. And Friar Street’s Raayo, which also opened in late 2020, closed in June. I managed to get there before they did, and I rather liked their pulled pork, but conditions are tough out there. The lunch market is particularly challenging when people aren’t working in town during the week.
Other 2022 closures were almost more symbolic in their significance. Pizza Hut, which had been part of the Oracle since the Oracle first opened its doors, closed in September. And I’m not sure anyone was devastated, but somehow it, like Woolworths and Debenhams, represented something bigger than itself, a sea change in how and where people like to spend their money (is McDonalds now the only remaining survivor from the Oracle’s opening day? Answers on a postcard).
We also said goodbye to Cozze on the Caversham Road roundabout, in another site that can’t seem to hold down a tenant. I’m not exactly devastated about that closure, though it’s always sad when people lose their jobs, but if you want beige carbonara and highlighter pink desserts there’s still a branch in Woodley. I was much sadder to find Zest packing it in over at Green Park, although given their location it was completely understandable that they would call it a day.
And although it’s not in Reading I was also gutted to see Nick and Mary Galer leave the Miller Of Mansfield after their landlord Stonegate tried to up their rent by a whopping ninety per cent. Good old Stonegate: here’s your regular reminder that, apart from John Sykes, pubcos are probably the only people who watch It’s A Wonderful Life and find themselves rooting for Potter.
Speaking of pubs, two pubs parted company with their kitchens this year. The Spread Eagle said goodbye to Banarasi Kitchen and installed a new Indian restaurant called Bagheera in its place. It only officially launched this month, but the furniture looks plush and the menu, possibly, a tad generic; only time will tell whether it squanders the goodwill build up by Banarasi Kitchen. And I thought it was a real shame that Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen decided to leave the Butler this year: they decided to move to Liquid Leisure in Windsor, which then closed for a couple of months in tragic circumstances.
Sorry, it’s all got gloomy again. Let’s focus instead on the positives because there are plenty – and although it would be easy to just talk about the Americanisation of Reading town centre (something I may still do later) the class of 2022 is a far more interesting and varied selection than you might think.
First and foremost there’s Blue Collar Corner, easily Reading’s most significant opening in four years or so which opened in March having spent much of the previous year lost in Reading Borough Council’s planning bureaucracy. With four permanent street food traders, a well-stocked bar from local favourites Double-Barrelled and plenty of seating, much of it covered, this was one of the most exciting developments in Reading for a long old time.
There were further challenges as summer came to an end: Blue Collar Corner lost Gurt Wings and The Taco Tree, its two anchor tenants, and one of the replacement traders barely lasted two months. But given an impressive winter refurb and a renewed focus on music and events you wouldn’t bet against Blue Collar making it through the winter. Besides, Gurt Wings is still in town every Friday.
Another of Reading’s most keenly-awaited new restaurants was Kamal’s Kitchen, which opened in the spring. This place is owned by Kamal Tamrakar, and I’m delighted that it finally realises the potential shown by his previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen. I haven’t reviewed it, because he knows perfectly well who I am, but all my visits this year have been a joy and he and his family did a magnificent job hosting the first ER readers’ lunch of 2022 in the summer.
I can’t talk about the new restaurants that have opened in Reading this year without mentioning the two big trends that took us all by surprise in 2022. The first was biryani restaurants becoming a thing, with Biryani Mama arriving in town and both Biryani Boyzz and Biryani Lounge opening down the Wokingham Road: all this on top of the handful of biryani places already trading at the very top of the Oxford Road. The other was sushi, with not one but three Japanese restaurants opening in Reading this year. Two on Friar Street – Iro Sushi and You Me Sushi – are virtually neighbours just along from Hickies. The third, in the old Tasting House building, is the accomplished but erratic Intoku.
Most of the other new openings in Reading this year, encouragingly, have been independent. On Market Place we got La’De Express, a fast food offshot of the very popular La’De Kitchen. Despite being right opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki, and despite a recent scare where their windows appeared to be covered up, they are still trading. (N.B. I clearly spoke too soon, because as of 23rd December they definitely look exceptionally closed down.)
We got a couple of new places on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be – Chillim, a Nepalese restaurant I’m yet to visit and Cairo Café, which I loved. And just to give the “not another café” blowhards something to whinge about, we also got some more cafes: Black Sheep in the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street (with another on the way on Broad Street), Gail’s in the old Patisserie Valerie site and an interesting new cafe/social enterprise called Barista & Beyond just off Chatham Street.
Where else? Well, another couple of brave souls have decided to sign leases with cuddly ol’ John Sykes, so we have The Churros Kitchen and Bánh Mì QB in whatever he is calling Kings Walk this week: the latter, incidentally, provided me with a very enjoyable meal on duty this year.
We also have a branch of Shree Krishna Vada Pav on the Kings Road at the edge of town (a small chain, but I loved my meal there) and possibly our newest restaurant San Carlo where Cozze used to be. Will San Carlo make a go of it where La Fontana, Casa Roma and Cozze – and that’s just the Italian restaurants that have failed in that spot – failed? Only time will tell, but it probably doesn’t bode well that they’re having to change their name to San Sicario after three weeks because of “confusion” with a national chain of the same name (or, perhaps, a cease and desist letter).
Oh, and we have a place called Doner & Gyros (they’re two separate things, don’t you know) that has opened where China Palace used to be: I will no doubt go there at some point next year to give you a cheap laugh and me dyspepsia. You might be looking forward to that more than I am.
The other big story of the year is two Reading institutions that have chosen to expand in very different ways. The Grumpy Goat opened its upstairs bar, which is great news for drinkers of an evening but also gives them a chance to serve their toasted sandwiches to more people and potentially expand their food offering still further. And Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen (although it’s now called Clay’s Kitchen & Bar, so keep up) has left its premises on London Street and has taken on the Baron Cadogan site in Caversham.
This latter is a huge move, and they’ve been transparent both about the need for crowdfunding and some of the challenges of managing the whole project. Their initial opening date in October has moved out, although they have hosted some food and beer pairing events in recent weeks, so we can expect to see them open in earnest early next year. It’s hard to imagine any new opening in Reading next year will generate quite as much buzz, in town or beyond.
No doubt we will be blindsided by other new openings in 2023, but so far the list of forthcoming restaurants in the public domain is less than exciting and is dominated by chains of one kind or another. So although Leon has finally given up on its plans to move to Reading, we will be graced with Zizzi offshoot Coco Di Mama just down from Tortilla. Rosa’s Thai is allegedly going to open on the ground floor of Jackson’s Corner, and where Gap used to be Reading will have a branch of Popeyes, the American fried chicken folks. Let’s hope it’s more Gurt than Wingstop. And we also have Marugame Udon jumping into Pizza Hut’s grave on the Oracle riverside. They do noodles and ramen and may or may not prove to be different from Wagamama. Is it bad that I’m not in a mad hurry to find out?
It’s traditional at this point for restaurant bloggers to waffle on about what 2023 holds for hospitality, but much like some evenings I used to endure down the pub back in the days before the pandemic, it’s impossible to tell at this stage just how painful it’s going to be.
People will have less money and restaurants will have higher bills, and those Covid loans probably still need to be paid back. But it’s anybody’s guess whether spending on eating out will get ringfenced or sacrificed. It’s even harder to tell what kind of treats people will still allow themselves, and whether it will be big ticket meals people cut back on, or casual dining, or just the daily latte. For myself I aim to keep reviewing every week, although I’m more conscious than ever of striking that fine balance between supporting independent businesses and being honest with readers about whether restaurants, in this climate, are worth the money.
I’m aware of what a huge privilege it is to be able to review restaurants every week, especially without having to stoop to accepting free shit, but I can honestly say that writing this blog brings me as much joy now as it did in those more innocent times, nearly a decade ago, when I started. And 2022 has been as happy a year of blogging as I can remember: I reviewed a few restaurants in a brief window at the end of last year, but this year I went back to restaurants in March (at the lovely Flavour Of Mauritius) and I haven’t looked back. Until now, of course, when I’m writing a piece looking back on the year. Obviously.
And I can’t recall a year with such a breadth of different restaurants in it. I visited some of the great places that opened in the pandemic, like Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ThaiGrr!, where I’d only ever tried their takeaway. I sampled newcomers like Banh Mi QB, Intoku and The Switch, trying some fantastic Vietnamese food, Reading’s best crispy squid and an excellent avocado on toast in the process. I finally made it to parts of Reading the blog had only ever talked about in passing: places in Tilehurst and Woodley finally got a review.
And I also went further afield in Berkshire with trips to Newbury, Wokingham and a hat trick of trips to up and coming Maidenhead. In the process I had delicious mackerel – more than once – a fantastic chocolate mousse and some rather underwhelming pasta. And in Seasonality, not far from Maidenhead station, I discovered one of my finds of the year. Speaking of finds, this was also the year when I wrote a series of reviews from Bristol and gave out my highest ER rating of all time (a visit to Wallingford, following in the footsteps of Jay Rayner, was considerably less successful).
Incidentally, the reviews from Bristol were among the most widely read pieces I published all year, so I can’t thank people enough for giving them the time of day. I’m always mildly entertained when people pop up on Twitter or Facebook to tell me to stop reviewing places without an RG postcode: “your blog’s called Edible Reading” they always say, in a manner which has strong It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve energy.
Never mind that: the incredible response to the Bristol reviews in particular has convinced me that there will definitely be more of those next year. And I would also sound a note of caution that for whatever reason – recession, price rises, risk aversion or Reading’s infamously charitable landlords – Reading is not the fertile crucible of culinary imagination it was five years ago. Unless something changes, I fear that the future has more chains in it, and more independents giving up or moving somewhere less expensive, which is literally almost anywhere.
It feels like a lot of the progress Reading has made in the last ten years is in jeopardy, which is my cue to say, as I always do this time of year, that our hometown, still the biggest town in the U.K. despite our council’s inept efforts, is what we all make it with our time and our money. So this year, perhaps more than any year, it’s worth thinking hard about how to foster and protect what you love, about buying the more expensive coffee or beer or toasted sandwich so that when I do my annual pontificating this time next year I’m not telling you that your favourite place has closed.
What a shame, I’ve been meaning to go there, you might respond. Go there now instead, while you can.
I would close by talking about all the amazing dishes I’ve had in the last year, but you have the return of the annual ER awards next Friday and I don’t want to spoil their thunder. So instead, a few thank yous. Thank you to my dining companions this year: my diverting friends Graeme, Sophie and Mike, and of course my infinitely patient other half Zoë who has put up with me dragging her to a variety of restaurants – the good, the bad and the iffy – and invariably ordered better than me. Without her, this blog would be a much poorer place (although, arguably, one with fewer expletives).
And finally, of course, I really must thank all of you. This is another thing I seem to say at the end of every year, but it was another record breaking year on the blog with more visitors and page hits than ever before (my favourite stat is that this blog has almost as many readers now, on a good week, as it had in the whole of 2013). And honestly, it wouldn’t be anything without your support – your reading, commenting, sharing, even lurking. Whether you try out restaurants I review, or come along to my regular readers’ lunches or just read it from time to time rolling your eyes and thinking “what a tool”, those page hits all count.
So I hope all of you, whoever you are, have a fantastic Christmas – whether you celebrate it or not, however you mark the time – and a very happy New Year. As I said, there’s one more 2022 post from me next Friday when I dish out my annual gongs for the best food I’ve eaten this year. See you then?