This is the first of possibly many, probably several or, at the very least, one blogpost reviewing bars and pubs through the bottom of a gin and tonic.
A sultry Sunday evening seemed an ideal time to start off this endeavour with a swiftish crawl of the three Wetherspoons’ establishments in Reading town centre. Yup, three! Boy are we lucky : ).
Now let’s be honest: Wetherspoons will never be your favourite gin bar in the world but that mystical place with 100+ bottles and a wide range of serves and tonics won’t follow you around like a gin-laden donkey focused on that string of carrots you’re trailing behind you. No, sometimes you just have to make do and, in my experience, even in the most remote corners of this many-ginned isle there’ll always be a Wetherspoons. The question is: can it back up convenience with quality?
So all Wetherspoons are the same, right? Well, kind of, but then again, kind of not, so the similarities seem the best place to start, particularly if you’ve no intention of ever going to Reading for a Berkshire served G ‘n’ T.
All three pubs offer the same, recently expanded range. This was a pleasant surprise but Tim Martin didn’t get where he is today by not noticing gin has been going through a bit of a renaissance over the last few years. There’s nothing here which you won’t find in the supermarkets but, unless you’re very fortunate, it’s considerably better than most bars on your high street.
Surprising as the range may be the real shock was the selection of suggested serves. WTF! Last time I visited I was offered a slice of lime or nothing; apparently they ceased to offer lemons as customers struggled with the pips. Jesus Schweppes! Personally I’m not convinced having a juniper berry floating around my glass adds a lot but it’s good to have the option. The staff at all three pubs were fully aware of the serves available and happy to mix and match upon request. Fruit seems to always be a wedge, but overall I was mildly impressed.
Tonic at Wetherspoons used to be a bit hit and miss but now all three offered the option to upgrade from Britvic to Fentimans for 20p. Now, everyone can be down on their luck but even if you have to go outside, put a hat on the floor and start juggling with imaginary balls, you have to find a way to afford that 20p. In fact if you know anything about setting up charities drop me a line; if there are gin drinkers out there suffering for the sake of 20p then something must be done… Please give generously.
Until I discover otherwise I’m assuming all of the above applies to all Wetherspoons, although please comment if you know different as I’ve no intention of visiting all 900 establishments. I’m all for fact checking, but I feel that would be excessive.
So, if I’m caught short in old Reading town, which should I head to?
The Hope Tap (Friar Street)
When asked for any recommendations the individual serving admitted they weren’t really a gin drinker but was happy enough to talk through the menu and, without bidding, we were given our Brokers and Portobello Road with the suggested serves. I did have to leap in and mention the tonic option though as this wasn’t offered; I guess I’m just someone who looks like they can’t afford that extra 20p.
The pub itself has ended up as Reading’s mid-range Wetherspoons. Ideally placed for a drink or two before gigs at Sub 89 next door, it has the ubiquitous ‘Spoons soullessness but service was excellent. This one also seem to attract families during the day; parents clearly eager to ensure others also suffer their objectionable children.
The Monk’s Retreat (Friar Street)
Every town has one: a strip with all the party bars. Friar Street is ours and it is blessed by the likes of O’Neals, Yates and Walkabout all neatly bookended by a brace of ‘Spoons. The Monk’s Retreat tends to be favoured by the elderly, all-day drinkers, at least partly due to the spacious and ever popular smoking area you’ll have to fight your way through to enter. It’s all a bit of a shame as it’s got a great view of our Trumptonesque town hall and what, if you were on the continent, would be a small but vibrant square full of restaurant and cafe tables, while our version is justly famed for its pop-up toilets. In the video The Monk’s Retreat lurks behind the toilets, next to the garage door and, fact fans, the clip has the wrong music as when the Town Mayor opened it the toilet majestically rose while the theme from ‘2001: A Space Oddyssey’ dramatically played.
The bar individual here had no problems talking me through what was available and recommended Sipsmiths, so fair play. We experimented and asked for a bit of mix and match on the serves which was no problem.
The Back of Beyond (King’s Road)
To eliminate any tension: This was the best of the three. It’s a large, spacious room, the clientele didn’t look like they had spent the day shuffling to the book makers and back, there’s a sizeable outside area and staff were friendly and knowledgeable in a ‘we actually listened during our gin tasting training’ kind of way. Everywhere was neat, tidy and there were displays highlighting different aspects of the drinks offer; it was clear someone was making an effort. However ‘making an effort’ does come at a price… All shots were 15p more than at the other two.
I went for a neat Sipsmiths which, I’ll be honest here, I’ve not had for a while. Not anything against it but, you know, newer, younger, sexier gins come along and you forget, so it was great to get a reminder. I loved it! That silky mouth-feel with a well rounded character and a good juniper-led bite. This was by far the best drink of the evening, in the best of the 3 bars, and a great way to end the evening.
While I’d always choose The Back of Beyond, I’d happily dive in for a gin & tonic at any of these venues. All the staff encountered were friendly and had clearly listened to their training and while the choice wouldn’t exactly get me crawling across cut-glass it’s none too shabby.