I spent a year unemployed in Reading in 85-86 and it made me feel pretty low. It is incredible how quickly your self-confidence ebbs away when you are in that situation. On Giro day I used to treat myself to a meal out at this friendly café at the Butter Market called Munchees; I would have usually have either the burger or fish-n-chips and a milky coffee. A waitress would take your order and you paid at the counter afterwards. Back then, there was a big bloke with a moustache running the place who always made you feel as you were on to a bargain by knocking 10% off the bill and you would be offered a free lollipop on leaving.
The other day, I went back to Munchees for the first time in years and warm memories flooded back. As I took a seat on the distinctive terracotta-orange soft diner seating and picked up the large laminated menu I was amazed. Over thirty years later, apart from the addition of a Nepalese food menu upstairs and different ownership, nothing has really changed here, including the décor, the food and menus. It’s almost a living time capsule and it is still full-up every lunch time with folk who really love it and use it regularly. When you think of all the Reading restaurants, cafés and coffee bars that have been and gone in the past 32 years then this is an incredible achievement.
This place thrives because it’s the least greasy of spoons in a town that doesn’t even have that many greasy-spoons anymore anyway. The potential for people-watching, the inherent bonhomie and closeness of the seating and the fact you can overhear the conversation next door often spoken in a dayn tayn Reading accent helps many a local lonely heart get through the day. It’s no wonder that the makers of ITV’s Dorset apple-cake noir Broadchurch chose it as the atmospheric location for a scene the other year.
They have proper sauce bottles on the tables and no sachets and they serve the most amazing chips; they are thinnish like fries but they also have that golden glowy colour that you only tend to see at the best chip shops. (the brilliant New City Fish Bar in Buckland Road is the best example of this).
Their proper plates never show signs of greasy food and even the food itself has a clean look about it. The burgers come garnished with a distinctive mini-salad and are served in a lovely soft bun. You are a given a charming, betting-slip sized bill upon which is written a neatly boxed list of everything on the menu together with some indecipherable squiggles. They may not give you that discount any more but you are certainly free to take a lollipop.
I could argue that places like this could just make things so much better if they just used higher quality bacon and sausages, and perhaps took more care with the eggs, but the prices, the continuity and ambience are the key to their success. The all-day breakfasts are very popular here, as well as the egg, sausage and chips sort-of-meal with plain white bread and butter. It’s an odd joy to see white powder pepper on the table without having to twist anything!
The demographic of the place balances towards the elderly, although there are still plenty of other age groups and varieties of people using it every day; it’s a people’s café that accepts all-comers including some business folk who may have shunned avocado toast for a clean and wholesome fry-up.
As I sat and ruminated, I couldn’t help overhear a very elderly couple who were holding their arthritic hands over a small table and whispering gently to each other while looking into each other’s eyes. I am sure I heard him say “I love you” and she cooed a reply with fluttering eyelashes like a coquettish teenager, although I couldn’t hear her reply.
It was fruitful people-watching, and perhaps voyeuristic, but so romantic and I could only imagine what events these two could have witnessed in their long lifetimes. The dark despair of Dunkirk, the blitz or the proud triumph and joy of VE day, the long years of rationing, the dance halls and the first time rock ‘n’ roll and then the Beatles were heard on the radio. The drudgery of house work and pain of childbirth in the days before digital medicine. The first colour TV that wasn’t rented or the glorious day when central heating became affordable, when chilblains were eradicated and you didn’t have to go to bed early to keep warm – or perhaps that bit wasn’t so bad!
We have so many options nowadays for gourmet and international food, and there is an amazing list of other quality independents to choose from nearby, including Picnic opposite and the Blue Collar food market on Wednesday, but if you want a cheap meal in good company where you can people-watch, or perhaps you are a ‘a soul in pain’ who needs to hear a spoken word or maybe some genuine laughter and good cheer then I would recommend you give Munchees a try again sometime – it won’t have changed.