Update: Broad Street Bar & Kitchen has closed.
Back in March, a new lunch menu appeared outside Broad Street’s day-to-night cafe Artigiano. Shortly after that, a new Twitter and Facebook presence emerged. By the time the new frontage went up a couple of weeks later, the stealth takeover was complete. Artigiano was no more, and in its place sat Broad Street Bar and Kitchen. It’s another all-day cafe-bar, but this time owned by two locally-based, independent business owners.
Artigiano was part of a small cafe chain but never quite found its step in Reading thanks to a confusing identity. Was it just good for coffee? Should you just go for wine? Did they do food beyond sandwiches? It was never entirely clear.
I used to like it as one of the few spots in town where I could curl up in a big cosy armchair with a coffee. But one the other hand, it was also the place where the manager once asked me and a friend, mid bite of our evening pizza, if we could finish up and leave as staff would quite like to close up early.
So now it’s Broad Street Bar and Kitchen. And the main question is, has it improved?
Well, the first thing to get my head around on my Tuesday evening visit, was that the rooms, both downstairs and up, didn’t really look any different.
While the outside was all black and gold, on the inside, the wood panelled walls, lights, chairs, big yellow sofas and the oddly-positioned espresso bar, have all been taken over wholesale by the new owners. It’s still just as comfortable as ever, but it doesn’t help with that identity crisis much. If I’d walked in without looking up above the door, I wouldn’t have realised I wasn’t still in Artigiano until I’d read the menu.
The website also didn’t help. Although it declared it serves dinner and cocktails, there’s no food menu listed in the ‘evening’ section. Before turning up I called to make sure they would still be serving food. I was first told they only had a lunch menu. When the bartender double checked, that got revised to ‘an all-day menu’, served until 8pm, although I did later see someone order food at 9pm.
So far, so confusing.
It didn’t get any clearer when I joined my friend at the table she’d reserved on the website. There were no menus or drink lists, no cutlery and no sign that food was still being served. At the neighbouring tables a smattering of other customers were all nursing cocktails in the two for £10 deal. So after waiting a sizeable amount of time for staff to acknowledge us (they never did), we grabbed a menu from the bar and ordered two espresso martinis while we navigated the food choices.
After all that, I was set to be underwhelmed by the menu, but it was quite a smart list, clearly with some thought behind it. There’s a streamlined set of starters and sharing platters, a few salads and five sandwiches or burgers. There’s a nod to French cooking throughout, apparently influenced by the new chef who spent the past 10 years in the south of France. It mainly surfaces in the starters – think moules marinieres and a confit duck leg.
Between 12-5pm every day, there’s also a good value express lunch. £10 gets you two courses with a choice of two starters and four mains, including a minute steak and a salmon fillet, followed by coffee and a macaron.
Not really feeling up for any of the (actually quite heavy) ‘light bites’, we decided to share the anti-pasti Milanese platter first, listed as a promising selection of cured lomo, honey-cured ham, speck, fennel salami and parma ham. We followed that up with a ribeye salad for me, which lured me in with the promise of roasted tomatoes, while my friend went for the awkwardly-named BAK Burger, served with cheese and chorizo.
“I’m assuming that stands for Bar and Kitchen?”, she pondered, while deciding. “I’m assuming they picked that because they couldn’t call it the BS Burger”, I suggested.
After ordering at the bar, we sipped on our espresso martinis and watched the tables fill up around us. The drinks were dark and foamy with a rich coffee taste that suggested good things for the daytime cafe. But they came out thinner and less boozy than the ones at Caffeine and Cocktails. By 8pm, the noisy espresso bar had ground to a halt, the music was turned up and the lights were dimmed, giving it a much more nighttime bar vibe.
Just as we were starting to feel we’d been forgotten, our food arrived. Annoyingly, our sharing platter came out at the same time as our mains, despite me asking for it first. “On the plus side, at least the salami can’t get cold, I guess” said my friend clinging to the positives.
We needed a lot of that, because instead of the promised Milanese delights we got some supermarket-grade chorizo circles, limp ham and three fatty slices of Speck. It was disappointing and sadly most of it got left on the plate. The fennel salami was as billed though; crisply cut, smoky and deep. It was more flavourful than the version at Veeno and it almost redeemed the plate. The bread was also very good. We’re told it’s baked on the premises and it does show. The thickly sliced hunks of wholemeal were crusty outside, but soft and bouncy inside and a delight to dip in olive oil.
But, at £14, the platter is also more expensive than Veeno’s and almost the same as one of Tasting House’s gorgeous charcuterie boards. For supermarket slices and missing ingredients, that’s pretty unforgivable.
Fortunately, the mains redeemed the meal somewhat. The burger looked striking; tall and plump in a dark charcoal bun. The thick beef patty inside was well seasoned and cooked slightly pink. But, as with most burgers in town nowadays, it struggles to go toe to toe with the quality of the beef at Honest Burgers. The chorizo (probably the same as on our board) was also barely noticeable, but it was a fresh, filling burger with melty cheddar cheese. The real joy though came from the quirky addition of roasted potatoes on the side.
Instead of fries there was a hearty portion of chopped Jersey Royals just the right side of roasted. They were crisp and earthy, but not burnt. Importantly, like all good French foods, they were also slathered in butter, which brought a smile to our faces with every bite. I spent much of the dinner sneaking my fork in their direction.
That’s largely because my steak salad was another confusing dish. On one side of the plate sat two surprisingly chunky strips of pink ribeye on what seemed like a decorative lettuce leaf. The steak was very moreish, surprisingly good quality and cooked well. But instead of sitting on a crisp salad with roast tomatoes as expected, it was served next to a large portion of char-grilled gnocchi mingled with the occasional sun-dried tomato. They looked suspiciously like they had come from a jar.
Gnocchi is wonderful served in a gloopy sauce, but here it was dry and bland. Worse still in my book, was the lack of the promised roast tomatoes, one of my favourite things. For the second time, the menu description didn’t match the dish and I was left with those tiny sun-dried tomatoes trying their best to bring oil to my otherwise dry plate. The steak was a highlight, but I’d have preferred it served with those roast potatoes.
As we finished, the music turned up another notch and we left feeling like this really was more a bar than a kitchen. Our dinner and cocktails came to just under £50 and I’d had a magnificent meal at The Lyndhurst, who also call themselves a bar and kitchen, for around that price only the week before.
Broad Street Bar and Kitchen are an independent, locally-owned venture and it’s clear that they are trying and still making changes. The food is more creative than it was at Artigiano. Our meal showed flashes of quality in the kitchen. They can bake bread and cook steak to high levels, both things that can fail at other, more expensive restaurants. But, if the new owners plan to be serving food until 9pm, they need to be prepared for dinner standards.
That means taking a look at the details: serve dishes in the right order, present the ingredients listed on the menu, place menus on all the tables not just on a random cluster, give out napkins, have and offer condiments when food arrives. These are all small, easy to implement changes that would make food seem like more of a focus of the Bar and Kitchen.
‘I’m not feeling incredibly inspired to write this review’, I messaged my friend a couple of days after our dinner. ‘That’s a good description of the restaurant, actually’, she pinged back. And that’s it in a nutshell really.
I had an enjoyable meal, the surroundings were pleasant, elements of the food made me really smile, but it didn’t inspire me. I think if I’d come here at lunchtime I’d have enjoyed it a bit more. But doing food all day puts you in the restaurant category.
I went into Broad Street Bar and Kitchen hoping I’d find a charming independent venue with a new identity. But I left just as confused. Reading has so many excellent food options now, from indies like The Lyndhurst and newly-opened Indian restaurant Clay’s, to even chains like Honest Burgers and Franco Manca. They’re all working hard to perfect every element of the dining experience. I hope Broad Street Bar and Kitchen picks up and learns from their consistency.
And in a way, that says something powerful about Reading. Our town is no longer just the home of bland chain restaurants. I will always champion independent businesses, but we don’t have to flock to every indie that comes along just because it’s independent. Reading is flooded with choice now. And we should keep pushing for venues that inspire us to dine out.
Broad Street Bar & Kitchen
Dinner for two with cocktails: £48.
81 Broad St, Reading, RG1 2AP. 8am-10.30pm Mon-Wed, 8am-midnight Thu – Sat, 10am-9pm Sun. View website.