This is the last instalment of RG1 EAT, my monthly Reading Post column about food and restaurants.
Having done it for just over a year, I have to say that there’s no feeling quite like opening a newspaper and seeing your name in print. The novelty never quite wore off, even though every month I wondered if it would. It made up for some of the many frustrations of writing a monthly column: What would I write about? Was the tone right? Would this be interesting to anyone? Was there enough about Reading? Too much?
Then there was the word count, the bane of my life. There were times – many times - when I thought that 600 words was an amount deliberately picked by editors as a number scientifically proven to be too much to express some ideas and not enough to express the rest. Chopping off paragraphs was always frustrating – especially when, like me, you’re used to being prolix and having the freedom to express yourself however you like and in as much space as you want.
The other consequence, which surprised me, was that editing a piece took almost as long as writing it – poring over it, working out whether all the words I’d used were pulling their weight, weeding out the freeloaders. Maybe that’s the point: I can see it might made people better writers, even if it wasn’t an enjoyable education.
Given all of that, you might ask why I’m stopping writing the column. I could say it’s because of the frustrations of stuffing my ideas into a confined space. I could say it’s because writing about food isn’t my bag – and that would be partly true, especially as I’ve been exposed to enough people who do it to have a good idea that it’s a rest home for the loathsome and entitled. But the real reason is this: I’ve done the column unpaid for just over a year, and I reckon that a year is quite long enough to write for someone without getting paid.
I knew that was the deal when I took up the column, and I thought it was fair enough. It was a good opportunity to prove that I could do it, and I enjoyed it, and of course there was that novelty I talked about. I knew, too, that nobody gets paid for writing these days and that there’s a big debate going on about whether it’s acceptable to write for free.
I can see both sides of that: the websites who occasionally publish pieces of mine do it for love, and nobody is making money from them, and that’s fine. But the truth is, too, that there will never be a shortage of people prepared to see their writing in print without payment, or of publications prepared to exploit those people. And places like the Huffington Post, which make money and sell advertising but choose not to pay contributors, are treating writers appallingly. I can’t help but feel that the writers and bloggers who write for those publications and help those publications make a profit while at the same time fooling themselves into thinking that they’re Proper Writers are letting us all down.
I should point out that the Reading Post isn’t quite like that. They were really kind to give me the opportunity, and I really appreciate it. But papers are businesses too, and writing should be paid for – if it’s good enough. Besides, I already have a place I can write for nothing, and I’m not even doing that these days. Anyway – I hope you enjoy the column. I did look at the front cover of the paper to see if it had SPECIAL SOUVENIR EDITION emblazoned on the front; disappointingly not.
A year is a long time in restaurants.
It is in London, anyway – at the start of the year it was all about Peruvian food (ceviche was supposed to be massive in 2012), street food and no-reservation places with people queuing for ribs and chicken (chicken, incidentally, is the next big thing at the moment - and might be for as long as a couple of months).
In London restaurants open (and close) all the time, catering to every imaginable taste - some of which should never have been imagined in the first place. If you want dinner at 3am on the fortieth floor, looking out on the twinkling lights of the city, London’s the place for you. If you fancy pop-up restaurants in pubs or a hundred different places to have a dirty burger, the Paddington train is your friend (though god help you on the way home, when the carriages smell of the wrong kind of burger: of BK wrappers, grease and despair).
But Reading? Things take a while to get here. I haven’t spotted a Peruvian place yet, nobody’s put a restaurant - or indeed anything else - in the Blade and the only street food I’ve seen is the annual appearance of Eat Reading (the “lovely hot doughnuts, nice and fresh!” kiosk, with its demented recorded announcement, doesn’t count).
Only a handful of new restaurants have appeared in town this year. One theme is meat - there’s Miller and Carter, if you like steak and chains, and the Handmade Burger Company opening a couple of doors down (though that’ll be next year). The irony: rather than a hundred different places to get a burger, we may get a single place where you can order a hundred burgers instead.
The other trend is quantity: all you can eat buffet restaurant Cosmo opened on Friar Street, with Georgie Porgies Buffet World, in the beautiful old Barclays building, following suit next year. I went to Cosmo shortly after it opened, in the name of research. It’s one of the oddest dining experiences I’ve ever had.
The first thing you notice is the scale: dozens and dozens of dishes from around the world, all under the lights. Can they really all be good? It’s more like Alton Towers than a restaurant, with people queuing to go on the culinary rides. You can dine in China, nip across to Thailand, then onwards to Italy and keep going until you get bored, or explode. (No ceviche, though. I checked.)
Actually, you get bored much more quickly than you’d think. As a kid, I thought it would be amazing to go to a restaurant and eat crispy duck pancakes until I was full; as an adult, it doesn’t have the same appeal. It makes you realise how good a job chefs do of deciding how big a portion should be and what flavours go with what. It turns out being able to eat as much as you like is an overrated pleasure: who knew?
Worse still, the act of constantly schlepping up to re-fill your plate makes it an anti-social experience – I was rarely at the table at the same time as all my dining companions. And that’s the problem. Cosmo is eating, I suppose, but it doesn’t feel like eating out.
Anyway, I don’t have any predictions for 2013, only a few suggestions: eat at the places you still want to be here this time next year. Go to them even if it means you eat out less often. And instead of eating as much as you like, eat somewhere you like.