I met a bunch of other twitterers (tweeters? twitterati?) at the Blue Collar Meat Fest in the abbey ruins a few weeks ago (hi guys), and amongst other things it was an excellent opportunity to get some feedback on my work so far. The overwhelming feedback was that I was favouring the good pubs, and perhaps I should review some more of the worse ones. And they’re right – I do tend to go to the better pubs, not least because I hate drinking vinegary beer, or being threatened by some twat who doesn’t want me in “his” pub. However, I had a plan for how I could please the masses with a pub that is rubbish and yet safe at the same time. So with that in mind, Grobber and I headed to the Griffin in Caversham – a pub I dislike intensely for having turned its back on beer, serving up stale slops as an accompaniment to its chain restaurant food. Or so I thought …
I actually used to really like the Griffin, 20 years ago. They had a couple of old guys who ran the cellar really well, and the food was good, with a chef producing nice seasonal specials instead of corporate defined, focus group tested menus. And then the landlord moved on and was replaced by a thoroughly miserable landlady who took it completely downhill. They lost anyone who could look after beer, and the kitchen was taken over by people who either only knew how to (or were only allowed to) use a microwave, a grill and a deep fat fryer. And despite all of that, the prices went up, trading on the reputation of the past. That landlady moved on a few years ago, after the pub caught fire during a Christmas Eve lock in, but that’s the reputation it still has in my mind.
I knew that the Griffin was a Chef and Brewer pub. What I didn’t know was that Chef and Brewer are now owned by Greene King. When I spotted that, my heart fell further – especially after the bad experience at the White Horse. To me they represent everything that is bad about British pubs today – mass produced beer that is bland at best. More Wetherspoons than Wetherspoons are themselves. With a heavy heart, but an eye out for an audience eager for failure, I started with a pint of Greene King IPA, a pint that I honestly have no idea what qualifies it as an IPA. It’s not hoppy in the slightest, and just tastes like a regular bitter. However, I was shocked to find that it wasn’t bad. And it only cost £3.56. It still wasn’t hoppy, and still wasn’t beer of the year, but it was actually mostly drinkable. My stereotypes were being slightly confounded.
The overall beer selection wasn’t bad – a couple of Loddon beers, Ferryman’s Gold and Hullabaloo, Twyford Tipple by Binghams, and Abbot Ale and Old Speckled Hen. Grobber started with the Abbot Ale – a little cloudy and bland (more what I was expecting from the Griffin), but when we moved on to the local beers, it was much better. Actually properly drinkable beer. It appears that the Griffin has found someone who can at least make the beer OK.
One gripe – the beer selection was very narrow. 5 bitters that are all pretty similar, and 5 indistinguishable lagers. No key keg ales or craft ales of any kind to be seen. I honestly don’t think that I have been into a pub with so many taps and such a narrow selection (but then I do have a reputation for going to the better pubs). They did however have Pimm’s and Lemonade on tap. Seriously -Pimm’s and Lemonade on tap. In a pub. How middle class is that?
Which brings us to the atmosphere of the Griffin. It’s absolutely the most middle class place in the world. There was an NCT group in there – four bumps and a baby. There were couples having a romantic dinner. There were groups of men talking about house prices, video conferences, and school places. No swearing. It’s the most benign place in the world. Beer Festival Gary and Mr. Affable came in after a 5-a-side match (in which I am ordered to tell you Mr. A scored a hat trick), and while they were in track suits after the match instead of designer jeans like everyone else, they somehow made it even more middle class by drinking quietly and politely. If you want to know just how middle class it is, in addition to the Pimm’s and lemonade on draft, the bar snacks include olives and bread and oils. Not oil, singular. Oils.
I’m not a food reviewer, but one of the reasons people come to the Griffin is for the food, so I felt it only fair to try some (plus it was mushroom soup if I was at home. And nice though that is, I just wasn’t in the mood for it that night). Mrs. Quaff had been there a few weeks before with a friend (proof that the Griffin is entirely middle of the road) and said that the food was better than it used to be. And the menu was indeed better, in that they have ditched the pretentious rubbish that never worked, and now they do a lot of burgers, pies, and steak. I found out afterwards that I ordered exactly the same as Mrs. Quaff ordered two weeks before – chicken pie and mash (we’re clearly meant for each other). The pie was nice, the mash was OK, and the vegetables were awful. Who cuts carrots in to disks that are half an inch thick and as wide as the pie, and then serves them just boiled. Nasty. No great loss though.
I’d say that about 75% of the people in the pub were there to eat. There was one person working behind the bar, and 3 or 4 wait staff. And while the lady behind the bar looked relaxed, the wait staff looked exhausted. That says it all to me.
The Griffin does have the odd distinction of being probably the only pub that backs on to the Thames in Reading, and also not taking advantage of it. It has a beer garden out the back that is next to the pub itself, and then there’s a car park. So the car park backs on to the river, and the beer garden doesn’t. I have no idea at all why this is the case – it would be the most amazing venue in Reading in the summer if they took advantage of their river frontage, but instead they do nothing about it at all. If you want to drink by the river, you either need to brave the floating nightmare that is Island Bar and Grill (seriously – don’t), or buy some tinnies and sit in Christchurch meadow.
|Beer Quality||Fine (as in OK, not as in Fine Wine). Better than I expected.|
|Beer Selection||5 bitters on the pumps, but basically all the same. Nothing especially amazing. 5 indistinguishable lagers too.|
|Drink vs Food||It’s basically a restaurant with a pub attached. You can go in for a drink and not feel uncomfortable, but you are in the minority|
|Music||None, but they do have live jazz on Sunday afternoons. I won’t deduct points for that as it is only one afternoon a week.|
|Snacks||Kettle chips, nuts in a big jar. And bread and oils.|
|Atmosphere||Very polite and middle class|
|Price||Good prices – under £4 a pint|
|Space||Despite it being 3/4 restaurant, there is still a lot of room for the bar.|
I wanted to hate the Griffin. I wanted to write a bad review. But in the end, I couldn’t. They are slowly getting better again, and if they got some interesting beers in they could actually be worth visiting.