Update: The Retreat changed management (with the same landlord) in August 2019. This review was done at the time of the old management.
In many ways this review began with my good friend Austin brewing some amazing beer which, for reasons that are now lost to me, became named “Dirty Diana”. I can’t remember if it was a tribute to the people’s princess, or to pop princess Michael Jackson. It’s not important – let’s say both. Anyway, he’d made rather a lot of home brew, and a group of us gathered to either try out a pint for quality control or to see it all off in one go (depending on who you talk to). In amongst the lofty and worthy discussions that we were definitely having while drunk, someone pointed out that Edible Reading – an anonymous hero to all of us – might be doing fine at restaurant reviewing, but surely we could do a good job at pub reviewing. Names were bandied around – DrinkableReading, SuppableReading, PubbableReading, Bad And Not Bad Pubs in Reading – that sort of highly original thing. The plan was that we’d all join in and share the writing work, and it’d be a joint casual hobby that would get us to tour wider than our local.
To cut a long story short, the joint enterprise never happened. Big Gary has been one day away from finishing his first review every day since April. Mr. Affable will travel and proofread, but not write. Austin’s not allowed out. And as a pub reviewer, Futcher is as much use as a chocolate teapot because he only drinks Fosters (he doesn’t know that – he asks for Peroni, but that’s not what we buy him). I could go on, but I’m rapidly losing friends the more I write. Useless buggers.
You might be wondering what this has to do with The Retreat. Well, wind back two paragraphs to the original inspiration – Edible Reading. After a chance meeting at the Blue Collar meat festival, Edible persuaded me that there was a pub I needed to review. So this week I ditch my unreliable friends and join Edible in The Retreat for an induction in to this Village favourite.
The last time I was in the Retreat was about 15 years ago, and they had Irish folk musicians sitting about playing music in a way that suggested that everyone else in the pub was expected to join in too. Given that, it was with a certain sense of foreboding that I headed back to The Retreat. As it turns out, there was no participatory live music, and the only thing I needed to be scared of was the shocking pub carpet that somehow survived a recent refurbishment.
The refurbishment seems to have gone like every other pub refurbishment this decade – pick a colour from the Dulux Heritage Colour range, and apply liberally. Throw in a few exposed lightbulbs for good luck, and you’re done. If you are going really fancy, paint a quote or two on the wall. The Retreat didn’t stoop that far – in fact much of the wall space seemed to be covered in flyers for upcoming events instead.
Anyway, enough of the decor and my origin story, and on to the beer. When I arrived there were 4 beers on tap – Sharps Cornish Coaster, Harveys Sussex Best, Butcombe Bitter, and Hobgoblin Ruby Beer. By the end of the night that was down to three. To make up for that ,was the most splendid array of beer in bottles – I counted about 40, and tried 2. I did ask the landlord later in the evening if he would consider some hoppy IPAs – perhaps in a Key-Cask if he wasn’t sure how quickly it would sell. I got told in no uncertain terms that that wasn’t going to happen.
Anyway, I’d just settled down to a Cornish Coaster (£3.90) when Edible arrived, asking for a Pravha. And rather than swapping it out for a Fosters, Pravha is what I bought. In fact, unlike many pubs, there weren’t 6 taps of nearly identical lager. Apart from the bitter pumps, there was Guinness (of course), Addlestones cloudy cider, and the Pravha. Nothing else on tap. It felt very much like a bitter drinkers’ pub.
When we first got there the pub was pretty empty. So empty that at one point I think it was just us and the barmaid. She’s thankfully pretty tolerant, because while her eyebrows were very raised when Edible recounted the horror story of a very funny, but highly unprintable, joke being told at a wedding, she at least didn’t throw us out. She was also very much on the ball with the customers – as more people turned up, she knew what half of them wanted as soon as they walked in the door. And many more people did turn up. Each one of them took it as read that they were entering a large group discussion with the whole bar. I mean that in a good way, not in an annoying drunk trying to be your best friend shortly before kicking off kind of way. It was more like being at a middle aged house party than being in a pub. But a house party where you don’t have to make a vague offer to clear up afterwards.
Conversation was varied – like whether or not stockpiling passata in case Brexit goes bad marks you out as middle class (Brian the landlord thinks it marks you out as an idiot), to naming ideas for a new app that’s a cross between Deliveroo and Tinder. Turns out the winning name was already registered, and NSFW, so I won’t print it. Out of interest, I asked some of the punters what they thought made a great pub. Zoran the Hurdy Gurdy Man, and Edible came to the conclusion that it would be dark red walls, enough comfy seats, wine by the glass, quiet jazz beer, charcuterie and cheese. I pointed out that what they described was more like the Castle Tap than the Retreat, but the unanimous opinion was that the Retreat, despite not fitting almost any of those criteria, was much better. They don’t do food in the Retreat, unless you count pork scratchings, crisps and mini-cheddars. Which are foods, I suppose, in every sense other than the nutritional one. They don’t do background music. But I think that’s for the best – it would probably kill the cross-bar conversation. They don’t have red walls – but I think Zoran and Edible were wrong about wanting that anyway. It’s not in the Dulux Heritage range.
|Beer Quality||Good – it tasted nice, and no hangover.|
|Beer Selection||Not as broad as it could have been – I’d have liked to have seen some more variety of styles. Even the 40 bottles had a lot of similar ones.|
|Drink vs Food||No food|
|Music||Nothing when I was there. Live music sometimes I believe.|
|Snacks||Pickled eggs, pork scratchings, nuts, crisps etc.|
|Atmosphere||This is where the pub is a winner – very friendly and chatty environment. An enjoyable place to spend the evening.|
|Price||Good – under £4 a pint.|
|Space||The front bar (where the people are) is small. The back bar is larger and emptier.|
The big winners for the Retreat are the beer quality and the atmosphere. If you could combine that with the beer selection of the Nags Head or the Fox & Hounds, and throw in the I Love Paella team to run a kitchen, you’d have the perfect pub. Even with that carpet.