Smokin’ Billy’s is a funny old place. I’ve always wondered who on earth goes in there, because from the outside it doesn’t look like much. With so many nice looking places in Reading, it’s hard to imagine how it stays in business. Thanks to my extensive research, I can fill you in.
Before I do though, some of you may be dredging your memories and wondering about the history of this place. No, it’s not a strip club any more. Yes, in the distant past it was Monroe’s Ribs on the ground floor and the Sugar Lounge upstairs. I have no idea how good either of them were, but evidently not good enough to stay in business. The new owner (Billy?) has completely changed the place, and you can go there now without any fear of impugning your character. These days downstairs is a bar and a restaurant, and upstairs is a cocktail bar and a comedy club. In fact, that seems to be theme of Smokin’ Billy’s – it does a bit of everything. And I guess that’s how it survives – it fills in all of the gaps that other pubs have left.
But what are those gaps? Billy’s* has become home to a number of different local events. There are a bunch of free meetups like Cafe Scientifique, Cafe Politique, Pint of Science and more. These generally take place in the bar on Wednesday nights – a night which would otherwise be completely empty. And that’s not an exaggeration – I’ve been a few times, and not seen anyone other than those there for the events. Thursdays has karaoke. Saturday has live music. Friday often has comedy. And that’s where Billy’s really comes in to its own. On the first floor it has a room which is ideal for small events like comedy, and so it gets used by people like The Free Radicals, the Weekly Comedy Show, and Stand and Deliver. It’s an intimate venue (not in the Sugar Lounge sense) where you can get a great show, generally for a modest amount of money.
*I have no idea if people call it Billy’s, but I am sick of typing the full name, so it’s Billy’s from here on in.
It was one of these events which took me to Billy’s on this particular night. Grobber (the mathematician) and I headed along to hear a lecture about Unsolvable Equations. We got there nice and early so we could have food and a pint before the intellectual pummelling. The choice of beer is a little limited though. On draft they have Stella, Stella Cidre, Bud, Bud Light, Lowenbrau, Becks, Goose IPA, and a few other ciders and lagers that I glossed over. Only this night they didn’t have any Goose IPA or any Cider. In fact in the half a dozen times I’ve been there, they’ve never had Goose IPA on. I’m beginning to suspect they don’t actually stock it any more, because, as the mathematicians would have told me, it’s statistically unlikely to be off every time.
As well as being short on beer, they were short on staff this night. They had one barman who was doubling as waiter. And his till was down. The poor guy was run ragged, but super friendly, cheerful, and helpful despite all of that.
Given the draft selection, we settled on some bottles of beer (Goose Island IPA and Honkers), and went to get a table to eat at. The tables in Billy’s are another odd affair, at the front of the bar. The bar area has a very TGI Friday’s style – dark wood, guitars on the wall, and Tiffany glass lampshades. The area for eating by contrast feels like a cafe. Wooden tables that should have lace tablecloth on them, in a fenced off space that feels decidedly like it should be a bar in a caravan park. Admittedly a foreign caravan park – we’re talking more Eurocamp than Haven, but it’s still not quite like a bar, and not quite like a restaurant.
The artwork on the walls looks decidedly Athena, which doesn’t scream “fancy” like it used to in the 80s.
I ordered buffalo wings to eat. But the didn’t have buffalo sauce, only BBQ sauce. They came served in a wine cooler, and were better than Grob’s burger, which when pressed was described as “hmmm”. I’m no Edible Reading, but I’m going to say that this isn’t a food destination. It’s somewhere you can get food if you happen to be there and can’t be bothered to go next door to Pizza Express or 7 Bone, or Coconut, or even Burger King across the road. Like the artwork, the food would have been considered good in the 80s, but seems dated and not quite up to today’s expectations.
So, we had a couple of bottles of beer, some OK food, an interesting lecture on maths, and generally we were ready to go somewhere else to finish off the evening. There was no suggestion we’d hang around for more beer there. Given that, you might be wondering how the place survives. Surely lectures and comedy nights can’t keep it going. As far as I can tell, it’s because of the one true Unique Selling Point that I haven’t mentioned until now. One big fact that I haven’t revealed that to some people will be well known, but to others I think is a complete surprise. Basically, it’s open later at night than anywhere else in Reading.
I always thought that the Purple Turtle was open latest in Reading. It shuts at 3:30. The Turtle closing has always been my cue to go home and go to bed. However, for some people that’s an early night, and that’s where Billy’s comes in. It’s open ’til 5am on Friday and Saturday nights, and that’s where most of its custom comes from. Yet again, Billy’s finds an unfilled niche and squeezes in.
|Beer Quality||It’s fine, but then it’s all lager so it should be.|
|Beer Selection||Very limited. No bitter except in bottles.|
|Drink vs Food||It wants to be a restaurant, and it wants to be a bar, and a nightclub, and you are welcome to do any of those things|
|Music||Some light jazz|
|Snacks||None at all that I could see|
|Atmosphere||Other than events it’s quiet. Until about 2am when it’s heaving.|
|Price||£4.50 a pint|
|Space||Lots of space – sofas, tables, two floors|
I want to give Smokin’ Billy’s a better score just for the effort that they put in. The staff are friendly. The owner seems to be doing a so much to attract customers, and as a result is a great asset to Reading. Realistically, if they got some good beer, fixed the food and the decor, it could be really busy all the time. But I hope they don’t, because if they do they’ll be tempted to stop the huge variety of things they do to survive today, and that would be a shame.