I find whales fascinating. (Bear with me.) After millions of years, fish evolved into creatures that ultimately ventured out of the water onto land. We lost the gills, gained some lungs, and mammals then roamed the earth. Some of those mammals then stumbled across the oceans and quite enjoyed a swim, eventually giving up the land entirely for an evolutionary path leading to whales. Over a slightly shorter timeframe, we’ve seen the street food concept burst out of the kitchen to roam free. Yet apparently now it’s ready for a further progression – heading back indoors. Like the whale, street food appears to have gone full circle, lured to return to its physically constrained origins. Okay. Tenuous. But you’d get bored with yet another “I’ve just spotted a new planning application…” post wouldn’t you?
Getting to the point, City Pub Group has applied for permission to convert the former Lloyds bank on Market Place into a food hall, hotel and rooftop bar. The application describes the concept in more detail:
The ground floor will be remodelled to provide the main food and drinking hall. It will involve the removal of the modern partitions, suspended ceilings, and decorative plaster cast moulding on the ceiling to create a room which retains the scale and grandeur of the banking hall space.
The proposal is essentially an extension of the Market Square on which the building sits. The intention is to create a permanent internal food market with a modern twist. The venue will feature a permanent, artisanal bakery, café, and pizza stall (all one stall), plus three further stalls that will rotate regularly to allow an ever-changing range of Streetfood-style food offers that can be altered as the seasons and consumer trends dictate. These stalls will have a very defined niche, such as vegan food, Asian curries, gourmet burgers, smoked meats etc, and offer small, focussed menus with an emphasis on quality, healthy options that are quick to prepare.
The bakery will open for breakfast for hotel guests as well as non-residents, and provide a selection of breads, pastries, brunch items, gourmet sandwiches, authentic pizzas, hot beverages, and juices/smoothies. This area at the front of the building – which does not feature a bar – will be open from 7am, whilst the rest of the ground floor will open at 11am.
There will be a main bar featuring a range of independent cask and craft beers, a carefully curated wine list, a wide range of premium spirits and cocktails, and healthy smoothies and juices. In addition, there will be a second satellite bar that can be changed and which will be focussed on a particular product (e.g. gin bar or cocktail bar).
The emphasis is on flexibility, so a group of friends can all sit together and enjoy food from whichever kitchen (or kitchens) they choose, mix and matching as they wish.
All of the stalls and bars will open out onto the central area which will create the marketplace feeling, an extension of the existing market outside. The central area will consist of seating with lots of nooks and crannies, so guests can choose to sit in a busy, buzzing atmosphere, or a quieter laid back atmosphere.
The rear of the ground floor will see the former bank vault transformed into a secret garden with a retractable roof, a small open area for al-fresco drinks and dining.
Here is the proposed floor plan for the ground floor, including 260 seats.
It’s a really interesting concept, with the three “franchise kitchens” – essentially street food stalls operating on a short term basis. It could be a great way to keep the offer fresh, and if nothing else, keep Edible Reading busy!
The upper floors are proposed as a boutique hotel, with just 24 rooms. Then the top floor would become a bar.
Within the small third floor level it is proposed to create an intimate cocktail bar, opening out onto an external roof terrace which is furnished with seating booths. The bar will have a sophisticated feel, in keeping with what is expected of a premium boutique hotel such as one of the Soho House venues. The bar will be available to both hotel guests and non-residents, and can be accessed from all floors by both lift and staircase.
Meanwhile, a revised scheme for the Broad St Mall shipping container market has emerged. The containers have been re-arranged into a perimeter block, creating a space in the centre including, intriguingly, allowing space to re-instate the staircase down into the abandoned Target pub. Whilst this is presented as a future option, I’m optimistic it hints at a nearer term plan to bring that space back into use.
Also new within this scheme is a grander “clock tower’ entrance building (but yes, it’s still supposedly a temporary 5-year construction), and direct access from the top floor into the upstairs of the mall itself. We also have a name – “The Yard”.
There appears to be more space allocated to seating, indicating a potential shift away from general merchandise retailing into street food market stalls, with the majority of the benches under cover from the storeys above.
Clearly, both sites would provide highly welcome and innovative additions to the town centre. As the retailers struggle to survive, the sooner we can kick-start this reinvention to boost footfall the better. Following the proven demand demonstrated by our local Blue Collar, it seems bringing street food indoors is a trend worth exploiting, and I’m confident RG1 could support multiple such ventures. But first-to-market advantage is up for grabs… hopefully we’re not left waiting for evolutionary timescales.
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