Of all my features on the blog, the one about solo dining is one of the oldest and, as a result, the most out of date. The first edition was written in 2015 and, back then, I ate on my own out of necessity rather than choice; I make a reasonable case for the joys of dining alone, but looking back I’m not entirely sure my heart was in it. And if you want an idea of how much that piece has dated, the mentions of I Love Paella, Dolce Vita and Tasting House very much root it in the distant past. As possibly does the fact that I mentioned Yo! Sushi as one of my choices – I still have a soft spot for sitting up at the belt but, the last time I went there, there was next to nothing on it.
By contrast, my 2018 feature on eating alone is much more enthusiastic about the experience, with the slightly irritating fervour of someone who’s just come back from a gap year. If you’re single, for instance, and eat alone in restaurants frequently I can see you might find the solo tourism of that piece somewhat grating. Look at all the fun I’ve had living like you in Oxford and Paris! it seems to say. I mean, I did have fun, but I was on holiday. And nearly anyone can enjoy eating in restaurants on holiday.
The other thing that dates the second edition of my solo dining recommendations is the preponderance of chains in it. Four of my six choices were chains, and in the piece I talked about how solo dining suited the rise of what I called the Good Chain – the smaller, smarter chains making their way to Reading. I said that it was a shame that independent restaurants hadn’t quite perfected the art of welcoming solo diners.
Well, five years have passed and either I was wrong, or things have changed or my priorities have. Arguably it’s a mixture of all three, but when I look at Reading now it’s much easier to recommend a plethora of independents across all styles, types and price points. That makes me very happy indeed, because you can pop into a Côte or a Franco Manca anyplace, whereas most of the names on this list are significantly more exclusive.
That in its own would be a good enough reason to refresh this list, but I do find that my relationship with solo dining has reached a happy medium at long last – it’s not a torture where you have to fake it til you make it, but neither is it something you have to profess to love in a manner that screams of overcompensation.
I’ve had some lovely solo lunches and dinners at many of the places on this list: having a partner who works weekends and doesn’t always want to join me for reviews means that eating on my own is a bigger part of my life than it used to be. And actually, reviewing places solo or having a leisurely Saturday lunch with a book has become a welcome part of my balanced diet of restaurant experiences. So that’s another reason this piece is probably long overdue.
The perfect place for solo dining has to meet a number of different criteria, I think, and they’re not the same ones by which we judge all restaurants and cafés. It helps if the room is comfortable, not clinical (that, for instance, rules out the otherwise excellent ThaiGrr! for me). The food needs to lend itself to eating alone – so either a limited choice menu where you won’t get FOMO or small plates where you can treat yourself to several without having to share. That, for instance, is why Kungfu Kitchen isn’t on this list: it’s a wonderful place but having to limit yourself to a single dish there is something akin to torture.
Also, and this might just be me, I like my solo dining spots to have some people watching potential. Not so much, necessarily, that I’m drawn in – I don’t mean “talk to the neighbouring table” stuff, but I like to feel like I’m part of something a little bigger than me.
And finally, there’s the service. Service has to be one of two things – either properly welcoming and celebratory of the solo diner, as many of the best places are, or (and this is nearly as good) completely indifferent. I mean places that don’t care whether there are one or four or fifteen of you, but where you won’t get the look of pity every five minutes like they’re waiting for your imaginary friend to vacate the seat opposite you and a real one to take their place.
Not too much to ask, is it? Fortunately, I can think of ten places that achieve most, if not all of those criteria. And, although this rather goes without saying, they all do gorgeous food as well. Let’s get started.
1. Buon Appetito
Pizza is one of the most FOMO-proof things you can eat: how envious can you really get that someone at your table is having roughly the same thing as you, just with a different permutation of toppings? That makes it perfect for solo dining, and as I’ve said before on numerous occasions Buon Appetito’s is arguably the finest in town, with one of Reading’s best outside spaces.
But the other thing that makes Buon Appetito ideal for solo dining, aside from the wonderful (heated) terrace, or that leopard-spotted crust, is the service: always warm and genuine, however big or small your party is. A pizza, a spritz, some people-watching and that welcome: could you ask for more?
Buon Appetito, 146-148 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT
2 Cairo Café
I loved Cairo Café when I went there on duty last year, and I always felt a little embarrassed that I hadn’t made it back for a return visit. And then the weekend before Christmas, I went there for a solo lunch. Town was packed, and Gail’s and Pret were both rammed. Off the beaten track, at the less fashionable end, Cairo Café was sleepy and quiet.
I had their formidable chicken shawarma wrap and some very good falafel and houmous, and enjoyed a meditative meal where I felt quite transported from the bustle, the last minute-shopping, all the ways that Reading can be a bit much sometimes. Cairo Café did that precious thing for me, and fed me well, and my New Year’s wish for them is that they find themselves busier in 2023.
Cairo Café, 13 West Street, RG1 1TT
3. Geo Café
The standard disclaimer at this point: Geo Café’s owners Keti and Zezva, almost uniquely among Reading’s hospitality scene, are friends of mine and I always say this when mentioning the place. But if you go there for brunch or lunch you soon realise that Keti is everybody’s friend, and that makes eating there feel like being at the epicentre of a little community. That’s heartwarming, interesting and affords enormous people-watching potential. I love sitting out in their Orangery, hearing all sorts of very Caversham conversations, but the buzz and bustle of the inside is marvellous (even if I always feel guilty for taking up a table for two all by myself).
The food at Geo Café – never rushed, always beautifully done – makes it one of my favourite places to lunch. God knows I’ve talked about their ajika chicken wrap more times than I can count but their brunches – scrambled Beechwood Farm eggs on sourdough with crispy bacon and, if you ask nicely, a smidge of green ajika – are also truly best in class. Get there early before they’ve run out of Zezva’s pastries – the pistachio croissant is good, the chocolate roll even better. They also do one of Reading’s best coffees, something for which they don’t get anywhere near enough credit.
Geo Café, 10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG
4. Honest Burgers
The great survivor on this list, Honest remains the chain most Reading folk are prepared to make an exception for. To me, it remains an exceptionally reliable town centre spot for a solo lunch or dinner, especially after work or en route to the pub. They have a decent selection of beers, their core range of burgers is solid and has been bolstered by the addition of a decent fried chicken option, and every now and again one of their monthly specials is a belter.
I know some people moan about the service but I’ve never found it less than excellent, although I don’t tend to go during peak times. And as a space, it’s hard to beat one of the booths at the front, looking out the window or into the restaurant at what remains one of Reading’s most sensitively restored buildings. Reading may have better burgers, but the centre doesn’t have many better restaurants for singleton diners.
Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
Kokoro would seem to be the exception to many of the criteria I laid out at the start of this piece. The inside is a little clinical, you could argue. The people-watching potential, unless you really enjoy gazing upon a steady stream of Deliveroo drivers, is limited. And all of that’s true – when it’s warm and you can sit outside on Queen Victoria Street, Kokoro is a much better prospect.
But Kokoro still makes my list for one dish and one dish alone, their sweet chilli chicken. You get a decent sized tub of it with rice for around a tenner and on its day it is the perfect pre-pub dinner for one. It is also, and I have a horrible feeling I’ve said this before, the perfect hungover Sunday lunchtime kill or cure option. It hasn’t failed me yet.
Kokoro, 29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
6. The Lyndhurst
It wouldn’t be a piece of mine without a plug for the Lyndhurst sneaking in, you might say, and you’d have a point. But hear me out, because the Lyndhurst is an absolutely fantastic place for a solo meal. At weekend lunchtimes nabbing a table and having their steak frites with a glass of red and a good book is an experience not to be missed (not that I always have the restraint to skip a starter – this is the Lyndhurst, after all). But their new venture is even more tempting – a weekday lunch menu which effectively gives you a choice of four plats du jour, any of them with a soft drink or a coffee, all for a tenner.
This has to be one the best value offerings anywhere in town, and since they launched it I’ve been a practically weekly visitor. And yes, that means you can get the above jaw-dropping pork schnitzel, resting on beautiful potatoes in a caper butter sauce, and a very serviceable latte, for ten pounds. Pay up front and you can have the whole thing done and dusted – just about – in time to be back at work before your lunch hour is up. They’d deserve a place on this list for that menu alone: that it’s actually the cherry on top tells you everything you need to know.
The Lyndhurst, 88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG
I went on about Madoo a lot last year, and it seems repetitive to rehash it all here. But for the uninitiated, Reading’s Italian cafe is one of my favourite places for a solo lunch. You can pick your choice of carb and filling, or have one of the readymade sandwiches behind the counter, and it’s very hard to go wrong once they’re toasted to perfection and brought to your table. Make sure you save room for the cannoli, while you’re at it, because they’re unmissable: they even do miniature ones, if you want to pretend to be virtuous.
Possibly my favourite thing about Madoo, more even than the food, is that real sense of community you get there, from the Europop to the amount of Italian spoken at neighbouring tables, not to mention all the gesticulation and lust for life. The thought that people go to Costa instead of this place is enough to kill your buzz completely. Madoo is worth a visit just to experience that little enclave – on Via Del Duca, would you believe – in the heart of Reading.
Madoo, 10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU
8. Monkey Lounge
Bar food is a particular sub-genre of solo dining that I especially love: sitting at a table, nursing a cold beer, eating something casual and watching the world around you (or even, believe it or not, the football) is one of life’s pleasures. And I particularly enjoyed doing that last year at Monkey Lounge, one of the real surprise packages of my 2022. The burger is far better than I expected it to be, the atmosphere is convivial and just the right side of disreputable, the beer is very cold (if somewhat lacking in variety) and the chicken wings, tossed in their own buffalo sauce and face-meltingly spiky, are worth the price of admission alone.
It actually makes me wish I liked sport more – no mean feat – or, failing that, that my sports-loving friends lived in the neighbourhood. Next time I have an evening on my tod and nowhere to review, I’m off down the Erleigh Road.
Monkey Lounge, 30 Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA
9. Sapana Home
Sapana Home made my last iteration of this list, with a big old sentimental blurb about what a pivotal role it had played in my life during my divorce, dating and gradual rehabilitation into polite society (a process many might argue remains a work in progress). But then I didn’t go there for many months because of the pandemic, never ordered their stuff through Deliveroo and almost, shamefully, forgot about the place. Going back for a quick dinner late last year I was reminded how much I loved it.
The momo – pan-fried, for me – are a must-order, the rest of the stuff is fine if you want more food but as a solo diner, a plate of their momo and a mango lassi, the radio on in the background and the kindly staff fussing about all around you makes for as wonderful a meal as it has at any time in the last ten years. Did you realise Sapana Home has been going for over a decade? Me neither.
Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
10 Tasty Greek Souvlaki
The only drawback of going to Tasty Greek Souvlaki on your own is that you can’t order the mixed grill and have to slum it with a plate of gyros, or souvlaki or what have you. But in all other respects it is the perfect spot for the solo diner. The tables for two are much more manageable as a solo diner, the food is wonderful, the service is superb and if you’re sitting out the front on a clement evening you get to see what feels like the whole of Reading wandering past.
When summer is on the way it will come into its own even more, if that’s possible: when you order a bottle of Fix they bring a frosted glass with it, and suddenly Greece doesn’t feel so many hundreds of miles away.
Tasty Greek Souvlaki, 20 Market Place, RG1 2EG