Takeaway review: Tasty Greek Souvlaki

A couple of years back – what feels like a lifetime ago, in fact – I found myself in Guildford at lunchtime on a summer’s day. I’d taken the train there, back when you could safely do that, for a mooch around and a spot of shopping (back when you could safely do that, too) and my thoughts turned to lunch, as they generally do pretty much any time from half-eleven onwards. I knew a place that did the most incredible bacon sandwich – toasted sourdough bread, plenty of just-right rashers of smoked streaky, Stokes brown sauce on top – but having marched to the top of High Street, I found it had closed down. What to do?

Salvation came in the form of a little souvlaki joint tucked away on a sidestreet near the castle, just down from a fantastic cheesemonger. The sun was out, and there was one table left outside: it was just too perfect. So we nabbed it, and fifteen minutes later I was eating a gyros wrap stuffed with meat and chips, accompanied with a glass of Cypriot beer for no other reason than just because. There was something about it – something about eating outside when it’s warm, something about the golden colour of lager caught in a ray of sunlight, that makes you feel like you’re on holiday even when you’re not. I’ve missed many things over the last twelve months, and one of them is lunches like that.

I have a long-standing love of gyros, of Greek food and of Greece in general, born of numerous holidays there over the years. When I was thirteen my parents took me to Corfu, the first time I’d ever been abroad, ever been on a plane, and I credit that holiday with kickstarting my insatiable curiosity about food. I ate stifado – rich stew with beef that fell apart, soft baby onions and the faintest hint of cinnamon – until it came out of my ears and enjoyed the lemonade, so exotic and so different from the clear, tasteless stuff back home.

The last time I went to Greece it was to Parga, a beautiful harbour town on the mainland not quite so well-known to British tourists. I remember sitting outside a little gyros shop at the bottom of the main street, having a long lazy lunch, drinking another beer and feeling like nothing could be that wrong with the world. Even seeing the frozen pillars of meat being unloaded from a van just outside could put me off my meal: it was sheer bliss.

It’s hard to believe that was over seven years ago, but Covid robbed me of a holiday last June in Rhodes. I had such wonderful plans (if you can use the word “plan” when you aim to do as little as possible) of sitting by the pool reading trashy novels and drinking beer and rosé, taking a taxi down to Lindos in the evenings to eat at restaurants and drink in bars. There’s one restaurant in the square called Mavrikos that does the most beautiful fish and seafood, and there are places that sell ambrosial frozen yoghurt, but I could guarantee that gyros would feature in that holiday too.

Back in January 2021, in the real world, Tasty Greek Souvlaki was an obvious choice for my first takeaway review of the year. It was one of the first openings after lockdown began, so one of the first new restaurants I hadn’t yet had the chance to review. It had opened on Market Place, where MumMum used to be – and heaven knows, 2020 was a difficult enough time to open a restaurant as it is without the additional handicap of being right next to Blue Collar and facing intense competition two lunchtimes a week. 

Nevertheless, most of the reports I’d heard had been very good: my other half had a gyros wrap from there over the summer when they did some catering for her work and had raved about it for weeks. I’d even been on the verge of reviewing their lunchtime offering, on one of the last days when it was warm enough to sit outside, just before our second lockdown was announced. So when Friday night came around and I fired up my phone to decide what to order, Tasty Greek Souvlaki was uppermost in my mind. Could it transport me back to Greece, if only for a few happy moments?

Tasty Greek Souvlaki gives you the option of ordering for collection by phone, but if you want delivery you have the choice of the big three: Deliveroo, JustEat or Uber Eats. I opted for Uber Eats on this occasion, partly because my last two experiences with Deliveroo had been truly awful and I wanted to give Tasty Greek Souvlaki the best possible chance, and partly because I had an introductory credit with Uber Eats burning a virtual hole in my virtual pocket. 

The menu gives you a wide range of options at various price points, from wraps to merida (meat on a plate with salad and chips), club sandwiches and mixed grills. You can even lob in a few additional skewers, if you’re feeling particularly hungry, and there are a handful of sides. This was well suited to takeaway food, because there weren’t really any starters: doing starters and mains by delivery always means you either have to keep something warm in the oven, eat something that has gone cold or hoover food so fast you need to mainline Gaviscon.

I wanted to try a bit of everything, and the menu had the perfect thing for me – the mixed grill for two, which includes a lamb, pork and chicken skewer, a “greek kebab”, some sausage, some pork belly and mixed gyros, along with chips, pita, salad and dips. You get all that for the princely sum of twenty-five pounds ninety-five, and although I found it hard to imagine wanting more food than that I added some halloumi to the order, more out of curiosity than anything else. 

Along with the service charge, and not including the rider tip, this came to just shy of thirty-five pounds: my delivery fee was low because I live a short drive from the restaurant, so your mileage may (literally) vary.

A nice touch which distinguishes Uber Eats from Deliveroo is that you pick the amount to tip the driver but that is provisionally added to the total and you reconfirm it at the end. I really liked that. I strongly believe that people should tip delivery drivers well, especially in a pandemic when they are doing work many of us wouldn’t fancy – but that strong belief has been tested over the last few weeks by Deliveroo drivers, including one who managed to get lost on the three minute drive from Bakery House to my house. I’m not convinced that some of Deliveroo’s drivers have ever been to Reading before, a view only reinforced by the fact that my last one pulled up in a black cab after I had spent ten minutes tracking him going anywhere but in the vague direction of my front door.

There were no such hairy moments with this order, and I tracked my driver making the smooth five minute journey from the restaurant to my house, only panicking slightly as he overshot and had to be waved back to the front door where we were eagerly (and hungrily) waiting for him. The order was double bagged for extra insulation, and felt hot as we rushed it into the kitchen. The whole process, from placing the order to arrival, had taken just over twenty minutes on a Friday night: not bad going at all.

Reviewing takeaways is going to involve talking about very different things to the restaurant reviews. In a restaurant, plating and presentation are all perfectly reasonable things to talk about. At home, if it looks messy you’ve nobody but yourself to blame, and you might be prioritising speed over style: who could blame you, for that matter? Instead, we get to talk packaging, so here goes: the order arrived in two cardboard boxes and a few plastic tubs – hot food in the boxes, cold food in the tubs. For the salad and dips, this made perfect sense but for the halloumi, served on a bed of lettuce, it just meant that the halloumi went colder quicker and was decidedly lukewarm on arrival.

There was no such problem with the cardboard boxes, which were nicely branded and had a reflective silver lining to keep the food hot. One was filled with herb-flecked chips and big pillowy triangles of pitta bread, the other was absolutely replete with meat, a carnivore’s delight. The photo doesn’t do justice to just how much meat there was – aside from the kebabs and sausage you can see, there was another kebab tucked away underneath along with some more pork and the whole thing was on top of an awful lot of gyros meat, both chicken and pork.

We dished it all out onto plates as quickly as we could and got stuck in. We were more interested in it being quick than photogenic, which is why you have no photo of it all on the plate: I’ll do better next time, I promise. But it worked, because, with the exception of the halloumi, everything that was meant to be hot was hot. If you’re eating at the table (as civilised people do) rather than on your lap in front of Rick Stein’s Cornwall (as I did) I can see it would make sense just to stick it all on the table and let people pitch in, especially if you grab a mixed grill as we did. 

And, on the evidence of my meal at least, you definitely should. The souvlaki, ironically given the restaurant’s name, were probably the least remarkable thing we had but were still decent – skewers of well-cooked chicken, lamb and pork. The lamb could have done with being a little softer and all of them would have benefited from more evidence of marination, but they all went perfectly with the dips – both a tomato one which was more tangy than spicy and an exemplary tzatziki full of julienned cucumber and a hefty whack of garlic.

Also excellent with both dips were the chips and the pita. I don’t know if Tasty Greek Souvlaki make their own chips, but if they don’t they’re very good at making you feel like they have. They were hot, crunchy and delicious and the speckled herbs all over them – oregano, I assume – were a very nice touch. And the pita was fluffy and downright terrific – better, or at least more to my taste, than Bakery House’s. The salad was just lettuce, peppers and cucumber – undressed, uninteresting and probably just there to offset some of the guilt of everything else. Two black olives failed to rescue matters: that’s a lot of heavy lifting to expect from olives. The halloumi was the biggest disappointment, as I said earlier, served on top of more undressed leaves and left to sweat in a plastic tub.

The rest of the mixed grill was where you found the really interesting stuff. A slab of pork was described as pork belly, but felt more like shoulder, as it lacked the fatty tenderness of belly. None the less, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m always dubious about things like “village sausage” as they can sometimes have a disturbingly smooth, homogenous texture (“all eyelids and arseholes”, as my ex-wife used to say), but this one was coarse, robust and herby. The “greek kebab”, essentially a kofta, was even better – juicy and deeply moreish. 

All of what I’ve described so far would easily have been enough dinner for two people. But, just as we are so often drawn to things that aren’t necessarily good for us, the thing I really couldn’t get enough of was the gyros meat. It was worth the price of admission entirely on its own – ribboned shavings of chicken and pork, some crunchy-crispy, some soft and yielding but all of it deeply savoury and utterly drenched in flavour.

There was actually more of it than we could physically eat – and that’s saying something where I’m concerned – but having left some, I felt a deep sense of sadness that I hadn’t sacrificed a mouthful of souvlaki or that pointless halloumi so I could fit more in. It stayed in the mind for the rest of the evening, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it a fair few times since.

Normally, my peroration would conclude with a rating and I’ve thought long and hard about whether to include them in takeaway reviews. The problem is that when you review a restaurant meal, you’ve reviewing a collection of factors that are all, broadly speaking, under the control of that restaurant. Whether it’s cooked right, whether it sits there under the lights too long, whether it looks like a dog’s breakfast. Whether the wait staff are lovely and welcoming, whether the room feels like a home from home. If I eat somewhere and I’m not a fan I can point out why, but it will usually be down to the restaurant.

But with takeaways there are so many variables in a chain of events which isn’t all down to the restaurant. Some are – the selection, the food, the quality, the packaging and the pricing. But equally, some significant ones are not – like who delivers it, how they deliver it and how those staff are treated and incentivised. On this occasion everything worked perfectly, but if it hadn’t and it was the driver’s fault it would seem harsh to give the meal a poor rating which, in your mind, could well reflect on the restaurant alone. Like so many things about the post-Covid reality, this is complex and nuanced and I’m reluctant to boil it down to a number. 

If that doesn’t suit you, and I’ll only put it like this on this one occasion, I’d say that ordering Tasty Greek Souvlaki through Uber Eats was a four star experience. I liked a lot of what I ate, I absolutely loved some of it, I thought it was extremely good value and I would do it again. Will that do? Possibly not: I’m sure some of you will be saying “what you’ve written sounds like a five star review to me”. That’s the other thing about ratings, they always kick off that discussion about whether you’ve been too kind, or too harsh.

Let me put put it this way instead: in the good old days, I would visit restaurants, love them and start mentally planning my next meal and what I would pick from the menu before I’d even paid my bill. In this brave new world, having committed to reviewing a takeaway every week in this third lockdown, I found myself wondering when I could fit in ordering a gyros wrap from Tasty Souvlaki for lunch into the bargain.

Surely there would be one day when I simply couldn’t face yet another cheese and pickle sandwich? Would it be so terrible to accidentally find myself on Uber Eats again? Perhaps I could get a cold beer out of the fridge that day and maybe, just maybe, there would even be sunshine. To my mind, food remains one of the best forms of escapism there is, and it’s beautiful, now more than ever, to be reminded of that. On the television, Rick Stein was knocking up something magnificent in his fancy Cornish kitchen but, somehow, I found I had no food envy at all. 

Tasty Greek Souvlaki
20 Market Place, Reading, RG1 2EG
0118 3485768

https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com
Order via: Deliveroo, JustEat and Uber Eats, or direct with the restaurant for collections.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

Announcement: Takeaway reviews!

Happy New Year everybody! I hope that you’re keeping your resolutions, if you made any, and that you’re being kind to yourself if you’ve broken them. To be honest, in 2021, with things as they are, you could do a lot worse than giving yourself a year off borderline impossible targets for arbitrary self-improvement: most people, after all, get quite enough of that sort of thing in the workplace. 

Personally I’m aiming to follow the excellent example set by my friend Dave who succinctly said “New Year’s Resolution: stay alive”. That’s as ambitious as I plan to be this year, and anything beyond that is a bonus. That said, I did tell myself I would try and write something this year, especially in this third lockdown when we all have plenty of time on our hands – enough, who knows, that you might even fancy reading a weekly blog post from me. 

I did wonder about several different options. I briefly thought about bringing back last year’s series of interviews – there are plenty of interesting people in Reading’s food and drink scene (and beyond) that I never got round to quizzing. And I did wonder about doing another series of diaries, but I think they were probably a little niche by the end. Besides, there are only so many times (and only so many different ways) that you can ponder the eternal verities while shuffling round the Harris Garden for the three hundredth time. 

I also considered doing a series of short pieces in praise of particular aspects of Reading and Reading life – you know, to provide the unrelenting positivity with which I am so strongly associated. I even got as far as drawing up a list of candidates for that one: perhaps another time.

But really, that would be like turning up to a gig and playing nothing but songs off the new album that hasn’t come out yet, when everybody wants to hear the hits: the overwhelming response on social media has been that people want me to review Reading’s takeaway options, so takeaway reviews you shall have. The first one will go up at half-eleven next Friday, and I’ll try and put one up every week until the lockdown is over, everybody has lost interest or I’ve contracted botulism, whichever happens first.

Early in the first lockdown, I decided against reviewing takeaways. I said that it wasn’t a level playing field to compare them against eat in restaurants, and that I would feel bad about writing negative reviews. The best part of a year later, I think the landscape has changed enough that it’s worth a go. Takeaways and deliveries have become a big part of most restaurants’ revenue streams over the last twelve months, and they’ve had plenty of time to get good at it, pick a delivery partner or build their own ordering and fulfilment capability. 

And actually, I think the point of reviews is as important as ever: you want to know whether a restaurant constitutes a good use of your money. I still believe that we should be protecting the independents we want to survive, but it seems unfair to draw a line at the start of the pandemic and say that none of the restaurants that has opened since should be supported. It’s very brave to open a new business in times like these: those restaurants deserve consideration, too.

So, here are the general principles. I’ll review a different restaurant each week, and I will try and use a range of different delivery providers – so a mixture of ordering through Deliveroo, JustEat, Uber Eats and (where possible) direct via the restaurant. I’ll only review deliveries, not collection takeaways: mainly because a delivery service that can deliver to me is more likely to be able to deliver to you too, whereas if I traipsed over to e.g. Finn’s to pick up some fish and chips it’s quite possible that lots of people reading wouldn’t be close enough to have the same luxury. 

I know geography will be a problem, and that some restaurants I review won’t necessarily deliver to you, depending on where you’re reading from: that is, I’m afraid, the nature of the beast.

In the majority of cases, I’ll try and review places that haven’t previously been reviewed on the blog. The emphasis on deliveries also opens up some options I couldn’t have previously reviewed – whether that’s the Caversham Park Village Association delivering Caribbean food every Friday and Saturday, or Flavours Of Mauritius which is currently delivery only, or even somewhere like Rizouq down the Wokingham Road which is just too small to eat in anyway. 

I will try to prioritise independent businesses, although I may well also want to try some chain options which come out of dark kitchens, like Shake Shack and Burger & Lobster. And further down the line I don’t rule out trying heat at home meals (as offered by Clay’s, and numerous other high profile national restaurants), although for the time being I’ll be prioritising local restaurants because I want to try and keep my money in the local economy where possible. Let’s see how we go, and how long this lockdown lasts.

My takeaway reviews won’t operate on the same rating scale as the restaurant reviews, because you’re not comparing apples with apples. I’m still making up my mind whether to use ratings at all, but whether I do or not I will try and make sure the review covers things like how long it takes to get to me, whether it’s hot (the most crucial thing of all, obviously) and whether the packaging is wasteful or efficient, recyclable and so on. Sometimes when a delivery meal is disappointing it’s hard to know whether that’s the fault of, for example, the restaurant or the Deliveroo driver: so things won’t always be cut and dried but, as always, I’ll try to be fair.

I’ve had a brilliant response on social media when I put out feelers about reviewing takeaways, and as a result I’ve had plenty of great suggestions and am building up a pretty good to do list that will easily keep me occupied for the rest of lockdown. But I’m always open to more, so if you have any places you’d like to see reviewed please feel free to comment here, or on Twitter or Facebook, or just by dropping me an email – ediblereading@gmail.com.

Does that sound like a plan to you? Excellent. See you back here next week for the first review.

2020: The Year In Review (Part Two)

Last week, in part one of this review of the year, I wrote about all the restaurants and cafés that had closed and opened in 2020. But really, the story of this year in Reading’s food scene is the story of all the restaurants and cafés that don’t fall into those two categories, the ones who have hung in by the skin of their teeth and made it to the end of 2020 – businesses that began January aiming for “thriving” but, at some point over the last twelve months, downgraded their ambitions to “surviving”.

It’s easy to forget, as we all pause for breath at the end of the year, just what a torrid time hospitality has had. This time last year, Reading was a very different place. The biggest blot on the landscape was our benighted branch of Chick-Fil-A, already announced as due to close at the end of its six month “trial” lease in March but still, for the time being, selling chicken and homophobia (only not on Sundays). I never went to Chick-Fil-A, but it’s hard to imagine a meal there could have been as diabolical as my trip to Taco Bell in February.

If you stop to play it all back, the contortions that restaurants, cafés and pubs have had to go through seem like some kind of awful fever dream. In March they were told that they wouldn’t be closed by the government, but that they would have to stay open while that same government told their customers to stay away. Shortly after, they were closed in the first of so many u-turns, but there was then an agonising wait to hear the details of the financial relief available; at least one of Reading’s more popular chains decided to lay their staff off immediately, only to hurriedly rehire them once the furlough scheme was announced. 

The furlough scheme brought some relief, as did some of the grants and business rates relief, but one thing that’s often overlooked is that a reasonable proportion of the aid package came in the form of loans: facing a deeply uncertain future, hospitality had to go into debt to gamble on its own survival. What followed was over three months when restaurants were completely closed, except for takeaway and delivery. Some restaurants decided not to even do that, some took time out to consider their options and some began making the first of many, many changes to their business model (I can’t bring myself to use the word “pivot”, especially as many of our businesses showed so much grace – outwardly, at least – that it looked more like a pirouette). 

On Kennet Island, Fidget & Bob moved to selling groceries, produce and beer along with its fantastic range of sandwiches, coffee and cake. The other side of the river, Geo Café began a veg box delivery scheme, driving to a London market at four in the morning and then doing long hours making drop-offs all across Reading: very welcome at a time when many were shielding and delivery slots were well-nigh impossible to snag (eventually they got their own van in the café’s distinctive livery – I called it the “Kete-van” after its owner, until she told me to stop).

Another notable business in the early stages of our first lockdown was Valpy Street. Some restaurants have always had their own takeaway or delivery capability, and others – especially some of our chains – have always partnered with someone like Deliveroo or Just Eat. But for places like Valpy Street which had never done takeaway, they had to build this from scratch. One of Reading’s earliest adopters, they soon got busy and before long social media was abuzz with people enjoying their fish and chips and their roasts.

One of the most sought-after delivery slots was with Kungfu Kitchen, and there were few sights in 2020 happier than co-owner Steve standing at your front door, masked up, holding a bag of goodies. I soon became an expert in ordering KFK dishes that travelled well – that deep fried spicy fish, for instance, which would remain piping hot long after it was delivered, or the Xinjiang shredded chicken which was cold, spicy and (I later discovered) perfect crammed into a baguette the following day.

A lot of people were keen to see what possibly our most high-profile restaurant, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, did. And the answer, at first, was that Clay’s kept its powder dry. They took time out, put recipes up on Instagram showing people how to make simple versions of their dishes at home – even I tried one of them – and then quietly, without fanfare, went about donating large quantities of food to Whitley CDA. 

(They weren’t alone, either: one thing that distinguished many of our hospitality businesses is that they still, against such a terrifying backdrop, found time to feed the town’s people in real need. Only last week, the Lyndhurst provided 30 Christmas dinners to people in Whitley spending Christmas Day alone: you would need to go to the Whitley CDA Facebook page to discover that, though, because characteristically the Lyndhurst hasn’t mentioned it anywhere.)

In May, Clay’s finally made a much-anticipated decision: it had no plans to reopen but would instead deliver vacuum-packed curries customers could reheat at home. Its website crashed on launch day with the volume of orders and soon Nandana and Sharat’s car became as keenly anticipated as the arrival of Geo Café’s Kete-van: one street in Reading organised a weekly communal order which was delivered centrally and then distributed to all the residents. This was the summer of 2020, when many of us got to know our neighbours better – either through WhatsApp groups, weekly clapping or, in my case, waving to Ted from around the corner as he walked the dog daily.

Another pirouetting business in May was Nibsy’s, which started delivering its DIY doughnut kits across Reading. Of all the things I learned in 2020, one of the most surprising was that Nibsy’s cherry bakewells didn’t make me miss gluten in the slightest, although once I’d finished them they did make me miss Nibsy’s cherry bakewells. Like many cafés, Nibsy’s gradually reopened for takeaway in June, and as summer came along there was a feeling that the worst was past and a gradual reopening – rightly or wrongly – was around the corner.

One of the most significant events of the year happened at its midpoint, and has nothing to do with hospitality but plenty to do with community. Like most people I was at home on the 20th June when I got word of an incident at Forbury Gardens, and like most people I watched it unfold on social media with a real feeling of unease and horror. A friend of mine was there when it happened, on a patch of grass just along from where the attack took place, and one of his friends chased the assailant out through the cemetery and down Friar Street. He messaged me about it as it unfolded, clearly badly shaken up by the whole thing. Other friends got in touch to check that I was safe, an experience I’m sure was shared by many.

What happened at Forbury Gardens was an attack on three friends enjoying the summer sun, in possibly the spiritual epicentre of Reading, but it was also an attack on our town and on all of us. And in the days that followed, all sorts of people tried to use it to further their own agendas. It was odd to see Reading on the news, or to hear vultures like Katie Hopkins talking about us as some kind of failed multicultural experiment. But the way the community united in the aftermath of that incident, and in particular the way Reading refused to allow it to divide or define our brilliant, diverse, happy town was one of the most beautiful things about this year, a wonderful moment coming out of so much sadness. I criticise the council a lot, goodness knows, but their handling of this – dignified and measured – was note perfect.

In July, our restaurants, cafés and pubs were told they could reopen, albeit with new restrictions imposed by social distancing and the need for Covid compliance. Restaurants all said how happy they were to be seeing their customers again, with masks and visors on nonetheless, but the whole thing was tinged with trepidation. Ever the cheery soul, I said at the time that I felt restaurants were being hung out to dry and that people should pick the restaurants they wanted to survive and spend their money exclusively at those places (I may have been overly gloomy: time will tell).

In August, restaurants were the saviours of the economy, completely Covid safe and eating out was a Good Thing, as the government introduced Eat Out To Help Out. Opinion was divided on this – I know a lot of customers, especially on social media, were convinced that business was booming and that they had eaten out far more as a result of the initiative. But the restaurant owners who spoke to me almost uniformly suggested it just meant that they were busier at different times. For restaurants, that tended to mean times when customers were less likely to spend money on alcohol. 

One restaurant owner told me about a customer who turned up, spent the absolute maximum you could in order to get twice as much food, ate a tiny amount and then asked her to box it all up so they could take it home. When she expressed concern that they were circumventing the rules, she got a one star Tripadvisor review for her troubles. “I won’t miss some of the customers” she said, when the month came to an end. Others I talked to said very similar things.

The other big return of the summer was Blue Collar Street Food, which was restored to its rightful place on Market Place in June. Blue Collar had a year which you could see as emblematic of 2020 – two steps forward, two steps back. So we all celebrated in September when they took over the Friday market previously run by Chow (the right decision by Reading UK), followed by them hosting the regional heats of the British Street Food Awards later that month.

That was a wonderful weekend, highlighting some brilliant street food but also reinforcing just how strong our own street food scene had become. By this point, Blue Collar’s Glen Dinning had reinforced the market’s offering with some brilliant signings – Gurt Wings, for instance, on Fridays, doing the most terrific fried chicken and tater tots dusted with chicken salt, or Fink Street Food’s excellent mezze boxes. 

The queue for Sharian’s Jamaican Cuisine (now renamed the Bissy Tree for reasons nobody could understand) was as long as ever, but now there was more competition elsewhere in the market. And although the market had lost some of its longest-serving traders – no more Peru Sabor, or Purée’s phenomenal challoumi wrap – a degree of continuity with the past was maintained when Georgian Feast returned to the markets on Fridays and the air was thick again with the beautifully acrid hum of ajika. 

The other thing the Street Food Awards did which was so vitally important was to give Reading some civic pride, and an event people could look forward to and safely enjoy. In a normal year, we would all have been in Forbury Gardens enjoying Blue Collar’s Feastival, but this was the closest we could get. We celebrated Reading being picked to host the event, and Blue Collar’s triumph was our triumph too. Both days of the event sold out, and it went so well that Blue Collar was invited to host the final.

Another reason to be proud of Reading happened in August, when Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen finally launched a nationwide delivery scheme and we had to learn to share our treasure with the rest of the country. Positive reviews started to crop up on blogs, and with every collection you made at the restaurant, or at Fidget & Bob, Geo Café or (later) Double-Barrelled, being a Clay’s customer increasingly felt like being one of the first to know a secret that wouldn’t be under wraps forever.

All good things must come to an end, and just as it was expedient for the government to tell us all to eat out in August it became equally expedient to start to blame hospitality for the increasing rate of infection. The last weekend of October was the final of the British Street Food Awards but also the last weekend before a second lockdown took place in November. I was there with friends on Halloween and ate some absolutely beautiful stuff – a panko-crumpet scrumpet made of shredded pig’s head, topped with kimchee, a “Bangkok brunch” of spiced pork sausage with duck fat confit potato and tiny fried quail’s eggs, tacos and fried chicken. 

Sitting in the garden of the Allied Arms in the cold afterwards, enjoying one last al fresco pint, it felt like summer was well and truly over. And it was, but this lockdown was different to the last. Blue Collar continued to trade on Wednesdays and Fridays, a welcome relief from time spent at home, and restaurants had honed their delivery capabilities by then. “Here we go again”, many of them said on social media, or words to that effect. They had done everything asked of them, taken painstaking precautions, and here they were again being told to close. Meanwhile, of course, the schools remained open.

The rest of the year, as we know, ended in tiers. When everything reopened at the end of the month, Reading was in Tier 2 and restaurants could stay open but only people from the same household could share a table. Restaurants were expected to police this, to add to their burdens. “We’re so excited to see you all again” was the overall message from restaurants – but who could blame them if, this time, the smile was more of a rictus grin? By this point, fatigue had set in: many of the restaurateurs I spoke to were just hoping to make it to Christmas in one piece and take stock.

And of course it was worse for pubs, who could only open if they were offering “substantial meals” and could only serve alcohol with those meals. Pubs scrambled to work up a food offering: Double-Barrelled’s taproom, for instance, rebranded as a “street food restaurant” so it could continue to trade. Others, like the Nag’s Head (possibly the safest post-lockdown experience I had this year) were forced to close because they didn’t serve any food.

And then, of course, the final blow. Reading was moved into Tier 3, which meant that yet again restaurants could only offer takeaway and delivery. It was one pirouette too many for some, who simply decided to close for the time being and put off decisions until the new year. A farcical twenty four hours later Reading was placed in Tier 4, which was like Tier 3 but without Christmas. Conservative estimates suggest things will stay this way until the spring.

The tone of many on social media was chipper, or at least phlegmatic, but the contrast between the public face and private misgivings was often clear. Double-Barrelled, for instance, put up a picture of their logo with the words “TAPROOM” and “STREET FOOD RESTAURANT” struck through, a clear (and funny) testimony to the constant one hundred and eighty degree turns required of hospitality all year. But on her personal Twitter account, owner Luci summed up the position even more succinctly. With a string of expletives.

There was still time for a couple more twists before 2020 limped to a close, both good and bad. In November, Blue Collar announced that Reading Football Club had terminated its contract to provide the food offering outside the ground on matchday, to widespread derision. The initial reports were that Compass Group, who serve the “food” inside the ground, were taking over – bad news for customers (and for donkeys, given how many of them have died over the years to provide Compass Group with burgers and sausages). 

That was bad enough, but the suggestion that the contract would then be sub-contracted to a London street food operator to provide something similar to Blue Collar, only cheaper and less authentic, added insult to injury. The outcry that Reading FC had shafted an independent business – run by a season ticket holder, no less – in the naked pursuit of profit was loud, consistent and completely on the money.

Finally, there was a feelgood story a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the 13th December people fired up their browsers or opened their newspapers to find that Jay Rayner had reviewed Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in the Observer. It was a Christmas miracle, for a restaurant that was struggling to get by. Clay’s blog post on the subject tells the story better than I can, but it was the result of old-fashioned persistence: owner Nandana had emailed a number of restaurant critics and food writers asking if they wanted to give her food a try, and to their credit a couple of them – the Telegraph’s William Sitwell and the Observer’s Jay Rayner – had taken her up on the suggestion.

Of course, like everyone who has tried Clay’s food, they loved it and wanted to tell everybody. It reminded me of reading the email I had received from Nandana, nearly three years ago, telling me all about the restaurant they were planning to open. I clearly remember reading it and seeing all that passion for food, for recipes, and for telling stories, and I suspected even then that their food would be very special indeed. I wonder if Jay Rayner or William Sitwell had a similar feeling when they had received their own version of that email, many years later.

Clay’s was the first Reading restaurant to get a mention in the national press for over a decade – the last before that was Mya Lacarte, also in the Telegraph – and orders went through the roof. The following week when I turned up at the restaurant to collect my own pre-Christmas order I saw a front room full of vacuum-packed curries being crammed into boxes and envelopes, labelled and ready to go out for delivery. It was a heart-warmingly military operation. “This is probably just a flash in the pan” Nandana told me: I sincerely hope she turns out to be wrong. 

This is by no means a definitive history of 2020 for Reading’s restaurants. I’m far too partisan a person to write that. And there’s so much that happened this year that I didn’t get to mention and there are so many people I left out. I didn’t talk about the stupendous deliveries I’ve had this year from the Lyndhurst, or rhapsodise about their gurnard tacos. I haven’t mentioned Bakery House or Namaste Momo, both of whom have brightened flat evenings at my house through the arrival of their wonderful food. I haven’t thanked Anonymous Coffee for teaching me to love making coffee at home, or congratulated Vegivores for managing to expand in such a difficult time.

And there’s so much that happened in the town that’s really outside the scope of this piece. The way Reading Fringe Festival managed to adapt to an online-only event, or the way that the tireless Louize Clarke did likewise with her Festival Of Digital Disruption, capitalising on Covid to land a roster of speakers you could never attract at a physical event.

I haven’t mentioned the joy I’ve received every time a Covid email arrives from the council with an increasingly ridiculous giant picture of Jason Brock looking grumpy at the top. And I never talked about the couple caught shagging in the window of the Hope Tap: surely the most fun anybody has ever had in the Hope Tap (irony of ironies, I’m reliably informed that the couple picked that spot because it was the only part of the pub not covered by CCTV, failing to clock that it was slap bang in front of the windows).

I still have a feeling that for all the difficulties of this year, next year is when we’ll say painful goodbyes to businesses and institutions that we love. And I still maintain that the best thing we can do is throw our figurative arms around the businesses we most want to see survive.

But perhaps the best thing to take away from this awful, mad year is how wonderful community can be and how it can show the best in people. Our independent businesses have been persistent, imaginative and resilient. They’ve been relentless in adapting, innovating and putting on a happy face, during months when personally I’ve sometimes found it difficult to even get out of bed. It gladdens my heart that we’ve made it to the end of the year without losing so many of the businesses that give our town its character and soul. We are lucky to have them: I hope that 2021 is the year when, as a town, we truly get to return the favour.

2020: The Year In Review (Part One)

This time of year is usually a happy one at ER HQ. Amid all the wrapping and card-opening, the chocolates snaffled from behind advent calendar doors and the frantic round of socialising in the run-up to Christmas Day, I invariably take time to sit down and write my annual awards. Who cooked the finest main course I’ve had all year? What’s the best new restaurant? Who’s really aced their social media this year? It’s a lovely thing to do, to mentally digest all those wonderful meals one more time and to celebrate everything – and there is so much – that Reading does so very well. After all, you don’t have to listen to Chris Tarrant up on stage, battered at the microphone, to be proud of Reading. Thank God.

As with everything else about this mixed-up year, it draws to a close very differently to every other year we’ve lived through. I know lots of people cautiously returned to dining out over the summer, and did so again when we entered Tier 2 with all its arbitrary restrictions, and I’m certain that Reading’s restaurants are eternally grateful for that, but I’ve stayed home and relied on takeaways and deliveries. Apart from a few drinking sessions at the exemplary Nag’s Head at the height of the summer I’ve not really been out and about; it’s hard enough to remember what having a starter in a restaurant feels like, let alone to flip through the mental Rolodex and work out which was the best one of the last twelve months.

And yet it doesn’t feel right to say goodbye to 2020, much as I know we’re all dying to, without putting something up on the blog. So this is partly a round-up, partly a reflection and goodness knows what else, as we prepare to move into an uncertain future. A vaccine is on the way and the orange knobber across the pond is on his way out but, on the flipside, we have no idea how (or how hard) we’ll get clobbered by our delectably chlorinated oven-ready Brexit.

And now we have a second strain, a third wave and, at the time of writing, a dress rehearsal for the New Year as the rest of Europe proves that it’s actually quite easy to close your borders and take back control. They say it’s the hope that kills you, but I can’t imagine anybody dying of that next year. Let’s look at many of the reasons to be cheerful instead: it’s the season for it, don’t you know.

Goodbyes, but fewer than you might think

(Do you like the headings? Neat, aren’t they. A few people have told me I should use this sort of thing more often to break up the interminable text, and who am I to argue: let’s see if they catch on.)

Obviously it’s very sad when restaurants close. That should go without saying, even this year when we’ve all had to become a bit numb to Bad Stuff. It’s especially sad when an independent closes, or a restaurant you like, or a restaurant that seemed to be doing well, but even when it isn’t the end of somebody’s dream, when it’s a faceless chain, it still leaves people – some of them really good at what they do – looking for new jobs. I still think the real damage will be felt next year but for now, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the number of closures this year was far smaller than you might expect.

Most of the casualties have indeed been chains and often it’s been the second branch of a chain where Reading has more than one: the Kings Road Zizzi; the Broad Street Prêt; the St Mary’s Butts Pizza Express. In the latter case it’s a far nicer place than the one in the Oracle, but at least if you have an emotional attachment to the brand you can still get your Pollo ad Astra without leaving town (do consider Papa Gee, though: they’re on Deliveroo and everything).

One restaurant even came back from the dead: I’m not a diehard fan of Carluccio’s but I still felt sad when it closed early in lockdown as a result of the chain collapsing. And even though it isn’t high on my list of places to visit next year I found it heartwarming nonetheless when it reopened in September. I’ve had enough really enjoyable evenings there (including, surreally, my last restaurant meal before the first lockdown) that I wanted to feel like another one was at least possible. And, for now at least, it still is.

A couple of restaurants changed their names while doing the same kind of food in such a way that you couldn’t really be sure whether they had closed at all. So I honestly don’t know whether Persian Palace is to Persia House what Snoop Lion is to Snoop Dogg, or if Spitiko is in any way a different beast to Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (probably not, though, given that the restaurant’s Facebook page is now called “Ketty’s Spitiko”).

I certainly couldn’t venture an opinion on whether Gulab Indian Kitchen is any different to Miah’s Garden Of Gulab and I definitely couldn’t speculate as to whether it has anything to do with previous attempts by the owner of Garden Of Gulab to get round losing his alcohol licence by making a new license application under a different name. All I will say is that if you’re part of the very niche section of my readership that just can’t get enough of Indian restaurants with the word “Gulab” in their name, 2020 hasn’t been as complete a bin fire for you as it was for the rest of us.

Probably the most high profile independent closure has been announced but won’t happen until next year, when we say goodbye to one of Reading’s longest-running restaurants, Standard Tandoori on Caversham Road. Standard Tandoori, which has been open for forty years, is closing in the spring as the owners want to retire, so those of you addicted to their (locally) famous “super dry fry” will have to look elsewhere for a new favourite dish.

It does make you wonder which old-timer restaurants might not make it to the end of 2021 – could it be the year we say goodbye to the Bina and Rafina Lounge? Part of this, of course, is down to the circle of life in hospitality – for new restaurants to open, existing restaurants have to close, and indeed a new restaurant is already lined up to open in the Standard Tandoori site following refurbishment (more on that later). Speaking of new restaurants…

In with the new

Opening a restaurant is a brave thing to do at the best of times, in the best of years. It takes a long time to start to recoup your initial costs and approach a break even point, and a fair amount of restaurants don’t ever get that far: it’s hard to find a consensus online about the percentage of restaurants that fail in their first year, but even on conservative estimates it’s high enough that hospitality is not a business for the faint-hearted. That makes it all the more surprising that quite a lot of new restaurants have opened in 2020 – again, more than you might expect – with more still in the pipeline.

Some are trying to turn around what could charitably be described as cursed sites – the kind of buildings that seem to be on ley lines guaranteed to ensure the failure of hospitality businesses. Take the old site of the Warwick Arms on the Kings Road, for example. It rebranded as Bali Lounge, and when that closed it reincarnated as a gastropub of sorts called the Biscuit & Barrel. Then, like some hyperactive Doctor Who of the Reading restaurant world, it became Cardamom, the second branch of a mini-chain of Indian restaurants (the other one’s in Pangbourne) before very quickly rebranding again – this time as King’s Kitchen, also an Indian restaurant.

That takes us up to early 2020, but later this year it changed its name yet again, becoming The Aila, a Nepalese restaurant and bar. By the time a vaccine has been rolled out and I am ready to review restaurants again I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has changed its name again. Possibly twice.

Another new opening in a cursed site is Madoo, an Italian coffee shop which has opened on Duke Street opposite the Oxfam music shop. You may know this site better as the boarded up shop that used to be Project Pizza or, if your memory is longer, the boarded up shop that used to be It’s A Wrap.

But in fairness, the reports I’ve had so far (including from Reading’s resident Sicilian in exile, Salvo Toscano) suggest that Madoo might be a dark horse. The toasted gorgonzola sandwich is meant to be decent, they use scamorza in quite a few of their toasties and they sell some goodies – cake and biscuits – to take away (if they stock any giandiuotti I shall have to pay them a visit sooner rather than later). Let’s hope Madoo manages to make a go of the site – it may benefit, sadly, from the closure of Panino (another long-standing Reading business) on the other side of the road.

One last ill-starred spot is the old Colley’s Supper Rooms site on the Wokingham Road, up by Palmer Park. This was reborn as Bart’s, a steakhouse that left me a little unmoved, before closing and reopening as the salubrious-sounding Smokey’s House, a restaurant described by Get Reading as Cheap and cheerful family grub. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that glowing writeup, Smokey’s House failed to catch fire and now, in its place, we have O Português, a – yes, you’ve guessed – Portuguese restaurant.

This could be a wonderful thing, if it’s done well. I’ve been to Portugal a fair few times and it’s very much the unsung hero of European food, with dishes and wine that can easily match anything in Spain. And it’s some time since Reading had a Portuguese restaurant (Nando’s doesn’t count: it’s South African), the last one being O Beirão up on the Basingstoke Road. O Português must be pretty confident, anyway, as so far they’ve dispensed with a website or even having a menu up outside the restaurant. I had to go on Just Eat to get a look at what was on offer: one section of the menu is entitled “Vegetarian & Children”, which rather gives the wrong impression.

O Português’ menu is, at least, available somewhere online. That’s more than you can say about Raayo, the new cafe which has opened on Friar Street just along from Hickies. They have set up a website, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that it feels a tad underdeveloped. The menu is lacking in the kind of detail especially fussy customers might want – what dishes are available, how much they cost, that kind of thing. And what’s Raayo’s USP? We use fresh ingredients to make our food very tasty and yummy says the website, which will leave all of Reading’s dastardly restaurants and cafés using stale ingredients to make their food rubbish or middling quaking in their boots.

I know this might sound unkind, but it comes from a place of genuine concern. Raayo, like all hospitality businesses, is going to need all the help it can get in a crowded, competitive marketplace to stay alive; in 2020, and especially in 2021, this kind of approach just won’t cut it. I imagine they’ve had some quiet days since they opened – you’d think they would have offered plenty of opportunities to at least get busy on social media.

Also new, also a café and also on Friar Street, albeit at the less attractive end down by German Doner Kebab and the Hope Tap, we have Bru. Instagram announced that they opened their doors for the first time last week, although they haven’t updated their website to reflect that (isn’t it always the way?). Bru serve their own gelato, handmade by them in Leicester, so if that turns out to be good – and especially if it turns out actually to be gelato – that could be a real addition to town. Their menu also offers a “Grinch hot chocolate” which is a really disconcerting shade of green and something called a “wafflepop”, which I assume is like a normal waffle but hundreds of times more twee.

Other cafés have been far more polished. The Collective has opened just opposite the Griffin and is an altogether more well-realised affair: very Caversham and very chic, with a stripped-back, almost Nordic look. The name is about the only Marxist thing about it: part-café, part lifestyle shop and part grocer, it will be interesting to see whether they manage to do more with that concept than their spiritual predecessor, Siblings Home. The Collective has already been featured in Muddy Stilettos, which probably tells you more about it and the market it is aiming at than I possibly could. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like that sort of thing.

One restaurant, although not new per se, has pursued such a different direction that it might as well be a completely new establishment. The Corn Stores, which underwhelmed me last year as an upmarket steak restaurant, made a dramatic switch this year when it hired Liam Sweeney, previously sous chef at Nottingham’s Michelin-starred Alchemilla. The complete revamp involved moving to a compact, regularly-changing tasting menu, a clear statement of intent that owner Rarebreed Dining was shooting for central Reading’s first Michelin star. The decision to start using sourdough bread from RGBread, the bakery run by Geo Café, was another sign of Sweeney’s ambition. Speaking of the Corn Stores…

The idea is you put the headings between the sections

I did wonder what would happen to restaurant reviewing this year. I’ve taken nine months off, and you all have the withdrawal symptoms to prove it, but Reading’s influencers tend to be younger and braver (and, I would guess, with no underlying health conditions). They’re a lean and hungry bunch. But just as the pandemic has made many of us reassess our values, would it change their views about how they reviewed restaurants and which restaurants to review? The early signs were that it might, with at least one local blogger musing about whether it was right to take free food in the middle of a global crisis, or to support chains.

That didn’t last very long, as a number of comped reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts have cropped up since then. Movie night at the Last Crumb was just too hard to resist it seems (maybe they were showing Weekend At Bernie’s, in which case who can blame them) as was an opportunity to scoff free grub at the new and improved Corn Stores. Oh well. Times are hard and who can begrudge people the chance to cut down on their weekly expenses: won’t somebody think of the influencers?

Anyway, I can’t bring myself to entirely complain about people getting free meals at the Corn Stores, because it introduced Reading, and the world, to possibly the finest restaurant reviewer writing today in English. I am of course speaking of Hugh Fort: I think we all knew he had talent, but none of us could have predicted just what a towering giant he would become in 2020. My friend Sophie told me last week that she decided to eat at the Corn Stores on the night before the start of the second lockdown entirely on the basis of Fort’s masterful review for Berkshire Live.

“I knew that if Hugh Fort didn’t like it, it was probably the place for me.”

“It’s not that he didn’t like it, more that he just didn’t understand it.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it was.”

Where to begin? There’s so much to enjoy about the review that I doubt I can do it justice. Someone on Twitter described it as “accidental Partridge”, but it’s so authentically him that I suspect Alan Partridge might instead be an accidental Hugh Fort. Fort wrote incredulously about eating Liam Sweeney’s food in a way that suggested even a Harvester might be a tad fancy for him. And it wasn’t just the food, either. Fort doesn’t drink, and he writes about booze as if he doesn’t understand that either. A sniff of his girlfriend’s cocktail “suggested to me it was the sort of thing that you could drink a lot of without realising it was full of potent liquor, which seems to be the point of cocktails.” Has anyone ever seen him and Viz‘s Mr. Logic in the same place?

But it was when talking about the food that Fort really came into his own: his uncle is Great British Menu judge Matthew Fort, but the apple has fallen a long old way from the tree. I loved the way he put mocktails and palate cleanser in inverted commas, as if to say “this is what the kids are calling them, apparently”. Fresh oysters and Reading town centre were apparently “two terms that aren’t exactly associated with each other” – why am I not surprised that Fort had never heard of London Street Brasserie? – but Fort gamely gave them a bash, before “wolfing down” “a couple of tasty potato croquettes”.

The Corn Stores put a picture of that dish up on Instagram a week or so later, patiently explaining that they were in fact pig’s head croquettes, no doubt involving painstaking cooking and assembly. But never mind that, because they clearly didn’t touch the sides for our roving gourmand (perhaps he didn’t even chew). That Fort couldn’t tell the difference between dense shreds of perfectly-cooked pig and, err, mashed potato might be my single favourite thing about him.

The most quoted section was Fort’s baffled encounter with duck liver parfait and brioche. “The idea is you put the parfait on the brioche” he explained, possibly more to himself than the rest of us. I’d like to imagine that an earlier version of the review also contained a paragraph reading “the idea is that you cut the food into smaller pieces using the knife and fork provided, before placing it in your mouth, chewing it with your molars and swallowing in order to allow the process of digestion to take place”. But of course that would mean some editing or proofreading had taken place, and this is Berkshire Live we’re talking about.

And what did Fort make of it? “I quite liked it… I think someone more generally into parfaits would really enjoy it.” “Fine dining anywhere often takes you out of your comfort zone” he added, although Fort’s comfort zone might well begin and end at Gregg’s, or one of those Rustler microwaveable burgers. You know, really fancy shit.

I think it was the Guardian‘s John Crace, or it might have been the Independent‘s Tom Peck, who said that 2020 was the year that satire died. You no longer have to come up with anything yourself, you just have to become a stenographer because the stuff virtually writes itself. So much as I could carry on dissecting Fort’s erudition, I suspect nothing I could say will top the experience of reading it in its entirety.

I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest, including his shock at eating a steak without chips and his girlfriend’s exciting main course, apparently “duck with Aylesbury duck”. That part reminded me of another blinding passage I read in a restaurant review this year, which said “the fish had light and crispy batter which was dusted underneath with Indian spices from the Indian spices. This gave it a subtle spicy flavour, but nothing too spicy”: somebody probably needs to ask Santa for a thesaurus this year.

Some artists create one perfect piece of work and then walk away, knowing they will never top it. I fear Hugh Fort may be such an auteur: I keep looking, but there is no sequel. I’ve read his blistering piece about “the new Hena spice ketchup everybody’s been talking about” (spoiler alert: I don’t know anybody who’s even heard of it) but it’s just not the same.

In it, Fort reviews a curry sauce which, it turns out, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading to see if it’s as good as McDonald’s curry sauce which, of course, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading. To cut a long story short, Fort thought the one you can’t buy in Home Bargains was slightly nicer but that neither of them was as good as ketchup – and he used the phrase “to be honest” twice, so you know it’s the real deal. Let’s hope 2021 brings more restaurant reviews from Fort: even the fact that the food was free does nothing to tarnish his brilliance.

In with the new (continued)

Sadly we don’t know what Hugh Fort would make of the other new restaurants to open in Reading this year (just imagine, though), and our influencers haven’t bothered with them yet, presumably because they haven’t been offered the chance to do so for nothing.

Quite a few of them, though, are starting to build some good word of mouth reports. A prime example is Banarasi Kitchen, an Indian restaurant trading out of the Spread Eagle pub on Norfolk Road, between the Oxford and Tilehurst Roads. A friend tells me she has gone there pretty regularly this year and has given it rave reviews, and it coincides with the Spread Eagle starting to make a bit of effort on Instagram: I shall be making my way there to check it out at some point in 2021.

Another pub with a chequered relationship with food is the Fisherman’s Cottage, down by the Kennet on the edge of New Town. It’s most famous for having played host to the superb and badly-missed I Love Paella – they left in acrimonious circumstances in summer 2018 and this summer the old management left the pub. It has now reopened under chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins, who was born in Turkey and has run hospitality businesses in the Dominican Republic and Bodrum before pitching up at the Fisherman’s Cottage.

It has real potential – the pub can be a lovely spot, especially in summer – but time will tell whether Muren Atkins can keep enough craft beer available to keep the previous clientele happy while working on a food offering to win over diners. Her current menu feels quite generic, with a mixture of curries, stir fries and standard pub fare (yes, burgers). Personally I’d like to see a few more Turkish dishes on the menu – Reading has never quite anywhere that captures how beautiful that cuisine can be, and you need to head to Zigana’s Turkish Kitchen in Didcot for that.

Or it may be that La’De Kitchen, which opened this year in Woodley, will save me from the questionable pleasures of a train trip to Didcot. Although the blurb describes it as a Mediterranean restaurant the menu on their rather glossy website has loads of Turkish dishes on it – borek, pide, guvec and of course a myriad of kebabs. It turns out that this is La’De’s third branch, the slightly incongruous final part of an unlikely threesome: Muswell Hill, Pangbourne, Woodley. I have several readers who have thoroughly enjoyed takeaway from the Pangbourne branch, despite the slightly sharp pricing, so I shall look forward to trying it for myself.

And you don’t need to head out to Woodley to try a plethora of grilled meats: Tasty Greek Souvlaki opened on Market Place in May, in the old Mum Mum site. Again, I’ve heard plenty of good reports of their food (albeit with one or two detractors) with the giros particularly worth trying, by all accounts. I was on the verge of heading there for an al fresco lunch on one of the last warm weekdays of the year – and writing it up for the blog – when we went into a second lockdown, so it just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully it will still be trading next year when I return to reviewing in earnest.

A new establishment to file under “hmm” is one of the victims, along with HRVY off of Strictly Come Dancing, of the Great Vowel Shortage Of 2020. MNKY Lounge – whose name somehow fails to combine the glamour of Donna Karan New York and the prosaic quality of Alto Lounge – has opened on Erleigh Road where the Fruitbat Bar (and more recently vegan café bar Vego’s) used to ply its trade.

Will this fare any better? I’m not sure. Every time I’ve went past over the summer the tables outside were packed with people drinking but life in Tiers 2, 3 and 4 (let alone the Tier 14 we’ll probably be in by mid-January) may be a different matter. I went on to Just Eat to scout out their menu (their website – yes, it’s another one of those – simply announces that it’s “coming soon”) and I didn’t see anything that looked like it couldn’t have fallen off the back of a Brakes lorry.

Before taking my leave of you, it’s worth reminding you that there are always, always new cafés and restaurants in the pipeline. Nothing ever stands still. So in the New Year we can expect to see Chaiiwala, sometimes apparently described as “the Indian Starbucks” opening on the Wokingham Road just up from I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Garden Of Gulab Gulab Indian Kitchen. Mansoor, my man in the know who introduced me to Cake&Cream and its magic samosas, tells me that Chaiiwala is worth a visit for its karak chai and its chicken kebab rolls: that is recommendation enough for me.

We’ll also see Flavour Of Mauritius opening in the Standard Tandoori’s current location on Caversham Road. Currently a mobile caterer, Flavour Of Mauritius hit the news over the summer when, like a number of other local businesses, they chose to donate free meals to NHS staff, the emergency services and charities helping those in need. I’ve heard positive noises from ER readers who have ordered takeaway from Flavour Of Mauritius in lockdown, so fingers crossed they will revitalise the site and bring something new to Reading’s restaurant scene.

Oh, and Wendy’s is allegedly opening on Friar Street: place your bets on whether we’ll see any enthusiastic Instagram posts about square burgers, the word AD squirrelled away at the very end. And that reminds me that Tortilla has opened on Broad Street, near the Oracle entrance – I should have remembered earlier, but somehow it feels hard to care.

And another Turkish restaurant opened down the Oxford Road in between me starting to write this round-up and hitting the publish button. We also may or may not get a branch of LEON, just like we were meant to get branches of Byron and Busaba a few years ago. If this year has taught you anything, it’s that nothing can be guaranteed to go completely according to plan.

Anyway, that completes the first section of my round-up of 2020. Come back next week for Part Two, when we’ll see if I can sum up how Reading’s restaurants have survived the year without using the word “pivot”. Maybe we can turn it into a drinking game.

Q&A: Edible Reading, restaurant blogger

It’s been a funny six months of writing this blog, and when I started doing interviews with notable local people I wasn’t sure whether the idea had legs or if people would enjoy them. I’m very lucky that most of the people I’ve approached wanted to take part – even if some of them needed asking more than once – and I like to think that every week we’ve learned something new. But twenty interviews, twenty sets of twenty questions, feels like enough for now, so it’s a good place to stop.

I may do another set in the future, but it’s hard to see what the future looks like right now. I’m not yet out and about eating in restaurants, so there are no reviews, the diary features have run their course and it’s the right time to press pause on the interviews. So you may not see much more on this blog, for the time being at least. Don’t worry, I imagine I’ll be back at some point: past form dictates that, if nothing else. It could be worse – I could be starting a podcast, and nobody needs that.

Anyway, there’s time for one final interview before I take my leave of you, this one with a slight difference. I approached all twenty of my interview subjects and asked if they had a question for me to answer in return. Fortunately, all of them obliged, so this last Q&A is made up of questions from the brilliant, diverse and passionate people I’ve interviewed over the last five months. I hope you enjoy it.

What’s the best street food dish you’ve ever tried? (Glen Dinning, Blue Collar)
Despite many great contenders from Reading (Georgian Feast’s chicken wrap, the crispy squid chap that used to cook at Blue Collar, anything from Puree or Peru Sabor) and all the street food I’ve eaten abroad, my favourite was from a van on Brick Lane one weekend. A brioche crammed to bursting with confit duck, crispy duck skin, Barkham blue and truffle honey: I still think about it often.

What’s the one thing you own that you should probably get rid of but can’t? (Naomi Lowe, Nibsy’s)
Sad to say, my old wedding ring. I still have it – I never histrionically tossed it across the room or threw it in a lake – and it’s such a beautiful object that I can’t bear to throw it out or even melt it down and turn it into something else. It’s somehow not the object’s fault that the relationship failed. I keep it in a mug on the mantelpiece (along with my other half’s ex-wedding ring, appropriately enough). The mug has a big numeral 1 on it – for marriage number one, I suppose.

Who was your most influential teacher at school and why? (Ian Caren, Launchpad)
My chemistry teacher was the drummer in nautically themed 70s band Sailor (they’re not that famous, but they were kept off the number one spot by Bohemian Rhapsody): in slow lessons he’d wheel in the TV and video trolley and play clips of him and his band on Cheggers Plays Pop. We prayed for slow lessons. That’s my main memory of him – that and him having an emotional moment on the magical day when Margaret Thatcher resigned.

But my very favourite teacher at school was the man who gamely struggled with teaching me English for five years, from GCSE through to A Level. I think he probably despaired of my reading habits ever evolving past science fiction and swords and sorcery dross, but under his patient tutelage I enjoyed some of the classics and left school with a lifelong love of Philip Larkin. He is now, unexpectedly, a dear friend of mine, many years later: we meet up regularly, make inroads into a couple of bottles of wine and natter away about everything and nothing.

When it comes to your blog or your critiquing technique or your love for restaurants, what’s the one question you’d love to answer but have never been asked? (Nandana Syamala, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen)
“We’d like to pay you to write restaurant reviews. When can you start?”

By default, people talk about wine pairings with food. Have you got any more unusual food and drink pairings that you think go well together? (Dr Quaff, Quaffable Reading)
I’ve got more into beer over the last couple of years and eating a slow-cooked carbonnade in Ghent with a glass of the same dark, malty Westmalle Dubbel they cooked the beef in was a special experience. But the best one is Dr Pepper with any kind of fried breakfast, but only when you’re absolutely hanging out of your arse.

With regard to a vibrant food scene, which UK town or small city do you think Reading should emulate and aspire to? (Shuet Han Tsui, Fidget & Bob).
If you hadn’t specified size, I’d have said Bristol and the QI klaxon would have gone off. Of course everyone wants their food scene to be like Bristol’s: it goes without saying. But since you phrased it more carefully, I’ll go for Oxford (which, believe it or not, is smaller than Reading).

I’d love it if Caversham had a fraction of the delicatessens, restaurants, bars and pubs of North Oxford, of Jericho or Summertown. It would be great if the Oxford Road was more like the Cowley Road, with anywhere near as many diverse places to eat and drink. Imagine if we had our own Pierre Victoire or Pompette, Arbequina or the Magdalen Arms. And I wish we had even a fraction of a covered market like Oxford’s – think what the Trader’s Arcade could have been if most of it wasn’t converted to pubs way back when (or the Bristol & West Arcade, if it hadn’t mouldered away derelict) and if we had the kind of space Oxford has in Gloucester Green for an outdoor food market, instead of the tiny space occupied by Blue Collar.

You can only eat potatoes in one form (chips/mash/crisps etc) for the rest of your life. What’s it going to be and why? (Kevin Farrell, Vegivores)
This is an evil question. Chips, on balance, beating roast potatoes into second place by a fraction of a nose. There has to be crunch, fluff and contrast and only those two can provide all that. I’ll miss hash browns, though.

How does ‘on duty’ ER differ from normal ER? Do they have a disguise? Are they more fun, hyper aware? (Pete Hefferan, Shed)
They’re even better looking (this answer, by the way, was brought to you by “on duty” ER).

Do you eat food that’s past its expiration date if it still smells and looks fine? (Tutu Melaku, Tutu’s Ethiopian Table)
Generally, yes, although I’m anal enough about meal planning that it doesn’t happen all that often. In most cases there’s a big margin in those dates. If your milk tastes okay it’s absolutely fine to drink. If you cut the edges off your cheese the rest is perfectly edible. And if veg aren’t mushy and limp they are probably good to eat.

If you opened a restaurant what would it be? (Phil Carter, Anonymous Coffee)
I daydream about having a little joint that just does really good bread, cheese and charcuterie and a handful of small plates of an evening. A small selection of good, affordable wine and some beautiful Belgian beers by the bottle, with some old jazz on in the background. The closest I’ve come to a place like that in this country was a fantastic place in Bristol called Bar Buvette, sadly now closed.

What food have you never eaten but would really like to try? (Joanna Hu, Kungfu Kitchen)
Having never been to the US, I would love to try proper authentic Southern fried chicken, in the American South. I’m not sure I want to try it enough, mind you, to actually go there.

As a food blogger with a big local social media profile what’s the best and worst experience you’ve had on social media? (Rachel Eden, councillor and Deputy Mayor)
The best was definitely being slagged off by Alok Sharma on Twitter. The landslide of public support I received was really heartwarming – it’s the closest thing I can imagine to hearing what everybody would say at your funeral while still being alive (I know that “more popular than Alok Sharma” isn’t the highest bar in the world, but I’ll take it).

You get anaesthetised to the bad experiences. People are so angry now that someone takes exception to pretty much anything you might say, like “why are the roads around the Forbury still closed?” (“how dare you disrespect the victims of that awful attack”), “restaurants should take action to prevent no shows” (“what about bars: all businesses matter”), the list goes drearily on. It’s no surprise by now that Reading has its own answer to Arthur Fleck, or that these people never seem to get bored. A friend of mine says I should take satisfaction from the fact that I live rent free in their heads: maybe so, but I do wish they’d redecorate, or even just put the Hoover round from time to time.

What food makes you think of home? Or perhaps, what food would you eat if you were feeling homesick? (Steph Weller, producer)
One thing I’ve always thought about having divorced parents is that you can never go home again: your childhood room isn’t there for you to stay in when things get tough, or when you visit. The closest I’ve come to homesick food is that for several years I didn’t speak to my mother and when we reconciled she cooked me the dish I remember most fondly from my childhood – her superb pie with long-braised steak cooked in plenty of glorious dark booze, surrounded by proper short-crust pastry, no casserole with a hat or flaky lid nonsense going on. That always makes me think of home, and of coming home after too long away.

From all your foodie trips, where would you recommend someone went for a weekend full of affordable but unforgettable food and forever memories? (Louize Clark, Curious Lounge)
My head says Bologna because the food is amazing, the gelato is magnificent, there’s wonderful beer and coffee and wine and it’s easy to get to. But my heart says Granada – because tapas culture is one of my favourite things, you used the word “affordable” which Granada very much is, it has the Alhambra which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and, perversely, it’s not so easy to get to. The best things sometimes make you work that little bit harder.

How would you define British food culture – if you think we even have one? (Dan Hearn, Loddon Brewery)
This is one of the two hardest questions in this interview. Our food culture feels to me like everything and nothing – that we adapt and make do and mend and that it’s a hotchpotch of everybody who has settled here and made this country their home. I love that, but it’s also one of the things that makes me fear for this country and the direction we are headed in, because we are sticking a big two fingers up to all of that.

Food culture in this country feels to me like what’s going on in Reading, but on a much larger scale. There are plenty of good things out there, pockets of creativity and fusion, places in London and Bristol (and Cardiff, and Glasgow) where a distinct identity is emerging. But if you don’t know where to look, as with Reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are largely chains and meal deals, soggy sandwiches and the same brands everywhere you look.

I was lucky enough to go on a fair few holidays last year, all in mainland Europe, and I think the U.K. is a long way off having a distinct food culture in the way that Spain, Italy, or France do. Food is still not ingrained in the way of life here the way it is elsewhere; there are still too many people grabbing something crap to eat at their desks rather than enjoying a proper lunch, for instance. It isn’t woven into rituals as it is on the continent. It also worries me that supermarkets feel like they have a grip on U.K. life (and spend) in a way not emulated abroad. I’m always amazed that the U.K. has so few bakeries, and European countries so many.

I still think that, as a nation, we seem set on Americanising our culture – food and otherwise – rather than exploring similarities with our European neighbours or (and this would be even better) making something distinctive of our own. The solution for this is the same thing I always rant on about when it comes to Reading – be the change you want to see and spend your money in the right way. But with everything that lies ahead, I see as much fear as opportunity.

Is any film or a particular scene in a film that makes you feel the stomach rumbling, the mouth dribbling and an irresistible craving for food? (Salvo Toscano, photographer)
I’ve thought hard about this and I’ve struggled – food doesn’t tend to feature in the films I’ve loved. I watched Rick Stein bimbling around France earlier in the year – you know, before he was cancelled – and that made me feel envy and hunger pretty much non-stop, but in fiction it’s harder to find an answer. I did really enjoy Chef, where Jon Favreau loses his job because of a run-in with a restaurant reviewer – an event almost as implausible as him managing to have it off with both Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara in the same film – so let’s say that.

You’re the go-to person for restaurant tips, but when it comes to drinking in Reading, where’s your favourite watering hole, and what are you most looking forward to ordering when you finally go back? (Adam Wells, drinks writer)
Tricky. I love the Retreat very much, but as I’ve got more and more into beer I find their very cask-led range a bit limiting. It’s still my favourite place to soak up the atmosphere, but on balance I think the Nag’s Head is perhaps Reading’s most complete pub. I know Adam would judge me for saying I’m looking forward to a pint of Stowford Press (just as I judged him for raving about AA Gill), but as it happens I went to the Nag’s for my first post-lockdown drinks and the first thing I went for was a beautiful half of Double-Barrelled’s new The Blackcurrant One.

With so many people who write about food out there what makes your writing stand out (in your opinion) and also what got you into writing reviews in the first place? (Mohamad Skeik, Bakery House)
I started because nobody was doing it, the local paper was toilet and I figured that if I didn’t do it nobody else would. But really, I think it’s for other people to say how (and whether) your writing stands out; there are quite enough restaurant bloggers out there who adore the smell of their own farts, figuratively speaking, without me adding to that. Really, if you think I’m bad you should read these guys. I suppose what I’d say is that I’m the only person who has reviewed Reading restaurants consistently for any length of time – seven years so far – and that probably counts for something, as does the fact that I always think about whether a paying customer will like it rather than spend time sucking up to the chef.

If you were the leader of Reading Borough Council, what would you do to improve the town and help Reading’s indie businesses to thrive? You get three policies. Who would be your deputy and why? (Tevye Markson, Reading Chronicle)
This is a deft way of showing that I’m good at whinging about local government but not necessarily big on solutions (thanks a bunch, Tevye). I have sympathy with the council in some respects, because for instance they don’t have the latitude to set business rates which would enable them to give independent businesses a more level playing field (it doesn’t help that they did that ridiculous stealth tax on A-boards a while back: that still rankles with many independent businesses). And I know they can’t do much about some of Reading’s more reprehensible landlords.

Anyway, being more positive: I would put more of an emphasis on street food, because that seems like an especially Covid-resistant plan for the months ahead. I’d like to see more street food pitches available than the measly two on Broad Street, more opportunities for credible street food events – not the nacky ones we often see on Broad Street.

I’d also like to see the Friday market taken off the hapless Chow and given to Blue Collar, although between writing this piece and it going up on the blog Reading UK has announced this is happening from September (call me Nostradamus). About time too: anything that encourages entrepreneurs and gives us a more fertile food scene is more likely to stimulate spend, encourage people to stay in town and potentially lead to more traders making the jump into permanent premises.

I’d also like to see a bit more positive intent in the planning process. The example I always think about is the Greek souvlaki restaurant which was going to open on Castle Street, run by a couple who used to work at Dolce Vita. This was a good, credible proposal which would have added to improvements at that end of town, building on the arrival of Brewdog. The council turned it down for reasons best known to themselves, and now it’s yet another hair salon.

I think this council has taken an aversion to public drinking too far, and that ultra-caution sometimes leads to a knee-jerk no when it comes to new hospitality businesses. See also: the bizarre decision not to allow a shipping container development by the side of the Broad Street Mall – one of the less salubrious parts of town – because it would be serving alcohol. Sometimes I think the decisions about Reading’s nightlife are made by particular councillors who haven’t left the house in years.

Finally, I’d like to see Reading Council commit to local businesses by outsourcing, wherever possible, to local companies – whether that’s catering, window cleaning or anything else. We should keep council tax money in the local economy whenever we can, and foster some civic pride. Just imagine what the Pantry could have been like if that contract had been given to one of our local cafés rather than bunged to some nebulous head chef nobody had ever heard of, and if it had properly celebrated our budding food culture rather than paid lip service by choosing a faux-nostalgic name.

Obviously I can’t pick Glen Dinning as my deputy, given that I’ve already given him the plum job of sorting out the Friday market, so I’d be sorely tempted to go for Louize Clarke, a woman who is as critical of the council as I am, and is absolutely fizzing with ideas. Maybe between us, while we’re at it, we could understand who “Reading UK” actually are and what the point of them is (it’s a pipe dream, I know).

What’s your favourite condiment? (Mike Clayton-Jones, Double-Barrelled)
This is a bit harsh. I allowed Mike to pick three beers, but he’s reducing me to a single condiment, making me choose between all the salt and spices and sauces out there. I was tempted just go for salt – it makes everything better – but this question feels like it wants a more specific answer. So, much as it pains me to exclude brown sauce, soy sauce, mango chutney, mayonnaise and many other ways of lifting even the most basic of foods, my absolute favourite is a really well-made Béarnaise sauce. Beautifully cooked chips, dunked in Béarnaise, is a pleasure so intense that you could almost forget that there’s usually also steak on the plate.