Today’s restaurant has no website, almost no reviews anywhere, and even if you walked right past it you could be forgiven for not knowing it exists. And yet Perry’s, the Caribbean restaurant next to the Oxfam Bookshop on Market Place, has been there for a very long time. Shamefully, the reason I’ve never eaten there isn’t that I hadn’t noticed it, even though that would be understandable. I notice restaurants wherever I go, like a sixth sense, and when I do I always have to wander over and read the menu. No, I knew all about Perry’s, and I avoided it because every time I’ve been outside, I’ve looked through the window and felt intimidated.
It’s a funny balance, isn’t it? If you see a Chinese restaurant full of Chinese people (like China Palace) or an Indian restaurant full of Indian people (like Chennai Dosa), it’s unmistakeably promising, but only up to a point. Beyond that, and maybe it’s just me, it starts to feel like you aren’t meant to be there, like you wouldn’t fit in. It conjures up images of that famous scene in An American Werewolf In London, or some of the pubs I was warned not to enter during my first year at university. So I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, like countless people in Reading, I too have walked past Perry’s without going in, hundreds of times – not because it didn’t appeal, but because I was too chicken.
Edible Reading has changed all that for me – I suppose I partly see it as my duty to go to lots of new, different places, and sometimes that involves leaving my comfort zone. The review requests that people send are all taken seriously, so my friend and I found ourselves in Perry’s this week for an early evening meal – although, as I discovered, I suspect that eating in Perry’s in the evening is slightly missing the point.
The menu on the front door is slightly misleading. It lists a number of Caribbean dishes (salt fish and ackee, curried mutton, barbecued chicken, brown chicken stew, rice and peas, macaroni pie, I could go on – and I’m half tempted to given that they don’t have a website) but in fact what gets served varies from day to day. We didn’t know this when we arrived but soon figured it out looking at the blackboard next to the counter. It lists all the dishes, but the ones that are still available have a green sticker next to them. Perry’s closes at 8, and when we got there – with just over an hour remaining – there weren’t many green stickers left.
Some of them, sadly, weren’t even true: there was no macaroni pie, despite a green sticker to the contrary. I was a bit gutted by this, even though I wasn’t 100% sure what macaroni pie was, because I liked the sound of it. I was assuming – correctly as it turns out – that it’s a bit like macaroni cheese, which would have made it a Good Thing in my book. So, by the time we got to Perry’s it was a fairly straightforward choice: barbecue chicken, fried chicken, fried fish or oxtail, accompanied by either rice and peas or plain rice. The only other choice is whether you have a small or large portion.
Even writing this, I do wonder whether this is really such a tragedy. I’d rather go to a restaurant which has a limited range of dishes and owns up when it sells out, rather than a restaurant with dozens and dozens of main courses, leaving you wondering how any chef can possibly cook all of them without getting something out of a jar. Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares,
Perry himself was behind the counter on this occasion and, apart from two other diners, we were the only people in the place. I asked him about the difference between the large and small portions and he waved a medium plate (which is apparently small) and a full sized dinner plate (which is large – and believe me, it was) at us. So, that’s the difference: that and the grand total of an extra quid.
The seating at Perry’s is pretty basic – the right side of uncomfortable, but not somewhere you’d settle in for a long meal. The whole thing has the feel of a cafeteria about it, which meant I wasn’t really sure what happened next. Should we wait at the counter? Would we be called up, like at a crappy coffee shop? Would they bring it over? Again, I realised that Perry’s wasn’t quite like most of the restaurants I eat in, and that gave me that little flash of feeling outside my comfort zone again. I wasn’t even sure how long we’d be waiting before our meals arrived.
In the end, Perry brought the food over in about ten minutes. The small portion of fried fish was seriously tasty stuff, and really not small at all – a light fried coating on a couple of decent sized chunks of what I think was salted cod. It was a little chewy, and not really crispy, although I don’t know enough to be able to say whether that was down to the time of day or how it had been cooked. The large portion of chicken was also delicious – three pieces of chicken served on the bone, coated in a fine layer of seasoning. Again, it wasn’t crispy and it was slightly on the tough side, and again I can’t tell you if that’s how it should be. I can tell you, though, that we both really liked it, and by the end all the bones were very effectively stripped, a little mass grave on a sideplate.
The rice and peas was the revelation, for me: rice cooked in spices, herbs and stock with kidney beans mixed in, with just enough heat to make you blow your nose but not enough to blow your mind. We spent a bit of time trying and failing to work out exactly what was in there – there was definitely some chilli, definitely some thyme (I know that because I had a naked stem tucked in my rice), plenty of onion, but beyond that we weren’t sure. Something had to give it that tangy, almost fruity flavour, but what was it? I still don’t know now, but whatever it was it made the rice so tasty that I even used it to accompany the little fresh salad on the side – iceberg lettuce, tomato and some thinly sliced cucumber. It might not sound significant, but it is: I never eat the token salad garnish.
There’s no alcohol licence, so it’s all soft drinks. In our case, it was pineapple soda (because I’ve never tried it before) and grape soda (which I’m told is surprisingly tasty, once you get used to it). We decided to pass on a soft drink called “Bigga” on this occasion, despite all the puerile potential for mirth it would have offered.
When we’d finished we weren’t sure what the normal procedure was. Perry was busy in the kitchen – cleaning up, presumably, as no other customers came in while we were in there. Since there were no other customers finishing up there was nobody to copy. In the end we took our plates up to the counter – again, not quite sure if we were in a restaurant or a canteen – and we ended up having our bill totted up by the woman at the other table, who we’d mistakenly thought was another customer (I think that means we may have been their only customers that night). The total for two dishes and two cans of drink was £16, which made me wonder if we’d been undercharged.
If you’ve gathered from the previous paragraphs that I still don’t quite know what to make of Perry’s, you would be spot on. Both dishes were delicious but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed the boat by visiting early evening on a weeknight – the range of options was limited and the place was empty, so there was no buzz or chatter. The building used to be a kebab shop, in a previous incarnation, and it still feels like it’s very much a functional place – walk in, get fed, walk out.
That said, if you’re in the mood for a quick meal Perry’s could be perfect for you. The food was really tasty, and it’s something you can’t get anywhere else in the centre of Reading. I’m told, too, that grape soda could prove to be quite habit forming. And the service, if basic, was really warm and friendly – when I was pondering what “ground food” (also on the blackboard but bereft of a green sticker) was, the lady at the other table told me in great detail. It turns out that it’s like a savoury doughnut made from yams, and it sounds pretty magnificent to me.
All told, I’m glad that I got over my preconceptions (and over the threshold). This would be a sad town indeed if you could walk past an interesting looking restaurant and not go in just because you’re too busy sticking to the tried and tested, and in a way that’s what Edible Reading is all about. So yes, Perry’s isn’t the place for an epic drawn out dinner. It’s not a place for going mad with the wine list, or for that matter drinking at all. It’s not a place, either, where you’re going to have a starter or a dessert. But having said all that, next time I walk past Perry’s on a Saturday lunchtime, when it’s packed with diners and I don’t feel quite so nervous, I think I might just go in. Maybe you should too.
Perry’s – 6.7
7 High St (off Market Place), RG1 2EA