N.B. The Eldon Arms stopped serving food in May 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.
This week, not for the first time, I found myself thinking about how different the restaurant scenes are in Reading and London.
For the last few years London has been obsessed with burgers (a fixation it’s only just starting to recover from now) but Reading has never quite been gripped by burger fever in the same way. There was a slight frisson of excitement when Five Guys opened, but now it’s just part of the furniture and not even particularly full when I’ve walked past. The only people who got into the swing were one of our local papers. For a while it was a running joke that whatever restaurant it reviewed, one of the diners would order a burger – whether it was in a pub, an Italian restaurant or a brasserie. If an Indian restaurant had put a burger on the menu I expect they would have ordered it there, too (can you even imagine what that would look and taste like? I shudder to think).
Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal: a burger is all well and good, but ultimately it’s just a burger. A glorified sandwich, and by and large, I get enough of those at lunchtime not to want another one in the evening. Also, I’ve never really understood why people would order a burger in a restaurant which offers so many other things. I’ve never looked at a menu and thought You know what? I think I’ll go for the burger today. When I’m in the mood for a burger, I know that before even leaving the house.
Anyway, all this is just preamble to the surprising fact that I went to the Eldon Arms and, without ever intending to, may have ordered the best burger in Reading.
I’d heard encouraging things about the food at the Eldon Arms and remembered thinking “Really?” It’s not somewhere that’s ever stood out in my mind, a little backstreet pub tucked behind Eldon Square, a slightly scruffy old man pub which never quite had the range of drinks or the eccentricity to compete with the Retreat, or the polish to match the Abbot Cook. But I was told that it was under new management and that the food was worth a visit, so I figured a wander across town was in order.
The pub looks good – recently redecorated, it’s all clean white walls, although the furniture is still the classic pub chairs and tables that were there before. There is a good range of real ales on draught along with a couple of real ciders if you prefer still and rustic to fizzy and cold. The menu is a small affair: burgers on one side, pizzas, wraps and sandwiches on the other. I’d heard stories about the food being made from scratch and about the chef going out to get extra chickpeas from the supermarket because he’d run out of falafel (to be honest, that’s the story that made me decide to try the Eldon Arms).
This won’t be a long review, because we both had burgers and chips. So I can’t tell you whether the wraps are good, or the chicken and chorizo pizza (although I’m tempted to go back and give it a whirl). I can’t even tell you whether the falafel merited that dash to the supermarket. But I can tell you about the burgers.
Although they’re not served pink they’re delicious all the same – a healthy size without being freakishly huge, clearly decent meat, properly seasoned, hand-made in appearance. Everything about them was good quality without being faddish: no over the top brioche, just a good firm bun strong enough to stand up to its contents with what looked like a little dusting of semolina flour on top. The cheese was grated mature cheddar – I expected not to enjoy this, being a devotee of the cheap plastic orange American slice, but actually that strong flavour worked very well with the beef. The iceberg was thinly sliced, crisp rather than limp translucent ribbons of window dressing. The onion rings, tucked under the lid, were outstanding – so huge I had to take them out and eat them separately. The batter was light and crispy without being greasy, and when you bit into the ring the rest of the onion stayed in place (so often not the case, sadly, with inferior onion rings). A cheeseburger cost six pounds, and felt like good value at that price.
The other burger was the same but with pulled pork added, which cost two pounds more. Pulled pork, like beefburgers, has become devalued by its increasing popularity. M&S does pulled pork sandwiches now, a cold claggy parody of really good pulled pork. Everywhere seems to serve it with burgers nowadays and often it’s an underwhelming piece of edible bandwagon jumping. But the pulled pork at the Eldon is the real deal – slow-cooked for twenty-four hours until it’s just a mass of sticky, savoury strands in that barbecue sauce, sweet but not cloying. The menu also has a pulled pork roll which skips the beef and cheese completely and concentrates on the star of the show (and when I go back, I think I might have it).
I could be critical and say that some relish or a few gherkins might have been nice, but that’s only a minor quibble with the benefit of hindsight. At the time I was eating, I can honestly say there wasn’t a single thing I’d change. And that doesn’t happen very often.
The chips also merit a mention as they are probably the best pub chips I can remember having in Reading. Chips have also been ruined by food fad after food fad: skin on, fat, skinny, “hand cut”, dusted in parmesan and covered in truffle oil like cheap perfume, chefs have put potatoes through all manner of terrible things in the name of dining trends. The Eldon just does really good chips that don’t need to sing and dance about how impressive they are: crispy where they should be, fluffy where they should be, salty and tasty and unbelievable value at two pounds for a bowl big enough to easily serve two. And I love the fact that the menu doesn’t feel the need to tell me whether they’re double cooked or triple cooked – because they’re well cooked, and that’s all I need to know. They also come with the pub’s home-made mayonnaise, which is to Hellman’s what The West Wing is to The Only Way Is Essex.
There’s no need here for the staff to overdo things but they are lovely all the same – friendly, welcoming and happy to chat. The food is served on chunky white plates with paper napkins and fuss free cutlery because this is, essentially, fuss free food, no messing about. It just happens to be bloody good fuss free food.
Two burgers, chips and a couple of pints came to twenty-four pounds, although the potential ongoing costs of returning to the Eldon Arms can’t be entirely ignored. So yes, it was just a sandwich. And yes, it’s a trend whose moment has passed, a culinary hurricane that almost missed Reading completely. Despite that, I loved this place. I said at the start of the review that I know I’m in the mood for a burger before I even leave the house, and that’s still true. But thanks to the Eldon Arms, that might be happening a lot more often – and, when it does, I know exactly where I’ll be going.
The Eldon Arms – 8.0
19 Eldon Terrace, RG1 4DX