First things first, Oakford Social Club (from hereon, just the Oakford, or my fingers will get sore) is part of a chain. I know it feels like the original hipster hangout – mismatched furniture, craft beer and live music – but it’s part of the “Castle” group of Mitchell and Butler, an “eclectic urban pub” according to their website (a group which also includes the Abbot Cook, out at Cemetery Junction). And the food at the Oakford is by “Ruby Jean’s Diner”, a chain within a chain found in a number of those pubs, offering a selection of Americana classics. Anyway, chains aside, the Oakford does what I have thought for a while is probably the best burger in Reading. Let’s not mess around and play games: I still think that.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone in Reading has never been to the Oakford. But just on the off-chance that you’ve beamed to town from, say, Mars, it’s a big attractive building right opposite the station that is a darned sight more attractive in this incarnation than its predecessors “The Forum” (nothing funny ever happened on the way there, not that I can remember) or the Flyer And Firkin, with its enormous Jenga set, the sort of thing that was thought to be a great idea in pubs in the 90s. It’s broken up into lots of discrete areas – the one at the front is probably the most suitable for dining – and it’s dark and atmospheric, although after a certain time, when they crank the music up I personally feel like leaving (that no doubt says more about me than it). In any case, it’s a relatively quiet place to grab an early evening midweek bite to eat, which is what I did on this occasion.
The burger menu at the Oakford is extensive. The majority of options are beef based, though they do chicken and veggie burgers, too (and the selection of coloured tongs on the grill suggest they’re quite strict at keeping these separate). I went for a beef burger but I was led astray by their selection of toppings and fillings. I know some of you will be downright disgusted at me and I know as a reviewer I should be ordering things on the menu that the majority of people might want to eat. But on this occasion I’m afraid I ordered what I really fancied, namely – the squeamish might want to look away now – the beef burger with peanut butter and fried egg. Judge all you like, but I bloody love peanut butter. The fried egg appealed too – it’s one of those things I’d never cook at home, but when throwing calorie caution to the wind it seemed pointless to turn one down.
The burger itself was a coarse patty, still pink in the middle, juicy and soft with barely any seasoning. It came in a glazed bun with crisp iceberg lettuce and a slice of firm tomato (no slimy salad here). Truth be told the peanut butter was a little overwhelming, so the egg was a bit lost in the mix, but I still loved it. There was just enough mayo in there for it to hold together but not enough for the whole thing to slide around like Bambi on the ice. If you prefer, you can design your burger with whatever toppings you fancy – including burnt end chilli, the ubiquitous pulled pork and bacon, blue cheese and avocado, to name but a few – and, unless you’re really greedy, a tailor made burger will come out costing less than a tenner. All good, right?
Sadly, this is where the fun ends. The burger was served in a paper-lined plastic basket (so hip!) with fries which were on the undercooked side, meaning instead of being crispy and fluffy they were firm but wan. In fairness, from personal experience they’re usually better that this but they were still pretty disappointing. The basket had a slightly convex bottom which meant that cutting the burger with a knife and fork (purely because the burger was really big: I’m not too prissy to pick up a burger with my bare hands) was a bit like eating on top of a Pop-O-Matic with no chance of rolling a six.
Much as the temptation was to order a second burger (I was drawn to one featuring emmental, Thousand Island and pickled onion Monster Munch: I couldn’t work out whether it was going to be stupendous or horrendous) I thought for balance I should try something else as well. The rest of the menu wasn’t quite so tempting – a couple of macaroni cheese dishes (called, of course, “mac n’ cheese”, which makes me feel a bit stabby), a couple of salads and the potentially insane, possibly inspired “Wafkin”, chicken with bacon and maple syrup served between two waffles rather than in a bun. Instead, I went for southern fried chicken.
One of my food regrets (and there are many) is that so far I’ve never tried proper fried chicken in America. Unfortunately, it turns out that another of my food regrets is that I’ve now tried the Oakford’s take on it; I’d love to be kind, but it failed on every level. The coating was soggy – the photos make it look a lot crispier than it was, but it didn’t cover the whole of the chicken and what there was slid off the chicken, wobbly and not that appetising (ironically it stuck like glue to the bone on the underside of the breast). It was pretty bland, too – the Colonel’s recipe may remain a closely guarded secret but I can’t see anybody tracking the Oakford down to get hold of theirs.
Bereft of the unappealing skin, all that was left was the chicken, and it too was nothing to write home about. The legs felt like they needed a bit longer, the breast felt like it had had too long. The worst thing about it, apart from the nagging feeling throughout that KFC would have been easily ten times as good, was knowing that I was eating something so terribly bad for me and I wasn’t even particularly enjoying it. If sinful food isn’t fun, what’s the point?
On the side we had a basket of tempura vegetables with chipotle jam. These were a mixed bag: the red peppers and mushroom slices were nicely done, the batter was lovely, light and crisp and the jam – although chilly from the fridge – was like a firm smoky sweet chilli sauce and a nice accompaniment to the veg. What was odd were the colossal bits of cauliflower – more than a floret and only slightly smaller than a fist – which were far too big to be interesting. One of them was so huge that I didn’t want to attempt it without a chainsaw. Disconcertingly there was a big pool of oil sitting at the bottom of the paper when we finished which made me wonder quite how much fat I’d just eaten.
After all those wasted calories it seemed like dessert would have been the final nail in the cholesterol coffin, so we skipped it. Nothing on there even remotely tempted me – the dessert section of the menu is simply entitled “Chocolate”, so it might not tempt you either (although I imagine some people might snigger at one of the options, maturely dubbed “The Threesome”). The total cost was twenty five pounds for one course and one soft drink each plus the shared side. There was no opportunity to tip and, really, no call for it. Service is basic here – fair enough, it’s a pub after all, not a restaurant – but when the tempura vegetables came out without their chipotle jam I had to ask for it and remind the member of staff serving exactly what went with the side dish I’d ordered. It felt like I knew my way round the menu better than he did.
I fear for the Oakford a little: it has a great spot in town, a lovely building which it’s made the most of, and for a long time it was the only place in town with its particular kind of scruffy, offbeat shtick. But all that feels like it’s changing: the Greyfriar, RYND, Milk and the new-look Turtle all offer different iterations of what the Oakford does and are challenging the monopoly it’s had for years. And that market only gets more crowded. Coincidentally, Pavlov’s Dog reopens tonight also offering burgers and craft beers; this London trend shows no sign of dying out here in Reading just yet. The recent news that some of the Oakford’s live music is moving to other venues suggests that it wants to reposition itself but, for me, their food isn’t good, diverse or interesting enough to be a big part of that. So yes, it’s probably the best burger in town – right now at least – but for how long? Because it used to be one of the best places in town to start a night out too – but I imagine they also said that about the Flyer & Firkin, back in the day. Still, the Oakford’s potential loss is our gain: it’s good that Reading moves too quickly these days for anybody to take anything for granted.
Oakford Social Club – 6.6
53 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PZ