This might be hard for you to believe, but Reading isn’t perfect. Even I, with my bad habit of standing on the virtual soapbox and shouting about its best bits, know that. I’ve talked in the past about all the types of restaurants I’d love to see open in Reading, from indies to (some) chains, but this week instead of a review I thought I’d go one step further and talk about some of my favourite restaurants outside Reading. These are places I would love to pick up and plonk somewhere in town, even if I know in my heart of hearts that they wouldn’t necessarily fit in.
This is by no means a list of the best restaurants anywhere, by the way. Often your favourite restaurant isn’t necessarily the best – the food might not be as flawless, the service might not be as polished, but simply put your favourite restaurants are the ones where you have the best times. Your mileage, should you ever get to one of this lot, will undoubtedly vary. And it’s not definitive, either: I missed out countless places in the interest of limiting this to half a dozen, including little bistros in Paris, sweet sun-kissed tavernas on Greek islands, Michelin starred joints deep in the Cotswolds and establishments from Toronto to Glasgow, from Prague to Istanbul. Loving restaurants is a wonderful thing, I think. Loving lists the way I do also brings a lot of joy. But trying to combine the two, it turns out, is rather an agonising pursuit.
Reading doesn’t really have a proper French bistro. A few places have come close (and Brebis is only a train ride away) but you’d hope a town the size of Reading could sustain somewhere like Oxford’s Pierre Victoire. Originally part of a now defunct chain (which at one point included Reading, so maybe we don’t deserve another after all) this place has thrived by offering some great classics, an amazing value set menu (where starters and desserts are only two quid each. No really) and proper French service – you know, the sort where they always seem slightly amused by you but want to charm your socks off none the less.
Despite being a pretty big restaurant, getting a table here is a real challenge unless you’ve booked ahead (which I singularly fail to do) so I sometimes end up eating here at lunch instead of dinner, just to make sure I do get to try it. On my most recent visit I tucked into a gorgeous quenelle of smooth chicken liver pate followed by a big stainless steel pot of moules marinière with skinny fries. I also nicked some of my companion’s potato rosti (sitting underneath a splendid, crispy confit duck leg) which would have been worth the price of admission alone. Lunch for two, including a crazily reasonable half bottle of Côtes du Rhône, came to thirty-six pounds. Thirty-six pounds! The tables are all squished together – which normally would annoy me, but here I like it because of the people-watching potential – and I never leave without wishing I could put Pierre’s in my pocket and bring it back on the train with me. Reading could really do with a little more ooh la la, n’est-ce pas?
I know that London is arguably the most exciting dining scene in the world right now. I know that every cuisine is represented, to dazzling effect, and that every month new places open, shifting the dynamic of the place ever so slightly. It must be lovely to have all that on your doorstep to choose from, from the high end to street food with every permutation in between. I know all that, and yet – and I know this will make me sound like a hick from the sticks – I have had so many disappointing meals there you would not believe.
I follow the critics, I ooh and aah over the meals (both the pictures in the papers and the ones they paint with their effortless sentences) and yet I’m so often underwhelmed. Whether it’s a neighbourhood restaurant a little off the Tube network, an old stager offering faded but charming grandeur or Michelin starred luxury on the top floor of some tall building, I often end up on the train back from Paddington thinking “what am I missing?”. Probably a lot, but what it means is that when I do go in I want to find somewhere central, reliable and decent that I can book in advance, where I won’t have to queue round the block for hours or spend two hours pretending I’m having more fun than I am.
At the moment, for me, that place is Great Queen Street. Just off Drury Lane, part of a group which includes legendary Waterloo gastropub The Anchor & Hope and Oxford’s Magdalen Arms. It’s just perfect – dark, clubby, welcoming and totally disinterested in being cool. The menu is the kind of unpretentious list where you want to order practically everything and the wine list is full of inexpensive delights (plenty from the Languedoc, I’m happy to say). Last time I went, I shared a chicken, leek and tarragon pie, all rich creamy filling topped with flaky pastry but with that beautiful slightly soggy layer just beneath, like a business class Fray Bentos, and I liked it so much I nearly wept. I would say that once you eat there, you’ll never go back to Sweeney and Todd – but to be honest you could say the same once you eat at Sweeney and Todd.
Bosco Pizzeria, Bristol
Despite discovering (if that’s even the right word, seeing as loads of you told me you loved it but just didn’t want me telling everyone) Papa Gee last year, I am still yearning for a comfy neighbourhood pizzeria. Well, I sort of found one, but the problem is that it’s on the Whiteladies Road in Bristol. And I always seem to end up there when I visit Bristol, despite it being a city with so many amazing restaurants (Wallfish in Clifton, for one, or the wonderful tapas restaurant Bravas). It’s not even Bristol’s coolest pizzeria – the up and coming Flour And Ash has taken that title – but it remains one of my favourite places to eat.
I’m normally there for lunch, but it’s the kind of restaurant that has perfected offering something for everyone, whether it’s small groups, dates or family outings. The menu is brilliant, with great antipasti (especially the burrata and coppa – to be honest I could gladly live off some combination of those two) leading up to the genuine highlight, the pizza. The base is light, chewy, ever so slightly charred and bubbly. The toppings are simple but steer clear of cliché. And – no small thing this – I love the service. It’s tattooed, passionate and informal (or, in a word, “Bristol”). I do rather collect pizzerias, especially abroad (La Briciola in Paris, Linko in Helsinki, I could go on) but there’s something about Bosco. Writing this now I can imagine sitting at a window table with some montepulciano, waiting for my pizza to arrive. And as much as I love Papa Gee, its slightly down at heel style and all, I’d love to see somewhere like Bosco dropped into one of the empty sites in the centre of Reading. That would be gert lush.
Granada is the true home of tapas, where every alcoholic drink is accompanied with a small plate of free food, be that a basic wedge of tortilla or a helping of salty, crumbly manchego. If you love food then that alone is reason enough to visit, even without a visit to the beautiful Alhambra, the stunning Moorish fortress which stands sentinel over the city from its position at the top of a very steep hill. Well, that and the sherry. And the wine. And the more sherry.
Anyway, Bodegas Castañeda is in the heart of the city (one street along from, confusingly, an inferior establishment with almost exactly the same name) and, for me, it epitomises eating in Andalucia. Yes, there are still free tapas (the habas con jamon, broad beans with rich, savoury nuggets of ham, for instance) but the clientele here knows that the stuff you pay for is worth the jostling at the bar, which runs almost the entire length of the shallow, wide room. The staff, a wry bunch of super-efficient, slightly hangdog aproned men, serve sherry from large casks, pouring with a flourish that is more for entertainment than taste, and watching them work as a unit always fills me with admiration (and, probably more importantly, gratitude).
You need your wits – and your elbows – about you to eat at Bodegas Castañeda, but the rewards are enormous: simple, savoury slices of the delicious jamon that hangs over the bar, thick pieces of mojama – cured tuna – topped with almonds and drizzled with olive oil, the saltiest bacalao draped over the smallest slices of bread, an embarrassment of riches. My mouth is watering now, something of a Pavlovian reflex which I get almost every time I think about Granada. All that and you can eat and drink like royalty (and get royally sloshed) at Bodegas Castañeda for less than forty euros, provided you’re happy to muck in and try speaking a little Spanish. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.
I love Lisbon so much, and it has a much underrated food scene. Of course, there are the famous egg custard tarts and the port – everyone knows about those – but there’s so much more to it than that. Beautiful seafood, surprisingly good cheeses, petiscos that give any tapas out there a run for its money and my personal favourite, ginjinha, a rich sticky cherry liqueur sometimes served in (and you might want to brace yourself for this bit) an edible chocolate cup. Drink the liqueur, destroy the evidence, eat some chocolate into the bargain: trust me, some messy nights can begin this way.
Despite that, my favourite restaurant in Lisbon is in many ways one of its most basic. Bonjardim isn’t far from Rossio station, with a restaurants and tables on both sides of a little alley. It’s known as “Rei dos Frangos” (the king of chickens) and they aren’t kidding, because that’s what you order if you know what’s good for you. A whole spit-roasted chicken for two turns up with some slightly unnecessary chips, and it’s the most glorious, amazing, intoxicating thing. The skin has been rubbed with lemon, salt and oil until it’s almost brittle with the intense taste of wonderful crackling. Underneath, the meat is perfect; there’s a little pot of peri peri sauce you can brush on, if you feel that way inclined, but I’ve never seen the need. You just sit there, in the evening warmth, eating chicken and drinking wine or a frosted pint of Super Bock, watching the hawkers and the buskers wandering past on a seemingly eternal loop. Maybe we won’t ever get the weather, and it’s probably just my fanciful imagination, but I can picture something like this on Queen Victoria Street.
Can Paixano, Barcelona
I could have picked so many places in Barcelona for this piece. One of the finest meals I’ve ever had was in its Michelin starred restaurant Cinc Sentits, a meal so amazing that I wrote down every single course I ate in the tasting menu and for months after I could just get out the piece of paper, look at it and sigh. But last time I went, I found the strangest thing – the less informal a place was, the more fun I had.
So although I enjoyed the proper old-school glamour of the “rich man’s paella” at Set Portes, the real delights came from the stand-up tapas joints, places like El Bitxo and the venerable El Xampanyet, where the waiters effortlessly swish from table to table offering to top you up with cava (and people think the Italians have a monopoly on offers you cannot refuse). This reached its apex at Can Paixano, a little bar on the edge of the old port on a seemingly lifeless sidestreet – a long thin room with no discernible furniture where people jostle at the bar for saucers of cava at little more than a Euro a glass. Meat hangs from the ceiling and the no-frills menu behind the grill tells you what’s on offer. You order some chorizo or morcilla and sip your drink (slightly off-dry rose cava for me, since you asked) while it’s sliced and grilled or fried in front of your very eyes. Last time I went, a group of young Irish chaps were there, clearly unable to believe their luck having chanced upon the place completely by accident. I bet they were wishing their home town had somewhere a little like Can Paixano: I know I was.
So, those are some of my favourites. Why not chip in in the comments section and let me know some of yours?