ER On Tour: Málaga (updated)

N.B. I was fortunate enough to visit Malaga again in November 2019 and since I wrote my original piece one place – the fantastic Wendy Gamba – has since closed and been replaced by another branch of upmarket tapas restaurant KGB. I have amended this piece to reflect this, and other new discoveries.

I first visited Málaga in late 2016, on an unsuccessful holiday with a (largely vegan) girlfriend. Going to Spain with a vegan was almost as bad a decision as going out with the vegan in the first place, but even as I returned home, lessons learnt, I had a feeling Málaga and I had unfinished business. The thing I’ve since discovered about Málaga is that there are two kinds of people: people who’ve never thought of visiting it, and people who have been, loved it and are keen that not too many people find out about it.

I should start with an apology to the second kind of people, because it really does deserve to be better known. It’s compact, it has a beautiful historic centre, loads of art galleries (covering traditional and more modern forms), a waterfront with a beach close by, excellent shopping and terrific street art. Returning this month with my other half and some friends, enjoying temperatures of nineteen degrees in March and seeing the sun again, I got the feeling of barely scratching the surface.

It’s almost like they plonked a miniature Barcelona in Andalusia, with all the gastronomic benefits of being in that blessed region. And my goodness, the food! I ate better than I can remember on any holiday – not just the obvious stuff like jamon, queso and churros but beautiful, inventive tapas, fresh, superbly-cooked fish and seafood, stunning burgers (yes, burgers) and so much more. I’ve always thought any day where you get to eat octopus is a good day: on one day in Málaga I managed to eat it for lunch, dinner and an afternoon snack, and that felt pretty unbeatable to me.

My other half is not known for her delicate language, but I lost count of the number of times she tried her first mouthful of a dish and said “fuck!”, almost involuntarily. My friend James, a fellow Málaga fan, has been every year since 2016 and even before heading home I think both of us were mentally planning our next visit. I hope this piece persuades you to consider it next time you’re planning a city break of your own.

Where to eat

1. Taberna Uvedoble

I spent my birthday in Uvedoble this year, and a better place to celebrate is difficult to imagine. It’s a modern tapas restaurant close to the cathedral and the vast majority of the menu is available either as a tapa, media or racion depending on how hungry or inquisitive you are and how many of you there are. On our visit we swooned over baby squid served on a nest of squid ink fideua, a giant lake of aioli on the side. Oxtail albondigas were also phenomenal, the juices soaking into a bed of skinny chips.

But the small dishes were every bit as astounding – individual hamburgers cut with foie gras, lending a powerful punch like nothing I’ve eaten before, or miniature brioches hollowed out and completely crammed with shredded suckling pig. The truffled tortilla was so big we had to take half of it back to the apartment with us, and the red wine (Seis y Seis, from nearby Ronda) was magnificent – and ridiculous value at eighteen Euros. Dinner for three, in fact, came to less than a hundred Euros between the three of us – and if you need any more incentive to go to Málaga, bear in mind that this was easily the most expensive meal of the whole holiday.

Uvedoble was so good that we returned for lunch on our final day, so that Liz (who had arrived late) didn’t miss out on the food. Determined to try other dishes, we devoured stunning grilled asparagus with romesco, clean delicate ensaladilla Rusa, flamenquin all crisp with breadcrumbs and oozing with cheese, and so many other amazing dishes. We got there at 1, when they opened, and within about half an hour the place was rammed. “More 10 out of 10s than anywhere else we’ve been” was James’ verdict. My other half’s verdict? “Fuck.” On my return in November it was solidly booked every day, so make a reservation well in advance if you want to give it a try.

Taberna Uvedoble, Calle Cister, 15

2. El Tapeo de Cervantes

Easy to be confused – there’s also La Taberna de Cervantes, Vineria Cervantes and El Meson de Cervantes – but El Tapeo de Cervantes is the one you want, a small, intimate place with high tables, a regularly changing menu and absolutely charming staff where I had one of my very favourite meals of this or any year. You order lots of dishes – easily two per person, more if you’re greedy – and they pace your meal perfectly, bringing them out one at a time like a gastronomic firework display.

This was James’ suggestion, and he evangelised about it from the off before getting nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the hype (a feeling I know better than he realised). But he needn’t have worried – everything was so good that it was difficult to pick out highlights. Duck cooked so expertly that it was more like fillet steak, slow-cooked pig’s cheek in a rich stew topped with fiery guindilla chillies, intense sweetbreads with the crackle of salt crystals served on crisp cubes of potato, soft tender octopus offset with smoked mash, every single dish every bit as good as the last.

But the humdinger, a dish which reduced James to wordless rapture, was secreto iberico: pink and tender, scattered with salt and served with a sweet pineapple relish which shouldn’t work but did. Boy, if only Hawaiian pizzas were like that. We had everything with a couple of bottles of Orben, a magical rioja which, I’m told, you can get on Amazon Prime (what will they think of next?). It was a meal I’ll remember for quite some time, and it cost just shy of thirty Euros per head.

El Tapeo de Cervantes, Calle Carcer, 8

3. Mesón Ibérico

Mesón Ibérico was a recommendation from food writer Thane Prince, and it was probably my favourite thing about my most recent visit to Malaga. It’s in the Soho district, near the modern art gallery, and if you turn up for lunch just before it opens at 1pm you can form part of the queue. There are conventional tables but the real fun is to be had sitting up at the bar, enjoying the bustle all around you and watching the staff at work.

The jamon here was probably the best I’ve had not only in Malaga, but in the whole of Spain. But the real find for me was their migas, breadcrumbs cooked in animal fat with little nuggets of chorizo, more fat and whole cloves of garlic. It was a dish unlike anything I’ve tasted before, and I could happily have eaten it every day. Add to that some salty, indulgent shrimp fritters, terrific house wine at three Euros a glass, a tender skewer of suckling lamb and a lovely conversation with a couple from Northern Ireland who make a pilgrimage to Malaga every winter, and it made for a wonderful, nicely smudged lunch.

Mesón Ibérico, Calle San Lorenzo, 27

4. Meson Mariano

Meson Mariano is a very traditional, family-run restaurant, all dark wood and beams, a million miles away from the clean contemporary look of Taberna Uvedoble. My holiday companions were a little (well, quite a lot) younger than me and when we went to Meson Mariano they described themselves as “turnt up to the max”, whatever that means. Regrettably, this means we didn’t order the full three courses – but it also means that they were so full that I managed to try a little bit of everybody’s meal and confirm my suspicion that Meson Mariano really was a very good restaurant indeed.

The salt cod was beautiful, either served fried with tons of garlic or cooked in tomato with potato, but the meat was the real high point, whether it was shoulder of lamb on the bone (though so beautifully tender that it didn’t stay there for long) or spot-on sirloin with an astonishingly good goats cheese sauce. When I go back, I’ll try the deep-fried goats cheese starter: I remember it fondly from a previous visit.

Restaurante Meson Mariano, Calle Granados, 2

5. Mercado Atarazanas

Málaga’s food market is simply something else. An impressive structure (very striking stained glass, and a gorgeous arched entrance) housing every kind of delicacy you care to name – fresh fish of every size and shape, cheese, meat, jamon, almonds shiny with oil and studded with salt, wine and sherry, seemingly endless arrays of fruit and veg. That’s all in the middle, and then around the outside are all the places where you can stand at the bar, drink a caña or a vermut, order food and watch the world go by (there are also seated areas outside the market, but I far preferred being in the bustle).

For all I know there may not be that much to choose between them all, but I developed a huge soft spot for Central Bar, in the corner of the market, and went there several times. Over the course of a couple of visits I had baby squid, coated, fried and dished up piping hot with nothing but a spot of aioli and a lemon to squeeze, octopus served in a similar fashion, chorizo pinchos plump and crying out to be eaten with your fingers. Best of all was rosada, a white fish cooked on the plancha and plated simply with a drizzle of oil and herbs, glorious fresh tomatoes and a few spots of that aioli. It was the only other dish to render James speechless (and that’s no mean feat): we had it twice during the holiday.

When I go back I’ll try the tortilla de camarones, fritters made with flour and tiny shrimp which kept turning up on the bar for other people: they looked delicious, but I didn’t figure out what they were until it was too late. But then I could happily have spent an afternoon at that bar, drinking and eating, little and often. The most expensive bill we had was forty Euros between three, reinforcing what insanely good value Málaga is.

Mercado Central de Atarazanas, Calle Atarazanas, 10

6. Casa Lola

Casa Lola was the first place I ate at on this trip, and if everything that came after was even better that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it was a lovely place to go for afternoon snacks. The interior looks much more polished and curated than many of the other tapas bars in Málaga (almost, dare I say it, chainlike) but sitting at a high table with a caña and some food, watching the world go by is still an excellent way to spend an afternoon. The high point for me was the extensive range of pinchos, all of which were downright delicious. A spot of smoked bacalao here, some black pudding topped with quail’s egg there, that first taste of holiday octopus: all were present and indisputably correct.

Casa Lola, Calle Granada, 46

7. El Ambigú de la Coracha

Another Thane Prince tip from my most recent visit, El Ambigú de la Coracha is a little climb up from the cathedral, the path hugging the wall of the Alcazaba. It’s a lovely little spot with a good, clean, contemporary menu and fantastic service. The meal started with good bread and two very different local olive oils to dip it in, and this salt cod with sweet potato and apple mash and industrial quantities of garlic was one of my favourite dishes of the trip. Dessert, wonderfully fresh pineapple with local honey and lime zest, was simple, clean and well-nigh perfect.

El Ambigú de la Coracha, Calle Campos Eliseos

8. Heladeria Freskitto

On my previous visit I made a couple of visits to Casa Mira, Malaga’s legendary ice cream parlour which has been keeping its inhabitants cool for a very long time. But this time I was really taken with Freskitto, a little hole in the wall which did gelato almost as good as anything I’d tried in Italy. I loved the chocolate but the dulce de leche and in particular the cinnamon were a proper revelation. Worth eating even in November, when the temperature didn’t quite make it into the twenties.

Heladeria Freskitto, Calle Granada, 55

Where to drink

1. La Tranca

La Tranca, Málaga’s almost legendary vermouth and wine bar, was firmly on all our lists to visit: I’d been and loved it, and I’d bonded with James and Liz over their devotion to it. I remember going in 2016 and wishing I could stay there all evening, and that’s before Liz told me how good the empanadas were. Walking past it on our first night, something about it didn’t seem right: the inside was somehow different, the bar felt different, the vibe somehow changed. “It’s closed!” said Liz, crestfallen. Later that evening we realised it had relocated to bigger premises just up the road, and when we went in all scepticism was immediately dispelled: it was different, but recognisably La Tranca right from the off.

La Tranca is one of the world’s great bars (and I’ve researched quite a few in my time): lovably scruffy, full of bustle, serving brilliant drinks and full of people who just want to have a good time and enjoy being somewhere magnificent. Put that way, I can’t help but wonder if it shares DNA with Reading’s beloved After Dark. We went back a couple of times during the trip, jostling to find a space to set ours drink down, stand around and talk nonsense. We got into a random conversation with a lovely Italian chap, a musician, who had let his apartment in Berlin out to a woman from New York days ago and just got on a plane to Málaga to take his life in a different direction: well, Málaga is that kind of city and La Tranca is the perfect bar for conversations like that.

The drink to have here is aliñao, vermouth with gin and soda which makes the world, even at times like this, feel like a softer, more comfortable place. The tapas is also well worth trying – you order at the bar and hope you can find your way back up there through the crowd to collect it when they call out your name. The four cheese empanadas, rich with blue cheese, were things of beauty but my personal favourite was the habas con jamon, a little dish of broad beans and ham which was damn near perfect bar (or anywhere else) food.

La Tranca, Calle Carreteria, 92

2. Antigua Casa de Guardia

Another Málaga institution, this long thin bar has barrels of every sweet wine you could possibly hope to drink. You go up, order a copa and they chalk your bill up on the bar. I tried a number of the options, from moscatel to pedro ximenez, from the “Pajarete 1908” (the thing to order here apparently) to the Guinda and the Lagrima Añejo: you may well have a better palate than me but they all tasted dangerously similar and remarkably moreish. A little glass of wine here costs less than two Euros, so if you go you can try them all and tell me what I’m missing. We were there on a lazy Friday afternoon, but I imagine evenings can be quite a free-for-all.

Antigua Casa de Guardia, Alameda Principal, 18

3. La Madriguera

Málaga has a small craft beer scene, and as I was there with some real beer fans it was only fair to check it out. I suspect James preferred Cerveceria Arte & Sana on Plaza de la Merced, but my favourite was La Madriguera, which struck me as reminiscent of Bristol’s tremendous Small Bar. La Madriguera had nine beers on tap when I visited including a few from local microbrewery Bonvivant, and I really enjoyed their fruit IPA El Increible Hombre Menguente (that’s the incredible shrinking man to you and I). I was sad to move on when duty – by which I mean dinner – called, although I also found it difficult to walk past a bar called Jamones next door, which went straight on my “next time” list.

La Madriguera, Calle Carreteria, 73

4. Cafe Central

A lot of people will tell you to go to Casa Aranda, where they do huge churros, giant tubes of batter just waiting to be dunked in thick gloopy chocolate (the same people will recommend El Pimpi, Málaga’s iconic bar which I still haven’t tried). But my heart belongs to Cafe Central, where the churros are piped, have just enough salt and are crying out to be rolled in sugar from the sachet and popped in your mouth. The seating outside is perfect in the sunshine but I have a soft spot for eating inside, where it reminds me of so many grand cafes and where you can always spot some great characters, old ladies and dapper gentlemen, enjoying their “second breakfast” (it’s a thing in Spain, and really should be a thing everywhere else).

Coffee at Cafe Central truly is an art – you may have a cafe con leche elsewhere in Spain, but in Cafe Central you pick from nine different types of coffee depending on just how much milk you want in it, an idea that really could catch on here with tea (I’ve long thought that if we ever do have a national identity card it should have a swatch on it showing the exact colour you like your tea). Mine was always a mitad, half and half, and going to Cafe Central became a thoroughly enjoyable morning ritual.

Cafe Central, Plaza de la Constitucion, 11

5. El Ultimo Mono

El Ultimo Mono (the last monkey, apparently, which I assume makes sense to someone) happened to be right next to our apartment. But even if it hadn’t, I imagine I would have been there quite a lot. The interior was just the right side of the quirky/zany divide, the service was great, and the coffee – for when you want a latte or a mocha rather than the traditional strong black coffee or cafe con leche – was very nice indeed. There was a shop opposite which sold little statues of Jesus: we repeatedly had to talk James out of buying one, for shits and giggles apparently. On my more recent visit, I also developed a soft spot for their very good fresh juices.

El Ultimo Mono, Calle Sta Maria, 9

6. Mia Coffee House

One morning I was up and about earlier than my travelling companions, and keen to go exploring. A little research and some good fortune (and tricky navigation) got me to Mia Coffee House, a wonderful little cafe in a quiet square opposite the very impressive Church of los Santos Martires. I was drawn to the canary-yellow awning, and it was lovely and serene to sit outside, warmed by the sun and watch the city slowly wake up.

Mia’s is top-notch coffee – the best I had in Málaga – made with painstaking love and care in the perfect little spot. Even the cups, little bowls without handles, are pared-down and somehow ascetic. Less pure was the pain au chocolat, the filling made even more indulgent with a spot of something like Nutella. The others joined me about half an hour later, and I did allow myself a moment of “look at this brilliant place I found!” while they very kindly humoured me. Well, I suppose it’s what I do – or try to – and what I’ve just been doing about Málaga on this little gastronomic tour. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Pan, Wokingham

I was beginning to think I was cursed and that you’d never get a new review. My first attempt involved a Reading restaurant which, it turns out, is closed on Mondays. That fact came to my attention on the Monday night I was due to review it, seconds after I arrived at the pub across the road and met my dining companion for the evening. I’ve been doing this for nearly six years, and you’d think I’d know better.

Attempt number two was no better: I picked a restaurant out of town to visit with my old friend Al, mainly because every time we’d ever been there it had one amazing dish on the menu which was worth the price of admission alone. A destination dish and a destination restaurant all in one, truly the holy grail of restaurant reviewing. But, of course, on the Friday that we went there for lunch that dish – a glorious, massive pie for two, glossy, deep rich sticky beef lying in wait under a golden bubbling suet crust – was nowhere to be seen. I chalked it up to experience and had the fish, but where on earth was I going to review now?

Salvation came in the unlikely form of my friend Richard. We were due to meet up for a midweek dinner in Reading, and a couple of days before he sent me an apologetic WhatsApp. He could only get a babysitter for part of the evening, it said, and would I mind meeting in Wokingham, halfway between Reading and his place in Sunningdale? I sensed the faint knock of opportunity, and that’s why you’re reading a review of Pan today.

I’ve known Richard for many years, and wanted to bring him along on a review for ages. He’s the campest straight man I’ve ever met, a gleeful drinker, outrageously bitchy and downright good fun. He looks ever so slightly like David Gest might have done if he had (a) avoided all that shocking plastic surgery and, more importantly, (b) not died. He was a huge support to me when I joined Team Divorce a few years back, and I’ve always loved my evenings with him when he can swing a babysitter (his high-powered ex-wife is always away on business, pressing the flesh in Milan).

As for Pan, it looked like the most interesting thing to happen to Wokingham in some time – a pan-Asian restaurant opening in the space vacated by the Teak House (a Thai restaurant) offering a constantly changing monthly menu of small plates from different countries. The pictures on Instagram looked tempting, the word of mouth was promising and the menu online – all octopus, monkfish yakitori, slow braised pork and ramen – made me truly impatient to visit. Richard said it looked perfect, although I wondered if that might be because he has a much smaller appetite than me.

The website, and the pictures I’d seen made me think Pan would be a sleek, black, minimalist space, but going in it looked very much like it was still the Teak House, visually at least. There was a small bar and counter, and a small dining room up a little set of stairs with, surreally, a handrail like a banister separating it off (Richard leaned against it for much of our meal: it looked wobbly). The front room must have accommodated about a dozen diners, although there was a bigger room further into the restaurant: on our visit this had been laid out for a very large group which arrived partway through our meal.

“Have you been here before?” asked the front of house (which, on our visit, was very much a one man show) as he handed over our menus.

“No, this is our first time.”

“We’ve been open for six months, what took you so long?” he said with a smile. I liked that cockiness: it felt quite unlike Wokingham, if nothing else. “Our menu is small plates, like tapas, and two dishes per person should be enough.” I must confess I was sceptical about this, but maybe that’s because I’d been planning to try as many things as I could get away with.

“Do you have a wine list?” said Richard, somewhat betraying his priorities. The chap smiled again.

“I am the wine list.”

Again, a little confident but not jarringly so. In any case, we started with a couple of bottles of Kirin while we looked through the menu. It being March, the menu had changed completely from the one on the website (“this month we’re doing south Indian dishes”, our waiter told us). All the dishes were priced between four and eight pounds, and most of them looked tempting, with the possible exception of “chicory salad” which felt like a fig leaf for killjoys. The really noticeable thing on the menu, though, was the general absence of carbs: I had a feeling four dishes wouldn’t be anywhere near enough.

The first dish was a beautiful start – broccoli with chana dahl houmous, a clever fusion. I’m used to dipping stuff in houmous (after I’ve poured a lake of extra virgin olive oil on top of it, naturally) but having it here as the base for a heap of well-cooked purple sprouting broccoli was a very nice touch. The houmous had brilliant spice and flavour, and as a statement of intent this was hard to beat. But even this dish, with hindsight, was a taste of things to come: I expected the bowl to be slightly deeper and when my fork clanked against the bottom I did have an “is that all there is?” moment. It wasn’t to be the last time.

Shortly afterwards the kitchen sent out our next dish, crab wontons. “Too sweet” was Richard’s verdict, and I was pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me. He was right, though: they weren’t unpleasant but they were hotter than the sun and the crabmeat inside did feel too sweet with nothing to balance it out. Possibly the advertised curry butter might have offset this, but it lurked uselessly at the bottom of the plate and it was too difficult to dredge the wontons through it. Worth six pounds fifty? Probably not, and the glass plate felt like it might also have been inherited from the Teak House rather than bought for Pan, because the presentation felt a little fussy and old-fashioned.

I very much liked what came after that, flatiron steak with “kukurmutta ragu” (I Googled it: it’s mushrooms). The mushrooms lent a beautifully savoury note to the whole thing and any reservations I had about the steak were banished by the pink middle and the perfect texture. I wasn’t convinced it needed all that yoghurt, and serving it with paper underneath was a little odd, but even so it was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. Richard wasn’t so impressed, but by then I’d told him I was going to refer to us in the review as “Pan’s people” and he’d given me the first of many withering stares (“Bitch” was his response).

I found it odd that the dishes had been designed for sharing, but none of them came with spoons for us to dish up onto our plates. I asked and the waiter brought some over, but in a way which suggested that they’d never been asked before. “That was very nice, thank you” I said as he came to take our empty plates away. “You sound surprised” he replied, and again I couldn’t quite decide whether that confidence was charming or grating.

I’d been particularly looking forward to the charred carrot dish, mainly because Pan’s Instagram feed had a stunning image of what I imagined was something similar – a huge vibrant jumble of carrots, blackened on the outside, sesame seeds and coriander. I don’t think I was expecting five pieces of carrot, or for three of them to turn out to be unadvertised sweet potato (one of my least favourite things). Despite that I did enjoy them – the menu said they’d come with pearl barley and parsley, but instead they were accompanied by some kind of thickened yoghurt and tiny slivers of crispy fried chilli. It was an interesting dish, and the textures in particular were lovely, but I couldn’t quite shed the feeling that at five pounds, each piece of carrot or sweet potato had cost a quid all by itself.

Finally our last dish turned up, tandoori chicken legs with bhurani raita. I enjoyed this: the flavours were spot on and the chicken was nicely done, although I didn’t necessarily get much garlic in the pleasingly mint-green raita. Richard was less convinced – “this feels more like a dish you could get in lots of other places” – and either way it was a little difficult to justify two hardly colossal chicken legs at just shy of seven pounds.

“That was lovely” I said as the waiter collected more empty plates.

“I know”, he said. Hmm.

Despite having had more than our regulation two dishes per person, we ordered more. If there had been more carbs on the menu – some noodles or rice or anything that might fill you up – maybe I wouldn’t have needed to but as it was I was still distinctly peckish. We also ordered a couple of glasses of orvieto which was pleasingly crisp but far from bone dry. The waiter wasn’t kidding when he said he was the wine list, so he ran us through the choices – all by the glass, three or four whites if I recall. No prices were given, but I checked at the end and these were six pounds each, which didn’t feel unreasonable. Not having a list and picking after a chat with your waiter felt like the sort of thing I ought to enjoy and endorse in theory, but having done it I found it made me feel somewhat uncomfortable: too English by half, perhaps.

Throughout our meal I saw our waiter coming out of the kitchen with multiple plates of the same dishes, dropping one at our table, one at a neighbouring table and so on, and I realised that even if I was still on the hungry side I could see how this model might work beautifully for Pan. And every table in the front room was full of enthusiastic customers, so maybe it was just me who was beginning to find it a parade of not enough food for a little too much money.

I’d really fancied “cod shashlick with satay crumb” on the menu, but the waiter told us it had run out so we ordered the replacement dish, smoked trout with ginger and lime. For me, this just didn’t work – the tastes that accompanied the fish were sharp, fresh and interesting but pairing it with smoked trout felt like a strange choice. I’m far from convinced that smoked trout features heavily in South Indian cuisine: it clashed with everything else going on and the whole thing felt like a dish made with ingredients that were lying around (all very Ready Steady Cook) rather than something carefully put together. I guess, of course, that the thing with smoked trout is that you don’t have to cook it, so again convenient for the kitchen but not necessarily great for diners.

I did enjoy our final dish, a mixture of butter beans and chickpeas topped with a baked egg. Finally, a hint of the carbs I’d been craving! But even here I could see how all the dishes felt like riffs on a theme – the green squiggles matching those on the broccoli, probably the same yoghurt as we’d had on the steak, definitely the same little slices of fried chilli as had come with the carrots. Although I quite enjoyed it, and I’d have loved it if it had been the first dish I tried, by this stage I did feel like I could see the joins, as if I’d spotted the Wizard Of Oz behind the curtain. Pan passed itself off as being imaginative and varied, but a lot of work had been put into managing the experience.

I insisted on a dessert – partly because I was still hungry, and partly because the waiter told me that the chocolate brownie came with a sesame seed creme Anglaise. Normally, I don’t hold with brownies being dessert – and again, what I got differed from what was described on the menu – but this really was lovely: three dense, warm cubes of brownie with a beautifully light custard and plenty of sesame (although I thought it could have stood more).

We’d asked what we could drink with dessert and the waiter said “I’ve got some really good Filipino rum: let me bring it over”. He returned with a bottle and two little glasses full of ice and left us to it, an experience which felt faintly continental. Richard practically inhaled a glass and topped himself up.

“Hurry up and try some! This is fantastic.”

It was: ever so slightly honeyed and with a beautiful note of oak. Richard took a photo of the label, shortly before surreptitiously refreshing his glass. (“There’s no line on the side or anything” he said, with the expertise of a man who used to raid his mother’s drinks cabinet.) I loved it, although I did feel guilty about having more. How much did it cost anyway? There was simply no way of knowing, not until the bill arrived.

When it did, our whole meal – seven small plates, four beers, two glasses of wine and that rum – cost eighty-seven pounds, not including tip, and the rum was just under eight pounds in total. I made sure we tipped generously, mainly because I suspect Richard was literally drinking their profits. We then sallied forth into the Wokingham night in search of a place that could serve Richard more wine, although when we got to the pub Richard also ordered a packet of peanuts and a bag of pork scratchings: that probably tells its own story.

It’s interesting, as small plates restaurants start to jump the shark in London, that we get a swathe of them round these parts like Pan and Bench Rest, which I reviewed last year. Pan shares some of the problems that Bench Rest has: however nice the service is, the interior feels like it’s designed for a very different type of establishment and however nice the food is, the dishes are either too small or too pricey or both. But with Pan those problems were amplified – everything felt like not a lot of food for quite a lot of cash, and the interior and the plating lacked the sophistication the menu aspired to. But on the other hand I love the concept, I ate some really interesting food and combinations and I can see what they’re aiming for. It felt like a work in progress, but I do wonder if Wokingham is forgiving enough to give Pan the time it needs to become the restaurant it wants to be. I hope so: definitely if Pan was in Reading I would be following its evolution and going back to see how things progress.

And Richard? According to his Instagram he was in the gym the next morning at seven am, living the dream. His verdict was less nuanced than mine: will go back for free rum though, he told me on WhatsApp. The language of Shakespeare: I must find out when his babysitter fancies doing some more overtime.

Pan – 6.7
47-49 Peach Street, Wokingham RG40 1XJ
0118 9788893

https://www.panrestaurant.co.uk/

Feature: Al fresco dining (2019)

The thoroughly unseasonal spell of sunshine we had recently got me thinking about spring, waiting just round the corner. Tea and toast in the garden, the magnolia flowering, having a coffee outside Tamp or in the Workhouse courtyard and watching the world traipse past. That in turn made me remember, further down the line, the harbingers of good times ahead: the beer festival weekend; “just the one pint” after work in the Allied Arms garden morphing into a long, messy evening; Saturday afternoons stretched out in Forbury Gardens with a good book; the glorious golden slide into summer.

It’s nearly four years since I last published a feature on al fresco dining in Reading, believe it or not. But, as with everything else in this town, much has changed in that time. Dolce Vita and the Plowden Arms have closed, robbing us of some of the best food for miles around and one of Reading’s nicest sun-bathed spots. Forbury’s and Picnic – which also made my list four years ago – are not what they were. The market menu at Forbury’s seems to get more expensive and less special with every passing year, and Picnic isn’t even open on Sundays any more.

Finding establishments to replace them has been harder than you might think. Reading has some great outside spaces but generally, the places lucky enough to own them do not serve good food. The roof terrace at the Thirsty Bear, for instance, is a nice spot and a natural sun trap, but the pizza’s iffy. The Hope & Bear, the artist formerly known as the Abbot Cook/Upin Arms/Jack Of Both Sides, has a very pleasant garden – if you can get past the hum of traffic from the London Road – but the food has never been anything to write home about.

Then, of course, you have places that do decent food but where the space isn’t quite up to scratch. Many of these are chains: it would be lovely to eat outside at Carluccio’s, say, but that spot on the edge of Forbury Gardens sadly never catches the sun, so what should be a great opportunity to have an Aperol spritz and some antipasti becomes a chilly affair. Similarly, the space out the front of Franco Manca is okay, but hardly inspiring. I still enjoy eating at the Lyndhurst, but that little terrace looking out on to Watlington Street feels a tad lacking, more for a pint than the full dining experience.

For my money, Reading lost its finest al fresco dining spot last year when the Fisherman’s Cottage decided to dispense with I Love Paella. When that happened we lost the opportunity to eat salt cod churros and empanadas, patatas bravas with chicken thigh and piquant sauce and so many other glorious dishes in the sunshine with a pint of something cold, fizzy and refreshing. The pub now gets one hundred per cent of the food takings – bully for them, but I definitely won’t be back. Even if the dishes didn’t taste bad, eating there would feel in bad taste.

All that preamble is to say that the list you’re about to read might be Reading’s best al fresco dining options (or at least a conversation starter: your mileage may well vary) but I have to add the disclaimer that they are far from Reading’s best dining options. There’s invariably a degree of compromise involved – you can have an almost Meditteranean lunch, you can have fantastic food, but you can’t necessarily have both. But on a hot and sunny day, when everybody is in shorts and you have a glass of something cold in front of you, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.

Oh, and since starting writing this feature the sun has gone in and the heavens have opened. I can’t help but blame myself, but I still hope this will come in handy in the months ahead.

1. Bhel Puri House

Small plates in the sunshine.

The courtyard outside the George Hotel, just off Yield Hall Lane, catches the sun beautifully in the summer. By day most of its clientele are enjoying coffee, cake or quiche from Workhouse, and in the evening you’re more likely to see patrons of the hotel bar sitting outside enjoying a pint and a fag. But the real trick – at lunchtime or dinner – is to pop in to Bhel Puri House and ask them to serve you in the courtyard.

There’s very little that can match sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the sun and enjoying Bhel Puri House’s almost-legendary chilli paneer, spearing a cube of cheese on a caramelised strip of pepper before popping it in your mouth. The Punjabi samosas are still as gorgeous as the day I first tried them and the crispy bhajia – thin slices of crispy potato with an almost-sweet bright orange carrot chutney – are equally beautiful.

Last year, as summer was coming to an end, I stopped at Bhel Puri House on my way home after work on Friday and enjoyed the courtyard one last time before the clocks went back. Normally I have a mango lassi, but on that occasion a pint of Estrella from the hotel bar seemed like the only sensible option. I’ll be there again as soon as spring is well under way.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF

2. Bluegrass BBQ

Reading’s best al fresco brunch.

Another Reading restaurant with a sunny terrace going to waste is bland uber-chain Bill’s. It has a great location next to Reading Minster, but I really couldn’t recommend anybody eats there, not even for brunch. I know it has its fans, but I infinitely prefer crossing the churchyard and going to Bluegrass on Gun Street, which has a terrace by the Holybrook which catches the sun and which few people seem to know about.

Once you’re installed, they do one of the best brunches in Reading. Many like the pancakes, but I’m always drawn to the Smokehouse breakfast there. I’ve enthused about it before but really, it does everything very well: the bacon is smoked, salty, streaky and crispy, the sausages are terrific quality and the hash browns are an absolutely joy, especially smudged with a bit of barbecue sauce before eating. If you’re there in the evening, the brisket chilli is a revelation and I really like the southern fried chicken (although maybe not with the waffles and maple syrup). I can see that dinner in the sunshine with a really good beer could make for a lovely al fresco evening.

Bluegrass BBQ, 15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
https://www.bluegrass-bbq.com/

3. Côte

Continental, albeit canalside.

There are plenty of Oracle chains with space outside, and come the summer they are frequently rammed. Franco Manca and the Real Greek both have decent outdoor areas, and that’s before we get to the delights of eating outside at Nando’s (chicken thighs, medium, with rice, peas and extra halloumi, garlic peri peri on the side, since you asked), an experience which always feels a little like being on holiday in the UK. Many of the Oracle’s al fresco options – including Nando’s, sadly – can feel a little purgatorial. I do however have a real soft spot for the tables for two right in front of Côte (not, I should add, the ones at the edge of the waterside) where you can sit side by side, drink rosé, eat from the reasonable a la carte or the crazily reasonable set menu, and gaze out on the world.

Côte’s food is consistently good, and you won’t go far wrong there, but the specials are always worth a look (especially if they have skate wing on there, probably the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten at Côte). The charcuterie board is a lovely choice at any time of year, but in warm weather the tuna nicoise salad remains one of the best ways to feel slightly virtuous while eating out. Sitting with a view of the canal (technically a river, but if it looks like a canal and feels like a canal…) watching a parade of frazzled shoppers-to-be wander past shouldn’t really work, but for some reason it does. On a good day, when you have one of those tables and the sun is beaming down, you can feel like one of the luckiest diners in Reading.

Côte, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

4. London Street Brasserie

The original and best.

The only restaurant to make my list both in 2015 and today, London Street Brasserie has a nice outside area looking out on the river (and the often less than salubrious goings-on near the manky car park on the opposite bank). But that aside, it’s actually quite an attractive decked area which catches plenty of sun, and as the evening light starts to fade there are blankets to keep you warm. Many years as Reading’s fanciest restaurant (a title which has only really been challenged in the last year or so) means that in some respects the food is secondary to the whole experience. As with Cote there’s a set and an a la carte menu, but the better option is nearly always the set which offers an impressive range at a reasonable price: eat there at lunchtime or before 7pm to take full advantage.

Over the winter I became very attached to their haggis and duck egg on toast with HP jus – Reading’s ideal breakfast, disguised as a starter – and the fish and chips, also from the set menu, remains one of my favourite main courses at any price point. The a la carte always feels like more of a gamble at prices which are beginning to feel a little on the steep side for what you get, but the salt and pepper squid is a reliable dish and it’s hard to go wrong with venison and (yet more) haggis. The only thing that stops me gushing about LSB, apart from the pricing, is the consistency: it’s definitely a place which has the occasional off day, but at its best it’s still one of Reading’s finest places to have a meal in the open air.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/

5. Thames Lido

For burning calories vicariously.

I have struggled to love Thames Lido, and I haven’t quite managed it yet: on every one of my three visits there’s been something wrong, either in terms of service, food or value for money. On one visit the gin and tonic was spendy and unspecial, on another the set menu was a little bit mingy for the money and on my last visit, the ox cheek (allegedly a signature dish) was claggy and undercooked. The service has always been consistent only in its inconsistency, although with Alex – who used to charm the socks off everyone at Mya Lacarte – now on board, that might have changed.

I know I sound like I’m moaning, but here’s the point: when I had lunch there last summer it was such a lovely spot that I put my reservations about the food to one side. The sun was shining, the surroundings were Instagram-perfect (there’s a reason it shows up there so often), my Spanish cider was cold and crisp and watching people braver than me doing lengths somehow helped me to work up quite an appetite. It simply is a gorgeous place to eat lunch, provided you relax your standards somewhat, and probably the single best view of any restaurant in Reading. I think it succeeds despite, rather than because of, its food, but I seem to be swimming against the tide in that respect. It’s the only swimming I plan to do, anyway: I’d much rather sit in the warm, order something nice and leave all that to people better qualified than me.

Thames Lido, Kings Meadow Park, RG1 8FR
http://www.thameslido.com/