Just over two years ago, I wrote a piece called “The Best Of Reading”, detailing the ten places I thought best illustrated Reading’s food culture. It was prompted by a conversation with a Reading doubter – you know the sort, people who slag Reading off without ever trying that hard to discover life outside the bland confines of the Oracle or restaurants beyond the chains. It was my attempt to counter that kind of lazy criticism, and I published it just before I made my comeback after nearly a year on hiatus. The feedback from everyone was truly lovely, I picked up reviewing again and two years later here we are.
The decision to publish this updated version was also prompted by a conversation, albeit a rather different one. I was having dinner one evening last month and my dining companion, who didn’t know Reading all that well, expressed surprise about what an interesting place it was. “At first I thought it was just another big town in the south-east” he said, “but if you scratch the surface there are all sorts of things going on.” I agreed that it punches above its weight, and then started rattling off the reasons why, many of which make it into this piece. The previous version of this feature was a rebuttal, but this one is far more of a celebration – and that feels exactly as it should be.
Of course, plenty has changed between 2017 and 2019. Some of the places which made my top ten last time around have closed: the sad losses of Dolce Vita and I Love Paella, both down to greedy landlords. Some don’t make my list this time because the ever-improving standard means they aren’t quite as good as they used to be: no room for Papa Gee, lovely though it is, or for Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus, which lost its talented front of house and never seems open when I walk past. Reading’s restaurant scene is nowhere near as fast-moving as in other towns, and restaurateurs consistently complain about how hard it is to find decent premises (I can’t help but feel our council should be able to help) but even so things have moved on in the last two years.
Here, then, is my list of the ten restaurants and cafés that most contribute to making Reading’s food scene special and distinctive as of May 2019. Any list is entirely subjective, and I wouldn’t have done my job properly if people didn’t get as aerated about what I left out as they were excited about what I’ve put in. But it is worth mentioning, with regret, that I couldn’t find room for Perry’s, House Of Flavours, Bluegrass or Soju.
The focus on the distinctive also meant excluding chains, which rules out the likes of Honest, Pho and Franco Manca. And although we have excellent coffee and beer in Reading, it’s for someone else to celebrate Tamp, Workhouse, Anonymous, C.U.P. and the magnificent Nag’s Head. Anyway, you can all tell me how wrong I am in the comments, so here goes.
1. Bakery House
What is there left to say about Bakery House? Open for nearly four years now, the proudly independent Lebanese restaurant has got pretty much everything right from the moment it opened, and standards show no signs of dropping. In warm weather you can grab a shawarma wrap from the counter and go eat it in the sunshine, but the true riches come from eating in. The chicken livers are terrific, the falafel light and simultaneously crunchy and fluffy, the boneless baby chicken a thing of wonder. Whatever main course you have comes with rice rich with vegetables and spice and salad perfectly dressed with lemon and mint, complete with tomato and crisp radish.
I held a readers’ lunch there in January and they dished up a whole roast lamb, on a bed of rice full of minced lamb and, it seemed, whole sticks of cinnamon; I daydreamed about it for weeks.
82 London Street, RG1 4SJ.
2. Bhel Puri House
Again, Bhel Puri House is a restaurant I’ve written about many times but it’s so criminally underrated that it deserves another mention here. For a long time it was Reading’s only vegetarian restaurant, and it remains one of the town’s only convincing small plates restaurants. All that and you can eat outside in the sunshine, in a courtyard it shares with the George Hotel and Workhouse Coffee.
There are so many dishes it’s hard to know where to start, but the Punjabi samosas are huge, tasty and crazily good value and the crispy bhajia (spiced, fried slices of potato, their pungency offset with a sweet carrot chutney) are superb. Paneer is irresistable, either dry and caramelised with chilli or served Manchurian style in a sweeter, stickier sauce. And the samosa chaat, pictured above, is a riot of colour, flavour and texture. Who needs a faddish meat-free burger when you can try a vada pav?
Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF.
3. Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen
Right, let’s get this disclaimer out of the way first: as I’ve explained elsewhere, I have never reviewed Clay’s because they know who I am and I would describe the owners as friends. You could quite easily argue that this damages my impartiality, so if you’ve never been to Clay’s you may be a little sceptical about their presence on this list, and that is of course your prerogative. I can’t blame you – I would also be pretty dubious, but believe me, if anything Clay’s had to meet an even higher standard to make it on to this list. And I can appreciate the ways in which the restaurant still needs work: the room can be a little murky, loud and poorly lit, the service still lacks a little warmth and authority.
Anyway, by however high a bar you set, Clay’s has to be on a list of this kind, and if you have been there, I suspect you’ll completely understand why I couldn’t omit them. I think Clay’s does some of the best and most exciting food Reading has ever seen, especially the starters which are simply a brilliant range of small but perfectly-formed dishes (I’d love to see Clay’s open a small plates restaurant one day).
From the fish fry to the incredibly dry, smoky chicken livers, from the chicken 65 to the creamy, indulgent paneer majestic there is an almost bewildering plethora of flavours to sample and enjoy (my tip: order one or two starters more than you have diners, and share everything). And that’s before we ever get to the mains – the hot and sour monkfish, the now almost legendary bhuna venison and possibly my personal favourite, the red chicken curry. Anyway, you know what I’m talking about because I suspect you’ve already eaten at Clay’s by now, haven’t you?
45 London Street, RG1 4PS.
4. Fidget & Bob
Possibly the most unusual beast on this list, Fidget & Bob is out in the wilds of Kennet Island and truly is an all-day venue, going effortlessly from a breakfast and brunch cafe during the day to a little restaurant in the evening. It might well have the best front of house in Reading at the moment, it certainly has the best Twitter feed and it announces daily specials which regularly make me want to drop everything, hop on the number 60 bus and make a beeline there for dinner (the char siu, a regular Tuesday offering, is a particular culprit).
I went for brunch recently and you can see the picture above – the most beautifully buttery scrambled eggs (from Beechwood Farm, who supply another venue on this list), properly cooked mushrooms, wonderfully buttered toast and bacon cooked just right. A lot of my Twitter followers have raved about Fidget & Bob’s brunches, but I’m ashamed it took me so long to try them for myself. Many of the beers are local, the wines are top-notch, the coffee is excellent and in summer, the outside space will be lovely and buzzy well into the evening. What more could you possibly want?
The Piazza, Whale Avenue, Kennet Island, RG2 0GX.
5. Geo Café
Another disclaimer: over the past couple of years Keti and Zezva, who run Geo Café in the site which used to be Nomad Bakery, have become friends and so you should take everything I’m about to say with a pinch of (Svaneti) salt. And again, I am more than aware of the areas Geo Café still needs to work on – service can be a bit thin on the ground, and they don’t always cope brilliantly with high volumes of customers. But the food redeems so much that I stand by my recommendation: Georgian food is the great unsung world cuisine (although maybe not for long) and there are many eye-opening dishes at Geo Café that you simply can’t eat anywhere else – not only in Reading but, generally speaking, in England.
The classic dish is the chicken wrap – lots of chicken thigh spiced with ajika, served in a well-assembled wrap packed with salad, baje (a sauce made from walnut), salad and lemon juice. Anybody who has had it at Blue Collar knows just what a good dish this is, and the Geo version comes close to hitting those heights. But there are also aubergine wraps, all sorts of skillets using the café’s excellent sourdough and of course, the wonder that is khachapuri – a flatbread stuffed with a gooey cheese which is a blend of cheddar, mozzarella and feta (made by the café, because they can’t get the Georgian cheese which is normally used).
Anyone who has followed Geo Café (or Georgian Feast, or Caucasian Spice Box, or whether they’ll be called next month) on their journey from the Horn to the Turk’s to the Island via countless food markets will be delighted to hear that they’ve finally found the home they deserve. Oh, and the cakes (from the bakery upstairs) are pretty good too.
10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG.
6. Kobeda Palace
Kobeda Palace is a scruffy, unpretentious, popular Afghan grill house down the Oxford Road. It is decidedly no-frills, its neighbour Da Village looks swankier and glossier, but I absolutely love it all the same. They make the naan on site – big, stretched, fluffy things with bubbled crusts. The kobeda kebabs are decent, as are the chicken tikka kebabs and the chops. And the karahi chicken, a red, oily, warming, ginger-strewn miracle of a dish, is one of the finest things you can eat in Reading. Order it, take the meat off the bone before you start and eat it with a naan, enjoying the bustle around you. There’s no alcohol licence, but when a restaurant on the Oxford Road has no alcohol licence that’s just the cosmos telling you to stop at the Nag’s Head on your way home.
409-411 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
7. Pepe Sale
After the demise of Dolce Vita last year, Pepe Sale might be Reading’s longest-running restaurant, and it really is a class act. Eating there is an impressively timeless experience – the service is quite brilliant, even when the place is extremely busy, the room has been gently updated (it still looks a tad dated, but nowhere near as much as it was), the menu still has tons of Sardinian classics but there are always specials to give regular diners numerous reasons to return. The suckling pig, only available on Friday and Saturday nights, has rightly attained almost mythical status but there are so many other things to enjoy, including chicken stuffed with mozzarella and wrapped in pancetta, beautifully tender veal in cream sauce and countless splendid pasta dishes.
Pepe Sale, as I’m often given to saying, was my first ever review on the blog and when I published it, one of my detractors piped up. “Pepe Sale is just an okay neighbourhood Italian restaurant” she said. How wrong can you be?
3 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF
8. Sapana Home
Sapana Home needs little introduction by now – heaven knows I’ve written about it enough times. The little Nepalese restaurant on Queen Victoria Street has been there for what seems like forever, and the clientele is an interesting mixture of Nepalese diners and non-Nepalese customers who are in the know. I’ve heard criticisms that their momo are frozen (and it’s true that the ones at the long-lamented Namaste Kitchen were even better) but really, on a cold day when you have ten pan-fried chicken momo in front of you I find I don’t give a monkey’s. Every time I put a picture of them on Instagram, I get a chorus of likes: it really is almost impossible to look at it and not want to eat them immediately.
There are other attractions. The chilli chicken and the chicken fry are both delicious, on a good day the chow mein is quite lovely and I do have a soft spot for the samosa chaat here, all sweet tamarind, crunchy sev and red onion. The service, too, is more friendly than you might expect, and they still do one of the best mango lassi in town. Judge all you like, but I ate there on Valentine’s Day.
8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
Shed was a quite shocking omission two years ago: all I can say is that I don’t know what I was thinking. It still does Reading’s mightiest toasted sandwiches – “The Top One”, all cheese chorizo and jalapeño, and “Tuna Turner”, which is tuna mayo, cheese and, err, also jalapeño. But the salads are excellent too, as is “Saucy Friday” when you can have, say, scotch bonnet chilli chicken with rice and peas, coleslaw and macaroni cheese. The service is outstanding, Pete and Lydia are almost annoyingly likeable, the milkshakes are great and they do some of the best loose leaf tea in town.
If I was being picky I sometimes wish the room itself (upstairs, it transforms into cocktail bar Milk in the evenings) was a bit lighter and the furniture was a little more comfortable, but I’m well aware that says more about my age than Shed’s beauty. It remains one of the best places in Reading to have lunch, and we’re lucky to have them.
8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT
Last but not least, the delights of the tiny Tuscany, tucked away on the Oxford Road. A handful of covers and a menu which basically consists of heading up to the counter and choose your toppings by pretending that you’re doing the numbers round on Countdown (“I’ll have two from the top, Carol, and six from anywhere else”). The pizza bases are really good, the pricing is ridiculously keen and the service is quite lovely – and many readers of the blog have told me about wonderful evenings they’ve had there after picking up a couple of cans or a bottle of wine from one of the nearby shops (no alcohol licence, but they don’t charge for corkage).
I’m long overdue a return visit, and this story maybe illustrates how much I found I cared about the place: I went a little while back for dinner with a friend to find the shutters down and the lights off. I went on Twitter to vent my despair, and felt a huge sense of relief when someone kindly pointed out to me that Tuscany was closed on Wednesdays. I’ve rarely been so happy to be wrong.
399 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA