Global Café Kitchen

Reading’s vegetarians and vegans have never been served terribly well. Back in the day there was Café Iguana, which I still miss (my order was usually a Roma toasted sandwich and their delicious, if whiffy, garlic and herb fries). It was scuzzy but lovable, the service was haphazard and the whole thing was distinctly, well, nineties, but I was very sad when it closed. For a long time after that, the only destination for vegetarians was the brilliant and unsung Bhel Puri House, and plenty of people didn’t even know it existed.

It’s only in the last couple of years that things have started to shift. We’ve seen restaurants raise their game: now there are many places with credible meat-free (or plant-based, or whatever you want to call it this month) options. So now we have Pho where most of the menu can be made vegetarian or vegan, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen which has an excellent vegan selection, and Honest which first introduced an excellent vegetarian fritter and then added a trailblazing vegan burger. I keep meaning to do a round-up of the best places for vegetarians in Reading – another gap in the market – and the main thing that delays it is the growing plethora of options.

In parallel, Reading saw two completely meat-free venues open this year. The first, Miami Burger, offered a vegan take on American fast food and closed its doors last week shortly after announcing a deal to sell its products in Morrisons. A cynic could almost believe that the restaurant was always just a shop window to land that kind of contract (a conspiracy theory hardly helped by Miami Burger rewriting history to describe the Reading restaurant as a “test kitchen”).

Either way I never visited Miami Burger – known to some as “Brexit Burger” because of the political views of its owner, a man who left the Tories for UKIP and once pondered on his blog whether the unemployed should have their votes taken away – and I’m not convinced I’ve missed much. Besides, for five pounds you can get one of Bhel Puri’s amazing vada pav, and that’s more than enough veggie burger for me.

The second meat-free restaurant is a more interesting proposition. Global Café for many years was home to Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen, a much-celebrated Reading establishment which left me baffled when I visited it on duty many years ago. Tutu left this year to take over a site in Palmer Park which used to belong to the Chalkboard Café, and as a result Global Café has taken on a new chef and is offering a regularly changing vegetarian and vegan menu under the moniker Global Café Kitchen.

I was having a drink at Global Café with my mother and my stepfather the fateful night we went to review Lemoni, and looking at their menu I was very tempted to change our plans and eat there instead. It was small (four or five main courses and a couple of starters) and reasonably priced (mains were around a tenner). But most crucially, it all looked worth eating: from a tempura mushroom burger to a vegetarian rendang, from Sri Lankan dahl to a halloumi and tabbouleh salad, I could happily have ordered practically anything on the menu. I wasn’t alone, either; my mother in particular would much rather have eaten at Global Café than Lemoni, so much so that we agreed to come back the following week and give it a whirl, with my stepfather in tow.

The Global Café hasn’t changed in many years, and I suspect you either think it’s one of the last great Reading institutions or an anachronism you haven’t felt the need to visit for a very long time. I veer more towards the former – even though it’s a tad on the scruffy side I’ve always had a soft spot for it. The area at the front, near the bar, gets lots of light from the lovely big windows and if all the tables and chairs don’t match and don’t seem to be designed for eating at or drinking at, it doesn’t necessarily matter. Nor does it matter that there’s a sofa randomly plonked there, with a big metal trunk serving as a table. It’s Global Café: that’s just how it is.

My stepfather found the long trip downstairs to the loos genuinely alarming (“it smells of damp down there”) and was a bit baffled by the different-coloured lights in the wicker lightshades (“you’d think they’d be LED bulbs, wouldn’t you?”) but I wouldn’t describe him as the target market for this kind of place. He was more impressed with the selection of local beers, as was I, but because it was a school night the three of us opted for an alcohol-free Erdinger Blue apiece while we decided what to order. It’s my top tip for anyone who likes the taste of beer and wants to cut down on their alcohol intake – and it cost less than £3 a bottle, considerably cheaper than the crazy prices charged at some of Reading’s pubs.

There were only a handful of starters, but all the mains from our previous visit were still on the menu, along with a couple of specials – a spiced potato and cheese “Bombay burger” and what was described as a “Banana Blossom burger”.

“What’s the banana blossom burger?” I asked the dreadlocked chap behind the bar (no table service, so that’s where you place your order).

“It’s not made from banana, it’s another part of the banana tree. It sort of has the same texture as chicken.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“They’re changing the menu all the time. I’m not even a vegetarian, but I really like the food here.”

“How long have you been running the new menu?”

“About three months, we’re still getting used to it really.”

I wasn’t sure whether this exchange inspired confidence or eroded it – but I liked his honesty and I liked the sound of the banana blossom burger, so I changed my mind about what to eat and ordered it instead.

Our starters arrived reasonably quickly, brought I think by the chef. The menu had three, one of which was soup, so we ordered the other two planning to share them. The best of them was the crispy fried aubergine, cooked with a beautifully light touch and free of all the stodge and mulch I associate with aubergine done badly.

This stuff was better than versions I’ve had of the same dish, berenjanas con miel, in Andalusia and the little tweaks to make the dish vegan only added to the appeal: vegan labneh had a very pleasing touch of coconut, and the miel de cana (vegan honey) was hard to distinguish from any other kind of honey. We all ever so politely made sure we had our fair share before nicely bargaining over the final piece. A really good dish, although at six pounds it felt like it should have been a bigger portion. “I could have eaten one of those on my own” said my mother, echoing my feelings. Still, I guess that’s what happens when you share two starters between three: if you go, order your own.

The other starter was a very different kettle of quinoa. Flatbread with marinated tomatoes, olives and dip sounds like just the thing to graze on while you wait for your food to arrive, but this was a lukewarm warm-up act. The tomatoes – cherry tomatoes halved – were pleasant enough, and the olives, small and pitted, were the kind of thing you could get in any supermarket.

The houmous, though, was worse than anything you could get in a supermarket – I’ve no doubt they made it themselves, but it had no lightness, no evidence of olive oil or garlic or tahini. Calling it a dip was optimistic because it didn’t have the texture for dipping: you’d have had more luck using it to cement a wall. We did our best to scoop it on to the heavy, unremarkable flatbread.

This rogue’s gallery came to four pounds – for the same money you could have a much bigger bowl of the best houmous in Reading just up the road at Bakery House, and they’d throw in piping hot, fresh-from-the-oven pitta bread into the bargain. It felt like the restaurant had bought those little, weird-shaped dishes, and then struggled to decide what to serve in them. The answer, I think, is Not this.

The themes of the starters – glimmers of talent, inconsistency and slightly sharp pricing – followed through to the main courses (which arrived pretty quickly), although these were generally far better. My mother’s choice, the parippu – Sri Lankan dahl – was earthy and creamy with a nicely gradual heat. Her verdict was that it was “a bit monotonous” – although I suspect that, texturally at least, that’s always the way with dahl. The toasted coconut on top helped, but it needed something like toasted seeds for texture and what it really needed was plenty of fresh coriander. The rice was somewhat clumpy – brown rice might have been better – and the flatbread wasn’t required: there wasn’t enough of the dish to be able to use it. If that all sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t entirely – I enjoyed it, but even at eight pounds it felt like it could have been a little bigger and better.

My stepfather had chosen the rendang – in this case a chickpea curry with aubergines and courgettes. I’m used to rendang being made with long-cooked, sticky strands of beef and having an intensely savoury taste. This dish didn’t have any of that, feeling more like a massaman or a Thai curry with as much sweetness as heat, if not more. Again, I liked it, and again I felt that it was a little keenly priced: eleven pounds for this one. My stepfather seemed to enjoy it, too, and polished it off in short order.

This brings us to the appropriately alliterative banana blossom burger, which I’m delighted to say was an eye opener. It didn’t have the texture of chicken, after all that: it reminded me more of artichoke hearts, and you got a couple of pieces rather than a single patty. But the coating around the banana blossom was very good – salty and savoury, reminiscent of shame-free KFC. The bun was strong enough to stand up to everything in it (so unlike, say, Honest’s buns which always seem to go soggy at the bottom) and the ripe avocado and mango mayo in it finished it off nicely.

This was a revelation to me, and I hope Global Café Kitchen moves it off the specials menu so more people can try it. A chap at the table next to me ordered it and when it arrived at his table I butted in to enthuse to him about how much I’d liked it. “It’s a bit like KFC!” I said, to which he mournfully replied “I’ve never had KFC” (I asked him his verdict as we were leaving: he thought it was too salty, so Christ knows what the poor guy would actually make of KFC).

Also, I really liked Global Café Kitchen’s fries – clearly hand-cut and prepared on the premises – and the sweet tomato sauce and (presumably) vegan mayo they came with were both tasty, too. My stepfather had some “dirty fries” although it wasn’t clear what made them so sinful or indulgent: the “beetroot aioli” mainly seemed to be finely diced beetroot and the sesame seeds felt a bit unnecessary. They were still very good, though, because their fries are very good.

There isn’t much more to say about Global Café Kitchen than that – there was no dessert section, and we’d been fed so quickly and efficiently that there was nothing more to do but to head out. Our whole meal – two starters, three mains, those extra fries and three beers – came to almost bang on fifty pounds, not including service.

Service was really friendly and likeable but had a general air that they were still getting the hang of things. We had to ask for side plates, for instance, and the speed with which our mains came out gave the impression that the restaurant didn’t have masses of customers, so was used to just cooking things and getting them out of the door almost straight away. Three months should be long enough to get those teething troubles under control but, much like everything else about Global Café, I was prepared to overlook some of the less polished aspects.

Reviews like this are the hardest to conclude. A hatchet job writes itself, a rave review also builds to a natural, logical crescendo, a rallying cry of sorts. It’s far more difficult to write the sort of nuanced summary that makes half your readers think the mark at the end is far too harsh and the other half believe that you’ve let a restaurant off the hook. All the same, here goes: much of what I ate at Global Café Kitchen wasn’t perfect, and much of what I liked felt too small or too expensive (or ever so slightly beige) but in terms of imagination and range there is still plenty to celebrate.

They offer a genuine vegan menu (nearly all the dishes are vegan, and they say the rest can be made vegan on request) which offers a wide range of dishes, tries different meat substitutes rather than just doling out the same old tofu and – most crucially – offers real and interesting choices. I could have ordered any of the main courses we tried that night, and a couple we didn’t, without feeling like I was missing meat at all. There’s a lot to be said for that – whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, or know somebody who is that you’d actually like to have dinner with once in a while. Or, for that matter, if you’d just like to do your bit to eat more sensibly and help the planet from time to time. That you can do so without donning a hair shirt is quite an achievement, even if in 2019 it shouldn’t feel that way.

I never made it to Miami Burger – deliberately, I’m afraid – but the one thing I heard about it from my vegan followers was how nice it was just to have somewhere where they could order everything on the menu. Those people should make their way to Global Café and support a kitchen that may not be doing everything right quite yet but definitely has the right idea. And the rest of us? We should consider following suit from time to time, and supporting a Reading institution – one which, it seems to me, has picked up the torch from Café Iguana and is doing its best to carry it forward into an uncertain future.

Global Café Kitchen – 6.9
35-39 London Street, RG1 4PS
0118 9583555

https://www.risc.org.uk/global-cafe/global-cafe-kitchen

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Lemoni

It is, I think, a universal reaction when we taste something funny, or not quite right, or even plain bad, to seek a second opinion. Whether that’s saying “do you think this milk is still good?” when it’s a day past the use by date or asking “does this taste weird to you?” in a restaurant, we all do it. We like to share delicious food, providing we have enough of it to spare, but it’s when something’s awful that we really feel the need to share the pain.

I say this because I’ve had several people in the last three months ask me if I’ve been to Lemoni, the new Greek restaurant in the Oracle, or when I’m going – and not because they say the food is stellar. One message on Twitter said “OMFG, it was awful. Service took ages every time, when they arrived the flicking of long hair over food was… ugh”. Another, on Instagram, said it was so bad that they refused a discount because they wanted to leave as quickly as possible. “I never thought I’d say this” she added, “but I really miss Jamie’s Italian”. Someone else on Twitter said “I went there last weekend and I’m interested to hear your opinion”: sometimes what isn’t said shouts as loudly as what is.

As a result, despite my best efforts to stay positive, I approached my visit to Lemoni with a gradual mounting dread. On the one hand, people definitely wanted an impartial review. But on the other, looking at their website I had a real feeling of “must I?”. Part of that came from looking at the menu online, because the dishes at Lemoni were undeniably pricey. Sixteen pounds fifty for a moussaka, or for a chicken shish kebab? They’d have to be absolutely faultless to charge that much.

Matters weren’t helped by my other half sending me a picture which had been doing the rounds at her work, taken from Tripadvisor, of the lamb kebabs. They look as if they had been formed not by hand but by the combination of a colon and a sphincter, nature’s piping bag. As if to reinforce the point, one of her colleagues had effortlessly Photoshopped a single kebab into an image of a toilet bowl: it wasn’t even slightly incongruous, bobbing there.

Tripadvisor didn’t help in general, as it seemed polarised between glowing reviews (often from Greek users with very few other TA reviews) and mutinous rumblings from everybody else about poor value, indifferent food, terrible service. Who to believe?

And then there was the wider mystery – who were Lemoni anyway? Hard to tell from social media, that’s for sure: there was a glut of very polished Instagram activity when the restaurant was about to open, but since then the silence has been deafening. Trying to get any background was challenging – the suggestion had been that this was their second restaurant but from what I could glean from Companies House the first restaurant, in Southampton, had gone into liquidation before the Reading branch opened.

How did an independent business with no real footprint come out of nowhere to take on the Oracle’s biggest restaurant site, quite possibly paying an annual rent in the high six figures? How was it going to survive in such a competitive site, even (or especially) charging those prices? There was only one way to get to the bottom of it: I was going to have to go there myself.

I felt bad about asking anybody to accompany me, but in the end my mother and my stepfather gamely agreed to come along: sometimes you really do need the unconditional commitment only family can truly provide. So, despite my stepfather’s wistful looks askance at the entrance to Royal Tandoori, we walked up to Lemoni on a warm summer’s evening to take our chances.

The welcome at the door was bright and friendly, and we walked up through the stairs and through the restaurant to take a table out on the upstairs balcony, one of Reading’s better al fresco spaces. The transformation from when the restaurant was Jamie’s Italian was marked, and very nicely done: the upstairs and downstairs are both very tasteful, airy spaces with plenty of natural light, grown-up looking marble-topped tables and grey tweedy banquettes. I didn’t eat inside, but I liked the look of it – I did wonder though just how much sound would be absorbed on a busy Friday or Saturday night and whether the restaurant would feel quite as welcoming on a darker winter’s evening.

The first big surprise came when the menus arrived, because the prices have been reduced significantly since April (although Lemoni has neglected to change its website to reflect this). Mains in particular had come down by between three and five pounds per dish – badly needed, because many of the dishes skirted around the twenty pound mark which felt very expensive for this kind of food. This means that Lemoni must be the first restaurant I’ve encountered to do a soft opening in reverse: still, at least it showed they were learning from their mistakes.

We ordered a few drinks, namely a Mythos for my stepfather, a Menebrea – the Italian beer which is becoming Peroni for people who think they’re too good for Peroni – for my mother and some sparkling mineral water (don’t judge) for me. Nearly all the waiting staff, all dressed all in black, seemed to be Greek and they certainly looked efficient, darting from table to table; maybe they’d also learned from some of that early criticism.

We decided to share some of the starters to begin with – these all vary between about five and eight pounds, although they charge extra for pitta which felt cheeky to me. How else did they expect you to eat houmous or taramasalata, exactly? The taramasalata, incidentally, was one of the best starters we had – brighter pink than I’m led to believe it should be but punchy all the same. I especially liked the addition of some salted capers on top, but I suspect they were more popular with me than with my mother. “It doesn’t taste that fishy” was her feedback – my stepfather and I disagreed, but she had taken against the dish and that was that.

The spanakopita was a hit with all of us – light filo pastry with just enough crunch housing a beautifully molten mixture of feta, spinach and mint. The other two starters, though, were the relative duds. Saganaki is one of my favourite Greek starters and done well it’s a glorious, indulgent thing. The menu chose not to specify which cheese it was (which perhaps should have been a warning bell) but it’s usually feta and this didn’t feel like feta at all. Whatever it was, it was a lukewarm block of cheese with a leathery texture which had no give whatsoever. The “homemade tomato jam” might just have been able to paper over the cracks of this dish, but there was nowhere near enough of it.

The last starter arrived after the other three, and before the side plates we’d had to ask for twice. Mashed fava beans topped with calamari were a pleasing shade of yellow and had a earthy, if subtle, taste. But I couldn’t help wishing it was hot rather than lukewarm and it also needed some pita to do it justice. Our first helping of pita – tasty, topped with something like cayenne pepper or paprika along with dried oregano but far too little of it – had already vanished by then and it took multiple attempts to flag someone down to ask for more. By the time it arrived we still just about needed it, but the moment had passed.

“That dish is bland” said my mother, pointing accusingly at the fava beans.

“It’s okay – it could do with a bit more seasoning” I said.

“Well, it’s not unpleasant” she added, the implication clearly being that not unpleasant was not good enough. I could see what she meant, but I was more disappointed that paying two pounds extra got your fava bean purée topped with precisely four tiny bits of squid. Maybe I’ve inherited her critical faculties.

Having struggled to get our side plates and struggled to get extra pita bread, we then found we were left alone with our leftovers in front of us for some time. This gave my mother enough time to do some detective work.

“Our placemats are by John Lewis” she said. “They have the tag on them.”

I inspected them. This was indeed the case.

“And the labels are still on the underside of our side plates.”

I wasn’t sure how my mother had clocked this – nothing gets past her – but lifting up my snazzy rippled white plate it was true. Sophie Conran for Portmeiron, no less, and that stuff isn’t cheap; these aren’t plates you’d want to smash at a wedding.

“It’s weird, isn’t it? It’s like they’ve picked this stuff up at a department store because money’s no object.” And again, I found myself wondering where the money came from to open this massive restaurant out of nowhere and kit it out with a lovely new refit, John Lewis placemats and Sophie Conran crockery. At this point my stepfather outlined his theory on the matter: sadly, I’ve had to omit it from the review but I’m sure you could come up with your own ideas.

I was jogged out of this reverie by the fact that as our plates were taken away the main courses were plonked in front of us, supervised by an older man who looked as if he might be the owner. The overall effect was a little menacing, especially as my stepfather had ordered the “chicken skewer” which comes to the table on a long and potentially dangerous skewer fresh from the grill. The skewer was served on a bed of undressed, pointless rocket with some soft-looking roasted potatoes, a cold couscous salad and some kind of dip. I tried some of the chicken and it wasn’t unpleasant but there was no real sign that it had been marinated. At fourteen pounds it was still more expensive than the same dish at Bakery House, with nowhere near the same whistles and bells.

“That dip is salad cream” said my mother, looking none too impressed.

“I think it’s more like burger sauce” I said. “The menu says it’s ‘Lemoni mayonnaise sauce’, apparently.”

“Well it tastes like salad cream to me.”

“It’s not going to be a glass half full evening, is it?” said my stepfather philosophically as he attacked the rest of his main, undeterred by any resemblance to Heinz’s finest. I had ordered the classic kebab, and I was delighted to discover that they no longer looked like the Photoshopped horror I’d been sent via Whatsapp. If anything, these were uncannily regular cylinders of meat – a mixture of beef and lamb, apparently – and I wasn’t sure whether I enjoyed them or if I was just relieved that they weren’t worse. They were nicely seasoned and although they were a little on the smooth and homogeneous side for my liking they weren’t unpleasant. They came with a yoghurt thicker and more pointless than Dominic Raab, and a tomato sauce which lacked any spice or heat at all. Nice chips, to be fair, but apart from that this was another dish that Bakery House does miles better for less.

Even if the glass had been half full up to that point, it pretty much emptied when my mum started eating her pastichio, a sort of Greek lasagne which serves as an alternative to moussaka.

“This is sweet. It’s as sweet as a dessert. And there’s nowhere near enough mince. It’s just a sweet tomato sauce and some pasta. And the cheese! Well, it doesn’t taste cheesy.”

I tried some. You couldn’t knock her brevity: it would take me a whole paragraph to say a lot less.

“I think it tastes sweet because there’s definitely cinnamon in that tomato sauce.” I said, trying to put a brave face on it. Who was I trying to kid? The dish was a duffer.

It didn’t help that the accompanying Greek salad also didn’t pass muster. “It’s a nice olive” my mother said, “but it needs company.” A pity, because the feta was lovely and, again, I thought adding capers was a nice touch. But it’s difficult to argue with somebody saying that a Greek salad needs to contain more than one solitary olive.

We stayed for dessert, because I desperately wanted to give Lemoni one more chance. The big thing here is loukoumades, Greek doughnuts, so I ordered them with Greek honey and crushed walnuts. They were nicely irregularly-shaped, so obviously made by hand, but that’s as far as the plusses went. They were heavy, stodgy things, the shell not crisp and the inside a million miles from a fluffy cloud of joy. The honey was in a lake at the bottom rather than drizzled over the doughnuts, and the whole thing was heavy going. We didn’t finish them.

“Doughnuts ought to be a delight” said my mother, who by this point was turning into a one-woman Greek chorus of disapproval. “You should want to race through them.”

My stepfather’s bougatsa, custard in filo pastry, was better but still not right. I liked the custard very much, but this pastry didn’t have the same lightness of touch as our starters had had. Sawing through it with a knife felt like a slog. “It’s a bit tough” said – well, I’m sure you can guess who said that.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we also had to ask for the bill twice. Lemoni was busier than I expected on a Wednesday evening – the sun was still shining, the big screen on the Riverside was showing Wimbledon, people were sitting in the deckchairs on the opposite bank watching it and the beach bar was full of the kind of people who like the beach bar. It was a glorious evening, and if our meal had been better maybe we’d have been happy to sit there and digest and chat away with all the time in the world. All the best Greek food I’ve had – usually on holiday, but also in restaurants like Maida Vale’s scruffy Tsiakkos & Charcoal, or Notting Hill’s upmarket Mazi – is best eaten in a leisurely fashion, while you daydream of being somewhere in the Cyclades. But in this case, we just wanted to settle up and sod off.

Eventually, we flagged someone down and our bill – four starters, three mains, two desserts, two beers and some mineral water – came to ninety pounds, not including tip. Not hugely expensive, in the scheme of things, but when you consider that we barely drank it’s still a fair amount to spend on something so middling.

“You could come here and have quite a good meal” said my stepfather, “if you happen to order just the right things. Or if you ordered badly it would be terrible.” I nodded in agreement: I’d seen huge plates of what looked like home-made crisps turn up at other tables and I was thinking that if I’d just ordered those and some houmous I probably would have had a better, cheaper time.

So, there you have it: Lemoni isn’t the horror show I half expected, which just goes to show that anybody who reviews a new restaurant in the first month is making an error of judgment. But, even after three months of working on the pricing, the menu and the service it’s still deeply unspecial. Not better than Bakery House, not better than The Real Greek, not better than Kyrenia in its heyday. I don’t say that with any joy or any axe to grind – it would be a wonderful thing for the prime pitch in the heart of the Oracle to be occupied by a brilliant, distinctive, smartly-priced and well-run independent restaurant. But Lemoni is not that restaurant.

My closing thought about Lemoni was the saddest of all, because what my visit really did was make me think about Dolce Vita. Dolce Vita paid less rent than Lemoni, it charged more than Lemoni, it was busier than Lemoni, it did better food, it had better service and it closed for good last year. If Dolce Vita couldn’t make a go of it with so much in its favour, who would bet on Lemoni seeing out the year? More to the point: just imagine how wonderful Reading would be if a restaurant like Dolce Vita had occupied a spot like the one Lemoni has. How I wish we lived in a town like that.

Lemoni – 6.2
Unit 1, The Riverside, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0118 9585247

https://reading.lemoniuk.com/

ER On Tour: Granada

Everybody has their happy place, and the Spanish city of Granada is mine. I first went there around twenty years ago: I was visiting my old schoolfriend Mike (who actually crops up in this blog from time to time) getting over a disastrous relationship. He lived in Madrid, but for some reason we decided to take a very long coach trip all the way across the country to spend a couple of days in Andalusia. It’s the sort of thing you do in your twenties, I suppose, like sleeping on somebody’s floor or deciding that Batchelors’ Savoury Rice and a bottle of Mars Energy Drink constitutes an acceptable diet.

Anyway, I don’t remember much about that visit but I do remember Granada. Bar after bar, beer after beer, and free tapas with every one. Beyond that, my evening was a blur – we wandered through the winding lanes of the Albaicin, the city’s Moorish quarter up on the hill, and ended up in a nightclub in a cave until the small hours of the morning. Even in our mid-twenties we were probably too old for that sort of thing, and as the sun came up we sat outside Cafeteria Lisboa on Plaza Nueva (it’s still there) and had a beer for breakfast for the first and probably only time of my life. What a city! What a place!

Since then I’ve been back many times and what began as a passing infatuation has blossomed into a love affair. I worked out recently that I’ve gone on holiday to Granada more times than anywhere else – including four times in the last five years, believe it or not – and I never tire of it. It’s not the most beautiful of Spanish cities, I’m sure. It has a certain scruffy energy (which comes partly from its student population, I suspect) and it seems to attract a lot of day trippers who come to see the Alhambra and then sod off. You get a lot of American tourists at neighbouring tables, and I think it’s quite popular on the hippy trail – lots of white people with dreadlocks, if you catch my drift. But none the less, it remains my favourite city on earth.

It’s hard to put my finger on why, but tapas is doubtless a big part of it. On my first visit Mike told me that although tapas was an Andalusian invention it was only really in Granada that the bars prided themselves on providing it free of charge. Some of the tapas is really inventive, and the bar staff always seem to remember whether you’re on your first, second or third drink, bringing out a different dish to accompany each one. Once, on a night out in Granada with my old friend Dave, we ordered a couple of glasses of sweet, gloopy Pedro Ximenez only for the staff to bring out dessert tapas – two beautiful, perfect squares of cheesecake and two tiny forks (they may have thought we were a couple: it sometimes happens).

But there’s so much more to Granada than the food and the bars – lovely, sun-flecked squares perfect for sitting, drinking coffee and watching people, stunning buildings, bazaars and tea rooms, spellbinding Moorish architecture and whitewashed churches. I’ve been threatening to write a guide to Granada for years, and given that my most recent visit was on holiday back in May I’ll probably never have a better opportunity than this. I hope it tempts you – because there are few better feelings than getting off the plane and walking across the tarmac at Federico Garcia Lorca Airport knowing that you have lazy days of sunshine, tapas and relaxation ahead of you.

Where to eat and drink

 
I’ve grouped these together because, really, in Granada they go hand in hand so my recommendations tend to be tapas bars. Some of them do have tables you can sit at, or even book, but more often they are stops on a magnificent barhopping journey, joining the dots across the city and having a couple of drinks and some tapas in every one. If you do want a sit-down, starters-mains-desserts kind of place, Ruta del Azafran looks out on the Alhambra, has a lovely outside space on the Paseo de los Tristes and can be booked online: I very much enjoyed my chicken pastilla last time I was there. Or, if you want a proper gastronomic treat, book a table at El Claustro and enjoy the Andalusia-inspired tasting menu there.

Both have their place, but I’ve always found my best food experiences in Granada have involved using my elbows, standing up at the bar and being in the heart of proceedings. I thoroughly recommend giving it a whirl.

1. Bodegas Castañeda

I visited Bodegas Castañeda on my very first trip to Granada and I’ve been back on every single visit, frequently more than once. It’s now become the first place I eat when I get to the city, the gastronomic equivalent of Pope John Paul II kissing the tarmac. Confusingly, there are actually two Castañedas – the original bar was apparently split in two as the result of a family falling out – but the one on Calle Almireciros is the one you want. Stand at the bar, order a beer from one of the staff (who, incidentally, work like Trojans) and wait for your first tapa to arrive. Then, when you’re ready, dive into the menu: there’s manchego as gritty and crystalline as any Parmesan; broad beans with big chunks of super-savoury jamon; thick, salty slabs of bacalao swamping slices of bread; mojama (sun dried tuna) drizzled with olive oil and scattered with almonds.

On the last full day of our holiday, we managed to grab a table in the sunshine outside amid all the bustle and feasted on platters of cured fish with asparagus, capers and caviar, patatas a lo pobre with sweet onion and several glasses of cold, crisp beer. We experienced one of the great uncharitable pleasures of eating in restaurants, namely watching people being turned away from the place where you’re eating because there’s no room left. Even without taking that into account, I felt like I was at the very epicentre of my happy place.

Bodegas Castañeda, Calle Almireciros, 1-3

2. Taberna La Tana

La Tana is the place to enjoy wine in Granada, a beautiful little place on the edge of the Realejo, the city’s liveliest and scruffiest district. It’s a tiny room, and people often spill out onto the street outside, but if you can get there early enough to grab its only table you do feel like you’ve won the lottery.

All the wines by the glass are quite outstanding but, as so often, the food is what transforms the experience. I still dream about the black pudding here – sweet, fragrant morcilla de Burgos served hot and topped with pine nuts. They also, incongruously, do some of the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted: you often get it as a tapa with drinks but if not it’s well worth ordering it in its own right. La Tana isn’t an unsung a place as it was when I first started going there, so prepare to hear a lot of American accents. It’s worth it, though.

Taberna La Tana, Placeta del Agua, 3

3. Saint Germain

Saint Germain always feels to me like what would happen if Granada and Paris had a beautiful child – it’s a tapas bar, yes, but with an impressive range of wine and, oddly, a Marcel Proust theme which extends all the way through to the menu. Much of the food is good enough to induce a madeleine moment many years later, too – on my last visit I really enjoyed the chorizo in honey (not a combination I’d had before) but I absolutely loved the blue cheese and wild mushroom risotto: even typing this makes me remember that divine combination of salt, starch and tang.

The staff here were lovely and friendly in the face of my stumbling Spanish, too – even more so than elsewhere in Granada. The tables outside are terrific, and badly needed in summer, but the interior is wood-panelled, conspiratorial and definitely lends itself to conversations, even ones not about À la recherche du temps perdu.

Saint Germain, Calle Postigo Velutti, 4

4. Bar Aliatar Los Caracoles

I always make time to explore Granada’s Albaicin when I visit the city (see Things to see and do, below, for more about the Albaicin) but in the past I’ve always struggled to find somewhere nice to eat around there. Los Caracoles on Plaza Aliatar was a very welcome discovery on my last visit – a lovely dappled square and an appealing menu made for a perfect lunch spot.

Caracoles means snails, and they are on the menu (many tables seemed to be having them as tapas) but if, like me, you’re not a fan there’s plenty to enjoy. I had some gorgeous hand-carved jamon and a big bowl of broad beans with (more) jamon, served with an egg on top, waiting to release its yolk into the rest of the dish. This was also my favourite people-watching spot: I became fascinated by a pair of dapper old gentlemen – Panama hats and all – at the next table eating, drinking and waving their hands around. I couldn’t decide whether I wished I could eavesdrop on them or whether knowing what they were saying would have killed the magic.

Bar Aliatar Los Caracoles, Plaza Aliatar, 4

5. Mercado de San Agustin

Although less developed than, say, Malaga’s market, I really liked the Mercado de San Agustin. There are plenty of stalls inside selling meats, cheeses, wine and all the other usual suspects, but I loved sitting outside and ordering from a menu in the sunshine.

I ended up eating there twice, so much did I enjoy it, and everything I had was near perfect – whether it was swordfish or bacalao straight off the plancha, perfectly cooked and drizzled with oil and herbs or baby squid piping hot and waiting to be dressed with freshly squeezed lemon juice. But the revelation was tomatoes aliñado, huge things cut into slices like steaks, beautifully sweet and dressed with olive oil and big salt crystals, one of the most magical things I ate on my tip. It made the bland polytunnel tomatoes we get in the U.K. feel halfway between a disappointment and a national embarrassment.

Mercado de San Agustin, Plaza de San Agustin

6. Potemkin

Potemkin, a little bar in the Realejo district opposite the modern language school, was a real find on my last visit. It’s in a pretty square, the service is excellent and best of all, on Wednesdays they serve sushi – and that means sushi tapas, too.

When my caña arrived with some beautifully made avocado maki, I was both baffled and delighted. By the time the next one was brought to the table with some salmon nigiri, I was convinced that sushi and tapas was the combination the world had been waiting for. The tapas was more conventional, but no less delicious, on a return visit: by then I was daydreaming about living in a world where a bar like Potemkin was just around the corner.

Potemkin, Placeta del Hospicio Viejo, 3

7. Café Futbol

Breakfast in Granada means churros, and churros means Cafe Futbol (although Gran Cafe Bib-Rambla, in the more central and splendidly-named Plaza Bib-Rambla, is also worth consideration). Sitting in the square outside with half a dozen churros, a zumo de naranja and a café con leche sets you up perfectly for the day, and Café Futbol does them better than anywhere else I’ve found. The batter is perfectly sweet yet salty, and although lots of people like to dunk them in thick, gloopy chocolate I prefer to empty the contents of a sugar sachet onto my unused saucer and gently dab them in that, giving just a little crunch and sweetness. It’s not infra dig to dip them in your coffee, either, if you ask me.

Cafe Futbol, Plaza de Mariana Pineda, 6

8. Los Italianos

Only open during the summer months, Los Italianos is Granada’s legendary gelataria, conveniently located on Gran Via, pretty much opposite the cathedral. It says something about the time of year I usually visit Granada that my recent trip was the first time I’ve ever gone to Los Italianos (and the second, and the third). It’s proper old-school cool: I suspect they have been operating pretty much the same way for decades and the gelato, although maybe not hitting the heights of Italy, is still bloody marvellous and deeply welcome on a hot day (when not in Rome, and all that). I loved the gianduja gelato – enough to have it more than once – but the salted caramel was also very nice indeed.

Los Italianos, Calle Gran Vía de Colón, 4

9. Noat Coffee

You can get a café con leche or the like pretty much anywhere in Granada, and I’ve always thought they’re one of life’s great pleasures when you’re on holiday in Spain. But if you do find yourself craving a more refined, delicate coffee more reminiscent of a Tamp or an Anonymous, Granada has a few really good options.

La Finca near the cathedral is excellent, and I rather enjoyed Dulcimena Coffee in the heart of the Realejo, but my favourite was Noat, a really sweet little café also in the Realejo. They are really friendly, they serve superb latte and although they only have a handful of seats inside there’s a bench out front where you can drink your coffee and watch the city beginning to wake up from the night before. Highly recommended.

Noat Coffee, Calle Santa Escolastica, 7

10. Colagallo

Granada’s craft beer scene is very much up and coming, but Colagallo, in the Realejo, is at the heart of it (it’s the only bar in Granada on Untappd). It’s more polished than other craft beer pubs I’ve been to in Spain, and it had an impressive array of beers from Spain and beyond (Belgium and the U.K., unsurprisingly, also get a look in). We tried a couple, from Basqueland Brewing and local brewery Sacromonte and loved them both.

Craft beer must be a tough sell in Granada of all places, where an Alhambra is not only as cheap as chips but usually accompanied by free food, but the tapas in Colagallo were also substantial and very tasty, especially the empanada I had. Service, as it nearly always is in craft beer places, was really charming, engaging and enthusiastic. He wanted to know what we made of the beers and once he had established that we were English he wanted to talk about our dealings with Europe (Liverpool FC, thankfully, rather than fucking Brexit).

Colagallo, Calle Molinos, 28

Things to see and do

1. The Alhambra

The Alhambra is probably the single reason most people visit Granada, and it’s quite possible that many tourists bus in, visit the Alhambra, get back on the coach and head on elsewhere without ever seeing the city. It’s a whole complex of palaces, gardens and fortifications and you really do have to visit it if you ever go to Granada (and if you do, be warned: you need to buy tickets online some way in advance). Although the gardens are beautiful and peaceful and some of the other palaces are either grand or charming, the real attraction here are the Nasrid Palaces, a succession of increasingly beautiful courtyards and halls, patios and fountains.

Many words have been written about the Alhambra by many people, and I don’t think a couple of lines by a restaurant reviewer are going to do the place justice – none of my photos of the place, taken over the course of over a decade, do either. All I would say is that every time I go I see something new, and get lost in it all over again, from the beautiful, intricate carvings to the gorgeous tile work, the breathtaking ceilings and the stunning arches. The views out across the Albaicin are amazing, and even the tourists crawling round every inch of it can’t detract from its majesty. I’ve been to very few tourist attractions in my life that even come close to living up to the hype. The Alhambra easily does all that, and more besides.

2. The Albaicin

The Albaicin, the old Moorish quarter of the city, is on the hill opposite the Alhambra and is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a lovely place to wander and explore, all winding steep lanes and whitewashed houses with courtyards resplendent with flowers. One of the focal points is the Mirador de San Nicolas, with its iconic view out across to the Alhambra (and, usually, quite a lot of people selling beads/sporting dreadlocks/playing Bob Marley songs on a guitar). If you want a better view of the Alhambra the trick is to nip next door to the tranquil mosque, where you get the same vista but with a welcome added dose of dignity.

Half the fun of the Albaicin is getting lost in it, but it’s also worth checking out the gorgeous whitewashed church of San Miguel Bajo (and having a beer in one of the places in the square outside) and picking your way through the streets leading off the buzzing (if unfortunately named) Plaza Larga. It’s also worth mentioning the streets which lead up into the Albaicin from the city centre, Caldereria Vieja and Caldereria Nueva, because they are lined with tea houses or teteria. It’s well worth stopping in one for a fresh mint tea, poured into tiny glasses with some ceremony from a great height, or té Pakistani which is sweet, perfumed and milky like chai. As Sirat is my favourite teteria, but any of them is worth a visit.

3. The Monastery of Saint Jeronimo

The most famous monastery in Granada is La Cartuja, the Carthusian monastery quite a way out of the city. But I have a real soft spot for the monastery of Saint Jeronimo, which is a ten minute walk from the cathedral. It’s unassuming and modest at first, and walking round the cloisters, smelling the orange trees in the courtyard, you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about. But the chapel, and more specifically the altarpiece, is one of the most incredible and overblown things I’ve ever seen. The photo above doesn’t come close to doing it justice and even after countless visits it never loses its power. One of my favourite things about introducing new people to Granada is taking them to the monastery, showing them the chapel and watching them try not to swear in a house of God.

4. The Alcaiceria

Not far from Granada’s handsome cathedral (also worth a visit, come to think of it) the Alcaiceria is a little maze of passages offering a miniature equivalent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It’s a nineteenth century replacement for the fifteenth century original, which was destroyed by fire, and although many of the shops sell very similar goods (lots of lanterns, leathergoods and marquetry – wooden inlaid boxes) it’s a very pleasant way to amble and window shop. You don’t get hassled or invited to haggle as you would in the Grand Bazaar, either.

5. Patio de los Perfumes

Granada isn’t rife with shopportunities, although I always love a pootle round its branch of El Corte Ingles, complete with its slightly preposterously named Club Del Gourmet in the basement (you can imagine Frasier and Niles buying their sherry there). I do love Rafael Moreno Orfebre, an old-school shop that sells silver jewellery inspired by the intricate designs of the Alhambra. But my favourite shop in Granada is Patio on the picturesque Carrera del Darro, a museum of perfume which also sells beautiful fragrances based around the signature aromas of the city – so you can expect plenty of jasmine, orange blossom and pomegranate. I came away with a bottle for me and a couple extra for my friends.

Patio de los Perfumes, Carrera del Darro, 5