I’m not sure there’s any such thing as the perfect pub, but I’m lucky to live near three that each embody different aspects of the platonic ideal of a public house.
The Retreat is arguably Reading’s best “classic” pub, even if its refurb last year made the toilets disconcertingly classy. The story goes that when the landlord of the Alehouse visited and saw the work the Retreat had carried out in lockdown he turned to Brian, the landlord, and said “thanks a bunch – now I really do have the shittest pub toilets in Reading” (apparently the Alehouse has done some work on them since). The Retreat lacks outside space, and the small beer selection is a little too cask-led for my personal taste, but it remains a wonderful place with a welcome like no other.
Then there’s the Lyndhurst, which does Reading’s best pub food, without question. It hosts burger nights on Mondays and curry nights on Thursdays, and boasts a menu full of staples like chilli beef nachos and katsu chicken burgers. And then there’s the icing on the cake: dazzling specials that tend to go on the menu Fridays and Saturdays and match any restaurant food anywhere in Reading. One week it’s skate wing topped with capers and crunchy croutons soaked in a sauce Grenobloise, another it’s lamb rump with an enormous slab of shredded lamb shoulder, breadcrumbed and fried, on the side.
To round off the holy trinity, the Weather Station boasts a superb selection of beers, the vast majority of which are on keg, has a nice little courtyard out back where you can drink them and has really gone from strength to strength in 2021. It always has at least one sticky, strong, indulgent imperial stout on the list and some of the DIPAs and pales on tap are truly terrific (a special mention to Wild Weather’s Orange Lazarus, which is as refreshing a summer drink as you could hope to find).
Having said all that, over the last twelve months I’ve spent a fair amount of pub time on the edge of West Reading, where the Castle Tap and the Nag’s Head have done an exemplary job of adjusting to Covid and providing great converted spaces for al fresco drinking. When I finally emerged from the cocoon of that first ever lockdown for an al fresco alcoholic drink, it was the Nag’s Head I made a beeline for. But the Nag’s Head always had two drawbacks.
One is that you couldn’t book a table, whereas at the Castle Tap they’ll gladly reserve you one outside. The other was that they never really had much of a food offering. That needn’t be be a problem. The Castle Tap is more than happy for you to order from Deliveroo and eat it at your table – they’ll even give you the postcode for the beer garden out back to use as a delivery address – but the Nag’s has always taken a dim view of that.
On one hand, it meant that the Nag’s Head didn’t bother trying to adapt to the constantly changing landscape of substantial meals, this tier and that tier. Life was simpler, if less lucrative – although the Nag’s also reopened later than its peers last year, sensibly spending extra time sprucing up their beer garden, so perhaps they could absorb those losses. But it also meant that they were closed for longer than some of Reading’s other pubs with outside space when they could have put together a menu, or invited a street food trader over, and continued to trade.
Anyway, when they reopened in April this year they were sporting a brand new food menu and a new smoker for pork and brisket. The menu was compact – not big enough to necessarily make the Nag’s a food destination in its own right, but aiming to offer enough choice that you wouldn’t have to face the invidious choice between leaving the pub to grab a meal or staying, getting shitfaced on an empty stomach and accidentally falling into Harput Kebab on the way home (and I’m not judging, because I speak from experience). And that kind of menu works: Zoë and I were having an early evening beer in the sunshine during her week off, and neither of us could face going home and cooking, which is why you get this review this week.
Before I talk about the menu, a little about the setup. Last year the Nag’s turned its car park properly into a beer garden, with plenty of well-distanced tables, some out in the open and some under marquees, with astroturf underfoot. It future-proofed them well, with the tables superb in sunshine but still usable in the rain, although having to take down the sides of the marquees to qualify as “outdoors” meant the wind could be mighty fierce. All ordering is at the table, with links to the beer list on Untappd, and payment is taken at the table, too. Although many other pubs abandoned table service as soon as they could the Nag’s is currently sticking with it, which I personally really appreciate.
The menu confines itself to three categories only – toasted sandwiches, sausage rolls and meat from the smoker. The Nag’s always used to offer the latter – pulled pork and beef brisket rolls – but the toasties and sausage rolls, a new move, are supplied by The Croque Shop, a business from Brighton. It’s an interesting decision to use them rather than a local supplier, although the pork and beef are from Vicar’s Game, probably Berkshire’s best-known butcher (it’s not all meat: there are vegetarian and vegan options for both toasties and sausage rolls).
Sausage rolls cost four pounds, the pulled pork and brisket are six pounds fifty and the toasties range from six pounds to nine, the most expensive thing being a Reuben made, slightly randomly, with pork belly instead of beef. You order the food along with your beer, but they take the order separately and you pay separately for your food when it arrives. Service is really very good at the Nag’s at the moment – months of running table service has really honed their skills in this area, and everyone who looked after us was friendly, personable and good at coming over just as we needed to order some more drinks.
Let’s start with the pulled pork sandwich, because it was good. Really good, in fact. You get a generous helping of the stuff stuffed in a brioche bun and topped with their own recipe barbecue sauce, and it’s a wonderful thing. So much pulled pork, to me, is a little bit claggy and gloopy, mixed in with the barbecue sauce and too often on the mulchy side. The Nag’s pulled pork, by contrast, was drier and not completely shredded – you could easily pull it apart, and the texture was spot on, but some of it was still in big, delicious doorstops. The barbecue sauce added more heat than sweetness, and there was just enough of it to compliment without overpowering.
It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I’m beginning to think a trip to the Nag’s without a pulled pork roll might be no kind of trip to the Nag’s at all. I enthused about it so much that Zoë ordered one herself with the next round of drinks and I had to look on enviously while she polished it off (admittedly an experience I’d been happy to inflict on her earlier in the evening). She used some of the accompanying crinkle cut crisps – Seabrook, at a guess – as a vehicle to transport some of the excess pulled pork into her gob, a trick I wish I’d thought of. I’ll try the beef brisket next time I’m at the Nag’s – or at least I’m telling myself that now – but the pulled pork roll is six pounds fifty well spent, and for my money one of the best sandwiches in Reading.
“You know the food at the beer festival? You know the crappy carvery they always have there?” said Zoë.
“I’m afraid so.”
“This is what the pork sandwiches at the beer festival should actually taste like.”
I really couldn’t disagree.
While I’d been gloating over my good choice, Zoë had tucked into a chicken, cheese and chorizo toastie from that section of the menu. Much as I’d love to use the pun “croque of shit” somewhere in this review, this was anything but – well made on good, sturdy sourdough that toasted well and full of decent quality chicken, vintage cheddar and nuggets of chorizo rather than cheap supermarket slices. Zoë was a fan – “this is as good as a Shed toastie”, she said – and we’ll have to take her word for it, because it was so good that I didn’t get a bite. At six pounds fifty it would compete with a Shed toastie on price, although it’s slightly smaller. But I think the pulled pork was probably better value.
In the interests of covering as many bases as possible, I also had a sausage roll. The most intriguing-looking one on the menu was pork, apricot and Stilton, and it looked the part – heated up in an oven rather than microwaved with nicely flaky, rustling pastry and a dense core of sausagemeat. And it came close, but if there was any Stilton in it I couldn’t detect it. I’d have liked it, for contrast against the sweet apricot studded through the sausage roll, but it was still decent even without it. If I’d known it was going to be a blue cheese free zone I might have gone for the pork, cheese and Marmite option – but who’s to say whether it would have turned out to have Marmite in it?
There’s not much point in saying a lot about the beers we had during our meal because the Nag’s (and the breweries it buys from) mix things up so frequently that anything I drank might well not be on when you’re there next. There’s a touch of ADHD about it, because you find something you like and they’re always on to the next thing (Siren Craft, it seems to me, is especially prone to this). But it would be remiss not to mention Woodland Battle Dance Exhibition, the newish DIPA by Double-Barrelled which is my favourite beer from them yet; it’s still on at the Nag’s at the time of writing, but who knows how long that will last?
It’s also worth adding that the Nag’s always has a good complement of beer from local breweries, with Siren, Double-Barrelled and Elusive well represented all of the time along with beers from smaller local breweries like White Waltham’s Stardust. It does make me wonder, a little, why their toasties and sausage rolls come from Sussex – but the toasties and sausage rolls are good, so maybe that’s why.
It was always going to be difficult reviewing somewhere after last week’s review, the best meal I’ve eaten on duty this (or any) year. But the Nag’s is the perfect choice, because despite being as different an experience as I can think of, the Nag’s does share some DNA with really good restaurants. Picking your suppliers carefully, having a compact menu which you execute superbly and matching your food to the atmosphere you want to create aren’t skills exclusive to restaurants: pubs and cafés need to get that right as well.
And I think the Nag’s has thought that out perfectly. It’s not destination food, but it’s just the right food to accompany a trip to the pub, or to try and stave off the inevitable hangover you can see on the horizon during a trip to the pub (I’m at the age now where sometimes I can sense the hangover in the post after a couple of drinks – that’s your forties for you).
The pulled pork sandwich is the pick of the bunch for me, but any of them would grace a drinking session and they offer an excellent change of gear from ordering a packet of pork scratchings and some Bacon Fries and opening them out on the table, pub tapas-style. And writing this, it strikes me that this is just typical of the Nag’s. They took their time deciding what to do about food while others tinkered at the edges or got street food traders in. But trust them, once they did get round to it, to do it properly.
The Nag’s Head – 7.8
5 Russell Street, Reading, RG1 7XD