Three months ago I wrote about the quiet revolution taking place at Reading University’s bars. Park House, always one of Reading’s best kept secrets for an al fresco drink, underwent a surprising but convincing transformation this year: out went the cheesy chips and in came a menu that made all the right noises – listing suppliers, talking about provenance and using both local producers and the university’s own beef.
I went, I tried it and I was pleasantly surprised – so much so, in fact, that when I put together my updated list of Reading’s best spots to eat outdoors Park House bagged a place. Some people missed the cheesy chips, apparently. But there’s no accounting for taste: some people are going to miss Boris Johnson.
But could lightning strike twice? That was the question Zoë and I asked ourselves after I met her from work and we ambled to the Dairy on a golden midsummer evening. We strolled past the Turks Head (you can tell it’s glorious weather when even sitting outside the Turks looks tempting), past the sedate, leafy thoroughfare of Kendrick Road, and I thought to myself that it was moments like these I should be storing up in my head, so I could turn them over in my mind when the clocks went back and the feeling of sun on my skin was a distant memory.
The Dairy also revamped its menu in 2022 and makes the same claims as Park House when it comes to where they get their ingredients from. Bread from Waring’s, eggs from Beechwood Farm, all the right noises, all that jazz. But I was particularly keen to see if the Dairy had raised its game because, to be honest, it could easily have done so just by buying in some ready meals from M&S.
Or, for that matter, Asda. My previous visit to the Dairy on duty, back at the start of 2019, had been a grim experience with lukewarm, chewy curry and a chicken burger which, underneath its modish charcoal bun, was as wan and tasteless as Jacob Rees Mogg. So, did lightning strike twice or was it more a case of fool me twice, shame on me? I can honestly say I approached the Dairy with no real hunch as to how this one would play out.
On another day I would have sat indoors – the Dairy has a lovely room off from the main bar – but as it was so sunny we plonked ourselves outside. I’d hesitate to call it a beer garden, but out the back of the Dairy it has plenty of tables which catch the sun nicely. They’re big tables, with deep benches which can even accommodate a rear as sizeable as mine, so they’re more suited for bigger groups than a tête-à-tête, but we weren’t going to let that stop us.
The Dairy’s dinner menu is relatively compact and in three main sections – stuff from the grill, burgers and hot dogs. But the main thing that jumps about it, from a casual reading, is how cheap it is. The dishes from the grill are about six quid, burgers are nine pounds and hot dogs are seven. Rather confusingly the cheapest dishes come with a couple of sides and a sauce, the more expensive ones with a single side. If there’s logic there I don’t see it, although most of the sides only cost a couple of pounds anyway. I don’t see how it can’t be subsidised, and I’m not sure how they make money on it, but you would struggle to rack up a bill here.
It’s only later, when I was back home and leafing through the Dairy’s Instagram feed, that I realised this menu has been slimmed down from their launch menu at the start of the year. It’s especially a shame because it’s almost like someone looked through the launch menu, marker pen in hand, and struck a big black line through anything that looked particularly fun: so farewell to the jerk plantain and halloumi skewers, the beef burger topped with smoked pork belly and blue cheese, the brined fried chicken with pickled watermelon and the fish dog with crispy fried goujons, tartare sauce and chilli crushed peas.
See what I mean? What was left was the menu equivalent of the Golgafrincham B Ark, and I’m hoping at least a few of you will get that reference. But none the less even if dinner turned out to be a mistake it at least wouldn’t be a costly one. And besides, the Dairy still has an amazing range of local beer with options from Wild Weather (the excellent King Street Pale), Siren, Phantom and Academia lager from Double-Barrelled, which is brewed exclusively for the university.
I went up and ordered our food, along with a half of cider for me and a half of Take Nothing For Granted, a Siren collab with Brew By Numbers, for Zoë (she loved it, by the way – if you see it, try it). The whole shebang came to just shy of twenty-two pounds, which is crazy money for dinner and a drink. I did feel though that the chap behind the bar didn’t understand the menu all that well and it was a bit of a struggle to explain what sides we wanted with what dish.
“Don’t I get to pick a sauce to go with mine as well?” I asked.
“It comes with barbecue sauce” he said.
“Should I take cutlery or do you bring it out?”
“Either is fine.”
I didn’t have unwavering confidence that what we’d ordered was what would turn up – and it wasn’t, entirely, including that barbecue sauce which was nowhere to be seen.
Anyway, let’s talk about the food. I’d gone for grilled, smoked chicken thigh which comes with a couple of sides – and because I’d had a big lunch that day I decided to eschew the carbs, picking chipotle slaw and Boston beans with bacon to go with it. Now, the first thing I should say is that they brought me chicken breast by mistake, as you can probably tell from the photo underneath this paragraph. But the second is that I promise it wasn’t quite as boring as that photo makes it look.
I mean, I was hoping that it would come with the skin on, all crispy from the grill. While we’re at it, I was hoping that it would taste or feel like it had been grilled at all, which this didn’t really. I was also hoping it would taste as if it had been smoked (over hickory wood chips, according to the menu), and this was resolutely a smoke-free zone. Instead it was a slightly pale, largely naked chicken breast speckled with a few sesame seeds. And yet despite all that it wasn’t unpleasant; if you came at it with low expectations, which I sort of did, you’d probably quite enjoy it, especially at the low price of just over six quid. It really could have done with some barbecue sauce, mind you.
The Boston beans made up for that, and were one of the high points – a mixture of beans, chickpeas and peppers in a sweetly tangy sauce with big slabs of bacon thrown in for good measure. If you eat at the Dairy after reading this review (and you might) these are well worth tacking on to whatever you order. They do a bacon-free version too, and actually though the bacon was nice enough it would have largely been the same dish without it. The chipotle slaw, on the other hand, was not good. I don’t really mind whether coleslaw comes in mayo or vinaigrette, and a chipotle mayo would have been lovely: but raw shredded veg with neither, just shrouded in acrid dust, doesn’t do it for me. If I’d known it would be like that, I’d have risked the fries.
Zoë had gone for the brie and bacon burger, and visually it looked decent – a tall stovepipe of a thing with a thick wodge of fridge-cold brie sandwiched between two patties, the whole shebang resting on a sturdy slice of tomato which Zoë fished out in short order.
“They don’t tell you it’s going to be two burgers, the menu doesn’t really tell you a lot” she said, with a hint of suspicion, probably because she was mulling over the risk that they’d also smuggled in some unwanted gherkins. “I know what you’ll say about this – you’ll say that the slice of brie is too thick and it hasn’t melted.”
“Not at all – nobody ever complains that a burger has too much cheese on it. What’s it like?”
“It’s not bad. It’s not an Honest or a Smash N Grab, but it’s okay for nine pounds. The texture’s a little strange though, a bit dry and crumbly.”
Again, it wasn’t until later when I was looking through the Dairy’s Instagram that I saw their writeup for this dish. In it, they say this burger is “made with local beef and part mushrooms” and “more sustainable than any burger you will try” – but what did that mean? Was it cut (or, rather, diluted) with mushrooms? It would explain the slightly spongey texture but again, why did the menu omit this detail? Was this about sustainability, or cutting corners? A nine pound burger is all very well, but most people would pay more to have the real deal. It was all very odd. Even the bun looked like a bog standard bap rather than the promised brioche: maybe they’d run out.
Zoë had cannily picked the most expensive side, the smoked macaroni cheese (four pounds on its own, fact fans). And again, it was quite pleasant with a good golden crust. But smoked it wasn’t. Better, I thought, was a nibble of macaroni bites – four hefty breadcrumbed spheres of macaroni cheese which were deeply enjoyable and provided the spritz of fun my dinner badly needed, given the naked chicken and dusty coleslaw (and these, by the way, did come with some barbecue sauce). Not in the same league as the same dish at Bracknell’s Blue’s Smokehouse but, crucially, bigger and a darned sight cheaper. Next time I’m drinking at the Dairy I might order some in preference to a packet of Piper’s.
All this added up to a slightly underwhelming meal, a mixture of inconsistency, inaccuracy, basic errors and wasted opportunities. And it was a completely different experience to eating at Park House in the spring: by contrast it felt like like the Dairy had got the hang of writing a menu that read well, even if the most attractive dishes had gone missing in action, but that they perhaps hadn’t realised that the dishes then had to live up to the promise of the words.
Very few of them did, but I do have to say in the Dairy’s defence that if something seems to good to be true it almost always is. The Dairy is one of the most aggressively priced restaurants I can think of in Reading, and if you aren’t sure how they’re making their money something has to be going on. Whether that’s adding mushrooms to your burger mix, or making coleslaw without mayo, something is always going to give.
And if the mark at the bottom of the page isn’t quite as low as you’d expect it to be, that’s precisely because the Dairy is a cheap and cheerful option and I’m partly judging it on that basis. It could arguably be more cheerful, but it couldn’t be much cheaper. And as Zoë said at the time, whatever you thought of the food it did at least feel like a Brakes lorry hadn’t played any role in proceedings.
Never the less, I’m sure I will drink at the Dairy again before the summer’s out, and even if this meal wasn’t stellar I thank my lucky stars that it was nowhere near as harrowing as the one I had at the Dairy back in 2019. But next time I might grab dinner at Kungfu Kitchen first, before meandering down the hill for what remains an excellent selection of local beers in what’s left of the sunshine. In that respect at least, the Dairy is still hard to beat.
The Dairy – 6.7 Building L14, London Road Campus, Redlands Road, RG1 5AQ 0118 3782477
We were on the train to Maidenhead, Zoë and I, and both of us realised that neither of us had been to the town in the best part of twenty years. Travelled through it on countless occasions, of course, as everyone has. Changed trains there a couple of times to go to Marlow, too – usually for indifferent meals out, come to think of it. But had either of us ever got off a train there, exited through the barriers and explored the place? I didn’t think so, and nor did Zoë.
We were there to visit Maidenhead’s shiniest, newest hospitality venue – not a restaurant, but the second branch of Windsor’s craft beer bar A Hoppy Place. Zoë wanted to write it up for the magazine she edits and having had her plans to attend the grand opening thwarted by the train strike, she was keen to pay it a visit as soon as humanly possible.
But where to eat beforehand? Maidenhead looked to be the town that restaurants forgot. A rummage through Tripadvisor – don’t judge, there was virtually nowhere else to look – suggested that most of Maidenhead’s restaurants were actually in the town’s affluent satellite villages. But then I guess if you lived near Bray or Cookham Dean, would you really go into Maidenhead of a night out? The town centre boasted a Kokoro and a Coppa Club, but I couldn’t say I fancied either of those known quantities.
And then I remembered my physio, who lives in Maidenhead, recommending Miyazaki to me. It’s a little restaurant at the unfashionable end of town which has been serving up Japanese food to the people of Maidenhead for something like seven years. No fuss, no drama, just uniformly good reviews on Tripadvisor and Google, all of which gave the vague impression that Miyazaki’s fans were quite comfortable with it remaining a well-kept secret. I phoned up on a Friday evening and was pleasantly surprised to find that they could fit in a booking for the following night.
It wasn’t the loveliest of walks from the station, and I sense that there’s an awful lot of development under way in Maidenhead. Miyazaki was on a little run of shops and restaurants, rubbing shoulders with pizza and kebab takeaways, just past the purgatorial horrors of “The Honey Pot” (remember when Reading had one of those?) and the thumping music of an O’Neill’s already in full swing. “There’s a reason why they always have an O’Neill’s near the train station”, said Zoë sagely.
Once we reached Miyazaki, though, it stood out like the opposite of a sore thumb. Nestled between joints called Sizzlers and Tennessee Fried Chicken, a building site on the other side of the road, it looked completely out of place. No garish shop front, no big red letters and brightly-lit laminated pictures of the food on display like its neighbours, just a simple space.
Inside, the neutral, unfussy tables couldn’t have seated more than twenty people at a push, and the long thin room was beautifully lit, the light from the summer evening pouring in through the curved, graceful floor to ceiling window. Tasteful prints and drawings were dotted on the plain white walls. Just two other tables were occupied when we got there at quarter to eight – which saddened me a little. But it was a very hot evening, and the restaurant was doing a roaring trade in takeaways, neatly packaged and on the table by the bar, waiting for delivery drivers to pull up outside and take care of them.
Miyazaki’s menu was the kind that reassured you instantly. Some people, spoiled by the compendious likes of Sushimania or Yo! Sushi, would have found it restrictive but I liked the fact that it did what it did, and didn’t try to offer everything. Just three types of sashimi, a few more nigiri and just over a dozen sushi rolls in two different sizes. There was also a selection of side dishes, along with a very small selection of what you might call mains – three curries, two different noodle dishes and a range of udon soup noodles.
And even with such a restrained selection I saw dishes I’d never heard of or tried. Yasai kakiage, a sort of vegetable tempura fritter. Sunomono, a crunchy, vinegary cucumber salad. Chicken nanban, a deranged-but-inspired-sounding dish of fried chicken in a tangy coating, served with, of all things, tartar sauce. If I have one regret about this meal, it’s that I can’t tell you what those three taste like: I’ll know after next time.
Instead we stayed on safer ground, but we were richly rewarded all the same. Salmon sashimi was as perfect an example as I can remember – rich, smooth, glossy diamonds of perfect pink, just needing a dab of soy to perfect them. We liked it so much we ordered another portion. Mackerel sashimi was a little less successful: the skin looked like it had been torched, and the slight tinge of vinegar suggested it was cured rather than raw. I liked it more than Zoë did, which might have been a factor in us ordering more salmon.
Sushi rolls kept up a high standard. With a relatively compact menu a lot of these were variations on a theme, but even so I enjoyed everything I had. The small avocado maki were the kind of dish I could gladly eat every day for the rest of my life, and the avocado was splendidly buttery – ripe but not overripe, no hint of those telltale brown edges that always fill me with sadness.
Larger spicy tuna rolls with a little dab of fiery red sauce inside had a surprising kick, as did the pale ribbons of ginger on the plate – it’s always encouraging to see this more natural colour, rather than the standard-issue hyper-real pink ginger you so often get. And assembly was pretty good: there were a few ragged bits of nori here and there but generally they were put together deftly, and just the right size that you could eat them in one glorious go.
All the larger sushi rolls hovered around the eight pound mark, which struck me as very good value. Another set with both avocado and salmon were probably my favourite, and so much more than the sum of their parts, speckled on the outside with black and white sesame. I’m always reminded, when I eat food like this, how nice it can be to eat something almost-virtuous, so pure-looking. That feeling always dissipates by the time the next portion of fried chicken comes along but it’s nice to experience it all the same, however fleeting.
It helped, I’m sure, that the setting was so pared-back and ascetic, but also it’s so rare – for me at least – to find really healthy food that I actually like. By this point it was nearly quarter past eight and we were the only customers left in the restaurant, and I would have felt guilty about keeping the staff if it wasn’t for the still-steady stream of takeaway dishes coming out of the kitchen. Their work was far from over, so Zoë drank a second bottle of Sapporo, I had some sweet, fresh plum wine in a glass tinkling with ice and we ordered one last wave of dishes.
Doing so proved, if nothing else, that the period between fried chicken dishes – in my life, at least – is never that long. Karaage chicken is a staple order of mine, in Japanese restaurants and anywhere else I can find it on a menu, but Miyazaki’s was one of the best I’ve had anywhere. Normally it comes plain with some mayo on the side (and I’m absolutely fine with that) but this had been tossed in a tangy red sauce which took it somewhere even better. All soft thigh meat, crunchy coating and gnarled edges with a little spike of heat, it was up there with the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. Chicken gyoza felt a little more boilerplate, but even boilerplate chicken gyoza are still better than the majority of things you can pop into your mouth.
It’s a shame that I saved the worst til last, but our final two noodle dishes suggested that the kitchen’s strengths lay elsewhere. You can have soba or udon noodles with chicken katsu, fried prawns or vegetable korroke, but either way the underlying dish didn’t quite come together. My soba noodles – a neatly petite portion – were nice enough I suppose, but the sauce they had been lightly stir fried in had a slightly off-putting sweetness when I was hoping for more savoury depth. And my three breaded prawns, tasty though they were, didn’t feel like they really went; I resorted to eating those with my fingers and then ploughing through the noodles, but it didn’t feel like a cohesive dish, or a hugely enjoyable one.
I think Zoë picked better with the katsu chicken, which was nicely done, but other than the gauge of her noodles her dish was subject to much the same problems. These two dishes are only available at dinner time, but to be honest when I go back I’ll probably just order more sushi, because that felt like where Miyazaki truly excelled. Or I might just leap into the unknown reaches of the menu, and see whether Japanese fried chicken with tartar sauce is as chaotic and magnificent on the plate as it is in my imagination. Either way, I also plan to sample their extensive and impressive selection of sake.
I know it’s a little perverse of me to review a restaurant in Maidenhead this week, because Reading has had two Japanese restaurants open in quick succession: Intoku, where the Tasting House used to be, at the end of May and Iro Sushi, replacing Raayo on Friar Street, at the beginning of July (a third, You Me Sushi, opened a few doors down from Iro yesterday). But I thought Miyazaki was worth exploring, because restaurants that have been doing their stuff for years with no fuss are often overlooked in favour of shiny new places. Or, possibly, bandwagon-jumpers.
And it was right that I did, because Miyazaki is quietly splendid and well worth celebrating. I’m not inclined to let those final two dishes detract from what was a truly wonderful meal a twelve minute train ride from Reading in surroundings that really couldn’t be more incongruous. Service was flawless, the room has a sort of touching humility which I liked very much and if our meal wasn’t cheap – it came to just over ninety pounds for all that food and a couple of drinks each, not including tip – it was worth every penny.
And if you need somewhere to go in Maidenhead for a post-dinner drink, I can thoroughly recommend A Hoppy Place which has excellent outside seating and had two phenomenal imperial stouts on keg when I visited, both of which I enjoyed a great deal. You could go to O’Neill’s instead of course, but you don’t need to leave Reading for that, although you would need to take leave of your senses. I will get to the likes of Intoku and Iro in due course, but the standard they have to reach has already been laid down, in a little sanctuary a matter of minutes away on the Elizabeth Line. And if they turn out to be disappointing, I know exactly where I’ll go to get over it.
I was lucky enough to make it to Bruges in October 2022 and January 2023 so that section of this guide has now been expanded with plenty of other excellent venues.
Last week’s feature on al fresco dining got a fantastic response from you all, and is already, at the time of writing, the most popular piece I’ve published on the blog this year: thank you so much to everybody who read it, commented, recommended it and passed it on. And after the week we’ve had I have high hopes that it will come in handy for a while yet – in fact the weekend it came out I had dinner outside the Lyndhurst one night, Buon Appetito the next. So if reading it made you feel hungry I can assure you that writing it had much the same effect.
Anyway, by contrast this week it’s one of those pieces that’s a bit more niche, that will only interest a handful of you, so apologies in advance for that. But I had such an enjoyable week in Bruges and Ghent last month that I thought it was ripe for a piece, especially because my last guide to Ghent – the first city guide I ever wrote on the blog – is a creaking three and a half years old. Both cities are well worth visiting, both are gorgeous and ridiculously easy to reach by Eurostar and both offer a holiday unmarred by the flight chaos we might well see for the rest of the year.
Of the two I would say Bruges is smaller, quainter and (even) more beautiful, although it’s very touristy and decidedly sleepy of an evening once the coachloads of day trippers have moved on. Ghent is larger and more sprawling, with much more of a big city feel. Its historic parts are reminiscent of Bruges but it also has street art, a modern art gallery, a design museum and more of a craft beer scene outside the traditional Belgian pubs.
As a tourist, you could easily do Bruges in a long weekend, as a beer devotee you could explore it for a lifetime and never tire of the place. Having now made three trips in just over six months, I completely get its magic and understand why it’s captured the hearts of many people I know. If you aren’t nuts about beer, Ghent might keep you occupied longer. But they’re half an hour apart on the train, so you could easily (as I have) make a two centre holiday of both.
Oh, one other thing before I get started – this is only based on places I went to on this year’s visit. So my piece about Ghent from 2018/2019 is potentially still worth a read, it’s just that I can’t vouch for places like Brasserie Du Progres, Oak, Otomat and Barista (I bet they’re great, though). I can however guarantee that the pastries from Himschoot are as gorgeous as they ever were: they’ve even opened a few additional branches since I was there last.
Bruut is in a handsome building next to an absurdly beautiful bridge overlooking the canal, and inside it’s all rather convivial – leather chairs, fetching tiled floors and exposed light fittings. But there are a few al fresco tables by the side of the bridge with a gorgeous view, and that’s where I sat when I had lunch there, one of my meals of the year. Chef Bruno Timperman offers a no-choice, no-substitutions set menu for lunch or dinner and comes out to introduce and talk through many of the dishes himself. And put simply, the man is a wizard: I don’t normally talk about chefs in my blog but this is all very much in his image and it’s very much his show.
Nothing I ate was short of dazzling, and there were almost too many highlights to mention, but a steak tartare made simply with high-grade beef, salt and milk to draw out all the flavour was a tender, mineral miracle. A pre-lunch nibble of prawns, cooked whole and dusted with a vivid raspberry powder was like nothing I’ve ever eaten. And our dessert, cherries halved, hollowed and filled wih rose-coloured chocolate, topped with discs of elderflower jelly and sitting in a cherry gazpacho dotted with cherry balsamic, will live in my memory for a long time. My only regret is not taking up the wine pairing – although in my defence it was only lunchtime, and the beer list has some superb lambics on it which made for an excellent alternative.
I made a repeat visit in January 2023 for dinner and experienced the full whistles and bells experience, although with no booze because I was a little subpar. Not everything worked – a beautiful piece of cod wrapped in crispy nori and topped with caviar was submerged under an icky spooge of what Bruno called “plankton sauce” wasn’t quite my bag – but he served the most tender pigeon I’ve ever eaten, with a pigeon confit ragu wrapped up in a leaf on the side, an astonishing scallop with a Belgian take on XO sauce and a poached pear with yoghurt parfait which made some tried and tested staples seem fresh and new. If you eat one meal in Bruges, go here.
More classic and formal and a little less cutting edge, Assiette Blanche has an attractive wood-panelled dining room and the meal I had there was top notch. They have a set menu or an a la carte (although you can sort of switch between the two) and the set, for dinner, starts at a reasonable forty-four Euros for three courses.
The dishes here are generous – robust but not clumsy, but certainly not a fiddly-plated exercise in nouvelle nonsense. I enjoyed the whole lot but my particular favourite was a monkfish saltimbocca, the flesh firm and pearlescent, the guanciale it was wrapped in providing salt and smoke. The whole thing was on a bed of prawns and fregola, cut through with a dressing sporting just the right amount of vinegar. A white chocolate and rhubarb dessert, complete with a sweet, sticky syrup that spoke of time well spent, wrapped things up with a perfect bow.
On a subsequent visit in October 2022 I tried the set lunch menu, which was both superb and excellent value. A supreme of chicken came with the most autumnal wild mushroom sauce, and if you try the Belgian dessert dame blanche – vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce – anywhere, this is the place to do it.
Más is only open some weekends, and is walk-ins only, although they very nicely take your number and ring you when they have some space, leaving you free to enjoy a beer somewhere (I had mine at De Garre, where the house triple is 11%: with hindsight not the most sensible choice).
It’s worth jumping through those hoops, because Más’ Mexican food is as delicious as it is incongruous, from beautiful cheesy quesadillas to pork belly skewers with salsa, from shrimp tacos to their excellent fried chicken. We ate up at the bar, and it was reminiscent of some of my happiest meals in more Mediterranean parts of Europe. They have cocktails on tap too, apparently, although I was a little too drunk to give them a try. They have a good range of beers from Brussels Beer Project, though, which went nicely.
You might think it’s a little meh to have pizza in Bruges, and you might be right. But I’m yet to find a very traditional restaurant in Bruges that really hit the spot: Gran Kaffee de Passage was a bit hit and miss, the interior better than the food (I’m reliably informed that I should try Brasserie Raymond next time). And you may want somewhere for a good lightish lunch that isn’t a moule frites place: if so, Amuni is for you. Just next to the Burg it’s a stylish space which does excellent pizza – although my favourite thing there was the vitello tonnato which we foolishly ordered to share. It’s far too good to share: make sure you order your own.
For an actual light lunch, instead of a pizza, I highly recommend the muted but chic Kottee Kaffee. It’s on Ezelstraat, a street with a scattering of tasteful boutiques, and it offers a menu which is sort of Le Pain Quotidien but independent. So there’s lots of lovely bread and salted farmhouse butter, cheeses and charcuterie but the menu offers lots of more brunchy stuff if that’s your bag. Very fetchingly put together, decent value and there’s good coffee too. But perhaps just as winning were the staff and the constant playlist of 90s music, most of which they enjoyed singing along to. We asked how long they’d been there and apparently they’ve been open less than a year. You’d never know.
Bruges has lots of pretty patisseries where the priorities are the cakes and pastries and the coffee, though perfectly pleasant, plays second fiddle. I went to one on my final morning in the city and we waited ages to get served and even longer to get the bill: the pain au chocolat was good, but not that good. Far better, in a little square with some outside space, was Vero Caffè. It also sells excellent squidgy brownies, exactly as you would like them, so it gets my vote.
Come for the music, stay for the atmosphere! is the slogan of this record shop in the east of the city. Come for the music stay for the coffee, more like, because it served one of my favourite coffees in Bruges. I love places like this – it reminded me of Truck Records, out on Oxford’s Cowley Road – and I’d have happily whiled away longer sitting outside or inside with a good book. They do cocktails and beer too, although precisely how much they expect you to put away before they close at 6pm is anybody’s guess.
On my visit last October I became a regular visitor to Adriaan for the first coffee of the day and I became thoroughly attached to the place – it’s a tasteful, classy place, all muted mint green and comfy furniture, the antithesis of craft coffee places in the U.K. and abroad with their reliance on chipboard. The coffee is pretty good, the pastries are spot on and the service is friendly and speedy. Every city break needs a reliable coffee place like this, although you may find yourself channelling Rocky Balboa whenever you mention the place (or that might be just me).
Cafune probably does the best coffee I had in Bruges, and is in a small and likeable spot two doors down from Màs, in a street which also boasts the fantastic and fascinating beer shop Bacchus Cornelius (top tip: head to the back room for the white whales of the Belgian beer world). They roast their own coffee – and very good it is too – and they have a small but comfy space inside, although I got quite attached, figuratively speaking, to their little bench outside.
From hearing Zoë talk about Café Rose Red I was expecting to like it a lot, and I wasn’t disappointed. A rather attractive room, all red walls and roses hanging from the ceiling, it had a decent if not incredible beer list and an interesting range of options on tap. I’d heard good things about the food and so we ordered a few bits and pieces to graze on. The assorted cheese and charcuterie was surprisingly disappointing, but I think the trick is to go for dishes that the kitchen has cooked rather than simply dished up: the kibbeling – battered chunks of fish with a mild, soothing tartare sauce – was the equal of any similar dish I’ve had in Andalusia.
I probably would have liked Café Rose Red a lot more if I’d liked ’t Brugs Beertje a little less, but that was never going to happen. The Little Bear is arguably the Belgian watering hole elevated to its ultimate form, a little conspiratorial place with a great selection on tap and an eye-wateringly brilliant list of bottled beers, including many Belgian breweries I’d never heard of and a “vintage” section which gave you the chance to try dark beers and lambics which had been properly cared for across the best part of a decade. I had a Cuvée Delphine from 2013 by De Struise which had the kind of depth and complexity that haunts your imagination long after you’ve taken your final sip.
But more than the impressive selection, it just felt like the perfect place to stop, drink, eavesdrop, people-watch and potentially get into random conversations. The middle room complete with plaque to original Belgian beer spod Michael Jackson (not that one, a different one) was nice, but the front room was where you wanted to be, at a table with your favourite person, making inroads into that excellent list, in no hurry to be anywhere else. It reminded me of the Retreat in its previous incarnation under Bernie and Jane, when it stocked shedloads of Belgian beers – and always the right glasses to go with them – and it made me miss the Retreat of ten years ago, too.
But either way, whether you were there in a pair or, as on my last couple of visits, in a big raucous group of beer obsessives, all diving into the depths of the gigantic beer list, congratulating one another on their choices and swapping anecdotes and in jokes, it is for me the epicentre of Bruges, and absolutely not to be missed. It doesn’t have lock-ins per se, but I have no idea when it really closes. On one particularly beautiful evening there we settled up, well past midnight, put our coats on, stepped through the front door, looked back at the golden glow of the windows and thought what the fuck are we doing? We went back in for one last nightcap.
De Kelk, on the other side of the road from Cherry Picker, is quite unlike the other beer places on this list. Although it does have an excellent range of Belgian beer, the list skews more to the wider craft scene with fascinating beers from breweries I’d never come across before. I tried a couple of beautiful DIPAs from Madrid’s Cerveceria Peninsula and Latvia’s Ārpus, and if I’d stayed longer there was plenty more to explore. The interior is cracking too – a far cry from Belgium’s more traditional pubs with a tiled floor, high leather stools and lighting that’s more speakeasy than boozer, with some random streetlights used to good effect. I also loved the bar snacks, which included some disgraceful keesballen and very creditable jamon serrano. I will definitely go back.
De Windmolen, out past De Kelk at the edge of the city and a stone’s throw from the windmills from which it takes its name, isn’t a place for beer purists. It’s sort of part-pub, part day café and most days it closes at 8pm. The inside is pleasingly eccentric: when we went this month one table was taken up by a very competitive-looking card game. And the beer list skews to bottled triples, although they do have local Brugse Zot on tap and it never disappoints. But for me it’s a special place – especially when I visited in October, and could sit outside, coatless, while the back of my neck was gently baked by the completely unseasonal autumn sunshine. Worth a stop, even if only for the one.
De Windmolen, Carmersstraat 135, Brugge (No website)
1. De Superette
Tragically, Superette closed in late 2022.
Whenever I researched places to eat in Ghent, De Superette always came up but for some reason I’d never taken the plunge and booked a table there. And then on this visit I did and in the run up to going I looked on TripAdvisor (as you do) and had a bit of a wobble. Lots of people said it was overrated, or expensive, or small portions or suchlike.
Well, I overcame my fears and went and was rewarded with a superb meal which made me wonder what all the naysayers were carping about. It’s a bakery by day and pizza place by night, offering a really compact selection of pizzas and a little tasting menu of small plates to start you off. It was the kind of place you wanted to click your fingers and teleport back home, just round the corner from where you lived, and the clientele – a huge range of ages and types of groups – were all clearly having a marvellous time.
And the food was excellent. The small plates were clever, inventive and cracking value – glorious, just-cooked peas with guanciale, a moutabal brimming with smokiness, a clever gazpacho studded with pine nuts. And then the pizzas turned out to be some of the best I’ve had anywhere, all fluffy crust and supercharged clusters of ‘nduja. I left full, happy and determined to return. The table next to us, on the other hand, ordered two pizzas between five. Maybe it’s people like that who complain about small portions: if so, I have a really simple life hack they’re welcome to borrow.
De Lieve featured in my previous guide to Ghent and I’ve eaten there on every single visit. Between my last visit and my latest, though, something happened: De Lieve was recognised by Michelin and awarded a Bib Gourmand, their badge of affordable high quality food. And the De Lieve I went to in 2019 was absolutely the kind of restaurant that gets a Bib Gourmand, but the De Lieve I went to last month feels like the kind of restaurant that’s aiming for a star, and that comes with pluses and minuses.
So it felt like the tables were that little bit closer together, the prices were that little bit sharper and the portions were that little bit smaller. The quality was still top notch, don’t get me wrong – my carpaccio of hamachi was a delicate, pretty, subtle dish, but by the time I finished it (a few seconds later) I was thinking about the bag of paprika Walkers Max back at the apartment and wondering if I’d be breaking into them in the not too distant future.
Fortunately balance was restored with a delicious Basque t-bone with rosemary gratin and a deeply pleasing jus, and a cracking tarte tatin completed an enjoyable, if pricey meal. It felt to me like bumping into a friend after a few years to find they’ve had very good, very expensive plastic surgery done. You know they look great, but in the back of your mind you think was that really necessary? Still, if you’ve never been it’s definitely worth considering on a visit to Ghent: I just miss the days when they had a puck of divine black pudding on the starters menu.
Still my favourite place for traditional Belgian food, De Rechters is a chic, contemporary-looking restaurant which is far better than it needs to be given its plum spot next to St Bavo’s Cathedral. On this occasion, for the first time, I got to sit outside in the sunshine and it made a good meal, if anything, even better. We drank Orval, and Zoë pointed out to me that her beer and mine were bottled on different days, which explained why mine was fizzier than hers: I love it when she goes full Raymond Babbitt about beer like that.
Never having had moules in Belgium – I know, such an oversight – I had some as a starter, cooked simply with thyme and they were plump and fragrant. But next time I’ll go the whole hog and have them as a main with garlic and cream, which for me is the only way really to eat moules, dipping your bread and frites into the sauce until you are truly replete.
The frites, incidentally, were a bit wan on this visit – which is a shame, because frites are something Belgium does better than practically anybody. But the stoverij, beer slow-cooked in beer until the whole thing is a symphony of dark brown, almost-sweet ambrosia, is worth the price of admission alone. You can get frites anywhere but beef like that requires patience and skill, both of which De Rechters has in abundance.
On my holiday in Belgium I tried to learn from previous trips away and put a strict rule in place: one big meal a day. Maybe all of you already do this when you go on holiday, but sadly I’ve never been great at restraint and although it means I’ve eaten some amazing food it does make the post-holiday Monday comedown a downer of epic proportions. What do you mean I can’t have sherry at lunchtime and go to a restaurant? I’ll rail to nobody in particular. Make my own meals? Who does that?
On the plus side, it meant I could discover Ghent’s brunch scene, and that in turn meant a thoroughly worthwhile visit to STEK, an achingly cool cafe halfway between the centre and the modern art gallery. Inside it’s all plants – a lot of monsteras and plenty of other flora I wouldn’t recognise – and outside there’s a serene terrace, a proper secret garden with plenty of space where you feel nowhere near a big city. It reminded me a bit of the surprise you get when you walk through the Boston Tea Party on Bristol’s Park Street to find that massive garden out back or, closer to home, the bang-up job the Collective has done with its outside space.
Since I was embracing lunch and brunch I decided to go the whole hog and order the avo toast. Mine came with superbly crispy, curled, caramelised bacon, a fried egg with the yolk still runny, shoots and leaves and a little side salad and it was as pretty as its surroundings. It tasted phenomenal too, and the coffee wasn’t bad either. Maybe there are pluses to having a lighter lunch after all.
My absolute favourite coffee place of the holiday was Take Five Espresso in the centre of Ghent. I never completely decided whether I preferred being inside, sat up at the big windows watching city life bustling by or outside in the sun (their seating is dead clever, making full use of the public benches on the street). What I did work out though was that their lattes were magnificent and that by the end of my trip it was hard to imagine being caffeinated anywhere else. It was the epitome of café chic and I enjoyed it a great deal. I never tried any of their food, but you can blame Kultur, the excellent bakery next door (and their pain au chocolat) for that.
Clouds In My Coffee is one of the most stylish cafés I’ve seen in roughly a decade of going to Europe and seeking these places out. Quite aside from the Carly Simon reference, which manages not to be naff, the inside is truly gorgeous, like something out of Living Etc. From the street it looks small (and is surprisingly hard to find) but through the back is a wonderfully light, airy extension and beyond that another of those idyllic secret gardens that Ghent cafés seem to all have up their sleeves.
Did I want a coffee? Absolutely. Was my latte delicious? Of course it was. Did I look at the menu and wonder if it was too early for an Aperol Spritz? You bet I did. And did I feel like I was soaking up design tips for the duration of my visit? Yes, along with thinking Why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this? The only drawback is that Clouds In My Coffee is the epitome of the best house on a bad street: Dampoort, where it lives, is an up and coming part of Ghent that, from my visit, has more upping and coming to do (the cafe’s website calls it a “multicolour fuse”, which I think is nicely poetic). The walk there from the tram stop involved walking through an Aldi car park and, for an awful moment, I thought I’d wandered through a wormhole in space and found myself on the outskirts of Basingstoke. Still worth a visit though, if only to go somewhere that fitted in about as much as I did.
On my first visit to Ghent, at the tail end of autumn 2018, I rather liked Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, a tall building by the canal (aren’t they all?) with rooms across several floors: the room right at the top reminded me of mid-90s boho drinking culture in a way which somehow summoned up memories of Bar Iguana. But it wasn’t until I went back on a hot July afternoon that I really got what the fuss was about – sitting at a sunny table, overlooking the canal, surrounded by other afternoon revellers of all shapes and sizes it was an extremely agreeable place to while away a few hours and sink a tall, cold Brugse Zot on draft. We don’t have a word, really, for what time spent like that is like but I believe the Dutch describe it as gezellig.
I waxed lyrical about Gitane after previous visits to Ghent, and it’s still one of my favourite watering holes. But, like Het Waterhuis aan de Beerkant, it was a decidedly different experience on a hot and sunny day: everybody was chattering away at tables which fill the street outside and if you’re forced to sit in, as we were, it made for a slightly Marie Celeste moment.
No matter: it’s still a great place for a cosy drink, all wood panels and tiled floor, and if the list is less compendious than those at Ghent’s more feted bars and pubs it makes up for that with some really interesting choices from some of Belgium’s less established breweries. I had a cracking New England IPA from Brouwcompagnie Rolling Hills which married East Flanders and the Eastern Seaboard very harmoniously indeed.
The two other “proper” Belgian pubs in Ghent, both with compendious beer lists, are Trollkelder and Dulle Griet. Both are idiosyncratic to put it lightly – I had a drink sitting outside Trollkelder only slightly put off by the weird models of trolls eyeballing you through the window. I liked Dulle Griet better, although both are an experience and you should at least try a drink in one of them. It’s named after Mad Meg, a figure in Flemish folklore who led an army of women to storm the gates of hell. Whether that explains the decor and all the weird figurines hanging from the ceiling I have no idea (I wouldn’t want to do their dusting, put it that way) but it made for an interesting and characterful place to stop for an afternoon beer, especially as they had Westmalle Dubbel, a Trappist favourite of mine, on draft. Given that they boast over five hundred different beers on their list, you’d probably find something to enjoy here.
HAL 16 is a food hall and brewery out towards the docks, and is a perfect place to visit whether you like beer, food or ideally both. I think it used to just be the tap room for local brewery Dok Brewing, but there have been some changes and it now shares the space with three different food vendors: think Blue Collar, but even more cool. There’s also a branch of the excellent bakery Himschoot just round the corner, terrific coffee from the nearby OR Espresso Bar and a beer shop – De Hopduvel – which sells all the beer (and matching glasses) you could possibly want for your trip home.
I had already bought a Dok Brewing glass from a shop in Bruges by then, because I was already a fan. Dok does some truly lovely beer and there are something like thirty taps at HAL 16, with a mixture of beers brewed on the premises and fascinating stuff from breweries I’d never even heard of: the highlight of this visit was a stunningly dank DIPA from Virginia’s Aslin Beer Company. But the other reason to come here is for the food from RØK (they like their block capitals in this part of town) which smokes and grills meat, hispi cabbage and anything else they think might be good.
On a previous visit in 2019 I had a huge, smoked, blackened pork chop, fresh off the grill, which ducked under the velvet rope and went straight into my gastronomic hall of fame without passing GO or collecting £200. This time round it was all about the lamb neck, tender and moreish, scattered with salt and served with a puddle of aioli and a properly zingy salsa verde. We made the mistake of ordering pizza from another vendor first and then picked up the lamb dish from RØK just before their kitchen closed, but when I return – and I will return – I’m ordering everything on their menu, even if it leads to a Mr Creosote situation.
This is, believe it or not, the third edition of my guide to the best places to eat al fresco in Reading, and looking back on my previous guides to this subject, it’s safe to say that they’ve not aged as well as I might have liked.
From my Class of 2015, three of my choices have ceased trading and one of the others, the Allied Arms, has lost much of its appeal for al fresco dining since the Pizza Express next door closed down. It only really made the list because of the strangely luxurious experience of having a pint of Thatchers Gold in the beer garden with a Pollo Ad Astra from just down the road; it was, it occurs to me now, a gastronomic moment very much frozen in time and of its time, every bit as much as enjoying cocktails and a burger outside Santa Fe or sitting on the balcony at Dolce Vita.
My more recent version of this list, from 2019, hasn’t fared an awful lot better. Dolce Vita, of course, has closed, and I know some people in Reading mourn its loss as much as I do. But other places have dropped off my list because they’ve been surpassed: take Bhel Puri House, whose food you used to be able to eat in the Workhouse courtyard. And you still can, but the courtyard has been desecrated by the Mercure Hotel, who tore it up with a plan to put in some horrendous decking, were told to cease and desist by the council and left it half-done and completely fucked, one of Reading’s loveliest sunspots turned into a guano-encrusted perpetual building site.
Some places didn’t make the cut this time because although the surroundings are still excellent, the food no longer lives up to them. Thames Lido is a wonderful place to sit and look at the pool but the food has always been inconsistent and they’ve managed to mislay two head chefs in less than a year (they now have a “restaurant director” instead, whatever that is). After one hit and miss meal too many – which is all the meals I’ve ever had there – it’s no longer a place I can recommend.
But let’s focus on the positives: for my money there are more, and better, places to eat outside in Reading than ever before. Part of that is down to Covid, I suspect, and places wisely investing in Covid-proofing their restaurants or pubs as best they can. And some of it is just our good fortune that many of our newer establishments have put thought into this, just as many of them have put thought into the delivery experience. Places that have perfected eating in, eating outside and takeaway, which includes a handful of the places on this list, truly represent a triple threat.
That means I have a bumper selection for you, a baker’s dozen of the best places in Reading to enjoy food and drink outdoors. With one notable exception they all serve their own food, and I think you have a decent span of restaurants, pubs and cafés, and of food at all price points. And best of all, they’ve been picked on merit rather than because they reviewed well on TripAdvisor or paid money to be featured, like other local publications I could name. So without further ado let’s get into it: I have a feeling a list like this could be especially handy this year, and for that matter in the hot summers yet to come.
1. Blue Collar Corner
This list is in alphabetical order, but either way I’m sure it will surprise few people to see Blue Collar Corner at the top of it. In the four short months since it opened, Glen Dinning’s permanent site on Hosier Street has already established itself as a Reading institution. And if claims that “it’s just like being in London” are a little brash and reductive it’s definitely true that the site, with its shipping containers, street food vendors, buzzing tokens telling you your dinner is ready and a well-stocked bar with many excellent Double-Barrelled beers (and the superb lager they brew exclusively for Blue Collar) feels like nowhere else Reading has seen, and like nowhere anywhere near Reading either for that matter.
Blue Collar has picked a mixture of the star players from its weekday markets to run permanent kitchens at the site, which means you can choose from pizza at Sarv’s Slice, bao buns from YouBao or the near-legendary fried chicken from Swindon’s Gurt Wings. The Taco Tree, an offshoot from Vegivores, completes the quartet. In truth when I’ve attended I’ve found it difficult to stay away from Gurt Wings’ incredible JFC (karaage-style fried chicken) with Lost In Translation, their gochujang and sriracha combo sauce. But Sarv’s Slice is also well worth trying – their carbonara pizza, in particular, knocked my socks off.
I suspect I’m far too old and shabby to make a night of it there, but it’s a great place for a sunny lunch at the weekend or an early evening dinner before sloping off to the pub, leaving the young and the beautiful to enjoy their cocktails. I feel I fit in far better at Blue Collar’s Wednesday and Friday markets, which earn an honorary mention on this list – Fink’s mezze box, with chicken shawarma and falafel (because why should you have to choose?) is a go-to there. Or you could join the seemingly infinite queue for Sharian’s jerk chicken: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people standing in the line at half-one have been waiting since midday.
I rediscovered Buon Appetito last year, and it turned out to be one of my finds of 2021. But it’s this year that it’s become a proper happy place for me. It has fantastic outside space, and there’s an awful lot to be said for heading there after work, bagging one of their tables and waiting for your pizza to arrive.
It somehow feels, despite being on Chatham Street and a mere stone’s throw from the Oxford Road, that you could be in mainland Europe. Perhaps it’s the luminous orange glow of an Aperol Spritz bathed in sunshine, or maybe it’s the soundtrack of soft easy-listening cover versions of chart hits. Or it could just be the warmth of the welcome or that first bite of my favourite Reading pizza, all bubbled crust, capers and anchovies. Whatever it is, it adds up to something magical.
Best of all, unlike many places on this list, Buon Appetito is truly future-proof. It has cover and powerful heaters, and it will continue to be a great shout later in the year when the weather, as it inevitably will, turns to shit. Come to think of it, I had a distinctly agreeable al fresco meal in Buon Appetito last January, when anywhere else would have been inhospitable. One last thing: if it’s on the specials menu, save room for their brilliant pistachio tiramisu.
3. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen (at the Butler)
N.B. Chef Stevie announced in August 2022 that he was leaving the Butler.
Many years ago, I Love Paella (either at the Horn or during its halcyon days at the Fisherman’s Cottage, before the acrimonious parting of the ways) would have been a shoo-in for a list like this. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen is very much its natural successor, a great example of a pub showing some imagination, getting a talented chef in and becoming much more than the sum of its parts.
Sitting under a parasol in the back garden of the Butler – also on Chatham Street, as it happens – nursing a pint of Neck Oil and devouring some jerk chicken dumplings was one of the best al fresco experiences I had last year, or any year for that matter. And that’s before you factor in the chicken wings with a dark rum glaze, the phenomenally deep, smoky jerk chicken or an infernally indulgent slab of macaroni pie. If you want to make someone in your life jealous, go there without them and send them photos: the picture above is from the last time my other half did precisely that. I was green with envy, but I had to applaud her: Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and Stevie’s your chef.
You might well expect me to put Geo Café on this list – the coffee is fantastic, the pastries are out of this world and the Orangery out the back is a lovely, quirky place to enjoy both those things. But, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I class the owners Keti and Zezva as friends so I will have to recuse myself for that reason. But in any event The Collective, at the other end of Caversham’s Church Street, fully deserves a spot on this list.
Their outside space is a beautiful, credible, grown-up piece of work and it creates an atmosphere which positively encourages you to linger, grab another coffee (and maybe one of their superb brownies) and just enjoy the experience of being part of a buzzing café culture not quite like anywhere else in Reading. I just came back from a holiday in Ghent where I went to a couple of fantastic cafés – they take coffee seriously there – with gorgeous, sophisticated outside space, and I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay The Collective than that it very much reminded me of them.
The thing to have there, if you ask me – and maybe you didn’t, but it’s my blog – is the French toast with bacon and maple syrup. But I’m long overdue a return visit to try out the chorizo ‘nduja hash, which sounds like a mixture of all the nicest things.
Another terrific al fresco venue, the Last Crumb has really cemented its place in Caversham since it opened in 2019 and it has a lovely garden with benches and booths which catches the sun nicely. It might not have as extensive a range of drinks as some of Reading’s other venues, but they’ve done wonders with the outside space and it remains a great spot for a contemplative pint (especially of cider, where their range is a little more fun).
Food at the Last Crumb is not extensive: they’ve decided to do two things, burgers and pizza, and that’s pretty much it. But for what it’s worth they do both of them well and their pizzas are a pretty decent rival for the highly rated Papa Gee just down the hill. I think they still serve them on a metal bin lid which means they go cold quicker than they ought to, but on a scorching hot summer’s day, sitting outside, I imagine that won’t bother many people.
LSB: the great survivor and what the youth of today might refer to as the “OG” (although what would I know?) of Reading’s al fresco dining scene. It doesn’t have an awful lot of outside space, but what it does have is a classy, tranquil spot by the water and one of the town’s best sun traps. I ate on their terrace a couple of times last year and yes, I know it isn’t as cheap as it used to be. I know the set lunch is no longer the bargain it once was. I also know, believe me, that of any three dishes you eat there one will be great, one will be nice and one will be meh.
And yet it still has something. It still feels special to me, in a way the Lido has never managed, and authentic even when it’s not entirely at its best. It’s where I tend to go with the bits of my family who are even more determined to eat outside than I am, and the place has made several really happy memories for me since the pandemic began. Put it this way – it’s the only restaurant that’s made every single iteration of this list. I wouldn’t bet against it cropping up next time I write a piece like this, too.
Will he ever stop going on about the Lyndhurst? you’re probably thinking to yourself. And yes, I’m sure one day I will. When their food stops being incredible and inventive and ridiculously good value. When they stop being curious about other cuisines and other restaurants, when they stop ordering food from other places, taking it apart, putting it back together and adding it to their menu, souped-up and completely unmissable.
True story: the Lyndhurst read my takeaway review of Osaka, ordered the karaage chicken I’d written about, enjoyed it and then decided to make their own version. It was absolutely incredible, some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had anywhere, and I enjoyed it for months until they took it off their menu. And then they brought it back recently and it’s even better than ever. I’ll stop going on about them when they stop doing things like that. I’ll stop going on about them when I order the same dish there twice and they haven’t improved it, subtly and iteratively, between visits. I’ll stop going on about them when their curry night isn’t the best way to spend a tenner on food and a pint in Reading on a Thursday night.
Until then, I’m afraid you have to put up with stuff like this. The Lyndhurst’s terrace seats maybe fourteen people at a push, but if you get a table there on a warm day – with a pint or a glass of their gorgeous Riesling, and a menu – you honestly feel like you’ve won at life. Next time you’re there, try the monkfish with Bombay potatoes before they take it off the menu. It’s a beauty.
For my money the Nag’s is Reading’s finest beer pub, and for a long time I thought that was all that it was (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And that’s still the case – the keg selection is superb, and there’s always a great spread of beers from our local breweries, let alone fun stuff from further afield. But when I reviewed the food last year I was delighted to find that they’d given a lot of thought to it – a stripped-back, easy to execute menu that doesn’t involve burgers or fish and chips, or microwaves.
So instead you get brisket or pulled pork rolls, from the smoker which starts running early doors. Or toasted sandwiches from the Croque Shop, a Brighton business that the owners of the Nag’s liked so much that they asked them to supply their pub a long way from Sussex. There are sausage rolls, too, although nothing’s stopping you ordering some pork scratchings into the bargain, apart from possibly restraint or dignity. The Nag’s, Buon Appetito and Chef Stevie form a beautiful little triad, proving again that West Reading is where much of Reading’s interesting food developments are taking place.
Just to prove that West Reading and Caversham don’t have the monopoly on great al fresco dining options, the next three choices are all from the east side. O Português, on the edge of Palmer Park, has a decent terrace and a menu that does its best to transport you to Lisbon. The menu can be challenging in places (don’t have the snails) but if you pick well you can be rewarded with some cracking food – from prego steak rolls honking with garlic to a vibrant salt cod salad singing with parsley and red peppers. One of my readers told me that one of the best ways to enjoy O Português is with their octopus salad, some bread to mop up and a cold pint of Super Bock on draft. Put like that, it sounds unimprovable.
My most recent discovery to make this list is Park House, the University bar on campus. It’s always been one of my favourite places to grab a pint in the sunshine – either before or after a happy amble round the Harris Garden, which has become one of my very favourite parts of Reading. Their beer is ridiculously cheap and Double-Barrelled, Siren Craft, Phantom and Elusive are invariably represented, along with relatively local breweries from slightly further away.
But what’s changed this year is the introduction of a great, compact, sensibly priced menu using local suppliers and beef from the university’s own farm. It transforms it from a nice spot for a drink to somewhere you could happily settle in for a session and have an enjoyable meal into the bargain. The things to pick there are the smoked pork ribs, the excellent, clever and nicely balanced confit duck salad and more of the smoked pork ribs. Possibly with a chaser of the smoked pork ribs.
Reading’s best burgers, for my money, can be had from a little shack on Cemetery Junction with a handful of outside tables. Husband and wife team Farooq and Uzma run Smash N Grab and despite almost packing it in earlier in the year they’ve decided to stick at it and are working hard on improving their outside space and expanding their menu.
I’m glad they’ve reconsidered, because their smashed burgers really are superb – beautifully done, deeply savoury things with fantastic texture and contrast. Smash N Grab are active on social media and have been frank about the challenge they face, with their neighbours and competitors Fat Twins building a huge structure outside what used to be the Granby Tavern to block their light and the view of the restaurant (seemingly without getting planning permission). So they need all the support they can get – and their burgers really do deserve a far wider audience.
Another great example of restaurants as travel agents, Tasty Greek Souvlaki has made a huge contribution to Reading’s food scene in a short space of time since opening in 2020. And I really love sitting outside with a cold bottle of Fix (the glasses, frosted, are from the freezer) watching the world go by. The tables are seated side by side looking out on Market Place, which somehow makes the whole thing feel more Continental, and it has that brilliant effect where you know you’re in Reading, but you somehow feel elsewhere.
If you’re there in a pair or a four it’s really hard to beat the mixed grill, which is a cornucopia of meat – souvlaki, gyros, keftedes, pork belly and sausage – with something for everybody. But if you’re eating solo, the merida platter of crispy, salty gyros meat with chips, fluffy pitta and tzatziki is one of the best and best value meals for one you can find in Reading. And it’s a great place to dine solo: at some point I’ll put together an updated version of my feature on the best tables for one in Reading. When I do, expect Tasty Greek Souvlaki to be on it.
The Castle Tap doesn’t have a menu per se: I think you can get a cheeseboard there, but that’s it. They have done a great job on their outside space in lockdown, like their neighbours the Nag’s Head, and it’s a brilliant place to enjoy a beer or a cider on a balmy evening (their beer list is compact but always has something interesting on it, and they put a lot of effort into their cider selection).
And yet last year, the Castle Tap was the site of many of my favourite al fresco meals. Because to encourage you to stay there and keep enjoying their wonderful space, rather than sloping off to the likes of Harput Kebab, the management actively encourages you to order from Deliveroo and eat it in their gorgeous garden. They even, if you ask them nicely, give you the postcode for the back of the pub on Anstey Road, so your rider can almost drop it to your waiting table. A tub of chilli chicken from Kokoro or a red pork curry from ThaiGrr!, eaten in the sun with a great beer in front of you and the promise of more to come: little is finer than that.