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