Restaurant review: COR, Bristol

For once, I turned up for lunch in Bristol moderately ahead of the curve. COR, a cosy small plates restaurant in Bedminster, has only been open since October and, so far, has mostly been Bristol famous rather than nationally famous. Not completely, though: Tom Parker Bowles raved about it in the Mail On Sunday on a recent visit. And last month, when Square Meal listed its top 100 restaurants for 2023 COR made the list: not too shabby for a restaurant that’s been trading for about four months. Even so, stepping through the front door with my old friend Al for lunch during a weekend trip to my favourite city, I felt slightly closer to the zeitgeist than usual.

They’ve got a lovely site. It’s a corner plot, double aspect with big windows letting in plenty of light and despite being on the compact side all the space is used superbly. There are relatively few tables, but there are also excellent, comfy-looking stools up at the window letting you look out on the painfully cool passers-by, on their way to a café, the terrific looking natural wine bar or a smashing chocolate shop. The seats at the bar look like fun too, and some of them give you a view out back to the open-ish kitchen. The restaurant is passionate about always saving some room for walk-ins at the window or at the bar: like so much else about it, it’s admirable.

COR’s menu read extraordinarily well. I know small plates aren’t for everybody, but these were grouped and flowed effortlessly, from nibbles to charcuterie, on to seafood, to a selection of vegetarian and meat dishes and then a handful of larger, more conventional plates. Just the three, in fact. The nibbles and charcuterie were close to a fiver, the small plates generally hovered just under ten pounds and the bigger ones were around fifteen quid.

Now some people will look at that and think “ugh”, probably put off by bad experiences with the small plates concept in the past. I get that – I’ve had many of those too – but to me this just read like a dream, an edible Choose Your Own Adventure with no bad endings. Our waitress, who was positively brilliant throughout, told us roughly how many dishes people ordered per head, although I must say that she probably meant customers built like her, or Al, rather than built like me. We may have disregarded her sterling advice. She also told us they were down to their last portion of mojama, air-dried tuna, on the specials board, and nodded approvingly when we asked to bag it.

That turned out to be an outstanding decision, although in fairness so was practically everything we ordered. So was booking the place for lunch in the first place, come to think of it. I’m used to eating mojama up at the bar in Granada, thick slabs of coarse, salty tuna sprinked with almonds and drizzled with olive oil, as simple as they come. This, by contrast, was gossamer-light, with a judicious single almond, beautifully toasted, per slice and little segments of sweet, sharp orange to improve things still further. My mind may have been playing tricks on me, but I think the whole lot rested on a smudge of houmous. Every mouthful was delightful, and it never lost that sense of surprise: small plates, in fairness, find that easier.

As we rhapsodised Al sipped his white vermouth, I my Asturian cider – yes, we’re those kinds of wankers – and all my cares dissolved; Bedminster wasn’t Granada, not by a long chalk, but it had already earned twin city status, and we’d just gotten started.

Finocchiona, fennel salami, was more about buying well. But COR definitely bought well, and if their menu had listed where they’d got the stuff from I’d have ended up buying well too. It had a wonderful whack of aniseed and I liked it very much – it also wasn’t too ridiculously priced at a fiver. As you will discover, I had trouble finding fault with nearly anything that COR did so I might as well take my opportunity here: only two cornichons? Really? Have a word with yourselves.

That minor disappointment out of the way, the last of our first wave of dishes was also on the specials board and if I eat anything as small but perfectly formed again this year I’ll have done very well for myself. The last time I was in Bristol I was wowed by a canelé rich with honey, whisky and smoke. This time, I was even more dumbfounded by COR’s savoury canelé which came drizzled with a grassy olive oil, tarragon and thinly sliced mushroom. Cutting vertically through it prompted the reveal, that the whole thing had been filled with a creamy, savoury mushroom duxelles which made me beam. This was emphatically not for sharing: Al and I scoffed one each, and I had half a mind to order another after dessert.

Another thing I really loved about COR was that they took our orders and artfully sequenced them almost like a gastronomic mixtape. None of this “your dishes will come out when they’re ready” bollocks that treats you to feast or famine, instead we got things in a carefully structured order that showed every dish off to its best advantage. Take this for example, Jerusalem artichokes fried until golden and sticky-edged and served on an earthy pool of artichoke velouté. It was simply magnificent, and if I couldn’t really detect much truffle in the truffled pecorino I was having far too much fun to give a shit. I have to really fancy Jerusalem artichoke to order it in a restaurant because of its legendary side effects. Here I did it anyway, and the side effects never materialised. That’s what I call winning at life.

Equally delicious was the next dish, slow-cooked pork shoulder crammed into radicchio and topped with ribbons of pickled fennel (and some slightly pointless dill). The pork was splendid, with the texture ignorant people are prone to describe as unctuous. This vegetation-as-taco concept seems to be a Bristolian one: I had something very similar, albeit far smaller, at Wilson’s late last year. But this was the size you actually wanted it to be – and well portioned for sharing. Did I wish I was eating them both to myself? I like to think I’m a decent friend, but yes. Yes I did.

By this point, Al and I were suffused with a warm glow, catching up for the first time in months, enjoying glasses of surprisingly fruity and accessible Cataratto (“do you know, that’s the only wine I like?” said our waitress, charm personified without necessarily realising it). And we got to talking about superlatives: Al has the misfortune to spend some of his time surrounded by people from Gen Z who only ever use one superlative – “stunning” – and use it all the time. About everything. Everything, he told me, is their “new favourite dish”, whether it’s a special occasion or some spaghetti hoops out of a tin. Even hearing about this perpetual state of wide-eyed wonder, I’m afraid, made me want to kick something very hard.

But we were both rather running out of adjectives by the time our next dish arrived. Tropea onions, cooked to soft, caramelised wonder, drizzled with a hazelnut beurre noisette and crispy sage leaves was another knockout, even without the three dollops of goats cheese (Ragstone, apparently) providing a little agriculture to offset the sweetness. I gave Al the spare onion: I told you I was a good friend, although he did let me have the extra Jerusalem artichoke, and I thought that one of the nicest things about sharing dishes is that you can both have virtually the same superlative experience. If there’s a better thing to do with an old friend than go to an excellent restaurant, I’m not sure I know what it is: I know some people like watching the football, or playing squash, or bloody golf, but for me this is as good as it gets.

“Would you describe it as stunning?” I asked. Al grinned.

“Definitely. New favourite dish.”

My new favourite dish – and in fact it stayed that way for the rest of the meal – was the next one. A really generous portion of cuttlefish, cooked sous vide and then finished on the grill I believe, was ludicrously tender and came already sliced into ribbons. I could imagine serving this with ‘nduja, or with salsa verde, but matching it with both, along with some capers, in a dazzling, dizzying tricolore was a stroke of genius. This dish would be at the apex of nearly any meal, and if I could find anywhere closer to home that served something like this I’d be there all the time, even if it was only half as good.

Our main courses involved the only misstep, and by “misstep” I mean “eight out of ten dish”. Al had decided to try the manicotti, a pasta dish, and he was encouraged in this by our waitress when he told her he was torn.

“It’s one of my favourite dishes, it’s like something your grandmother would make.”

“Your grandmother must be a better cook than mine was” I said, fighting back memories of wan fish, floured and fried, served on the kind of brown smoked glass plate every household had in the seventies. Still, she did at least cook proper chips in a chip pan, something nobody does now.

I think the dish was better than anything Al’s grandmothers could have conjured up either, but it wasn’t as much a tour de force as everything else had been. Manicotti are big sleeves of pasta, thicker and bigger than canelloni but the same kind of thing. Whereas this was a single giant tube, folded rather than rolled, and the overall look of it was somewhere between canelloni and some kind of pasta calzone, if I haven’t mixed my metaphors to death by saying that. It was stuffed with ricotta, topped with braised tomato, parmesan and rocket and it managed to look hearty, well-done and somehow unspecial.

“It’s okay” said Al. “It just doesn’t match everything that’s gone before. The braised tomatoes are fantastic, though. I just should have ordered the same thing as you.”

I mean, he should have. Because while I watched him eat a big sheet of pasta with some cheese in it pretending to be a Mobius strip, I was diving into a marvellous piece of onglet, as yielding as you like, with lashings of intense jus and – the icing on the cake – a dauphinoise of interlayered potato and celeriac, all topped with quite a lot of gruyere. It was just the most incredible thing, and when I saw on the menu that it clocked in at under sixteen pounds I thought there must have been a typo.

But there wasn’t. That whole plate of food for sixteen pounds was outrageously generous, charitable even. And speaking of charitable, even this dish had been served in a way that encouraged sharing, with the steak cut into substantial slices. I let Al have as many as he wanted to dull the food envy, because I’m not a monster: I suspect he would have had more, but it would have made the envy worse, not better. He consoled himself with some exceptional hand cut chips, dipped in a tarragon mayonnaise so herb-heavy it was the colour of guacamole. I had some too. Of course I did, it was world-beating.

We’d come all this way, so not having dessert would have been madness. The dessert menu is nicely compact – although they also have a selection of eight different cheeses – and Al had clearly learned from his mistake because, like me, he opted for the chocolate mousse. I think it’s an underrated dessert at the best of times, but this was at the very best of times – a hulking scoop of the stuff, dense yet airy, studded with plates of almond dentelle like the spines of a stegosaurus. That enough would have made it exquisite, but sprinkling it with flakes of sea salt and drizzling it with olive oil was the final touch.

“That chocolate mousse was so good” I told our waitress as she took our bowls away and we sipped our dessert wines (like I said, those kind of wankers), fighting the almost primal urge to order a savoury canelé for the road.

“Thank you so much! I actually made that yesterday, I spend some shifts in the kitchen as a pastry chef. I can’t actually eat it myself, it’s a bit too rich for me.”

I can’t imagine the level of self-restraint involved in being able to make something like that and not eat it, but then that’s why some people are slim and I’m not. Al, on the other hand, eats like a horse and is still as skinny as he was when I first met him about thirty years ago; this is why some people are jammy bastards and I’m not. But anyway, despite being thin, talented and impossibly young our waitress was a class act. All the people who served us throughout lunch were, actually: friendly, passionate about the food, with opinions on all of their favourite dishes, they were a real credit to the restaurant. How does anywhere get this good after just four months? It was quite miraculous.

Our waitress asked where we were from, and I mentioned Reading, and she proudly told us she’d been there. Once. Then of course the truth came out, that she’d passed through it recently on a train to London to watch a gig. It was the first time she’d ever been to London on her own, she said, at the tender age of twenty. And suddenly Al and I felt very old indeed, and seized with a sneaking suspicion that we should hightail it out of Bedminster and find an old man pub to hunker down in to carry on our gossiping session. The natural wine bar would just have to wait for another time. Our meal for two, with a very richly deserved service charge included, came to just under a hundred and ninety pounds. There was literally nothing to begrudge, except any of their punters who only paid ten per cent service.

As I was writing this review, I messaged Al, mainly to reminisce about what a phenomenal meal it was. What a stunning array of dishes I sent him, hoping to get a cheap laugh.

“One of my objections to the S word is the cognitive dissonance” he replied. “Stunning implies losing your senses, but with food that good your senses are very much alive. Sorry, you can tell I’ve thought about this too much.”

He’s right, though. What I loved about COR the most was having my senses awakened and reawakened time and again over the course of such a glorious lunch – old favourites, new combinations but always real integrity and imagination. Nothing was boring or humdrum, which I can say because I didn’t have that pasta dish, and in terms of the sheer number of hits I think it ranks as one of the best meals I can remember, at home or abroad.

I’m sure you know the drill by now with this kind of review. Bristol, Bristol, Bristol, hyperbole hyperbole hyperbole. But I like to think I’ve been here enough to sift the hypebeasts from the real contenders. The last time I was in Bedminster I ate at Sonny Stores, which was raved about by literally everybody but left me cold. And the last time I was in Bristol I went to Wilsons, which I raved about to literally anybody who’d listen.

And positioning COR relative to those two is pretty easy – it is miles better than Sonny Stores, a neighbourhood restaurant with a touch of the Peter Principle about it. But actually, although the number at the bottom is marginally lower than the one I gave to Wilsons, if you’re only having one meal in Bristol I would go here instead. Wilsons is a take it or leave it menu, a set seven courses, and when it’s on form it’s incredible. But I have friends who went there off the back of my review and although they loved the flavours, they found it a carb free zone and, I’m sorry to say, they left hungry. That will never happen to you at COR, and you will have an awful lot of fun deciding exactly how you want to become full. That’s what restaurants should all be about.

And how does COR compare to Reading restaurants? There’s nowhere in Reading even remotely like it. That is, and continues to be, the problem. You might get bored of hearing me say so, but it’s important to have goals. Reading’s should be to attract at least a couple of restaurants in approximately the same ballpark as this. I really hope it happens. It’s starting to get a tiny bit embarrassing.

COR – 9.5
81 North Street, Bedminster, BS3 1ES
0117 9112986


Bar review: The Grumpy Goat

As I will probably say many times more before the year is out – apologies in advance for that – my blog celebrates its tenth birthday this year. August 2023 will mark a full decade since this website was registered and the first blog post went up, promising weekly independent reviews of Reading restaurants. I’m still trying to decide whether to do anything to mark the occasion, although I’m well aware that it’s far more meaningful to me than it probably is to any of you.

In most respects, 2013 was a year much like any other in Reading’s restaurant scene. Many of the establishments that opened that year have long since gone the way of the dodo – Kyklos, La Courbe and the Lobster Room, for instance, are now mere footnotes. And the landscape has changed significantly since those pre-Brexit days; some of the town’s institutions, like Mya Lacarte and the Reading Post, indelibly part of the fabric of the town back then, have since been consigned to the history books. 

But my blog is not the only survivor of that year. Lincoln Coffee continues to trade on Kings Road and will celebrate a decade in December. A few minutes closer into town, House Of Flavours also hits the ten year mark this year. As does Five Guys: remember how excited everybody was about Five Guys, back in the day? And last but very much not least we have the Grumpy Goat, the subject of this week’s review.

Not that I would describe the Grumpy Goat as a survivor, because that doesn’t remotely do it justice. It has thrived over the last ten years, taking a chance on its little site in Harris Arcade well ahead of the growing interest in craft beer. Back then, two of its best selling breweries were Bingham’s and West Berkshire: neither is still going today. You have to remember that Grumpy Goat opened pre-Double-Barrelled, pre-Phantom, pre-Elusive Brewing, the year after Wild Weather started; Reading’s beer scene was in its infancy, to put it lightly.

Many years later the Grumpy Goat is one of the main players in a craft beer renaissance in Reading, plugged into all our local breweries, stocking fascinating stuff from further afield and running the hugely successful Craft Theory festival at South Street showcasing beers from Berkshire and beyond. In April, in collaboration with Blue Collar, it is bringing Cheese Feast back to Forbury Gardens for the first time since the pandemic.

It’s not just that, though. The Grumpy Goat outgrew its initial premises and in a bold step, and a boldly timed one at that, it moved across town to Smelly Alley in November 2020. You remember the winter of 2020, right? When Christmas was cancelled with about a week’s notice and we didn’t know what tier we were in? A brave time to open a much bigger shop, and no mistake.

Yet the Grumpy Goat got through that, and the following summer they started serving toasted sandwiches. They were everywhere on social media, it seemed – I saw photo after photo of golden crusts and oozing middles, all of which made me peckish. But they only had seating at a couple of barrels at that point, and for one reason or another I never got round to reviewing them. 

And then the final piece of the jigsaw came last August, when the Grumpy Goat opened its long-promised upstairs bar, open daytimes and evenings, with plenty of seating and eight beers on draft. Shamefully I didn’t manage to visit it last year, but it was always high on my priority list for this one, so Zoë and I made a beeline there on Saturday to see how its toasties ranked in the pantheon of Great Reading Toasties, amid the likes of Shed and Madoo.

First things first, I love what they’ve done with the space. Whoever designed it has a terrific eye and it has a simple, sophisticated colour palette: gorgeous racing green panelling, crisp white tiles and dusky pink walls. It’s broken up into zones and split level – the big tables nearest the window have tasteful banquettes and the lower level, nearer the bar, is a mixture of high and low tables. When I saw pictures I wasn’t sure it would be a place to linger, but in the flesh it truly is. What’s more, it’s emphatically grown-up and really nicely done.

During the day, the menu mainly revolves around toasted sandwiches and a handful of cheese and charcuterie boards. They stop serving toasties at 4, and from 6 they add a handful of small plates to the options. All of this, again, seems well thought out and the choice is reassuringly compact. In the evening the items on the menu don’t feel like the main event – they’re something to have with beer – whereas at lunchtime it’s all about those toasties. It’s worth adding that for both the toasties and the cheeseboard, vegan options are available. 

Prices, for the town centre, are slightly higher than average so a toastie will cost you between eight pounds and eight fifty, the boards are between ten and twelve. Bread and pastries are from Rise, and coffee is by Anonymous so the Grumpy Goat has done a bang-up job of teaming up with local independents.

Let’s start with the coffee, because it was revelatory. Anonymous not only provided the coffee but also trained the staff, and the end result was a latte which was right up there with any you can get in central Reading – glossy, beautifully made and wonderfully balanced. I don’t know whether the Grumpy Goat would necessarily want people using its upstairs as a cafe, but the coffee is worth a trip in its own right. 

And credit to them for fully embracing Anonymous’ coffee – unlike, say, Café Yolk who started out using them before switching to the inferior Kingdom Coffee, no doubt for financial reasons. Speaking of financial reasons, the coffee was a little more expensive than at the likes of Workhouse but, for me, it was worth every penny.

On to the toasties, then. The menu lists five, one of them vegan, and there was a monthly special on too, although we didn’t try it. Zoë had earmarked The Blue, made with stilton, walnuts, apple and honey, before we even crossed the threshold and that probably tells you quite enough about it. I wasn’t offered a single bite, but the vocal enthusiasm it was greeted with was enough encouragement to order it next time, although I can take or leave walnuts. Similarly, if blue cheese isn’t for you I imagine you’ll give this a wide berth. All I can tell you is that it looked pretty good from where I was sitting.

I’d chosen The Classic, because I thought it was as good a place to begin as any. This was all about simplicity, so there were just the two ingredients – toasted Winchester cheese (one of my favourite hard cheeses) and candied jalapeños from the Preservation Society. The Grumpy Goat sells the latter, incidentally, by the jar and I highly recommend taking some home as, in my experience, they pep up pretty much everything.

It has to be said that the Grumpy Goat believe in doing a limited number of things extremely well, and if more restaurants and cafés adopted this approach the world would be an infinitely better place. So it was impossible to fault the toastie – perfectly done, burnished on the outside and a molten mess in the middle. Not for them the lukewarm centre or the schoolboy error of sticking a napkin underneath it. 

In a way, it has to be perfect because it’s so visually unprepossessing – and although the bread is local sourdough it somehow looks a little unspecial, which is a pity. But the flavours were knockout; I might have liked more candied jalapeños, but I can eat the bastard things out of a jar, so my view on this is probably not to be trusted. Was it worth eight pounds? That’s a tricky one. Who knows what’s worth anything any more? Personally, I was more than happy to pay eight pounds for it. 

And in that Reading toastie hall of fame, it definitely earns a spot on the podium. The best cheese toasties I’ve ever had were from a pair of sisters who used to knock them up at Blue Collar’s events under the catchy name of Gourmet Cheese Toasties. This was pretty close – perhaps not quite as big, rugged and hefty but still a deeply, deeply enjoyable lunch. I wasn’t sure about the celery with it: it made me wish for some pickled celery, really, to add a little sharpness, but the toastie was fantastic none the less.

We’d saved room for dessert so we had a couple of chocolate brownies, also made by Rise with the genius addition of a little of Siren Craft’s award winning Broken Dream breakfast stout. If I’ve had a better brownie in Reading, I honestly can’t remember it – this was a generous, fudgy, indulgent slab of sublimity with just the faintest whisper of coffee from the beer. Yours for three pounds thirty, and a steal at that price.

All told, our coffee, toasties and brownies came to just over thirty quid. In terms of Reading’s indies, that price probably puts it in the same bracket as Shed and Picnic, with better coffee than both and better value than the latter. Service was extremely good, very likeable and largely from owners Anne-Marie, who was working behind the bar, and Charlie who was behind the counter downstairs.

I did also try some of the beers, so for completeness’ sake I should mention that too. I loved the fact that everything was available in thirds or two-thirds – no big bloating pints here – and that there’s always an alcohol free option on the wall. I tried Elusive’s Brave Noise, which was a little too harshly piney for my liking, and a beautiful sessionable pale from Herefordshire’s Odyssey, a microbrewery I’d never heard of, before finishing off with a third of Good King Henry, a stunning imperial stout which set off that brownie perfectly.

Imperial stouts in particular always amaze me – that you can get a third of a pint of something so carefully and superbly made for less than the cost of a glass of crappy wine in most pubs. That said, the Grumpy Goat looks to have an excellent selection of wine too (although most of it by the bottle only) and if you want a beer from downstairs there’s a modest surcharge to drink it in. We were pretty much the first customers at noon and by the time we reluctantly headed back out onto Smelly Alley, a couple of hours later, every table was occupied and buzzing. Nearly every one had taken delivery of multiple cheese toasties.

I suspect many of you have already been to the Grumpy Goat, and so your reaction to this review might be a combination of what took you so long? and didn’t I say it was great? If so, well done: you win. Even so I was delighted to love the place as much as I did. If this was the end goal – and given the Grumpy Goat’s ambitions so far you wouldn’t bet that it is – it’s the culmination of ten skilful, patient years.

They’ve spent that time building a customer base and a huge amount of loyalty, experimenting, branching out, finding producers and partners, innovating through lockdown, expanding despite the dismal headwinds and finally, not a moment too soon, creating a beautiful space slap bang in the centre of town that isn’t a pub, isn’t a bar, isn’t a shop and isn’t a café. Why limit yourself, when you can do all four things so well at the same time?

So hats off to the Grumpy Goat for what really is an impressive achievement: it’s hard not to argue that the Grumpy Goat is easily the most significant thing that happened to Reading’s food scene back in 2013. As a fellow survivor of that year, I have to hand it to them.

The Grumpy Goat – 8.3
7 Union Street, RG1 1EU
0118 9581765

Feature: Solo dining (2023)

Of all my features on the blog, the one about solo dining is one of the oldest and, as a result, the most out of date. The first edition was written in 2015 and, back then, I ate on my own out of necessity rather than choice; I make a reasonable case for the joys of dining alone, but looking back I’m not entirely sure my heart was in it. And if you want an idea of how much that piece has dated, the mentions of I Love Paella, Dolce Vita and Tasting House very much root it in the distant past. As possibly does the fact that I mentioned Yo! Sushi as one of my choices – I still have a soft spot for sitting up at the belt but, the last time I went there, there was next to nothing on it.

By contrast, my 2018 feature on eating alone is much more enthusiastic about the experience, with the slightly irritating fervour of someone who’s just come back from a gap year. If you’re single, for instance, and eat alone in restaurants frequently I can see you might find the solo tourism of that piece somewhat grating. Look at all the fun I’ve had living like you in Oxford and Paris! it seems to say. I mean, I did have fun, but I was on holiday. And nearly anyone can enjoy eating in restaurants on holiday. 

The other thing that dates the second edition of my solo dining recommendations is the preponderance of chains in it. Four of my six choices were chains, and in the piece I talked about how solo dining suited the rise of what I called the Good Chain – the smaller, smarter chains making their way to Reading. I said that it was a shame that independent restaurants hadn’t quite perfected the art of welcoming solo diners. 

Well, five years have passed and either I was wrong, or things have changed or my priorities have. Arguably it’s a mixture of all three, but when I look at Reading now it’s much easier to recommend a plethora of independents across all styles, types and price points. That makes me very happy indeed, because you can pop into a Côte or a Franco Manca anyplace, whereas most of the names on this list are significantly more exclusive. 

That in its own would be a good enough reason to refresh this list, but I do find that my relationship with solo dining has reached a happy medium at long last – it’s not a torture where you have to fake it til you make it, but neither is it something you have to profess to love in a manner that screams of overcompensation. 

I’ve had some lovely solo lunches and dinners at many of the places on this list: having a partner who works weekends and doesn’t always want to join me for reviews means that eating on my own is a bigger part of my life than it used to be. And actually, reviewing places solo or having a leisurely Saturday lunch with a book has become a welcome part of my balanced diet of restaurant experiences. So that’s another reason this piece is probably long overdue.

The perfect place for solo dining has to meet a number of different criteria, I think, and they’re not the same ones by which we judge all restaurants and cafés. It helps if the room is comfortable, not clinical (that, for instance, rules out the otherwise excellent ThaiGrr! for me). The food needs to lend itself to eating alone – so either a limited choice menu where you won’t get FOMO or small plates where you can treat yourself to several without having to share. That, for instance, is why Kungfu Kitchen isn’t on this list: it’s a wonderful place but having to limit yourself to a single dish there is something akin to torture.

Also, and this might just be me, I like my solo dining spots to have some people watching potential. Not so much, necessarily, that I’m drawn in – I don’t mean “talk to the neighbouring table” stuff, but I like to feel like I’m part of something a little bigger than me.

And finally, there’s the service. Service has to be one of two things – either properly welcoming and celebratory of the solo diner, as many of the best places are, or (and this is nearly as good) completely indifferent. I mean places that don’t care whether there are one or four or fifteen of you, but where you won’t get the look of pity every five minutes like they’re waiting for your imaginary friend to vacate the seat opposite you and a real one to take their place.

Not too much to ask, is it? Fortunately, I can think of ten places that achieve most, if not all of those criteria. And, although this rather goes without saying, they all do gorgeous food as well. Let’s get started. 

1. Buon Appetito

Pizza is one of the most FOMO-proof things you can eat: how envious can you really get that someone at your table is having roughly the same thing as you, just with a different permutation of toppings? That makes it perfect for solo dining, and as I’ve said before on numerous occasions Buon Appetito’s is arguably the finest in town, with one of Reading’s best outside spaces.

But the other thing that makes Buon Appetito ideal for solo dining, aside from the wonderful (heated) terrace, or that leopard-spotted crust, is the service: always warm and genuine, however big or small your party is. A pizza, a spritz, some people-watching and that welcome: could you ask for more?

Buon Appetito, 146-148 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT

2 Cairo Café

I loved Cairo Café when I went there on duty last year, and I always felt a little embarrassed that I hadn’t made it back for a return visit. And then the weekend before Christmas, I went there for a solo lunch. Town was packed, and Gail’s and Pret were both rammed. Off the beaten track, at the less fashionable end, Cairo Café was sleepy and quiet.

I had their formidable chicken shawarma wrap and some very good falafel and houmous, and enjoyed a meditative meal where I felt quite transported from the bustle, the last minute-shopping, all the ways that Reading can be a bit much sometimes. Cairo Café did that precious thing for me, and fed me well, and my New Year’s wish for them is that they find themselves busier in 2023.

Cairo Café, 13 West Street, RG1 1TT

3. Geo Café

The standard disclaimer at this point: Geo Café’s owners Keti and Zezva, almost uniquely among Reading’s hospitality scene, are friends of mine and I always say this when mentioning the place. But if you go there for brunch or lunch you soon realise that Keti is everybody’s friend, and that makes eating there feel like being at the epicentre of a little community. That’s heartwarming, interesting and affords enormous people-watching potential. I love sitting out in their Orangery, hearing all sorts of very Caversham conversations, but the buzz and bustle of the inside is marvellous (even if I always feel guilty for taking up a table for two all by myself).

The food at Geo Café – never rushed, always beautifully done – makes it one of my favourite places to lunch. God knows I’ve talked about their ajika chicken wrap more times than I can count but their brunches – scrambled Beechwood Farm eggs on sourdough with crispy bacon and, if you ask nicely, a smidge of green ajika – are also truly best in class. Get there early before they’ve run out of Zezva’s pastries – the pistachio croissant is good, the chocolate roll even better. They also do one of Reading’s best coffees, something for which they don’t get anywhere near enough credit.

Geo Café, 10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG

4. Honest Burgers

The great survivor on this list, Honest remains the chain most Reading folk are prepared to make an exception for. To me, it remains an exceptionally reliable town centre spot for a solo lunch or dinner, especially after work or en route to the pub. They have a decent selection of beers, their core range of burgers is solid and has been bolstered by the addition of a decent fried chicken option, and every now and again one of their monthly specials is a belter.

I know some people moan about the service but I’ve never found it less than excellent, although I don’t tend to go during peak times. And as a space, it’s hard to beat one of the booths at the front, looking out the window or into the restaurant at what remains one of Reading’s most sensitively restored buildings. Reading may have better burgers, but the centre doesn’t have many better restaurants for singleton diners.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB

5. Kokoro

Kokoro would seem to be the exception to many of the criteria I laid out at the start of this piece. The inside is a little clinical, you could argue. The people-watching potential, unless you really enjoy gazing upon a steady stream of Deliveroo drivers, is limited. And all of that’s true – when it’s warm and you can sit outside on Queen Victoria Street, Kokoro is a much better prospect.

But Kokoro still makes my list for one dish and one dish alone, their sweet chilli chicken. You get a decent sized tub of it with rice for around a tenner and on its day it is the perfect pre-pub dinner for one. It is also, and I have a horrible feeling I’ve said this before, the perfect hungover Sunday lunchtime kill or cure option. It hasn’t failed me yet.

Kokoro, 29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY

6. The Lyndhurst

It wouldn’t be a piece of mine without a plug for the Lyndhurst sneaking in, you might say, and you’d have a point. But hear me out, because the Lyndhurst is an absolutely fantastic place for a solo meal. At weekend lunchtimes nabbing a table and having their steak frites with a glass of red and a good book is an experience not to be missed (not that I always have the restraint to skip a starter – this is the Lyndhurst, after all). But their new venture is even more tempting – a weekday lunch menu which effectively gives you a choice of four plats du jour, any of them with a soft drink or a coffee, all for a tenner.

This has to be one the best value offerings anywhere in town, and since they launched it I’ve been a practically weekly visitor. And yes, that means you can get the above jaw-dropping pork schnitzel, resting on beautiful potatoes in a caper butter sauce, and a very serviceable latte, for ten pounds. Pay up front and you can have the whole thing done and dusted – just about – in time to be back at work before your lunch hour is up. They’d deserve a place on this list for that menu alone: that it’s actually the cherry on top tells you everything you need to know.

The Lyndhurst, 88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG

7. Madoo

I went on about Madoo a lot last year, and it seems repetitive to rehash it all here. But for the uninitiated, Reading’s Italian cafe is one of my favourite places for a solo lunch. You can pick your choice of carb and filling, or have one of the readymade sandwiches behind the counter, and it’s very hard to go wrong once they’re toasted to perfection and brought to your table. Make sure you save room for the cannoli, while you’re at it, because they’re unmissable: they even do miniature ones, if you want to pretend to be virtuous.

Possibly my favourite thing about Madoo, more even than the food, is that real sense of community you get there, from the Europop to the amount of Italian spoken at neighbouring tables, not to mention all the gesticulation and lust for life. The thought that people go to Costa instead of this place is enough to kill your buzz completely. Madoo is worth a visit just to experience that little enclave – on Via Del Duca, would you believe – in the heart of Reading.

Madoo, 10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU

8. Monkey Lounge

Bar food is a particular sub-genre of solo dining that I especially love: sitting at a table, nursing a cold beer, eating something casual and watching the world around you (or even, believe it or not, the football) is one of life’s pleasures. And I particularly enjoyed doing that last year at Monkey Lounge, one of the real surprise packages of my 2022. The burger is far better than I expected it to be, the atmosphere is convivial and just the right side of disreputable, the beer is very cold (if somewhat lacking in variety) and the chicken wings, tossed in their own buffalo sauce and face-meltingly spiky, are worth the price of admission alone.

It actually makes me wish I liked sport more – no mean feat – or, failing that, that my sports-loving friends lived in the neighbourhood. Next time I have an evening on my tod and nowhere to review, I’m off down the Erleigh Road.

Monkey Lounge, 30 Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA

9. Sapana Home

Sapana Home made my last iteration of this list, with a big old sentimental blurb about what a pivotal role it had played in my life during my divorce, dating and gradual rehabilitation into polite society (a process many might argue remains a work in progress). But then I didn’t go there for many months because of the pandemic, never ordered their stuff through Deliveroo and almost, shamefully, forgot about the place. Going back for a quick dinner late last year I was reminded how much I loved it.

The momo – pan-fried, for me – are a must-order, the rest of the stuff is fine if you want more food but as a solo diner, a plate of their momo and a mango lassi, the radio on in the background and the kindly staff fussing about all around you makes for as wonderful a meal as it has at any time in the last ten years. Did you realise Sapana Home has been going for over a decade? Me neither.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG

10 Tasty Greek Souvlaki

The only drawback of going to Tasty Greek Souvlaki on your own is that you can’t order the mixed grill and have to slum it with a plate of gyros, or souvlaki or what have you. But in all other respects it is the perfect spot for the solo diner. The tables for two are much more manageable as a solo diner, the food is wonderful, the service is superb and if you’re sitting out the front on a clement evening you get to see what feels like the whole of Reading wandering past.

When summer is on the way it will come into its own even more, if that’s possible: when you order a bottle of Fix they bring a frosted glass with it, and suddenly Greece doesn’t feel so many hundreds of miles away.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki, 20 Market Place, RG1 2EG