I found myself in Exeter in a very specific set of circumstances: I was down in Padstow last week, celebrating my dad‘s birthday, and looking at how long the train took Zoë and I decided to break our journey en route and spend the night somewhere along the way. It quickly came down to a choice between Totnes and Exeter and although I was tempted by the former – I have happy memories, the one time I visited Totnes, of arriving on Midsummer’s Eve to stumble upon what can only be described as some kind of Druidic ceremony under way in the town square – the former won out, on account of being bigger with potentially more to do.
As it turned out I rather liked Exeter, revisiting it after an interval of close to twenty years. It has an absolutely superb bakery and coffee shop slap bang next to the central station which did a splendid job of refreshing me the afternoon I arrived and the morning I departed; my only regret is not getting to try the craft beer and gin bar next door. What a contrast between this and stumbling out of Gare Du Ding to choose between a Mitchell & Butler and a Fullers pub: we could learn a lot from Exeter.
Not only that but Exeter also had, as I discovered, a burgeoning coffee scene with several marvellous coffee shops, mostly clustered round Fore Street. I stopped at the excellent Crankhouse Coffee and enjoyed a superlative latte, picking up some beans to take home (one trend I did spot in Exeter was people in cafés bed blocking tables for hours with a laptop and a glass of tap water, not buying any coffee: it must drive the owners nuts).
Fore Street also played host to a brilliant independent bookshop and a bottle shop whose owner had got his hands on stuff from all sorts of intriguing American breweries I’d never heard of before. I left with a pair of novels for my holiday and a couple of imperial stouts it took all my strength not to open before the end of my trip.
It wasn’t all beer and skittles, mind you. Without wishing to channel my inner Pevsner or Betjeman, Exeter has as much postwar architecture as the next place, some of it fascinating and some downright ugly. I was surprised by how many premises were boarded up, even if the area round by the Cathedral was blessed with the usual suspects – Côte and what have you – along with a branch of The Ivy, the Wetherspoons for people with more money than taste.
I was in the unusual position of having some Exeter recommendations from Ruth, a long-standing reader of the blog who moved to the city from Reading three years ago. It was Ruth who tipped me off about Crankhouse Coffee, and I can only apologise that I didn’t get to try out her other suggestions. So apparently there’s a little enclave called St Leonard’s a mere ten minute walk from the centre with a terrific tapas place called Calvo Loco and a cutting edge small plates restaurant called Stage: I promise, scout’s honour, that I’ll check them out next time.
But I’m afraid, because I’m basic that way, I probably disappointed Ruth by having my eye on a fried chicken restaurant called Eat The Bird, the second in a tiny chain based in Taunton, Exeter and Cardiff. I didn’t just disappoint Ruth, either: when I told the thoroughly nice, distinctly urbane chap at our hotel our planned destination was it my imagination, or did he roll his eyes despairingly? He recommended some good gin bars I could stop by on the way there, but I was beyond redemption.
Eat The Bird is at the end of Exeter’s rather long High Street, a wide-pavemented thoroughfare which somehow reminded me of Belfast, just past a retro-looking party shop called Streamers, at the point where the city starts to look a little postmodern (put it this way: it’s opposite a bookie and a Poundland).
But I quite liked the interior: it was well done, in a sort of stripped-back way. The main dining room in the front was all partitioned booths, the floor bare concrete and the brick wall painted a vivid crimson. The kitchen itself was in a shipping container plonked in the middle of the restaurant. The overall effect was about as close to street food as you could get while still eating indoors, but the whole thing was transformed by warm, enthusiastic service from start to finish.
The reviews I’ve read of Eat The Bird’s menu tend to focus on the laddishness of the puns behind most of the dishes. And yes, I suppose calling a Korean chicken burger “the Chicktator” is a little hackneyed, as is giving other sandwiches monikers like “Clucking Hell” or “Cluck Me Sideways”. But the same bloggers clutching their pearls about that do like to wank on about “falling in lust” with dishes, describing them as “lascivious” or generally rambling on as if they’ve never met a risotto they didn’t want to shag, so maybe some perspective is in order. Personally I blame Nigella and Nigel, the patron saints of that kind of food writing.
The thing I’d focus on is the drinks menu: I’m really not sure that calling a cocktail “Hobo Juice” and serving it in a brown paper bag is the wizard idea they thought it was. But their house IPA Wing Fingers, “a 3 way collab between us, Many Hands Brewery and hip hop artist MC Abdominal” (really?) was truly gorgeous, just about sessionable and spot on with all of the food we ordered. And we ordered a lot, as you’re about to discover.
The menu focuses on chicken – you don’t say – but mostly boneless, either as burgers or tenders. You can get wings, but not whole pieces of chicken on the bone à la KFC or Popeyes. There are a handful of beefburgers, more than lip service, which looked very good indeed, and four vegan variants of the chicken burger featuring everybody’s favourite apostrophe-ridden meat substitute, something called “chick’n” about which I’m perfectly happy to know nothing. Most chicken burgers will set you back eleven or twelve pounds, and there are also four different types of loaded fries including a tempting-sounding poutine.
But best of all, they also served frickles. If I could do it again I’d order these with the beers rather than having the food come all at once, because they were one of the finest beer snacks I can recall. So often they’re big watery things, the batter not adhering (a problem Honest’s onion rings, much as I like them, also have). Here they were smaller, punchy slices of gherkin, salt and sharpness in perfect harmony, the impeccable batter leaving your fingers shiny. Good on their own, even better dabbed in a pot of ranch dip; even Zoë, a pickle hater of long standing, liked them.
Better still – and yes, we ordered these as well as having burgers, because gluttony – were the chicken tenders. You got a generous helping of these, along with a little pot of dip, for a crazy six pounds fifty. And honestly, they were so good – all gnarled exterior, a fantastic coating that delivered on taste and texture. Good dipped, just as good on their own, close to the summit of what this kind of food can be.
Having eaten at Popeyes not so long ago, I remember thinking that although the American chain had perfected the crunch the flavour had just not bothered to show up. I thought at the time that something was missing: what was missing, in honesty, was that they weren’t these. Whisper it quietly, but these might even have been better than Gurt’s tenders, and they’ve attained near-legendary status in Reading. We ordered two other dips on the side, a ranch for Zoë and a decent, if slightly gloopy, Korean one for me.
Both of those things were strong contenders for my favourite dish, but so were the fries. We’d picked the tastefully renamed Kyiv fries which were loaded up with little nubbins of fried chicken, confit garlic butter (apparently), garlic mayo and an avalanche of Parmesan. Yours for seven pounds, and in my book easily worth that. I didn’t really get the garlic butter, and the overall effect was almost like a portion of chips covered in a really potent Caesar dressing. But even once the Parmesan and the mayo had run out – which they only did towards the end – what was left were gorgeous, still-crispy chips. So often this kind of dish is a way to charge more for fries and conceal how poor they are, the old street food confidence trick, but here every single element was best in class. “These have to be the best loaded fries I’ve ever had” was Zoë’s verdict. I completely agree.
If I’ve saved the burgers til last it’s almost because, with everything else, we arguably didn’t need them. And if they didn’t quite scale the heights of our other food it’s simply because that had set a tricky standard to meet. But the chicken burger itself was extremely good – generously proportioned, again in that top notch coating and holding up against everything dumped on top of it. It was breast rather than thigh, and although thigh would always be my preference this was excellent, tender stuff. I imagine it’s brined, or soaked in buttermilk or unicorn’s tears and all that bla, but however they do it, it comes out superbly.
Zoe had hers – the “Holy Cluck”, don’t you know – with brie, bacon, garlic mayo and onion marmalade and was an enormous fan of it, but for me that oozing brie would have been overkill.
I’d chosen the “Proper Filth” – let’s not go into how this kind of food tries to present poor hygiene as a good thing – and I loved it. Instead of brie it has smoked cheese and that, along with bacon and a decent barbecue sauce gave the whole thing a hulking whack of smoke that worked beautifully. I’d have preferred the bacon streaky and better cooked, but I’ve been saying that about most of the bacon I’ve encountered for many years and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. The bacon was the weakest element of the burger, the burger was the weakest element of the meal, but by weakest I just mean “least utterly excellent”. It was still utterly excellent.
One thing I found odd about the restaurant was that although they took your order at the table, they gave you the option to settle up by scanning a QR code. We did that, and I suppose I can see it’s convenient, but it felt jarring that you could just pay your bill and sneak out into the night without human contact. I partly say that because the service was excellent all round. It was surprisingly apologetic too – I think our food came out in around forty minutes and what with the gorgeous beer, and the buzz, and the feeling of being on holiday that was perfectly fine with us. Maybe it wouldn’t have been with other tables, but they really didn’t need to say sorry for making us wait. If anything, it gave me confidence in the food.
At the end the chap who had mostly looked after us came over, we chatted about fried chicken in general and the places we were keen to tick off in London (Chick ‘n’ Sours has been on my list for as long as I can remember) and I got a clear impression that the people who worked here loved food, loved Eat The Bird’s food and cared about food and service in general. It’s always nice when you’re served by someone who is as interested in restaurants as you are, something that also happened the last time I went to COR.
Our bill, which we’d already paid by then, came to sixty-three pounds not including tip, for all that food and a couple of two-thirds each of the house beer. Personally I thought that was solid value – especially when someone more sensible, less greedy, less on vacation and less of a tourist would most likely have spent less.
I know a review like this is all a bit “what I did on my holidays”. Exeter, of all places: some of you will never read it, many of you will never go there. But the point is that you have to try the Eat The Birds of this world to understand why the likes of Popeyes are so desperately pisspoor. You have to eat the unhyped stuff, sometimes, to understand that the hyped stuff is all smoke and mirrors.
If you want Reading to have ambition, you need to try and work out who its role models should be. And places like Eat The Bird – small, independent, growing cautiously and still clearly taking pride in everything they do – are the kinds of places we should be getting. They’re also the places we don’t get, and that is a worry.
Full and happy, we wandered out into the night and ended up at a place called Little Drop Of Poison – also on Fore Street – which was a captivating jumble of styles. There were old men drinking cask, hogging big tables, who had probably been drinking there since before it was a craft beer place and were too stubborn to switch their allegiance. There were a bunch of impossibly young people, one of them still wearing his staff t-shirt from Boston Tea Party, congregated around the pool table drinking the kind of brightly coloured ciders I hurt my liver with when I was their age.
And finally, in a cosy table near some twinkling lights, there were Zoë and I, taking advantage of beer lines full of obscure treats – IPAs from a little brewery I’d never heard of in Worthing, pastry sours from Poland’s Funky Fluid, imperial stouts packed with chocolate and chilli by Põhjala, brewed in Tallinn. It was just a quietish Wednesday night, but I felt a real gratitude to the city for showing me just a fraction of the stuff that doubtless made it a lovely place in which to live. So I silently raised a glass to Ruth, even if I hadn’t wound up drinking in one of her recommended pubs, because she was right after all. Exeter has an awful lot going for it.
Eat The Bird – 8.3
183 Sidwell Street, Exeter, EX4 6RD