Café review: Richfields Deli & Grill

I’m under strict instructions to find some new dining companions. Dragging poor Zoë out on a weekly basis to accompany me to restaurant X or Y, with all the cashflow and calorific consequences that entails, is apparently getting, in her own immortal words “too much”. The cost of living with me crisis. So I was told in no uncertain terms that this week’s review would have to be a solo mission. Make some more bloody friends, seemed to be the unspoken subtext. 

Which was fine: I woke up on Sunday morning, feeling a mite jaded after a day spent introducing friends – relatively new ones, as it happens – to the delights of Reading, to Double Barrelled and the Grumpy Goat, to our brilliant beer scene and the equally brilliant number 17 bus. You forget how great this town can be, and it’s always a tonic to see it in the eyes of somebody else, even if that does involve going all the way down the Oxford Road to an industrial estate near a big branch of Screwfix. Whatever: I slouched out of the house, a couple of paracetamol freshly gulped down, badly in need of brunch.

Nothing quite hits the spot like a full English when you’re hanging out of your arse, and I had Richfields, at the end of the Caversham Road, in my sights. I’d been there just over five years ago with a then friend of mine who used to accompany me on reviews, Costanza to my Seinfeld, and we’d both had lunch dishes, even though it was more of a breakfast place. “I’ll make an effort to go back there for brunch next year” I said, but next year came and I didn’t. Ditto for the year after, and then of course the world changed entirely. But I’d always felt I ought to give them another try, that my review was getting out of date, and a slightly hung over solo brunch date with myself presented a perfect opportunity.

The inside hasn’t changed much since I went there last – they’ve taken down the Christmas tree, obviously – so it’s still a long space broken up into three similar rooms and tastefully done in orange and blue, banquettes running along the walls. When I got there, midmorning, the place was pretty full and it clearly does a roaring takeaway trade because there was a big queue at the counter and I had to wait a little for them to wipe down a table. 

I bagged a table in the front room, because there was better daylight for pictures, but I came to regret it because the front door swung open and shut so often from a frequent stream of customers that it was a bit of an ice box. Still, I was pleased they were so busy. Initially I thought you had to go up to the counter to order, but I’d just happened to arrive at the same time as a lot of takeaway customers and a very friendly customer handed me a menu on his way to go up and order a coffee. 

When I went back in 2017 I found the menu huge – too huge, honestly – and all over the place. There were brunches, of course, but also burgers and grill dishes, salads, a bewildering array that didn’t make you confident they could do it all well. Richfields in 2023 has sensibly refocused on brunches and most of the dishes sit in that category. They still do a couple of lunch dishes, curries, chillis and stews, and they have a bunch of toasties but the rest is very much variations on a theme: savoury brunches, sweet pancakes and a few breakfast wraps and burritos. 

The drinks menu is big too – shakes, smoothies, hot drinks and, for the adventurous, Bloody Marys and mimosas (perhaps another time, I thought to myself). They did a variety of cakes and brownies up at the counter, too, although it wasn’t clear who make them: Richfields social media has suggested that they buy from Rise Bakehouse in the past, but they might not do so now. Richfields also sells its own coffee in big bags to take home, though it wasn’t clear who roasted it for them.

Apart from the regular blasts of frigid air from the constantly swinging front door, which was my fault for not picking a better table, it was truly a very agreeable place to sit and let the morning paracetamol slowly take effect. I’d brought a novel with me to read and pretend to be a better person than I am, but the people watching opportunities were rich and between that and my phone I had no choice but to be my usual shabby and slightly disreputable self. 

The thing that struck me, watching people come and go, was just how universal Richfields’ appeal was. All age groups and demographics were represented, from young professionals who had wandered in from Little Wales, the maze of streets behind Caversham Road, to fiftysomethings from Caversham enjoying a companionable married brunch and bigger groups of students.

I thought this was enviable, to attract loyalty from so many different types of people, and in that respect it reminded me more of Tilehurst’s The Switch than the slightly Made In Chelsea antics of people frantically posing for the ‘gram in Café Yolk (bear in mind, though, that it’s me saying this: I’m positively ancient).

I’d ordered a orange juice and a latte and both came in around quarter of an hour. The orange juice was very good – the menu says it’s “fresh orange juice” but whether that means “freshly squeezed” or “freshly taken out of a bottle or carton that says ‘fresh orange juice’ on it” I have literally no idea. Either way I liked it a lot and it was badly needed, although with hindsight a Dr Pepper might have been more effective.

The latte was more problematic – it had that slightly bitter acrid top note that middle tier coffee in Reading often has, although I have to say too that it got better as it went along, which truly awful coffee never does. They charge less for a single shot latte but they didn’t ask me which kind I wanted – I’m guessing, though, that this was a double shot which would explain why it was a little harsh. It didn’t make me want to buy some beans, either way.

I decided to order the “Richfields Fry Up”, the reference breakfast, because I always think it’s a good yardstick. If this hadn’t been a solo visit I could tell you about the chorizo hash, the smashed avo, the eggs Benedict or even the “Hot Mess”, a sort of breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs, chorizo and Tabasco. Sorry about that, although at least it should make for a shorter review (who am I kidding? We both know it won’t). 

Now, normally in my reviews I’ll describe everything I’ve eaten and then pop a picture at the end as a sort of aide memoire – I ate this and this and this, and by the way it looked like this. But just to mix things up, let’s look at the picture first and then I’ll tell you what did and didn’t work. Not all of it, by the way, is readily apparent from the picture.

So first of all, doing the scam with a small plate to make your breakfast look enormous isn’t a con trick Richfields needs to pull. It is a massive breakfast and it needed a bigger plate. Without it, you were always playing the game of pushing one item out of the way so you could have a crack at cutting another and loading it onto your fork. I nearly lost several things overboard more than once.

In terms of the individual components, it was very much a curate’s egg. Bacon was back, unfortunately, but well cooked with colour and no hideous rubberband fat to chew your way through. Also good were the mushrooms, which maybe hadn’t been cooked to savoury depth as they could have been but were at least – and you can’t take this as a given – properly cooked and not sad microwaved things shrivelled in a meagre puddle of what passed for their own juices. I’d asked for poached eggs, and they were a strong point – nicely done with good shape and no hint of vinegar from the poaching.

The very best thing about Richfields breakfast is the hash brown. Unlike nearly anywhere I can think of, with the possible exception of Bluegrass BBQ, they make their own hash browns and it shows. They are glorious, big, irregular carby marvels. Richfields should be famous for them – they were head and shoulders above everything else on the plate – and yet they don’t make anything of them. I found that bizarre. 

And last but not least, I didn’t like the sausage at all. It was smooth, browned and unappetising – I’d compare it to Robert Kilroy Silk if that wasn’t the most outdated analogy of all time – and, for me at least, actively not pleasant. I cut it, I chewed a bit, I decided if I wanted some more, I repeated the process a couple more times and decided to abort the mission. A little clear fluid wept from the cut end onto the plate, and I felt slightly icky. I don’t know what the meat content of this sausage was, but at a guess I would put it within a couple of percentage points of “nowhere near high enough”.

Would you believe me, though, if I said that wasn’t the biggest problem with this dish? I almost never talk about presentation because I think it’s an overrated aspect of food. The time spent making it look all pretty can be time you would otherwise spend eating the damned thing, and I’m never going to be one of those people who says oh, it’s just too beautiful to eat. Nothing edible is too beautiful to eat.  Unless it tastes shite in which case yes, you might be better off not bothering.

But plating in brunch is important, because of the whole element of cross-contamination. I know some people like baked beans, and some people – like my other half – really do not. I know some people may think having the baked beans ring-fenced in a secure ramekin is overkill, but even those people – or people who rather like baked beans, like I do, would probably still want them to be at least slightly self-contained on the plate. Well, Richfields don’t believe in the barrier method: almost every single element of the breakfast was resting on an almost completely concealed lake of baked beans. I bet at least a few of you read that sentence and shuddered.

It sort of ruined everything. My preference is to plonk my poached egg on a slice of toast, so that the yolk seeps into the bread. Here there was barely room to do that, but also both my eggs were already tainted with baked bean juice. So were the two slices of cheap, thin white bread – I bet they weren’t from Rise – so much so that they were decidedly soggy. It even did its best to mar the hash brown. I think this breakfast was plated by one of two kinds of people: someone who fucking loves baked beans, or someone who doesn’t ever eat a full English. Either way, it was a huge error: when I finished my meal, all that was left was about a third of an iffy sausage and a lukewarm puddle of baked beans.

I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy myself. Richfields is a very nice spot, in an interesting part of town on the border of all sorts of things and if the coffee had been better, or the brownies had definitely been from Rise, or better still both I might have lingered longer, done some Olympic standard eavesdropping and even pretended to read my book (Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey: it was really good, actually). 

Opposite me a table of four tousle-haired students were conducting an in depth post mortem on all the girls they’d failed to get off with the night before in a way that was sweetly post #MeToo with all the laddish menace of a chess club. Next to me three thirtysomethings were comparing box sets – I keep meaning to get round to Ozark – while the most middle class of them, bless her, ate her Hot Mess burrito with a knife and fork. It was all rather lovely.

But Richfields had put me in the mood for excellent coffee, in the way that reading Caitlin Moran might put you in the mood for Nora Ephron, and I knew I could get it the other side of Caversham Bridge, so I settled up and headed on my way. It came to just under seventeen pounds, with no option for service. I asked, and either the waitress didn’t understand me or it was included. I hope it is, because all the service I had was superb, and they were very, very busy.

I wish this was a better review, and I can’t help thinking that I actually had a more enjoyable meal five years ago when I went there for a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. I understand retrenching to brunches – Richfields is only open until three at weekends – but I just wish mine had been a little better executed. And when I compare it to Dee Caf or The Switch, or even Café Yolk for all its faults, it was slightly lacking. As I approached the Crowne Plaza roundabout I saw the Gorge, thoroughly rammed with people, the interior as reassuringly naff as ever. And I wondered if really, the main differences between it and Richfields were cosmetic. 

All the same, I’m glad that Richfields was doing so well, and relieved that this review will no doubt be like water off a duck’s back to them. But the problem was the beans, both coffee and haricot. To get one wrong may be regarded as a misfortune; to err at both looks like carelessness. My top tip, if you go there, is an item tucked away in the bottom right corner of the menu: order a pair of hash browns from their Sides section and add some scrambled eggs and bacon. Black pudding, too, if you’re feeling decadent. By reckoning that will cost around half as much as the fry up, and be about twice as good. You’re welcome.

Richfields Deli & Grill – 6.8
211 Caversham Road, RG1 8BB
0118 9391144


Restaurant review: San Sicario

“What was this place before it was Cozze?” said Zoe as we flipped through the menus at San Sicario, the newish Italian restaurant at the bottom of the Caversham Road which has replaced Cozze’s central Reading branch.

“How long have you got? Before Cozze it was a Mexican restaurant called Maracas. And before that it was another Italian place called Casa Roma. Casa Roma and Maracas were owned by the same people…”

“…and they changed it to Maracas because they could use all the letters from their old sign? You’ve told me that story before.”

I smiled, although I did wonder if it was a good thing to have reached the you’ve told me that story before stage in our relationship.

“Yes, and before that it was a Lebanese restaurant called El Tarboush. That wasn’t bad actually – this would have been around 2009. Before that it was a place called La Fontana, but they moved out to Twyford.”

“Another Italian?”

“More generic Mediterranean, really. And before that it was a restaurant called Chi’s Oriental Brasserie. Now that was a restaurant! It was run by a chap called Wayne Wong from Cardiff, of all places. I still remember their XO chilli prawns. They ended up moving to the spot where Buon Appetito is now. I did karaoke there once, would you believe.”

Suddenly I had memories of nights in that restaurant over twenty years ago. At the time, I was going out with a woman who took great pride in stealing a six inch, brushed steel soap dispenser from Chi’s Oriental Brasserie’s ladies’ toilets: it was, with hindsight, one of many indicators that we wanted different things out of life.

“It keeps defaulting to Italian, I suppose.”

“Sort of. I guess Italian is a go-to option in this country – it tends to be mid-priced, it’s easy to do multiple pizzas and pasta dishes. Even now we still tend as a nation to have Italian out and Chinese or Indian food for a takeaway.” 

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because before this place was San Sicario it was San Carlo – same location, same owners, but a name they had to cease and desist from using barely a month after they opened last November because of a large national chain of Italian restaurants called San Carlo. 

I felt for San Sicario when I heard that – a far from auspicious start in a site where, if history was anything to go by, the owners would need every lucky break they could get. That’s when I made a mental note to pay San Sicario a visit sooner, rather than later.

“It’s got to be better than Cozze, anyway.”

Zoe was right about that – Cozze, San Sicario’s predecessor, had been terrible. I still remembered my meal there, eating carbonara paler than Cate Blanchett. It was a mystery how they’d ever expanded to three branches.

The interior of San Sicario was especially jarring: the glassware might have been different – and rather fancy – but the furniture, the banquettes, the exposed brick-effect wallpaper and the faux Kandinsky wall art had all been inherited from Cozze. Literally inherited: they’d lightened up some of the colour scheme, but it was fundamentally exactly the same. 

It was a big room, and the owners hadn’t really done anything to break it up into zones or to soften the noise – a room which really had to be full not to look a bit strange, although full it would have been deafening. On a Saturday lunchtime it was far from packed, with about three other tables occupied. Another three or so groups came for lunch after we sat down.

The first sign that this was a very different beast from Cozze came when I paid attention to the menu. I was never sure just how Italian a restaurant could be when it did chicken wings and burgers, but San Sicario’s menu left you in no doubt that it was a Proper Italian Restaurant. The menu was big – possibly too big – but it didn’t feel like it was chasing customers from Prezzo or Zizzi; the chef has cooked at Pepe Sale, and that felt far more the ballpark here. 

That doesn’t mean that San Sicario didn’t sell pasta and pizza – far from it, they did – but the pasta was an interesting range of sauces and shapes rather than a boilerplate way of flogging the two in an almost infinite number of combinations (just typing this reminds me, by the way, how little I miss Wolf Italian Street Food). But there was also a reasonably priced set lunch menu, which they even offered on Saturdays, a specials menu with five additional dishes on it and a Valentine’s Day menu, which I assume they hadn’t got round to removing yet.

The main thing I thought, looking at the menu, was that these were classic dishes and combinations, and that if the restaurant could pull them off it would be the kind of restaurant Reading hasn’t had for some time. I know many people miss Dolce Vita, and others miss what Pepe Sale used to be before the original owners sold up. Some, for that matter, still talk about Nino’s. But really, I’m not sure Reading has had a truly classic Italian restaurant since Topo Gigio closed.

Our first dishes came as we were making inroads into a couple of very servicable drinks – a powerful negroni for her, a G&T made with fragrant Italian gin for me – and they made for an excellent start. According to the restaurant’s social media they make their own bread and focaccia every day, and they were both pretty decent, especially the focaccia which came sliced into little cubes, perfect for dipping in oil and balsamic vinegar, just enough salt scattered on the crust. We saved the bread for mopping, showing uncharacteristic foresight.

I picked the best of the starters, which is something I don’t get to say often enough. White crab meat came heaped onto what could have been crème fraîche or mascarpone, the whole thing sitting on a potato rosti. Simple, elegant, pristine flavours, and if the advertised watercress was nowhere to be seen I was hardly complaining, as it would have thrown the whole thing out of kilter. 

It wasn’t perfect – the rosti could have done with more lightness and crispness, and felt more like a latke, and I had a few bits of shell in the crab – but none of that detracted from just how delightful it was. And could I think of anywhere else in Reading where this dish would end up on the menu? Not really.

That was one of the specials, as was Zoë’s starter. Calamarata, a shape of pasta I’ve never had before, are short thick rings of pasta thought to resemble calamari (they were obviously named by somebody who’d never eaten a packet of Hula Hoops, that’s all I’m saying). They were paired up with a tantalising-sounding ragu made with beef, lamb, pork and veal. Four different animals on one plate: just imagine!

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed this dish more than Zoë did – just as well because, as a generous-sized starter, I got to finish it. The sauce hugged the pasta better than I was expecting and I quite liked the ragu which was studded with tender meat. But I agreed with Zoë that the ragu was a little unbalanced – it was underseasoned, which meant the sharpness of the tomato was more prominent than it should have been. A carpet of parmesan couldn’t save it, although maybe it would have done if it had been a lot thicker.

A final starter sounded so good, and looked so good online, that we were greedy and ordered it to share. A pile of wild mushrooms – accurately described for once – was sticky and reduced, topped with a crispy breadcrumbed egg. The egg was cooked just right, with only a little over-wobbly egg white, and when cut open the yolk worked its magic spreading across the mushrooms, an edible sunrise. 

Again, it was a dish so close to superb but not quite there – I wanted more savoury depth in the mushrooms, and that was missing. I didn’t mind that it was on the small side, and I didn’t mind that it was a tiny bit pricey (it was just under a tenner), but I did mind that. If the flavour had been spot on, none of that would have mattered in the slightest.

All that said, main courses were pretty good. Zoë’s lamb rump was expertly cooked, far better than at, say, London Street Brasserie, and four really generous slices of it were fanned out on top of a very creditable caponata with plenty of black olives, the whole thing bathed in jus. The salsa verde was denser than Owen Jones, but considerably more appetising (and like Owen Jones, a little went a very long way). This dish wasn’t cheap at just over twenty-five quid, but I thought it was probably about its money. Again, Zoë found it a smidge underseasoned. She might have been right.

Saltimbocca has always been one of my favourite dishes, and since Dolce Vita closed nearly five years ago I’ve never found one that came close. San Sicario’s, I’m pleased to say, did – three pieces of veal, topped with prosciutto and luxuriating in butter and sage is one of the loveliest, simplest plates of food you can eat. Again, I feel a bit like I’m kicking a puppy saying this but it needed more – more butter, more sage, more seasoning, more oomph. The courgettes it was served with were pleasant enough, and certainly not cooked to mulch, but they felt like a bit of a plod without plenty of that butter to trawl them through. In my mind I was hoping for courgette fritti, but it wasn’t to be.

We did, however, make an excellent choice of side. Potatoes were wonderfully bronzed cylinders, all crinkled edges that spoke of a far healthier relationship with fat than I’ve ever managed. They were more fondant potato than roast potato, and all the better for it. Three pounds fifty, too, which is ludicrous value. “This is a lot better than that medley of veg you get at Pepe Sale” said Zoë. I couldn’t agree more.

By this point the restaurant was as full as it was going to get at lunchtime, and it was interesting how that exposed some problems with the service and the space. We eventually ordered some wine – a glass of barbera for Zoë and a sauvignon blanc for me – after we finished our starters. Both were lovely, but by the time they’d arrived our mains were in front of us. We hadn’t specified what size we wanted, he hadn’t asked and he brought us large glasses, which isn’t really what we wanted.

We didn’t make anything of it, it wasn’t a biggie, but there were a few niggles like that. The waiter was absolutely lovely, and quite up front about his limited English – still, of course, infinitely better than my Italian – but there was just the one of him and he did seem to struggle a little with half a dozen tables demanding his attention. And the room was so big, and the tables were so spaced out, that it could be difficult to grab him when you needed him.

I would say desserts are San Sicario’s weak point. The menu sensibly only has half a dozen, but they don’t bowl you over. Having ordered tiramisu at practically every Italian restaurant I’ve reviewed since 2019 we gave it a miss this time, although it turned up at a neighbouring table and looked good. Zoë chose a cheesecake, and enjoyed it without ever going into raptures. It was billed as a vanilla lemon cheesecake with berry compote – talk about covering your bases – but actually it was a slab without compote and with a layer of fruit jelly on top. I didn’t try it, but tellingly I didn’t especially want to.

I’d picked an affogato, prompted by fond memories of the one Tamp Culture used to do back in the day. It was entry level – two scoops of vanilla ice cream that could have been Walls, a jug of burnt-tasting espresso and, allegedly, some amaretto. It looked like the ice cream might have had a few molecules of the stuff splashed over it, but not enough to taste of it. When a dessert is this simple, every aspect of it should be good. With this one, none of it really was.

Our bill for all that food, a couple of drinks each and a post-prandial espresso came to one hundred and thirty pounds, not including tip, and took a fair old while to conjure up. I actually think quite a lot of what we had was pretty decent value, and it’s also worth pointing out that for the time being the restaurant is offering 20% off food Tuesday to Thursday via their Facebook page. After we settled up we went to Phantom for a drink, and it was hosting some kind of punk pop festival which made me feel ancient – I’m old enough to remember Basket Case the first time round – so we hopped into a taxi, went to Double Barrelled and had a very pleasant couple of hours working our way through the pales on offer. A perfect Reading Saturday.

If it’s brave to open a restaurant in the winter of 2022, knowing everything we know, it’s especially brave to open the kind of restaurant San Sicario is. I think the lower end of the market, your Franco Mancas and Zizzis, are possibly better protected from the economic shocks of the moment than somewhere unapologetically upmarket like San Sicario. And that’s before you factor in that their site is enormous. That their site is in a location that’s not in town or in Caversham, with limited parking. That it’s a site that has proved to be a poisoned chalice for so many restaurants. Then consider all the faff and palaver of revealing your name in November and having to change it literally on the 3rd of January – talk about New Year, new you – and San Sicario starts to look positively heroic.

And yet I really hope they make a go of it. It’s truly encouraging to see somewhere trying to offer what Reading doesn’t have – a genuine, interesting, high-end Italian that doesn’t just pile up the pizza and pasta, lazy variations on a theme, and try to take easy money. Some of the dishes I had I simply wouldn’t have been able to get elsewhere in Reading, and the fundamentals of the restaurant are solid. They need to tighten up the service a little, and I’d like them to be a little more liberal with the seasoning, but in honesty there’s nothing wrong with San Sicario that a few more customers wouldn’t solve.

Restaurants run better busier, and if I’d been there on a Saturday night, all buzz and bustle, I suspect it could have been fun enough to quite make me forget the glory days of Chi’s Oriental Brasserie. I will be back, and I sincerely hope San Sicario breaks the duck of one of Reading’s unluckiest sites. After all across town, in an equally ill-starred space, their compatriots Madoo have proved that it can be done.

San Sicario – 7.6
93-97 Caversham Road, RG1 8AN
0118 9560200

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

Sadly, Cairo Café closed in April 2023.

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