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Of all my features on the blog, the one about solo dining is one of the oldest and, as a result, the most out of date.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
https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk

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
https://www.instagram.com/cairocafe11/

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
https://geo-cafe.co.uk

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
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

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
https://kokorouk.com

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
https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk

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
https://www.facebook.com/madooitaliandelicafe/

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
https://monkeylounge.uk

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
https://sapanahome.co.uk

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
https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com

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Feature: The 2022 Edible Reading Awards

Well, we all made it through Christmas. Presents were wrapped, unwrapped and hopefully loved, fingers crossed receipts were not required. Drink was taken, if that’s your thing, and chocolate and cheese were eaten – not together, let’s not go crazy – and now it’s both sort of Friday and sort of no day at all. This is that final smudge of the calendar when time loses all meaning, whether you’re at work or not, and the only milestone left is New Year’s Eve. 

And après ça, le deluge: the diet, the budget, the unrealistic resolutions. So in the immortal words of none other than Peggy Lee, if that’s all there is let’s break out the booze and have a ball. 2022, the year of soaring bills and three prime ministers, like a shit set of Russian dolls where each one, inexplicably, was as bad as the last. Soon it will be gone, but probably not missed.

This is my first annual awards since 2019 and I’d forgotten how enjoyable they are to put together. It’s fun to remember all the great food you’ve eaten over the past twelve months and to celebrate, even if only in your head, just how much Reading has to offer. But it’s agonising too, because picking just the one winner and a couple of honourable mentions makes for extremely hard choices and means you have to leave out lots of really gorgeous plates of food. 

To give you an idea how difficult this was, here’s a selection of the dishes I just couldn’t find space for: Intoku’s unbeatable crispy squid, and the pork ribs at Park House, the perfect beer snack. Kungfu Kitchen’s epic sweet and sour aubergine, ThaiGrr’s divine fried chicken and Smash N Grab’s MacBook Pro burger didn’t get a look in. I had no room for the beautiful fried lamb momo at Momo 2 Go or their siblings at Sapana Home, couldn’t squeeze in Monkey Lounge’s excellent burger or Clay’s Kitchen’s village lamb. I nearly put in a Best Breakfast category too, just so I could mention Dee Caf.

So if you think I got these wrong, and on the law of averages you probably do, just bear in mind that it isn’t easy. In every category bar one my decision was exceptionally tough, and on another day each could have gone another way. So by all means disagree, but let’s celebrate the fact that there’s so much scope to disagree. We have a lot of strength in depth here in the biggest town in the U.K., and if nothing else I hope we can say the same when 2023 also draws to an end.

After this I shall take a couple of weeks off, but I’ll be back in the New Year with more of the same. 2023 will be a significant milestone in the blog as in August I’ll mark ten – yes, ten – years of doing this. Any ideas how I should celebrate? Anyway, without further ado, let’s get in to the nitty gritty of the particular ways in which I’ve called these categories wrong and who’s been robbed this year. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably, and let the dissenting begin!

STARTER OF THE YEAR: Thhicheko aalu, Kamal’s Kitchen

It was, in fairness, love at first sight; the first time I tried this potato dish at Kamal’s Kitchen in the spring I knew that I’d never eaten anything quite like it and that I would do so again many times before the year was out. These are discs of fried, pressed potato, textural perfection, covered in a potent but anaesthetising spice mix and I have evangelised about them to pretty much anyone and everyone all year. They’re actually simple and unadorned – no dip, no chutney, just a little extraneous salad – and yet this variation on the humble spud has a seemingly infinite variety.

Kamal served them at my readers’ lunch at Kamal’s Kitchen in the summer and they weren’t at their very best – having to cook a giant batch of them for nearly 40 people probably has that effect – and I started to worry that I’d got it wrong, like when you recommend your favourite novel to a friend and they hate it (Louise Williams, Excellent Women, circa 2010, since you asked). But it was a blip, and every time I’ve had them since has felt like coming home. In a year full of wonderful new gastronomic experiences, when I was starting to get jaded enough to feel I’d seen everything, this was one of my favourites.

Honourable mentions go to the Lyndhurst’s karaage chicken, another dish I have eaten far more times this year than I’d admit to my GP, and the unbelievable gobi Manchurian at Clay’s Kitchen. It’s a dish you think you’ve had and loved, and then you eat Clay’s version and realise all the others were pale imitations.

CHAIN OF THE YEAR: Shree Krishna Vada Pav

In a year when chains seemed better positioned to ride out the coming storm I was delighted when Shree Krishna Vada Pav opened on the Kings Road. It came with plenty of hype from the London food media, but this was a world apart from our other London arrivistes like Pho and Honest. I went and although it was a bit scruffy and crowded I thought it was an absolute riot. So it gets the award from me this year, for being every bit as enjoyable as The Coconut Tree, which opened the previous year, was disappointing. Next year we’re getting Popeyes and who knows what other horrors, but places like SKVP are vital for showing that there are chains and chains.

Honourable mentions go to the two arrivistes I mentioned earlier. Because say what you like about Pho and Honest, but if all chains were like them Reading in particular would be a much better place – although one in which it would be a lot harder to support independent businesses.

LUNCH VENUE OF THE YEAR: Madoo

It was a happy day when I went to Madoo on duty, but my love for the place was a slow burner that grew as the year went by. Their toasted foccacia are lovely, their cannoli are great but most importantly, something about the place feels special. You honestly don’t feel like you’re in Reading, helped no doubt by the amount of Italian being spoken in there, the Eurohits on the radio and the general feeling of otherness. I popped in on Boxing Day for lunch and was just absolutely delighted to find they were open. Madoo isn’t perfect – the coffee could be better, the occasional toastie feels rushed and they still do that greasy napkin under the sandwich thing that drives me crackers – but sometimes you love something for its imperfections. For my sake I hope so, anyway.

Honourable mentions go to the gorgeous Cairo Café, which I loved but haven’t visited anywhere near enough this year, and Blue Collar. The original and best, rather than their fancy new place, because I’m a sentimental soul.

MAIN COURSE OF THE YEAR: Monkfish with Bombay potatoes, the Lyndhurst

My brother visited from Australia in the spring, after a badly-timed visit in March 2020 was curtailed by the pandemic. And when I asked him if there was anywhere he wanted to eat while he was here, he had one request: the Lyndhurst. “Your photos always make it look amazing” he said, and so we booked a long leisurely midweek lunch there. And this dish, tender monkfish on a flattened cake of crushed, spiced potatoes with a bright green coriander and mint chutney, made me both ecstatic and proud of my local. We both ordered it, we both loved it. Like everything that the Lyndhurst does, it was a perfect plate – everything you needed was there, nothing more and nothing less. I had it a couple more times before they took it off the menu and every time it looked slightly different, was slightly better, because they never stop improving things. But I never forgot my first.

Honourable mentions go to Papa Gee’s pizza Sofia Loren, every bit as much a legend as the woman herself, and to Kungfu Kitchen’s deep fried fish in spicy hot pot. The latter is possibly Zoë’s favourite dish in the whole of Reading, but she usually lets me have some. My brother also wanted to eat at KFK so we went there on his last day in the country. He left full, deliriously happy and thoroughly bedazzled by Jo: the gold standard full KFK experience.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR (BERKSHIRE): Seasonality, Maidenhead

I so loved Seasonality. Having been to lots of restaurants a little like it nowhere near Reading, and constantly asking the question “why doesn’t Reading have anywhere like this?” it was a huge relief to find that at least there was somewhere like it, fifteen minutes down the Elizabeth Line. A compact, clever menu with plenty going on, prices that weren’t crazy – especially if you go at lunchtime – and some dishes that were just unlike anything I’d tried. I still think about the lardo dish in the picture below, and that was just in the nibbles section. I’ll be back there before too long.

Maidenhead also has the gorgeous Miyazaki, one of my favourite discoveries of the year and a true understated, classy little place. And another honourable mention, on the other side of Berkshire, has to go to Goat On The Roof where I had a terrific and eminently boozy dinner earlier in the year. My friend Graeme still goes on about the chocolate mousse I allegedly didn’t let him have.

CAFE OF THE YEAR: C.U.P.

I found this really difficult because I frequent two cafés in town, C.U.P. and Workhouse. But going to the C.U.P. on Blagrave Street, having their unbeatable dark chocolate mocha and gazing out of the window, or sitting outside in warmer weather, is one of my favourite contemplative things to do. It is, and I can tell you this from personal experience, a great place to watch people running the Reading Half Marathon. And it just about wins out over Workhouse by virtue of being a bit comfier, having better outside space and actual mobile phone reception. 

I do still love Workhouse though, and their latte has a special place in my heart (literally, I fear). An honourable mention also goes to Compound Coffee who not only do beautiful coffee but, uniquely in Reading, are open past six on account of being part of the Biscuit Factory.

OUT OF TOWN RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR (OUTSIDE BERKSHIRE): Wilsons, Bristol

I mean, it got the best rating I’ve ever given out for a reason. More than usual it feels a bit reductive to talk about it rather than just to say read the review but you’ve all got busy lives and maybe you’ve read the review already. Wilsons served me one of the best meals I can remember in my restaurant-going life, with so many elements and components, so much cleverness but no wanky trickery and no stinginess either. Other restaurant reviewers might bleat on about how it deserves a Michelin star, I’d just say that those accolades are nearly as worthless as the award I’m giving out now. But if you’re ever in Bristol at lunchtime or of an evening, I cannot imagine a world in which you’d regret going there.

Sadly there can only be one winner, but in any other year Bristol’s Caper & Cure would romp home with this title. Them’s the breaks. An honourable mention also goes to Oxford’s Magdalen Arms – I was there for a properly magnificent boozy lunch the weekend before Christmas Eve and can confirm that their chicken and mushroom pie is every bit as heavenly as the steak and ale one they do.

SERVICE OF THE YEAR: Buon Appetito

Buon Appetito was a happy place for me this year. If the sun was even remotely out when we’d finished work on a Friday or Saturday and if one of us could even remotely persuade the other that we couldn’t be arsed to cook, you would find us on the terrace there – me with an Aperol spritz, Zoë with a negroni and both of us with a big grin. I bumped into other ER readers there more than once and once, in a surreal turn of events, my nextdoor neighbours. 

And the food there is great – more on that in a second – and it does have a certain Balearic feel when you’re bathed in sunlight listening to music on the speakers, but what really makes it for me is the service. Zoë said to me that they work hard for every single cover and every single pound they get, and I think that’s true. But there’s more to it than that. The ease, the charm and the ensemble there is at the top of its game in a way I don’t remember experiencing since the golden age of Dolce Vita. Praise doesn’t come much higher.

Speaking of high praise, an honourable mention has to go to Kamal’s Kitchen, where Kamal is thoroughly affable and his daughter Kritika (who works there alongside studying for her degree) is an absolute natural at front of house. And I also have to mention Kungfu Kitchen, another family business. Nobody who’s had Jo looking after them forgets it in a hurry, but in her husband Steve and her two boys she has a formidable – and effortlessly charming – brigade.

DESSERT OF THE YEAR: Pistachio tiramisu, Buon Appetito

When I first tried this it was a special, just something they were trying. A tiramisu with pistachio cream and pistachio crumb crumbled on top. And I thought, well, it sounds interesting. But it wasn’t interesting, it was compelling. I love pistachio, I love tiramisu, it had never occurred to me to combine the two. Every time I went I asked if it was still on the specials, gladly every time I went it was and eventually it graduated to the main menu. And in all the times I’ve eaten it, or taken friends and said “you have to try this” it has never disappointed.

No honourable mentions in this category. I had some fantastic desserts on my travels but when it came to Reading, I only had eyes for the pistachio tiramisu.

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Kamal’s Kitchen

When I first ate at Kamal’s Kitchen, I said something to him that might have sounded a little harsh. I said that Namaste Kitchen, his first restaurant, had been amazing but that he took too long to pop up again at Namaste Momo. And Namaste Momo, though its best dishes were great, was too inconsistent, too much of a mixed bag of Nepalese food and bog standard dishes you could pick up in Royal Tandoori. And then he left Namaste Momo and again, was dormant too long.

This is your big chance, I said to him, to make your mark and have the kind of restaurant you’ve always threatened to run. I’m glad you have your name above the door this time, I told him. I told him not to blow it, because this was his chance to be the fourth restaurant people talk about outside Reading. For all that we love our little bubble and the array of tempting options here there are three restaurants with reach outside our town: Clay’s, Kungfu Kitchen and the Lyndhurst. Your job, I told Kamal – he’d probably tuned me out by then – is to become the fourth place on that list.

Has he done it? Put it this way: he’s made an excellent start. Kamal’s Kitchen is a modest, unassuming room and nobody would describe it as a plum location but he is slowly, quietly and modestly building something rather brilliant. I’ve eaten there several times this year and each time the food is a little bit more assured, more superb. There are things I always order, because they’re unmissable, but slowly and surely I’m trying the rest of the menu and so far it has that breadth of excellence I remember from the Eureka moment when I first ate at Namaste Kitchen, over five years ago. I can’t think of a more deserving winner this year, even if he does know who I am.

Honourable mentions go to the excellent Cairo Café, which has the misfortune to be good enough to contend for all of these awards without quite winning any of them, and Intoku. If they sort the service, and based on my visit they really need to, they could redefine Japanese food in Reading.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: The Lyndhurst

This is a neat symmetry – back in 2019 I gave the Lyndhurst Newcomer Of The Year, three years on they win Best Picture, so to speak. I have eaten out so much more this year than I did in the previous two, and it’s been like waking up from a terrible dream remembering how much I love food and restaurants, eating, drinking, company and people watching. 

But so many of my most treasured moments this year have been made by the Lyndhurst – whether that’s lunch with my long-lost brother, over from the other side of the world, or lunch with my dad, or just a post-work dinner with Zoë because it’s curry night and our designated meal in the fridge suddenly looks nowhere near good enough. I’ve eaten there with good friends the night before setting off on holiday, I’ve even gone there and had lunch on my own on a random Saturday when Zoë’s working.

And I’ve had so many beautiful dishes – from their legendary nachos and Korean chicken wings to specials like confit duck, or rabbit stuffed with liver and wrapped in prosciutto. People who just look at their burgers, their curry nights and their Sunday roasts could easily miss the truth about the Lyndhurst: it’s an extremely accomplished kitchen which is always innovating. If they don’t have the reputation they should, for some of the best, most interesting and best value food Reading has ever had, it’s because they are so damned modest about it. And the times I’ve been there and they’ve said those magic words – we have the skate wing on specials – have made my month, without fail, every single time.

The first ER readers’ lunch of 2023 will take place at the Lyndhurst, just after payday at the end of the longest, drabbest month of the year, a month synonymous with self-improvement and privation (and, mostly, attempted self-improvement through the medium of privation). I can’t think of a better place to have it. It will only be the end of January, but from that meal onwards I’ll know that spring is on its way.

2022: The Year In Review

Remember when years used to be, you know, normal? Me neither, but the fact remains that 2022 has been a little closer to what we used to consider normality than the couple of years that preceded it. 2020 was the year of the pandemic, of lockdowns and contact tracing, takeaways and tiers. And 2021 was the year of oh-no-it’s-still-the-pandemic, but one where some of us took more risks, got on more trains and planes and ate in more restaurants. The year when most of us got jabbed and double jabbed, showed off our stickers like brave soldiers.

And this year? Well, it’s not like 2019 was but it’s closer to it than we’ve been for a fair old while. In 2020 we watched Matt Hancock stand at a podium and tell us we couldn’t go to restaurants, in 2022 we watched him sit on a stool somewhere in distant Australia and eat genitalia on primetime television. How things change: two years can feel like an eternity, in some circumstances.

And yet there are still echoes of the past; I read in the news this week that Covid is sweeping through China again, with case numbers through the roof. We could be back in winter 2019 in no time, and as someone who started the year with a partner not long ago discharged from the Royal Berks – exhausted, fragile and injecting blood thinners twice a day – I’m desperately keen not to go back to anything even remotely like that.

The other bit of the wider picture this year, of course, is the cost of living. Rampaging inflation and energy prices have squeezed everybody, from gas bills to supermarket shops, and after the damage done to hospitality by Covid – and our botched recovery from it – another crisis was the last thing our cafés, restaurants and pubs needed. Industrial action on public transport, preventing some people from getting into town centres when retail and hospitality hope to earn much of their money for the year, must feel like the final straw.

This is all very gloomy on the brink of Christmas Eve, isn’t it? I’m sorry, let’s rein that in. And actually if there’s one feature that all my annual roundups seem to share it’s being cautiously pleased that the year just gone hasn’t been so bad, accompanied by dire predictions that next year will be awful. So far I’ve been wrong, and I’d very much like to be proved wrong again this time round. So far despite rising rents, falling footfall, rising prices and those Covid loans kicking in Reading has lost far fewer restaurants than you might expect: fingers crossed that’s the shape of things to come.

We did lose a few, though. The Aila, whose opening I talked about back in 2020 in a site I described as cursed, closed recently and a supermarket has opened in its place. Chipstar, which opened almost a year ago to the day, closed before reaching its first birthday: many of us never got to try the place, but they’ve definitely had their chips all the same. And Friar Street’s Raayo, which also opened in late 2020, closed in June. I managed to get there before they did, and I rather liked their pulled pork, but conditions are tough out there. The lunch market is particularly challenging when people aren’t working in town during the week.

Other 2022 closures were almost more symbolic in their significance. Pizza Hut, which had been part of the Oracle since the Oracle first opened its doors, closed in September. And I’m not sure anyone was devastated, but somehow it, like Woolworths and Debenhams, represented something bigger than itself, a sea change in how and where people like to spend their money (is McDonalds now the only remaining survivor from the Oracle’s opening day? Answers on a postcard).

We also said goodbye to Cozze on the Caversham Road roundabout, in another site that can’t seem to hold down a tenant. I’m not exactly devastated about that closure, though it’s always sad when people lose their jobs, but if you want beige carbonara and highlighter pink desserts there’s still a branch in Woodley. I was much sadder to find Zest packing it in over at Green Park, although given their location it was completely understandable that they would call it a day.

And although it’s not in Reading I was also gutted to see Nick and Mary Galer leave the Miller Of Mansfield after their landlord Stonegate tried to up their rent by a whopping ninety per cent. Good old Stonegate: here’s your regular reminder that, apart from John Sykes, pubcos are probably the only people who watch It’s A Wonderful Life and find themselves rooting for Potter.

Speaking of pubs, two pubs parted company with their kitchens this year. The Spread Eagle said goodbye to Banarasi Kitchen and installed a new Indian restaurant called Bagheera in its place. It only officially launched this month, but the furniture looks plush and the menu, possibly, a tad generic; only time will tell whether it squanders the goodwill build up by Banarasi Kitchen. And I thought it was a real shame that Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen decided to leave the Butler this year: they decided to move to Liquid Leisure in Windsor, which then closed for a couple of months in tragic circumstances.

Sorry, it’s all got gloomy again. Let’s focus instead on the positives because there are plenty – and although it would be easy to just talk about the Americanisation of Reading town centre (something I may still do later) the class of 2022 is a far more interesting and varied selection than you might think. 

First and foremost there’s Blue Collar Corner, easily Reading’s most significant opening in four years or so which opened in March having spent much of the previous year lost in Reading Borough Council’s planning bureaucracy. With four permanent street food traders, a well-stocked bar from local favourites Double-Barrelled and plenty of seating, much of it covered, this was one of the most exciting developments in Reading for a long old time.

There were further challenges as summer came to an end: Blue Collar Corner lost Gurt Wings and The Taco Tree, its two anchor tenants, and one of the replacement traders barely lasted two months. But given an impressive winter refurb and a renewed focus on music and events you wouldn’t bet against Blue Collar making it through the winter. Besides, Gurt Wings is still in town every Friday.

Another of Reading’s most keenly-awaited new restaurants was Kamal’s Kitchen, which opened in the spring. This place is owned by Kamal Tamrakar, and I’m delighted that it finally realises the potential shown by his previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen. I haven’t reviewed it, because he knows perfectly well who I am, but all my visits this year have been a joy and he and his family did a magnificent job hosting the first ER readers’ lunch of 2022 in the summer.

I can’t talk about the new restaurants that have opened in Reading this year without mentioning the two big trends that took us all by surprise in 2022. The first was biryani restaurants becoming a thing, with Biryani Mama arriving in town and both Biryani Boyzz and Biryani Lounge opening down the Wokingham Road: all this on top of the handful of biryani places already trading at the very top of the Oxford Road. The other was sushi, with not one but three Japanese restaurants opening in Reading this year. Two on Friar Street – Iro Sushi and You Me Sushi – are virtually neighbours just along from Hickies. The third, in the old Tasting House building, is the accomplished but erratic Intoku.

Most of the other new openings in Reading this year, encouragingly, have been independent. On Market Place we got La’De Express, a fast food offshot of the very popular La’De Kitchen. Despite being right opposite Tasty Greek Souvlaki, and despite a recent scare where their windows appeared to be covered up, they are still trading. (N.B. I clearly spoke too soon, because as of 23rd December they definitely look exceptionally closed down.)

We got a couple of new places on West Street where Beijing Noodle House used to be – Chillim, a Nepalese restaurant I’m yet to visit and Cairo Café, which I loved. And just to give the “not another café” blowhards something to whinge about, we also got some more cafes: Black Sheep in the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street (with another on the way on Broad Street), Gail’s in the old Patisserie Valerie site and an interesting new cafe/social enterprise called Barista & Beyond just off Chatham Street.

Where else? Well, another couple of brave souls have decided to sign leases with cuddly ol’ John Sykes, so we have The Churros Kitchen and Bánh Mì QB in whatever he is calling Kings Walk this week: the latter, incidentally, provided me with a very enjoyable meal on duty this year.

We also have a branch of Shree Krishna Vada Pav on the Kings Road at the edge of town (a small chain, but I loved my meal there) and possibly our newest restaurant San Carlo where Cozze used to be. Will San Carlo make a go of it where La Fontana, Casa Roma and Cozze – and that’s just the Italian restaurants that have failed in that spot – failed? Only time will tell, but it probably doesn’t bode well that they’re having to change their name to San Sicario after three weeks because of “confusion” with a national chain of the same name (or, perhaps, a cease and desist letter).

Oh, and we have a place called Doner & Gyros (they’re two separate things, don’t you know) that has opened where China Palace used to be: I will no doubt go there at some point next year to give you a cheap laugh and me dyspepsia. You might be looking forward to that more than I am.

The other big story of the year is two Reading institutions that have chosen to expand in very different ways. The Grumpy Goat opened its upstairs bar, which is great news for drinkers of an evening but also gives them a chance to serve their toasted sandwiches to more people and potentially expand their food offering still further. And Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen (although it’s now called Clay’s Kitchen & Bar, so keep up) has left its premises on London Street and has taken on the Baron Cadogan site in Caversham.

This latter is a huge move, and they’ve been transparent both about the need for crowdfunding and some of the challenges of managing the whole project. Their initial opening date in October has moved out, although they have hosted some food and beer pairing events in recent weeks, so we can expect to see them open in earnest early next year. It’s hard to imagine any new opening in Reading next year will generate quite as much buzz, in town or beyond.

No doubt we will be blindsided by other new openings in 2023, but so far the list of forthcoming restaurants in the public domain is less than exciting and is dominated by chains of one kind or another. So although Leon has finally given up on its plans to move to Reading, we will be graced with Zizzi offshoot Coco Di Mama just down from Tortilla. Rosa’s Thai is allegedly going to open on the ground floor of Jackson’s Corner, and where Gap used to be Reading will have a branch of Popeyes, the American fried chicken folks. Let’s hope it’s more Gurt than Wingstop. And we also have Marugame Udon jumping into Pizza Hut’s grave on the Oracle riverside. They do noodles and ramen and may or may not prove to be different from Wagamama. Is it bad that I’m not in a mad hurry to find out?

It’s traditional at this point for restaurant bloggers to waffle on about what 2023 holds for hospitality, but much like some evenings I used to endure down the pub back in the days before the pandemic, it’s impossible to tell at this stage just how painful it’s going to be.

People will have less money and restaurants will have higher bills, and those Covid loans probably still need to be paid back. But it’s anybody’s guess whether spending on eating out will get ringfenced or sacrificed. It’s even harder to tell what kind of treats people will still allow themselves, and whether it will be big ticket meals people cut back on, or casual dining, or just the daily latte. For myself I aim to keep reviewing every week, although I’m more conscious than ever of striking that fine balance between supporting independent businesses and being honest with readers about whether restaurants, in this climate, are worth the money.

I’m aware of what a huge privilege it is to be able to review restaurants every week, especially without having to stoop to accepting free shit, but I can honestly say that writing this blog brings me as much joy now as it did in those more innocent times, nearly a decade ago, when I started. And 2022 has been as happy a year of blogging as I can remember: I reviewed a few restaurants in a brief window at the end of last year, but this year I went back to restaurants in March (at the lovely Flavour Of Mauritius) and I haven’t looked back. Until now, of course, when I’m writing a piece looking back on the year. Obviously.

And I can’t recall a year with such a breadth of different restaurants in it. I visited some of the great places that opened in the pandemic, like Tasty Greek Souvlaki and ThaiGrr!, where I’d only ever tried their takeaway. I sampled newcomers like Banh Mi QB, Intoku and The Switch, trying some fantastic Vietnamese food, Reading’s best crispy squid and an excellent avocado on toast in the process. I finally made it to parts of Reading the blog had only ever talked about in passing: places in Tilehurst and Woodley finally got a review. 

And I also went further afield in Berkshire with trips to Newbury, Wokingham and a hat trick of trips to up and coming Maidenhead. In the process I had delicious mackerel – more than once – a fantastic chocolate mousse and some rather underwhelming pasta. And in Seasonality, not far from Maidenhead station, I discovered one of my finds of the year. Speaking of finds, this was also the year when I wrote a series of reviews from Bristol and gave out my highest ER rating of all time (a visit to Wallingford, following in the footsteps of Jay Rayner, was considerably less successful).

Incidentally, the reviews from Bristol were among the most widely read pieces I published all year, so I can’t thank people enough for giving them the time of day. I’m always mildly entertained when people pop up on Twitter or Facebook to tell me to stop reviewing places without an RG postcode: “your blog’s called Edible Reading” they always say, in a manner which has strong It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve energy. 

Never mind that: the incredible response to the Bristol reviews in particular has convinced me that there will definitely be more of those next year. And I would also sound a note of caution that for whatever reason – recession, price rises, risk aversion or Reading’s infamously charitable landlords – Reading is not the fertile crucible of culinary imagination it was five years ago. Unless something changes, I fear that the future has more chains in it, and more independents giving up or moving somewhere less expensive, which is literally almost anywhere.

It feels like a lot of the progress Reading has made in the last ten years is in jeopardy, which is my cue to say, as I always do this time of year, that our hometown, still the biggest town in the U.K. despite our council’s inept efforts, is what we all make it with our time and our money. So this year, perhaps more than any year, it’s worth thinking hard about how to foster and protect what you love, about buying the more expensive coffee or beer or toasted sandwich so that when I do my annual pontificating this time next year I’m not telling you that your favourite place has closed.

What a shame, I’ve been meaning to go there, you might respond. Go there now instead, while you can.

I would close by talking about all the amazing dishes I’ve had in the last year, but you have the return of the annual ER awards next Friday and I don’t want to spoil their thunder. So instead, a few thank yous. Thank you to my dining companions this year: my diverting friends Graeme, Sophie and Mike, and of course my infinitely patient other half Zoë who has put up with me dragging her to a variety of restaurants – the good, the bad and the iffy – and invariably ordered better than me. Without her, this blog would be a much poorer place (although, arguably, one with fewer expletives).

And finally, of course, I really must thank all of you. This is another thing I seem to say at the end of every year, but it was another record breaking year on the blog with more visitors and page hits than ever before (my favourite stat is that this blog has almost as many readers now, on a good week, as it had in the whole of 2013). And honestly, it wouldn’t be anything without your support – your reading, commenting, sharing, even lurking. Whether you try out restaurants I review, or come along to my regular readers’ lunches or just read it from time to time rolling your eyes and thinking “what a tool”, those page hits all count. 

So I hope all of you, whoever you are, have a fantastic Christmas – whether you celebrate it or not, however you mark the time – and a very happy New Year. As I said, there’s one more 2022 post from me next Friday when I dish out my annual gongs for the best food I’ve eaten this year. See you then?   

Feature: Reading’s best…

There’s a new trend in Berkshire Live which drives me absolutely crackers. Having moved on from a steady emetic trickle of “X’s quiet life in [insert name of Berkshire village here]” articles (translation: here’s somebody who used to live in Berkshire and that’s literally all we know about them) their latest form of copy and paste gonzo journalism is one where they knock up madlibs-style reviews of restaurants which – and you could bet your life savings on this – the “journalist” has never visited.

The new trend – or do I mean new low? – is to churn out articles that say “the X restaurant so good you’ll think you’re in [the most famous city in country X]”. It’s so witless it could almost be amusing. So if you eat in l’Ortolan, for instance, you could imagine you’re in Paris (I’ve been to Paris: l’Ortolan is nothing like it). If you have tapas in Wokingham’s Sanpa you could believe you’re in Madrid, allegedly, and never mind the pesky detail that tapas is from Andalusia, miles away to the south. 

Oh, and if you eat American barbecue in Blue’s Smokehouse – and it’s great, so maybe you should – guess what? Close your eyes and you could be in the Big Apple. Again, it’s not noted for its barbecue but details are for pedants, apparently. It goes on: Quattro is just like Rome, some Chinese restaurant in Cookham is the spitting image of downtown Beijing, Sapana Home is like dining in the Himalayas (they call out the “momo dumplings” at Sapana, which is like saying I very much enjoyed the chips potatoes). I thought they couldn’t get more laughable but the latest says that afternoon tea at the Forbury Hotel “will make you feel like you’re dining with the King”. Stay classy, Berkshire Live.

But that isn’t enough, so to pad out the article – and to further pull the wool over your eyes – they like to add a bit of bumf from the restaurant’s website and those all important customer opinions. After all, in Berkshire Live’s own immortal words, “Recent years has brought more people online as it gives them an easy way to choose somewhere to eat. One place most of us look is the reviews – what do people really think about where we want to eat? We decided to list the last three reviews all less than a month ago to see what people have said.” 

Maybe people are looking online because local papers have died and been replaced by moronic clickbait? Just a thought. But yes, the rest of their extensive research consists of firing up Tripadvisor and copying and pasting the three most recent reviews. But Berkshire Live doesn’t care about that. In their mind, everybody wins: they hit their targets for pumping out meaningless content to sell ad space and you get a “review” which tells you nothing about the restaurant, Ctrl-C and Ctrl-Vd by somebody who has never been there and, for all we know, has never even left their home office (are Reach plc staff affected by the train strikes? It seems unlikely). Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and keema, as they say, is your nan.

So this is what passes for journalism these days and the most insulting thing is that they’re so cretinous they think nobody will notice. How times have changed. In the old days, local newspapers used to sneak ads into the paper and not tell readers that money had changed hands and many people, myself included, were outraged about that. Nowadays they’re so desperate for content that they publish what are effectively full length ads without even being paid for the privilege. It makes you wonder who pumps out more sewage: the water companies or Reach plc?

Anyway, by contrast this week’s feature – no review, because I’m away this week – is one of those lists everyone likes with one crucial difference: they’re my opinions, born of going out there and trying as much of Reading’s food and drink as I can. So this article might come in handy if you can’t be arsed to schlep through any of my lists, or to comb through the blog but just want to know, in my entirely subjective opinion, where to get the best coffee, pizza, sandwich and so much more in Reading. Read, enjoy, share, comment and – of course – disagree, because if you don’t disagree with a single thing on this list I’ll be very surprised indeed.

Apart from my (entirely subjective, don’t forget) guarantee of quality I can promise you one other thing. None of these places will make you feel like you’re in Naples, New York or Nagoya. Because, as we’ve established, that is utter, utter bollocks. Besides, they’ll go one better than that: they’ll make you glad you’re in the Ding.

Reading’s best breakfast – Dee Caf

Dee Caf’s breakfast isn’t a looker, and nothing about it is built for Instagram. But in terms of midmorning indulgence on a plate it is probably unparalleled in Reading and well worth a meander out in the direction of Tilehurst. Bacon and sausages AND black pudding, all from a local butcher? Hash browns and properly buttered toast too, on an enamel plate which is only just big enough to contain all that bounty? Count me in. When I went the only drawback was the coffee – they’ve now switched to Anonymous, which is a very smart move. (Montague House, 12 Spey Road, RG30 4DG)

Honourable mention: The Switch

What is it with West Reading and good breakfasts? The smashed avo with bacon at The Switch is unashamedly high-end, and priced accordingly, but shows what a good dish it can be in the right hands. (19 The Triangle, RG30 4RN)

Reading’s best burger – Smash N Grab

Smash N Grab is quietly doing great things down on Cemetery Junction and their inimitable take on smashed burgers easily justifies a trip out of the centre. These are indulgent, overloaded burgers – messy, stuffed, deeply sinful things, and you will feel replete, satisfied and a little ashamed of yourself at the end of one. The chips still need work, and the cake shakes are a little artery-hardening for me, but the burgers are still unbeatable. If it’s on the menu, the MacBook Pro (topped with a slab of breaded, deep-fried macaroni cheese) is every bit as so-wrong-it’s-right as it sounds. (124 London Road, RG1 5AY)

Honourable mention: Honest Burgers

Reading’s branch of the small chain is the best town centre option and very rarely has a bad day at the office. The burger, served pink, is reliably terrific and the monthly specials mix things up nicely. They’ve just added a buffalo fried chicken burger to their menu, if beef isn’t your bag. (1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB)

Reading’s best coffee – C.U.P.

C.U.P. just edges it for me, and both its Blagrave Street and Reading Minster outposts have a lot going for them. Blagrave Street is great for people watching passers-by, and the seats outside Reading Minster are great for people watching your fellow customers. Either way, although the latte is superb the signature here is the mocha, made with an awful lot of real chocolate – a dessert, a pick me up, a treat and a necessity all crammed into a single takeaway cup. (7 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PJ/53 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG)

Honourable mention: Workhouse Coffee

The eminence grise of Reading’s coffee culture, Workhouse is superb and reliable for latte and my espresso-drinking friends swear by their espresso. It’s a shame the greed and neglect of the Mercure Hotel has robbed them of what was one of town’s best and sunniest al fresco spaces, and the interior feels like it needs a bit of love. But the staff are great and the coffee remains top notch. (10-12 King Street, RG1 2HF, also 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY)

Reading’s best fish and chips – Finn’s

I know nobody will agree with this unless they live near Finn’s, and I can’t remember the last time I had fish and chips at Wing’s, or Deep Blue, or that other place you like. But I maintain that Finn’s, the pride of east Reading, does wonderful fish and chips with a light, crispy batter and chips that have the perfect balance of floury stodge and crunchy shrapnel. I must work up the courage to try their masala cod one cold winter’s evening. (42b Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA)

Runner-up: The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst serves up the epitome of pub fish and chips, an excellent portion of battered leviathan and some of Reading’s very best chips. Those of you who like mushy peas will enjoy these, and those of you who tend to leave them have something in common with me. Spoiler alert: this is not the Lyndhurst’s only appearance on this list, you may not be surprised to hear. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Reading’s best fried chicken – The Lyndhurst

See? Told you. The Lyndhurst’s chicken karaage has been tweaked and tinkered with steadily since it first appeared on their menu last year. They took it off the menu just as I was developing a serious karaage habit (forget ketamine: this is the real K hole) and then this year I was overjoyed when they brought it back. The texture is unbelievably crunchy and gnarly, the portion size is so generous that you won’t mind offering your companions a piece and making them jealous and the little shards of fried kale add an extra savoury note. What was a kewpie mayo has now been swapped – another tweak – for a wasabi mayo which adds just enough sinus-clearing power. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Runner-up: ThaiGrr!

You could hold a piece of fried kale between this and the Lyndhurst’s karaage, that’s how little separates them in terms of quality. ThaiGrr’s chicken is a ridiculously generous six jointed pieces on the bone with shatteringly crisp skin, tender meat and little slivers of garlic sprinkled on top. It comes with some very pleasant sweet chilli sauce, and you can spend all six pieces wondering if it needs the dip without ever reaching a conclusion. (1d Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best pizza – Buon Appetito

One of my favourite discoveries of the last year has been the revitalised Buon Appetito at the end of Chatham Street which, for my money, knocks out the very best pizza in town. The base, a puffy-crusted, leopard-spotted delight, is next level good and the range of toppings is just wide enough without getting ridiculous. I am a huge fan of their Napoli which comes strewn with anchovies, olives and crispy fried capers, but there’s also a lot to be said for the Blue Parma, with twenty-four month aged Parma ham and a fair old whack of gorgonzola. It helps that Buon Appetito is one of Reading’s very best al fresco spots: they mix a mean Aperol spritz or negroni, too. (146 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT)

Honourable mention: Papa Gee

The other side of the river on Prospect Street, Papa Gee has nearly twenty years of experience of dough-slinging and it really shows. My latest visit was extremely recent, so I’m delighted to have extremely fresh memories of how good they are. The base maybe doesn’t quite have the quality of Buon Appetito’s, but you can expect pizzas topped by a man who doesn’t enjoy saying “when”. The iconic dish here, the pizza Sofia Loren, comes with pepperoni, beautiful coarse nuggets of sausage, red onions, chilli and my unqualified endorsement. (5 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB)

Reading’s best sandwich: Madoo

This is an incredibly difficult category, and I think I’ve only been able to narrow it down to two with a little cheating – wraps get their own category, and technically a burger is a sandwich too. But, to get off the fence, at the moment I’m not sure anyone can top the toasties at Madoo. Made with a variety of focaccia and pretty much customisable however you like, they are a carby, cheesy miracle on Duke Street. On my most recent visit, on the day of the big funeral, I had pancetta and scamorza in a focaccia topped with onion and thin slices of potato: try being sad after scoffing one of those. (10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU)

Honourable mention: Shed

Shed is still the godfather of Reading’s sandwich scene. Its lunch scene in general, to be honest. Their Tuna Turner – all tuna mayo and oozing cheese, studded with jalapenos, the bread bronzed and burnished – should earn them a blue plaque one day (other sandwiches are, of course, available). (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT)

Reading’s best street food: Gurt Wings

Gurt Wings is a street food player with a national profile and, luckily for us, a soft spot for Reading. From their regular presence at Blue Collar’s Friday markets they took on a permanent pitch at Blue Collar Corner in March, and if the recent announcement that they’re leaving Blue Collar Corner has caused gloom and withdrawal symptoms across the land, the pill has been slightly sweetened by the news that they’re returning to the Friday markets again.

Everything they do is magnificent but the tenders, smothered in hot and sour buffalo and sharpened with a little blue cheese sauce, are truly fantastic. I also absolutely love their JFC – popcorn chicken with a hyper-punchy gochujang sauce and a smidge of sriracha mayo. About once a year they do a chicken burger in an iced doughnut topped with candied bacon – it has to be tried to be believed, but once is probably enough. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Fridays only)

Honourable mention: Purée

Although Blue Collar is synonymous with street food in Reading, one of Reading’s finest street food options is Purée, the distinctive green van on Broad Street near our smaller, less attractive branch of Boots. Sam Adaci’s van took a sabbatical during Covid and a lot of us were very worried that it might not return, but gladly he is there most lunchtimes dishing up some of the best – and best value – lunches in town. The real winner here is the challoumi wrap – jammed full of glorious chicken and halloumi with hot sauce, garlic sauce, pickles, the works. (Broad Street, RG1 2AA)

Reading’s best sushi – Intoku

I had a rather hit and miss visit to Intoku earlier this year: the service was slapdash in all kinds of ways, but I also saw enough to convince myself that in terms of quality we finally have a restaurant in Reading that can approach the likes of Miyazaki in Maidenhead or my all-time favourite, Windsor’s Misugo. The soft shell crab rolls are an absolute dream, the maki are precise and nicely done and although the sashimi isn’t Reading’s best, it’s good enough. The fact that they also do gorgeous bao and possibly the best crispy squid I’ve had in town is just a bonus. (30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX)

Honourable mention – Sushimania

I know Osaka and Oishi have their fans, but I have a real soft spot for Sushimania, on that slightly grim brutalist corner overlooking the Hexagon. It’s all you can eat but made to order, and you can get most of the core menu that way, an inexpensive treat on a week night with a bottle of Asahi. They ration you on the salmon sashimi and the eel nigiri – make sure you get your full quota of both, because they’re bloody great. (9 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best wrap: Cairo Cafe

Go to Cairo Cafe and order the chicken shawarma wrap. Marvel at what comes out, hotter than the sun, perfectly assembled, crisped on the outside, gooey with cheese, the meat singing with spices and mint. Eat it in that peaceful place, looking out the window at the comings and goings of the grittier end of town, and tell me there’s a better wrap in Reading. And no, you don’t feel just like you’re in Cairo: you feel like you’re on West Street, because you are.

There’s a lot of chicken in this list, isn’t there? Reading really needs another restaurant reviewer who likes chicken a little less than I do. (13 West Street, RG1 1TT)

Honourable mention: Geo Café

Time for the disclaimer I put up every time I talk about Geo Café – unlike most restaurant owners in Reading, I would class Keti and Zezva as friends, and so you are absolutely free to disregard this, or take it with a pinch of salt, or say I should have picked someone like Mission Burrito instead. But you would be missing out if you hadn’t tried Geo Café’s wraps – either the chicken, pungent with almost acrid ajika and walnut sauce, like nothing you’ve ever tasted, or filled with aubergine, sliced thin, fried and rolled around more of that walnut sauce. Everyone I know who’s tried Georgian food comes away saying Why don’t more people know how good this is? and I couldn’t agree more: it may be the best cuisine you’ve never tried.

So yes, by all means ignore this tip but believe me – if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re my friends, Geo Café might well have topped this category. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

Feature: Al fresco dining (2022)

This is, believe it or not, the third edition of my guide to the best places to eat al fresco in Reading, and looking back on my previous guides to this subject, it’s safe to say that they’ve not aged as well as I might have liked.

From my Class of 2015, three of my choices have ceased trading and one of the others, the Allied Arms, has lost much of its appeal for al fresco dining since the Pizza Express next door closed down. It only really made the list because of the strangely luxurious experience of having a pint of Thatchers Gold in the beer garden with a Pollo Ad Astra from just down the road; it was, it occurs to me now, a gastronomic moment very much frozen in time and of its time, every bit as much as enjoying cocktails and a burger outside Santa Fe or sitting on the balcony at Dolce Vita.

My more recent version of this list, from 2019, hasn’t fared an awful lot better. Dolce Vita, of course, has closed, and I know some people in Reading mourn its loss as much as I do. But other places have dropped off my list because they’ve been surpassed: take Bhel Puri House, whose food you used to be able to eat in the Workhouse courtyard. And you still can, but the courtyard has been desecrated by the Mercure Hotel, who tore it up with a plan to put in some horrendous decking, were told to cease and desist by the council and left it half-done and completely fucked, one of Reading’s loveliest sunspots turned into a guano-encrusted perpetual building site. 

Some places didn’t make the cut this time because although the surroundings are still excellent, the food no longer lives up to them. Thames Lido is a wonderful place to sit and look at the pool but the food has always been inconsistent and they’ve managed to mislay two head chefs in less than a year (they now have a “restaurant director” instead, whatever that is). After one hit and miss meal too many – which is all the meals I’ve ever had there – it’s no longer a place I can recommend. 

But let’s focus on the positives: for my money there are more, and better, places to eat outside in Reading than ever before. Part of that is down to Covid, I suspect, and places wisely investing in Covid-proofing their restaurants or pubs as best they can. And some of it is just our good fortune that many of our newer establishments have put thought into this, just as many of them have put thought into the delivery experience. Places that have perfected eating in, eating outside and takeaway, which includes a handful of the places on this list, truly represent a triple threat. 

That means I have a bumper selection for you, a baker’s dozen of the best places in Reading to enjoy food and drink outdoors. With one notable exception they all serve their own food, and I think you have a decent span of restaurants, pubs and cafés, and of food at all price points. And best of all, they’ve been picked on merit rather than because they reviewed well on TripAdvisor or paid money to be featured, like other local publications I could name. So without further ado let’s get into it: I have a feeling a list like this could be especially handy this year, and for that matter in the hot summers yet to come.

1. Blue Collar Corner

This list is in alphabetical order, but either way I’m sure it will surprise few people to see Blue Collar Corner at the top of it. In the four short months since it opened, Glen Dinning’s permanent site on Hosier Street has already established itself as a Reading institution. And if claims that “it’s just like being in London” are a little brash and reductive it’s definitely true that the site, with its shipping containers, street food vendors, buzzing tokens telling you your dinner is ready and a well-stocked bar with many excellent Double-Barrelled beers (and the superb lager they brew exclusively for Blue Collar) feels like nowhere else Reading has seen, and like nowhere anywhere near Reading either for that matter.

Blue Collar has picked a mixture of the star players from its weekday markets to run permanent kitchens at the site, which means you can choose from pizza at Sarv’s Slice, bao buns from YouBao or the near-legendary fried chicken from Swindon’s Gurt Wings. The Taco Tree, an offshoot from Vegivores, completes the quartet. In truth when I’ve attended I’ve found it difficult to stay away from Gurt Wings’ incredible JFC (karaage-style fried chicken) with Lost In Translation, their gochujang and sriracha combo sauce. But Sarv’s Slice is also well worth trying – their carbonara pizza, in particular, knocked my socks off.

I suspect I’m far too old and shabby to make a night of it there, but it’s a great place for a sunny lunch at the weekend or an early evening dinner before sloping off to the pub, leaving the young and the beautiful to enjoy their cocktails. I feel I fit in far better at Blue Collar’s Wednesday and Friday markets, which earn an honorary mention on this list – Fink’s mezze box, with chicken shawarma and falafel (because why should you have to choose?) is a go-to there. Or you could join the seemingly infinite queue for Sharian’s jerk chicken: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the people standing in the line at half-one have been waiting since midday.

Blue Collar Corner, 15 Hosier Street, RG1 7QL
https://www.bluecollarstreetfood.co.uk/blue-collar-corner

2. Buon Appetito

I rediscovered Buon Appetito last year, and it turned out to be one of my finds of 2021. But it’s this year that it’s become a proper happy place for me. It has fantastic outside space, and there’s an awful lot to be said for heading there after work, bagging one of their tables and waiting for your pizza to arrive.

It somehow feels, despite being on Chatham Street and a mere stone’s throw from the Oxford Road, that you could be in mainland Europe. Perhaps it’s the luminous orange glow of an Aperol Spritz bathed in sunshine, or maybe it’s the soundtrack of soft easy-listening cover versions of chart hits. Or it could just be the warmth of the welcome or that first bite of my favourite Reading pizza, all bubbled crust, capers and anchovies. Whatever it is, it adds up to something magical.

Best of all, unlike many places on this list, Buon Appetito is truly future-proof. It has cover and powerful heaters, and it will continue to be a great shout later in the year when the weather, as it inevitably will, turns to shit. Come to think of it, I had a distinctly agreeable al fresco meal in Buon Appetito last January, when anywhere else would have been inhospitable. One last thing: if it’s on the specials menu, save room for their brilliant pistachio tiramisu.

Buon Appetito, 146-148 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT
https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk

3. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen (at the Butler)

N.B. Chef Stevie announced in August 2022 that he was leaving the Butler.

Many years ago, I Love Paella (either at the Horn or during its halcyon days at the Fisherman’s Cottage, before the acrimonious parting of the ways) would have been a shoo-in for a list like this. Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen is very much its natural successor, a great example of a pub showing some imagination, getting a talented chef in and becoming much more than the sum of its parts.

Sitting under a parasol in the back garden of the Butler – also on Chatham Street, as it happens – nursing a pint of Neck Oil and devouring some jerk chicken dumplings was one of the best al fresco experiences I had last year, or any year for that matter. And that’s before you factor in the chicken wings with a dark rum glaze, the phenomenally deep, smoky jerk chicken or an infernally indulgent slab of macaroni pie. If you want to make someone in your life jealous, go there without them and send them photos: the picture above is from the last time my other half did precisely that. I was green with envy, but I had to applaud her: Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and Stevie’s your chef.

Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen, The Butler, 85-91 Chatham Street, RG1 7DS
https://www.facebook.com/ChefStevieAnderson

4. The Collective

You might well expect me to put Geo Café on this list – the coffee is fantastic, the pastries are out of this world and the Orangery out the back is a lovely, quirky place to enjoy both those things. But, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I class the owners Keti and Zezva as friends so I will have to recuse myself for that reason. But in any event The Collective, at the other end of Caversham’s Church Street, fully deserves a spot on this list.

Their outside space is a beautiful, credible, grown-up piece of work and it creates an atmosphere which positively encourages you to linger, grab another coffee (and maybe one of their superb brownies) and just enjoy the experience of being part of a buzzing café culture not quite like anywhere else in Reading. I just came back from a holiday in Ghent where I went to a couple of fantastic cafés – they take coffee seriously there – with gorgeous, sophisticated outside space, and I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay The Collective than that it very much reminded me of them.

The thing to have there, if you ask me – and maybe you didn’t, but it’s my blog – is the French toast with bacon and maple syrup. But I’m long overdue a return visit to try out the chorizo ‘nduja hash, which sounds like a mixture of all the nicest things.

The Collective, 25 Church Road, Caversham, RG4 7AA
https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

5. The Last Crumb

Another terrific al fresco venue, the Last Crumb has really cemented its place in Caversham since it opened in 2019 and it has a lovely garden with benches and booths which catches the sun nicely. It might not have as extensive a range of drinks as some of Reading’s other venues, but they’ve done wonders with the outside space and it remains a great spot for a contemplative pint (especially of cider, where their range is a little more fun).

Food at the Last Crumb is not extensive: they’ve decided to do two things, burgers and pizza, and that’s pretty much it. But for what it’s worth they do both of them well and their pizzas are a pretty decent rival for the highly rated Papa Gee just down the hill. I think they still serve them on a metal bin lid which means they go cold quicker than they ought to, but on a scorching hot summer’s day, sitting outside, I imagine that won’t bother many people.

The Last Crumb, 76 Prospect Street, Caversham, RG4 8JN
https://dodopubs.com/locations/the-last-crumb/

6. London Street Brasserie

LSB: the great survivor and what the youth of today might refer to as the “OG” (although what would I know?) of Reading’s al fresco dining scene. It doesn’t have an awful lot of outside space, but what it does have is a classy, tranquil spot by the water and one of the town’s best sun traps. I ate on their terrace a couple of times last year and yes, I know it isn’t as cheap as it used to be. I know the set lunch is no longer the bargain it once was. I also know, believe me, that of any three dishes you eat there one will be great, one will be nice and one will be meh.

And yet it still has something. It still feels special to me, in a way the Lido has never managed, and authentic even when it’s not entirely at its best. It’s where I tend to go with the bits of my family who are even more determined to eat outside than I am, and the place has made several really happy memories for me since the pandemic began. Put it this way – it’s the only restaurant that’s made every single iteration of this list. I wouldn’t bet against it cropping up next time I write a piece like this, too.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
https://www.londonstreetbrasserie.co.uk

7. The Lyndhurst

Will he ever stop going on about the Lyndhurst? you’re probably thinking to yourself. And yes, I’m sure one day I will. When their food stops being incredible and inventive and ridiculously good value. When they stop being curious about other cuisines and other restaurants, when they stop ordering food from other places, taking it apart, putting it back together and adding it to their menu, souped-up and completely unmissable.

True story: the Lyndhurst read my takeaway review of Osaka, ordered the karaage chicken I’d written about, enjoyed it and then decided to make their own version. It was absolutely incredible, some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had anywhere, and I enjoyed it for months until they took it off their menu. And then they brought it back recently and it’s even better than ever. I’ll stop going on about them when they stop doing things like that. I’ll stop going on about them when I order the same dish there twice and they haven’t improved it, subtly and iteratively, between visits. I’ll stop going on about them when their curry night isn’t the best way to spend a tenner on food and a pint in Reading on a Thursday night.

Until then, I’m afraid you have to put up with stuff like this. The Lyndhurst’s terrace seats maybe fourteen people at a push, but if you get a table there on a warm day – with a pint or a glass of their gorgeous Riesling, and a menu – you honestly feel like you’ve won at life. Next time you’re there, try the monkfish with Bombay potatoes before they take it off the menu. It’s a beauty.

The Lyndhurst, 88 Kings Road, RG1 4DG
https://www.thelyndhurstreading.co.uk/

8. The Nag’s Head

For my money the Nag’s is Reading’s finest beer pub, and for a long time I thought that was all that it was (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And that’s still the case – the keg selection is superb, and there’s always a great spread of beers from our local breweries, let alone fun stuff from further afield. But when I reviewed the food last year I was delighted to find that they’d given a lot of thought to it – a stripped-back, easy to execute menu that doesn’t involve burgers or fish and chips, or microwaves.

So instead you get brisket or pulled pork rolls, from the smoker which starts running early doors. Or toasted sandwiches from the Croque Shop, a Brighton business that the owners of the Nag’s liked so much that they asked them to supply their pub a long way from Sussex. There are sausage rolls, too, although nothing’s stopping you ordering some pork scratchings into the bargain, apart from possibly restraint or dignity. The Nag’s, Buon Appetito and Chef Stevie form a beautiful little triad, proving again that West Reading is where much of Reading’s interesting food developments are taking place.

The Nag’s Head, 5 Russell Street, RG1 7XD
http://www.thenagsheadreading.co.uk/

9. O Portugues

Just to prove that West Reading and Caversham don’t have the monopoly on great al fresco dining options, the next three choices are all from the east side. O Português, on the edge of Palmer Park, has a decent terrace and a menu that does its best to transport you to Lisbon. The menu can be challenging in places (don’t have the snails) but if you pick well you can be rewarded with some cracking food – from prego steak rolls honking with garlic to a vibrant salt cod salad singing with parsley and red peppers. One of my readers told me that one of the best ways to enjoy O Português is with their octopus salad, some bread to mop up and a cold pint of Super Bock on draft. Put like that, it sounds unimprovable.

O Português, 21 Wokingham Road, RG6 1LE
https://www.facebook.com/OPortuguesInTown

10. Park House

My most recent discovery to make this list is Park House, the University bar on campus. It’s always been one of my favourite places to grab a pint in the sunshine – either before or after a happy amble round the Harris Garden, which has become one of my very favourite parts of Reading. Their beer is ridiculously cheap and Double-Barrelled, Siren Craft, Phantom and Elusive are invariably represented, along with relatively local breweries from slightly further away.

But what’s changed this year is the introduction of a great, compact, sensibly priced menu using local suppliers and beef from the university’s own farm. It transforms it from a nice spot for a drink to somewhere you could happily settle in for a session and have an enjoyable meal into the bargain. The things to pick there are the smoked pork ribs, the excellent, clever and nicely balanced confit duck salad and more of the smoked pork ribs. Possibly with a chaser of the smoked pork ribs.

Park House, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading, RG6 6UA
https://www.hospitalityuor.co.uk/bars-and-pubs/park-house/

11. Smash N Grab

Reading’s best burgers, for my money, can be had from a little shack on Cemetery Junction with a handful of outside tables. Husband and wife team Farooq and Uzma run Smash N Grab and despite almost packing it in earlier in the year they’ve decided to stick at it and are working hard on improving their outside space and expanding their menu.

I’m glad they’ve reconsidered, because their smashed burgers really are superb – beautifully done, deeply savoury things with fantastic texture and contrast. Smash N Grab are active on social media and have been frank about the challenge they face, with their neighbours and competitors Fat Twins building a huge structure outside what used to be the Granby Tavern to block their light and the view of the restaurant (seemingly without getting planning permission). So they need all the support they can get – and their burgers really do deserve a far wider audience.

Smash N Grab, 124 London Road, RG1 5AY
https://www.smashngrab.co.uk/

12. Tasty Greek Souvlaki

Another great example of restaurants as travel agents, Tasty Greek Souvlaki has made a huge contribution to Reading’s food scene in a short space of time since opening in 2020. And I really love sitting outside with a cold bottle of Fix (the glasses, frosted, are from the freezer) watching the world go by. The tables are seated side by side looking out on Market Place, which somehow makes the whole thing feel more Continental, and it has that brilliant effect where you know you’re in Reading, but you somehow feel elsewhere.

If you’re there in a pair or a four it’s really hard to beat the mixed grill, which is a cornucopia of meat – souvlaki, gyros, keftedes, pork belly and sausage – with something for everybody. But if you’re eating solo, the merida platter of crispy, salty gyros meat with chips, fluffy pitta and tzatziki is one of the best and best value meals for one you can find in Reading. And it’s a great place to dine solo: at some point I’ll put together an updated version of my feature on the best tables for one in Reading. When I do, expect Tasty Greek Souvlaki to be on it.

Tasty Greek Souvlaki, 20 Market Place, RG1 2EG
https://tastygreeksouvlaki.com/

13. The Castle Tap

The Castle Tap doesn’t have a menu per se: I think you can get a cheeseboard there, but that’s it. They have done a great job on their outside space in lockdown, like their neighbours the Nag’s Head, and it’s a brilliant place to enjoy a beer or a cider on a balmy evening (their beer list is compact but always has something interesting on it, and they put a lot of effort into their cider selection).

And yet last year, the Castle Tap was the site of many of my favourite al fresco meals. Because to encourage you to stay there and keep enjoying their wonderful space, rather than sloping off to the likes of Harput Kebab, the management actively encourages you to order from Deliveroo and eat it in their gorgeous garden. They even, if you ask them nicely, give you the postcode for the back of the pub on Anstey Road, so your rider can almost drop it to your waiting table. A tub of chilli chicken from Kokoro or a red pork curry from ThaiGrr!, eaten in the sun with a great beer in front of you and the promise of more to come: little is finer than that.

The Castle Tap, 120 Castle Street, RG1 7RJ
https://thecastletap.co.uk