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

2021: The Year In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the year Reading got a Banksy, it was the year Reading got a Wendy’s. 

And you could be forgiven, if you were a regular reader of Berkshire Live, for thinking Wendy’s was the only restaurant to open in Reading in 2021, given the huge number of puff pieces and free advertising our local webshite churned out this year. But actually, despite the most challenging year since, well, last year, we still saw a steady stream of restaurants opening here over the last twelve months. 

Many were chains slithering their tentacles towards the lucrative Thames Valley, which explains why this year Reading became host to Filipino chain Jollibee (home of the “Yumburger” and “Jolly Spaghetti”, which is made with chopped-up hot dog – count me out), Sri Lankan small chain The Coconut Tree, shouty Gordon Ramsay’s new burger place in the Oracle and Ji Chickens, a little Taiwanese-style fried chicken place which has established a Reading outpost in the mall literally nobody is calling Sykes’ Paradise. And just to show that hospitality never sleeps, our newest addition is Dutch chip specialists Chipstar who opened next to the Alehouse only last week. I’m told it’s decent.

These are the openings that will excite the council and Reading UK, because chains are what really make them lose their shit; the council’s tin-eared bid for city status this year actually celebrated the fact that we still have a Carluccio’s and a Pizza Express (which were, in their words, “forced to abandon other towns”) rather than talking about our vibrant independent food scene. That’s Reading Council for you – literally the only people still banging the drum for Pizza Express. Apart from Prince Andrew.

But I’ve been heartened that there are still independent businesses choosing to open in and around Reading. So in 2021 we saw Flavour Of Mauritius finally open on the Caversham Road, Mama’s Way offer a proper Italian delicatessen in town on Duke Street, ThaiGrr! start trading on Queen’s Walk and, a few doors down, Catford’s Compound Coffee open a second branch in the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, our new independent cinema. Out in West Reading, Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen began cooking at the Butler, the most exciting pub pop-up since the golden age of I Love Paella and Caucasian Spice Box.

Further afield, Tilehurst got an interesting-looking new café in the shape of The Switch and new burger restaurants opened all over the place – on Cemetery Junction, on Christchurch Green, on St Mary’s Butts. Blink, and you could miss a new one. We were also graced with not one but two vegetarian South Indian restaurants – Crispy Dosa at the top of the Oxford Road and Madras Flavours further along the 17 bus route, just next to the library (for a while this was not two but forty-five different restaurants: we’ll get to that later).

Possibly the shortest-lived new Reading hospitality business was Cult Antiques & Coffee, on the Tilehurst Road. Offering, as you would expect, antiques and coffee (along with baked goods from local Wolseley Street Bakery) it was perhaps a fusion too far because by September it was shuttered again. And most of our closures this year have been cafés: Anonymous Coffee stopped trading from the Tasting House, shortly followed by the Tasting House also leaving Chain Street. And after seven years, Nibsy’s decided to call it a day on Cross Street: a new business called YayLo, also gluten free, has taken over the premises. 

And finally, another very significant closure: Tamp Culture gave up its spot on Gun Street at the start of October. Tamp had been trading, pretty much, as long as Nibsy’s had and it’s difficult years later to imagine town being quite the same without them. And when you think that in a year Reading has lost Anonymous, Nibsy’s and Tamp, that’s a real blow for Reading’s thriving coffee culture; at least it might silence all those all those “not another café” blowhards Reading seems to be afflicted with.

But having said all that, cafés seem to have been particularly hit by the ongoing effects of the pandemic. When I thought about restaurants that bit the dust in 2021, the only one that sprung to mind was Lemoni. Did you even notice? And really, the main mystery is how it limped along for so long. The company was wound up in the summer owing, among other things, nearly £300,000 in rent. And now Lemoni is running two pubs, including the Bull At Barkham, under its brand name: I can only assume they have different suppliers there.

But if 2021 was a year when most of Reading’s businesses were treading water, running to stand still, it was also the year when finally our restaurants came to the attention of the national press. It started in July when the Mail On Sunday’s Tom Parker Bowles visited Kungfu Kitchen. 

Now, I’ve always had quite a lot of time for Parker Bowles: I’ve long thought that restaurant critics fall into two categories, the ones whose articles can be summed up as Look at me! Look at me! Me! Oh, by the way, I’m in a restaurant and the ones whose reviews are more Let me tell you about this restaurant I went to. Parker Bowles is that rare national critic who falls into that latter category, and I’m not just saying that because he described Edible Reading as a “golden nugget… among the sulphurous effluence of social media” (although I’d be lying if I pretended it wasn’t a factor).

Anyway, Parker Bowles loved Kungfu Kitchen and he clearly got everything that makes the place such a gem, from the uncompromising cooking to the magical welcome from Jo (he described her as “charmingly loquacious”, which is true yet probably doesn’t fully prepare Mail On Sunday readers for the KFK experience). And best of all? Jo had absolutely no idea who he was: to her he was just some guy who obviously knew his Sichuan food and wanted to enjoy what he described, quite perfectly, as a “30-napkin lunch”.

And it wasn’t long before Parker Bowles was back on a train to Reading, because in October he reviewed Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, a couple of months after their much-anticipated reopening. And if anything this was even more of a rave review: after making a bold attempt on the entire menu (the difficulty of narrowing down your choices is one every visitor to Clay’s understands only too well) he nearly ran out of superlatives. “I cannot tell you how much I love this place” he concluded, after, as with the menu, giving it his best shot.

Before Kungfu Kitchen and Clay’s the last Reading restaurant to feature in the national press was Thames Lido, four years ago in the Guardian. And before that? You have to go back to 2010, and a decidedly lukewarm (and entitled) writeup of Mya Lacarte in The Independent On Sunday. So for all of 2021’s drawbacks, it was the year that Reading’s food scene finally got some national attention – and what’s more, Blue Collar also featured in a piece in the Mail in October about the country’s most delicious street food. But that’s nothing: have you heard that we still have a Pizza Express and a Carluccio’s?

I was quite surprised to see my blog mentioned in the national press, but it wasn’t the only time in 2021. Back in April, when I was reviewing takeaways, I discovered that Madras Flavours, our new South Indian restaurant, was operating under multiple names on delivery apps. Tevye Markson, then at the Reading Chronicle, decided to run with the story and between us, like Woodward and Bernstein, we found a total of over 40 different brands operating from that single premises on the Kings Road, from Manchurian Magic to Indian Chimney, from Fatt Monk to my personal favourite, Soul Chutney.

The story went national and got picked up by the i, before the Sunday Times ran a full article about it with quotes from yours truly. They also featured a quote from the owner of Madras Flavours: “It’s all legal”, he began, which is an interesting way to start your justification. 

Anyway, 2021 was also the year that restaurants tried any hustle to keep afloat. In some cases that involved hiving off a section of your menu and pretending it was cooked by a different restaurant (Coco di Mama and Zizzi, for instance, or Blazing Bird and Las Iguanas). In others there was something weirder going on: did you know, for example, that if you order Gourmet Burger Kitchen on Deliveroo it’s cooked up in the kitchen at Carluccio’s? Maybe that’s why we still have a branch, rather than Reading’s eminent suitability for city status.

Being in the papers a couple of times was brilliant. But even better is that it’s been a bumper year for the blog, with more readers and page hits than ever before. At the start of the year when I decided to review takeaways – for a few months, just while I was waiting for everything to go back to normal – I had no idea it would lead to weekly reviews all year. 

I’ve tried the weird and the wonderful with an expanding cast of dining companions – whether it’s my friend Nick gamely ordering tiny snails at O Portugues, Graeme lucking out and coming with me to Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen or the welcome return of my old friend Jerry at Monty’s Café I’ve been incredibly lucky that people have wanted to come and try restaurants with me. And, of course, this is the year that my partner in crime Zoë has attained legendary status for her perceptive (and deeply Anglo-Saxon) assessment of many meals and takeaways.

It’s been a great year for food, too, and I’ve had many brilliant meals and dishes both on and off duty. Too many to mention, really, but plenty will stay with me for some time. Discovering Banarasi Kitchen’s excellent Indian takeaway down the Oxford Road, or revisiting Buon Appetito to find that at some point in the last five years it had become the best pizzeria in Reading (I still daydream about their Napoletana). Enjoying a magnificent prego steak roll at O Portugues, on the edge of Palmer Park, or the smoky, savoury joys of Chef Stevie’s jerk chicken, marinated for twenty-four hours and well worth the wait. And that’s not to mention the perfection of ThaiGrr!’s pork curry, or their crispy-skinned, garlic-studded fried chicken. Or La’De Kitchen’s beautiful pistachio encrusted lamb kebabs, another knockout find this year.

But it wasn’t just about new discoveries. A slightly greater sense of freedom this year meant the opportunity to revisit old favourites. Every single samosa from Cake & Cream, usually picked up after a mildly traumatic visit to the dentist, was a little wonder, and every portion of Gurt Wings picked up on a Friday from Blue Collar was a not-so-little wonder. Going to Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen on their reopening night was a surprisingly affecting reunion, and even if the dishes on the menu had gone up a level in terms of complexity and accomplishment it still felt like being reunited with an old friend – one who had done far more self-improvement in lockdown than I had.

I was also delighted this year, at last, to manage to get away a couple of times – which itself was about a mixture of new and much-loved places. Going to Bristol and eating again in Bravas, one of my favourite haunts, was terrific, but going to Marmo  for the very first time and eating one of my meals of the year was true bliss. Making one solitary trip to London and another to Oxford to revisit a couple of my very favourite places (Medlar and Pompette, respectively) was almost enough to make up for eighteen months away: I was relieved to see them still muddling through. And finally getting on a plane and going back to Malaga with my disgusting new blue passport made me happier than I can tell you.

My other highlight of the year was last month, when I held the first ER readers’ lunch in the best part of two years. It was at the Lyndhurst, as the previous one had been, because I’d always said that the next one would be back where we all ate pre-pandemic: not only that, but the Lyndhurst’s food (and their willingness to deliver it) has rescued many a Saturday night for me, to the point where it wouldn’t have felt right to watch Strictly Come Dancing without a TV dinner from the Lyndie. The weeks where they had skate wing in were happy weeks indeed.

The readers’ lunch, as I knew it would be, was a fantastic afternoon. It was properly emotional to see so many people – old and familiar faces – enjoying the Lyndhurst’s phenomenal food. ER readers really are a fascinating bunch, from academics to musicians, from rocket scientists to retailers, and my only regret doing the seating plan was that I couldn’t talk to everybody all afternoon (although they probably all had a far better time as a result). 

Even at the time, though, before Omicron was a Thing, I still had the same nagging feeling as I did back in March last year, that this was probably the last time I’d be out and about until the spring. After that Zoë and I went into semi-hibernation, and I thought we’d managed to beat the virus: her positive test a few weeks back, and subsequent hospitalisation, showed me that I’d spoken too soon. Fortunately she is on the mend – and we’ll both be spending the festive period taking it easy. I for one will be particularly grateful for everything I have, and determined not to take it for granted. Even before the events of this month, it’s been that sort of year.

It’s too early to know what sort of year next year will be: ever the pessimist, I think we have a challenging winter ahead. But even so, 2022 already promises more new openings. La’De Kitchen plans to open an “express” branch on Market Square and Black Sheep Coffee is taking over the old Caffe Nero site on Friar Street. We’re still promised a new Greek restaurant in the Broad Street Mall, and Blue Collar’s permanent site should open next year after an inexplicable eight months waiting for Reading Council to grant planning permission. Apparently Rosa’s Thai is going to open permanent premises on the ground floor of the iconic Jackson’s Corner. And maybe we’ll finally get that branch of Leon, many years after they used to be good.

Another interesting development will be Kamal’s Kitchen on the Caversham Road. Namaste Momo never quite lived up to the promise of Kamal’s previous restaurant Namaste Kitchen, but this time he is going it alone. If he sticks to the Nepalese classics that made Namaste Kitchen so special, and doesn’t muddy the waters with the more generic Indian food he offered at Namaste Momo, it could prove to be a big hitter. 

But who knows what else next year holds? The one thing you can guarantee, I’m afraid, is that next year some restaurants will fail, and others will be more than willing to try their chances in the same location. There will be some bandwagon-jumpers, some awful concepts, some good chains, some bad chains and, probably out of nowhere, some real gems. And I’ll do my level best to help work out which is which. 

All that remains is me to thank all of you for reading over the last twelve months. It always pleasantly surprises me how many of you come along week after week to read the reviews, comment, share and spread the word. It all counts, and it’s all contributed to this being the most successful year ever on the blog. So whether you’re an avid reader, a skeptic, a lurker or a hater I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful, happy and healthy New Year. Stay safe, and I’ll be back in 2022 with the usual mixture of takeaway reviews, restaurant reviews, ill-informed social comment and very lengthy preambles. What more could you possibly want?

2020: The Year In Review (Part Two)

Last week, in part one of my review of the year, I wrote about all the restaurants and cafés that had closed and opened in 2020. But really, the story of this year in Reading’s food scene is the story of all the restaurants and cafés that don’t fall into those two categories, the ones who have hung in by the skin of their teeth and made it to the end of 2020 – businesses that began January aiming for “thriving” but, at some point over the last twelve months, downgraded their ambitions to “surviving”.

It’s easy to forget, as we all pause for breath at the end of the year, just what a torrid time hospitality has had. This time last year, Reading was a very different place. The biggest blot on the landscape was our benighted branch of Chick-Fil-A, already announced as due to close at the end of its six month “trial” lease in March but still, for the time being, selling chicken and homophobia (only not on Sundays). I never went to Chick-Fil-A, but it’s hard to imagine a meal there could have been as diabolical as my trip to Taco Bell in February.

If you stop to play it all back, the contortions that restaurants, cafés and pubs have had to go through seem like some kind of awful fever dream. In March they were told that they wouldn’t be closed by the government, but that they would have to stay open while that same government told their customers to stay away. Shortly after, they were closed in the first of so many u-turns, but there was then an agonising wait to hear the details of the financial relief available; at least one of Reading’s more popular chains decided to lay their staff off immediately, only to hurriedly rehire them once the furlough scheme was announced. 

The furlough scheme brought some relief, as did some of the grants and business rates relief, but one thing that’s often overlooked is that a reasonable proportion of the aid package came in the form of loans: facing a deeply uncertain future, hospitality had to go into debt to gamble on its own survival. What followed was over three months when restaurants were completely closed, except for takeaway and delivery. Some restaurants decided not to even do that, some took time out to consider their options and some began making the first of many, many changes to their business model (I can’t bring myself to use the word “pivot”, especially as many of our businesses showed so much grace – outwardly, at least – that it looked more like a pirouette). 

On Kennet Island, Fidget & Bob moved to selling groceries, produce and beer along with its fantastic range of sandwiches, coffee and cake. The other side of the river, Geo Café began a veg box delivery scheme, driving to a London market at four in the morning and then doing long hours making drop-offs all across Reading: very welcome at a time when many were shielding and delivery slots were well-nigh impossible to snag (eventually they got their own van in the café’s distinctive livery – I called it the “Kete-van” after its owner, until she told me to stop).

Another notable business in the early stages of our first lockdown was Valpy Street. Some restaurants have always had their own takeaway or delivery capability, and others – especially some of our chains – have always partnered with someone like Deliveroo or Just Eat. But for places like Valpy Street which had never done takeaway, they had to build this from scratch. One of Reading’s earliest adopters, they soon got busy and before long social media was abuzz with people enjoying their fish and chips and their roasts.

One of the most sought-after delivery slots was with Kungfu Kitchen, and there were few sights in 2020 happier than co-owner Steve standing at your front door, masked up, holding a bag of goodies. I soon became an expert in ordering KFK dishes that travelled well – that deep fried spicy fish, for instance, which would remain piping hot long after it was delivered, or the Xinjiang shredded chicken which was cold, spicy and (I later discovered) perfect crammed into a baguette the following day.

A lot of people were keen to see what possibly our most high-profile restaurant, Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen, did. And the answer, at first, was that Clay’s kept its powder dry. They took time out, put recipes up on Instagram showing people how to make simple versions of their dishes at home – even I tried one of them – and then quietly, without fanfare, went about donating large quantities of food to Whitley CDA. 

(They weren’t alone, either: one thing that distinguished many of our hospitality businesses is that they still, against such a terrifying backdrop, found time to feed the town’s people in real need. Only last week, the Lyndhurst provided 30 Christmas dinners to people in Whitley spending Christmas Day alone: you would need to go to the Whitley CDA Facebook page to discover that, though, because characteristically the Lyndhurst hasn’t mentioned it anywhere.)

In May, Clay’s finally made a much-anticipated decision: it had no plans to reopen but would instead deliver vacuum-packed curries customers could reheat at home. Its website crashed on launch day with the volume of orders and soon Nandana and Sharat’s car became as keenly anticipated as the arrival of Geo Café’s Kete-van: one street in Reading organised a weekly communal order which was delivered centrally and then distributed to all the residents. This was the summer of 2020, when many of us got to know our neighbours better – either through WhatsApp groups, weekly clapping or, in my case, waving to Ted from around the corner as he walked the dog daily.

Another pirouetting business in May was Nibsy’s, which started delivering its DIY doughnut kits across Reading. Of all the things I learned in 2020, one of the most surprising was that Nibsy’s cherry bakewells didn’t make me miss gluten in the slightest, although once I’d finished them they did make me miss Nibsy’s cherry bakewells. Like many cafés, Nibsy’s gradually reopened for takeaway in June, and as summer came along there was a feeling that the worst was past and a gradual reopening – rightly or wrongly – was around the corner.

One of the most significant events of the year happened at its midpoint, and has nothing to do with hospitality but plenty to do with community. Like most people I was at home on the 20th June when I got word of an incident at Forbury Gardens, and like most people I watched it unfold on social media with a real feeling of unease and horror. A friend of mine was there when it happened, on a patch of grass just along from where the attack took place, and one of his friends chased the assailant out through the cemetery and down Friar Street. He messaged me about it as it unfolded, clearly badly shaken up by the whole thing. Other friends got in touch to check that I was safe, an experience I’m sure was shared by many.

What happened at Forbury Gardens was an attack on three friends enjoying the summer sun, in possibly the spiritual epicentre of Reading, but it was also an attack on our town and on all of us. And in the days that followed, all sorts of people tried to use it to further their own agendas. It was odd to see Reading on the news, or to hear vultures like Katie Hopkins talking about us as some kind of failed multicultural experiment. But the way the community united in the aftermath of that incident, and in particular the way Reading refused to allow it to divide or define our brilliant, diverse, happy town was one of the most beautiful things about this year, a wonderful moment coming out of so much sadness. I criticise the council a lot, goodness knows, but their handling of this – dignified and measured – was note perfect.

In July, our restaurants, cafés and pubs were told they could reopen, albeit with new restrictions imposed by social distancing and the need for Covid compliance. Restaurants all said how happy they were to be seeing their customers again, with masks and visors on nonetheless, but the whole thing was tinged with trepidation. Ever the cheery soul, I said at the time that I felt restaurants were being hung out to dry and that people should pick the restaurants they wanted to survive and spend their money exclusively at those places (I may have been overly gloomy: time will tell).

In August, restaurants were the saviours of the economy, completely Covid safe and eating out was a Good Thing, as the government introduced Eat Out To Help Out. Opinion was divided on this – I know a lot of customers, especially on social media, were convinced that business was booming and that they had eaten out far more as a result of the initiative. But the restaurant owners who spoke to me almost uniformly suggested it just meant that they were busier at different times. For restaurants, that tended to mean times when customers were less likely to spend money on alcohol. 

One restaurant owner told me about a customer who turned up, spent the absolute maximum you could in order to get twice as much food, ate a tiny amount and then asked her to box it all up so they could take it home. When she expressed concern that they were circumventing the rules, she got a one star Tripadvisor review for her troubles. “I won’t miss some of the customers” she said, when the month came to an end. Others I talked to said very similar things.

The other big return of the summer was Blue Collar Street Food, which was restored to its rightful place on Market Place in June. Blue Collar had a year which you could see as emblematic of 2020 – two steps forward, two steps back. So we all celebrated in September when they took over the Friday market previously run by Chow (the right decision by Reading UK), followed by them hosting the regional heats of the British Street Food Awards later that month.

That was a wonderful weekend, highlighting some brilliant street food but also reinforcing just how strong our own street food scene had become. By this point, Blue Collar’s Glen Dinning had reinforced the market’s offering with some brilliant signings – Gurt Wings, for instance, on Fridays, doing the most terrific fried chicken and tater tots dusted with chicken salt, or Fink Street Food’s excellent mezze boxes. 

The queue for Sharian’s Jamaican Cuisine (now renamed the Bissy Tree for reasons nobody could understand) was as long as ever, but now there was more competition elsewhere in the market. And although the market had lost some of its longest-serving traders – no more Peru Sabor, or Purée’s phenomenal challoumi wrap – a degree of continuity with the past was maintained when Georgian Feast returned to the markets on Fridays and the air was thick again with the beautifully acrid hum of ajika. 

The other thing the Street Food Awards did which was so vitally important was to give Reading some civic pride, and an event people could look forward to and safely enjoy. In a normal year, we would all have been in Forbury Gardens enjoying Blue Collar’s Feastival, but this was the closest we could get. We celebrated Reading being picked to host the event, and Blue Collar’s triumph was our triumph too. Both days of the event sold out, and it went so well that Blue Collar was invited to host the final.

Another reason to be proud of Reading happened in August, when Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen finally launched a nationwide delivery scheme and we had to learn to share our treasure with the rest of the country. Positive reviews started to crop up on blogs, and with every collection you made at the restaurant, or at Fidget & Bob, Geo Café or (later) Double-Barrelled, being a Clay’s customer increasingly felt like being one of the first to know a secret that wouldn’t be under wraps forever.

All good things must come to an end, and just as it was expedient for the government to tell us all to eat out in August it became equally expedient to start to blame hospitality for the increasing rate of infection. The last weekend of October was the final of the British Street Food Awards but also the last weekend before a second lockdown took place in November. I was there with friends on Halloween and ate some absolutely beautiful stuff – a panko-crumpet scrumpet made of shredded pig’s head, topped with kimchee, a “Bangkok brunch” of spiced pork sausage with duck fat confit potato and tiny fried quail’s eggs, tacos and fried chicken. 

Sitting in the garden of the Allied Arms in the cold afterwards, enjoying one last al fresco pint, it felt like summer was well and truly over. And it was, but this lockdown was different to the last. Blue Collar continued to trade on Wednesdays and Fridays, a welcome relief from time spent at home, and restaurants had honed their delivery capabilities by then. “Here we go again”, many of them said on social media, or words to that effect. They had done everything asked of them, taken painstaking precautions, and here they were again being told to close. Meanwhile, of course, the schools remained open.

The rest of the year, as we know, ended in tiers. When everything reopened at the end of the month, Reading was in Tier 2 and restaurants could stay open but only people from the same household could share a table. Restaurants were expected to police this, to add to their burdens. “We’re so excited to see you all again” was the overall message from restaurants – but who could blame them if, this time, the smile was more of a rictus grin? By this point, fatigue had set in: many of the restaurateurs I spoke to were just hoping to make it to Christmas in one piece and take stock.

And of course it was worse for pubs, who could only open if they were offering “substantial meals” and could only serve alcohol with those meals. Pubs scrambled to work up a food offering: Double-Barrelled’s taproom, for instance, rebranded as a “street food restaurant” so it could continue to trade. Others, like the Nag’s Head (possibly the safest post-lockdown experience I had this year) were forced to close because they didn’t serve any food.

And then, of course, the final blow. Reading was moved into Tier 3, which meant that yet again restaurants could only offer takeaway and delivery. It was one pirouette too many for some, who simply decided to close for the time being and put off decisions until the new year. A farcical twenty four hours later Reading was placed in Tier 4, which was like Tier 3 but without Christmas. Conservative estimates suggest things will stay this way until the spring.

The tone of many on social media was chipper, or at least phlegmatic, but the contrast between the public face and private misgivings was often clear. Double-Barrelled, for instance, put up a picture of their logo with the words “TAPROOM” and “STREET FOOD RESTAURANT” struck through, a clear (and funny) testimony to the constant one hundred and eighty degree turns required of hospitality all year. But on her personal Twitter account, owner Luci summed up the position even more succinctly. With a string of expletives.

There was still time for a couple more twists before 2020 limped to a close, both good and bad. In November, Blue Collar announced that Reading Football Club had terminated its contract to provide the food offering outside the ground on matchday, to widespread derision. The initial reports were that Compass Group, who serve the “food” inside the ground, were taking over – bad news for customers (and for donkeys, given how many of them have died over the years to provide Compass Group with burgers and sausages). 

That was bad enough, but the suggestion that the contract would then be sub-contracted to a London street food operator to provide something similar to Blue Collar, only cheaper and less authentic, added insult to injury. The outcry that Reading FC had shafted an independent business – run by a season ticket holder, no less – in the naked pursuit of profit was loud, consistent and completely on the money.

Finally, there was a feelgood story a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the 13th December people fired up their browsers or opened their newspapers to find that Jay Rayner had reviewed Clay’s Hyderabadi Kitchen in the Observer. It was a Christmas miracle, for a restaurant that was struggling to get by. Clay’s blog post on the subject tells the story better than I can, but it was the result of old-fashioned persistence: owner Nandana had emailed a number of restaurant critics and food writers asking if they wanted to give her food a try, and to their credit a couple of them – the Telegraph’s William Sitwell and the Observer’s Jay Rayner – had taken her up on the suggestion.

Of course, like everyone who has tried Clay’s food, they loved it and wanted to tell everybody. It reminded me of reading the email I had received from Nandana, nearly three years ago, telling me all about the restaurant they were planning to open. I clearly remember reading it and seeing all that passion for food, for recipes, and for telling stories, and I suspected even then that their food would be very special indeed. I wonder if Jay Rayner or William Sitwell had a similar feeling when they had received their own version of that email, many years later.

Clay’s was the first Reading restaurant to get a mention in the national press for over a decade – the last before that was Mya Lacarte, also in the Telegraph – and orders went through the roof. The following week when I turned up at the restaurant to collect my own pre-Christmas order I saw a front room full of vacuum-packed curries being crammed into boxes and envelopes, labelled and ready to go out for delivery. It was a heart-warmingly military operation. “This is probably just a flash in the pan” Nandana told me: I sincerely hope she turns out to be wrong. 

This is by no means a definitive history of 2020 for Reading’s restaurants. I’m far too partisan a person to write that. And there’s so much that happened this year that I didn’t get to mention and there are so many people I left out. I didn’t talk about the stupendous deliveries I’ve had this year from the Lyndhurst, or rhapsodise about their gurnard tacos. I haven’t mentioned Bakery House or Namaste Momo, both of whom have brightened flat evenings at my house through the arrival of their wonderful food. I haven’t thanked Anonymous Coffee for teaching me to love making coffee at home, or congratulated Vegivores for managing to expand in such a difficult time.

And there’s so much that happened in the town that’s really outside the scope of this piece. The way Reading Fringe Festival managed to adapt to an online-only event, or the way that the tireless Louize Clarke did likewise with her Festival Of Digital Disruption, capitalising on Covid to land a roster of speakers you could never attract at a physical event.

I haven’t mentioned the joy I’ve received every time a Covid email arrives from the council with an increasingly ridiculous giant picture of Jason Brock looking grumpy at the top. And I never talked about the couple caught shagging in the window of the Hope Tap: surely the most fun anybody has ever had in the Hope Tap (irony of ironies, I’m reliably informed that the couple picked that spot because it was the only part of the pub not covered by CCTV, failing to clock that it was slap bang in front of the windows).

I still have a feeling that for all the difficulties of this year, next year is when we’ll say painful goodbyes to businesses and institutions that we love. And I still maintain that the best thing we can do is throw our figurative arms around the businesses we most want to see survive.

But perhaps the best thing to take away from this awful, mad year is how wonderful community can be and how it can show the best in people. Our independent businesses have been persistent, imaginative and resilient. They’ve been relentless in adapting, innovating and putting on a happy face, during months when personally I’ve sometimes found it difficult to even get out of bed. It gladdens my heart that we’ve made it to the end of the year without losing so many of the businesses that give our town its character and soul. We are lucky to have them: I hope that 2021 is the year when, as a town, we truly get to return the favour.

2020: The Year In Review (Part One)

This time of year is usually a happy one at ER HQ. Amid all the wrapping and card-opening, the chocolates snaffled from behind advent calendar doors and the frantic round of socialising in the run-up to Christmas Day, I invariably take time to sit down and write my annual awards. Who cooked the finest main course I’ve had all year? What’s the best new restaurant? Who’s really aced their social media this year? It’s a lovely thing to do, to mentally digest all those wonderful meals one more time and to celebrate everything – and there is so much – that Reading does so very well. After all, you don’t have to listen to Chris Tarrant up on stage, battered at the microphone, to be proud of Reading. Thank God.

As with everything else about this mixed-up year, it draws to a close very differently to every other year we’ve lived through. I know lots of people cautiously returned to dining out over the summer, and did so again when we entered Tier 2 with all its arbitrary restrictions, and I’m certain that Reading’s restaurants are eternally grateful for that, but I’ve stayed home and relied on takeaways and deliveries. Apart from a few drinking sessions at the exemplary Nag’s Head at the height of the summer I’ve not really been out and about; it’s hard enough to remember what having a starter in a restaurant feels like, let alone to flip through the mental Rolodex and work out which was the best one of the last twelve months.

And yet it doesn’t feel right to say goodbye to 2020, much as I know we’re all dying to, without putting something up on the blog. So this is partly a round-up, partly a reflection and goodness knows what else, as we prepare to move into an uncertain future. A vaccine is on the way and the orange knobber across the pond is on his way out but, on the flipside, we have no idea how (or how hard) we’ll get clobbered by our delectably chlorinated oven-ready Brexit.

And now we have a second strain, a third wave and, at the time of writing, a dress rehearsal for the New Year as the rest of Europe proves that it’s actually quite easy to close your borders and take back control. They say it’s the hope that kills you, but I can’t imagine anybody dying of that next year. Let’s look at many of the reasons to be cheerful instead: it’s the season for it, don’t you know.

Goodbyes, but fewer than you might think

(Do you like the headings? Neat, aren’t they. A few people have told me I should use this sort of thing more often to break up the interminable text, and who am I to argue: let’s see if they catch on.)

Obviously it’s very sad when restaurants close. That should go without saying, even this year when we’ve all had to become a bit numb to Bad Stuff. It’s especially sad when an independent closes, or a restaurant you like, or a restaurant that seemed to be doing well, but even when it isn’t the end of somebody’s dream, when it’s a faceless chain, it still leaves people – some of them really good at what they do – looking for new jobs. I still think the real damage will be felt next year but for now, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the number of closures this year was far smaller than you might expect.

Most of the casualties have indeed been chains and often it’s been the second branch of a chain where Reading has more than one: the Kings Road Zizzi; the Broad Street Prêt; the St Mary’s Butts Pizza Express. In the latter case it’s a far nicer place than the one in the Oracle, but at least if you have an emotional attachment to the brand you can still get your Pollo ad Astra without leaving town (do consider Papa Gee, though: they’re on Deliveroo and everything).

One restaurant even came back from the dead: I’m not a diehard fan of Carluccio’s but I still felt sad when it closed early in lockdown as a result of the chain collapsing. And even though it isn’t high on my list of places to visit next year I found it heartwarming nonetheless when it reopened in September. I’ve had enough really enjoyable evenings there (including, surreally, my last restaurant meal before the first lockdown) that I wanted to feel like another one was at least possible. And, for now at least, it still is.

A couple of restaurants changed their names while doing the same kind of food in such a way that you couldn’t really be sure whether they had closed at all. So I honestly don’t know whether Persian Palace is to Persia House what Snoop Lion is to Snoop Dogg, or if Spitiko is in any way a different beast to Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (probably not, though, given that the restaurant’s Facebook page is now called “Ketty’s Spitiko”).

I certainly couldn’t venture an opinion on whether Gulab Indian Kitchen is any different to Miah’s Garden Of Gulab and I definitely couldn’t speculate as to whether it has anything to do with previous attempts by the owner of Garden Of Gulab to get round losing his alcohol licence by making a new license application under a different name. All I will say is that if you’re part of the very niche section of my readership that just can’t get enough of Indian restaurants with the word “Gulab” in their name, 2020 hasn’t been as complete a bin fire for you as it was for the rest of us.

Probably the most high profile independent closure has been announced but won’t happen until next year, when we say goodbye to one of Reading’s longest-running restaurants, Standard Tandoori on Caversham Road. Standard Tandoori, which has been open for forty years, is closing in the spring as the owners want to retire, so those of you addicted to their (locally) famous “super dry fry” will have to look elsewhere for a new favourite dish.

It does make you wonder which old-timer restaurants might not make it to the end of 2021 – could it be the year we say goodbye to the Bina and Rafina Lounge? Part of this, of course, is down to the circle of life in hospitality – for new restaurants to open, existing restaurants have to close, and indeed a new restaurant is already lined up to open in the Standard Tandoori site following refurbishment (more on that later). Speaking of new restaurants…

In with the new

Opening a restaurant is a brave thing to do at the best of times, in the best of years. It takes a long time to start to recoup your initial costs and approach a break even point, and a fair amount of restaurants don’t ever get that far: it’s hard to find a consensus online about the percentage of restaurants that fail in their first year, but even on conservative estimates it’s high enough that hospitality is not a business for the faint-hearted. That makes it all the more surprising that quite a lot of new restaurants have opened in 2020 – again, more than you might expect – with more still in the pipeline.

Some are trying to turn around what could charitably be described as cursed sites – the kind of buildings that seem to be on ley lines guaranteed to ensure the failure of hospitality businesses. Take the old site of the Warwick Arms on the Kings Road, for example. It rebranded as Bali Lounge, and when that closed it reincarnated as a gastropub of sorts called the Biscuit & Barrel. Then, like some hyperactive Doctor Who of the Reading restaurant world, it became Cardamom, the second branch of a mini-chain of Indian restaurants (the other one’s in Pangbourne) before very quickly rebranding again – this time as King’s Kitchen, also an Indian restaurant.

That takes us up to early 2020, but later this year it changed its name yet again, becoming The Aila, a Nepalese restaurant and bar. By the time a vaccine has been rolled out and I am ready to review restaurants again I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has changed its name again. Possibly twice.

Another new opening in a cursed site is Madoo, an Italian coffee shop which has opened on Duke Street opposite the Oxfam music shop. You may know this site better as the boarded up shop that used to be Project Pizza or, if your memory is longer, the boarded up shop that used to be It’s A Wrap.

But in fairness, the reports I’ve had so far (including from Reading’s resident Sicilian in exile, Salvo Toscano) suggest that Madoo might be a dark horse. The toasted gorgonzola sandwich is meant to be decent, they use scamorza in quite a few of their toasties and they sell some goodies – cake and biscuits – to take away (if they stock any giandiuotti I shall have to pay them a visit sooner rather than later). Let’s hope Madoo manages to make a go of the site – it may benefit, sadly, from the closure of Panino (another long-standing Reading business) on the other side of the road.

One last ill-starred spot is the old Colley’s Supper Rooms site on the Wokingham Road, up by Palmer Park. This was reborn as Bart’s, a steakhouse that left me a little unmoved, before closing and reopening as the salubrious-sounding Smokey’s House, a restaurant described by Get Reading as Cheap and cheerful family grub. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that glowing writeup, Smokey’s House failed to catch fire and now, in its place, we have O Português, a – yes, you’ve guessed – Portuguese restaurant.

This could be a wonderful thing, if it’s done well. I’ve been to Portugal a fair few times and it’s very much the unsung hero of European food, with dishes and wine that can easily match anything in Spain. And it’s some time since Reading had a Portuguese restaurant (Nando’s doesn’t count: it’s South African), the last one being O Beirão up on the Basingstoke Road. O Português must be pretty confident, anyway, as so far they’ve dispensed with a website or even having a menu up outside the restaurant. I had to go on Just Eat to get a look at what was on offer: one section of the menu is entitled “Vegetarian & Children”, which rather gives the wrong impression.

O Português’ menu is, at least, available somewhere online. That’s more than you can say about Raayo, the new cafe which has opened on Friar Street just along from Hickies. They have set up a website, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that it feels a tad underdeveloped. The menu is lacking in the kind of detail especially fussy customers might want – what dishes are available, how much they cost, that kind of thing. And what’s Raayo’s USP? We use fresh ingredients to make our food very tasty and yummy says the website, which will leave all of Reading’s dastardly restaurants and cafés using stale ingredients to make their food rubbish or middling quaking in their boots.

I know this might sound unkind, but it comes from a place of genuine concern. Raayo, like all hospitality businesses, is going to need all the help it can get in a crowded, competitive marketplace to stay alive; in 2020, and especially in 2021, this kind of approach just won’t cut it. I imagine they’ve had some quiet days since they opened – you’d think they would have offered plenty of opportunities to at least get busy on social media.

Also new, also a café and also on Friar Street, albeit at the less attractive end down by German Doner Kebab and the Hope Tap, we have Bru. Instagram announced that they opened their doors for the first time last week, although they haven’t updated their website to reflect that (isn’t it always the way?). Bru serve their own gelato, handmade by them in Leicester, so if that turns out to be good – and especially if it turns out actually to be gelato – that could be a real addition to town. Their menu also offers a “Grinch hot chocolate” which is a really disconcerting shade of green and something called a “wafflepop”, which I assume is like a normal waffle but hundreds of times more twee.

Other cafés have been far more polished. The Collective has opened just opposite the Griffin and is an altogether more well-realised affair: very Caversham and very chic, with a stripped-back, almost Nordic look. The name is about the only Marxist thing about it: part-café, part lifestyle shop and part grocer, it will be interesting to see whether they manage to do more with that concept than their spiritual predecessor, Siblings Home. The Collective has already been featured in Muddy Stilettos, which probably tells you more about it and the market it is aiming at than I possibly could. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll probably like that sort of thing.

One restaurant, although not new per se, has pursued such a different direction that it might as well be a completely new establishment. The Corn Stores, which underwhelmed me last year as an upmarket steak restaurant, made a dramatic switch this year when it hired Liam Sweeney, previously sous chef at Nottingham’s Michelin-starred Alchemilla. The complete revamp involved moving to a compact, regularly-changing tasting menu, a clear statement of intent that owner Rarebreed Dining was shooting for central Reading’s first Michelin star. The decision to start using sourdough bread from RGBread, the bakery run by Geo Café, was another sign of Sweeney’s ambition. Speaking of the Corn Stores…

The idea is you put the headings between the sections

I did wonder what would happen to restaurant reviewing this year. I’ve taken nine months off, and you all have the withdrawal symptoms to prove it, but Reading’s influencers tend to be younger and braver (and, I would guess, with no underlying health conditions). They’re a lean and hungry bunch. But just as the pandemic has made many of us reassess our values, would it change their views about how they reviewed restaurants and which restaurants to review? The early signs were that it might, with at least one local blogger musing about whether it was right to take free food in the middle of a global crisis, or to support chains.

That didn’t last very long, as a number of comped reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts have cropped up since then. Movie night at the Last Crumb was just too hard to resist it seems (maybe they were showing Weekend At Bernie’s, in which case who can blame them) as was an opportunity to scoff free grub at the new and improved Corn Stores. Oh well. Times are hard and who can begrudge people the chance to cut down on their weekly expenses: won’t somebody think of the influencers?

Anyway, I can’t bring myself to entirely complain about people getting free meals at the Corn Stores, because it introduced Reading, and the world, to possibly the finest restaurant reviewer writing today in English. I am of course speaking of Hugh Fort: I think we all knew he had talent, but none of us could have predicted just what a towering giant he would become in 2020. My friend Sophie told me last week that she decided to eat at the Corn Stores on the night before the start of the second lockdown entirely on the basis of Fort’s masterful review for Berkshire Live.

“I knew that if Hugh Fort didn’t like it, it was probably the place for me.”

“It’s not that he didn’t like it, more that he just didn’t understand it.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it was.”

Where to begin? There’s so much to enjoy about the review that I doubt I can do it justice. Someone on Twitter described it as “accidental Partridge”, but it’s so authentically him that I suspect Alan Partridge might instead be an accidental Hugh Fort. Fort wrote incredulously about eating Liam Sweeney’s food in a way that suggested even a Harvester might be a tad fancy for him. And it wasn’t just the food, either. Fort doesn’t drink, and he writes about booze as if he doesn’t understand that either. A sniff of his girlfriend’s cocktail “suggested to me it was the sort of thing that you could drink a lot of without realising it was full of potent liquor, which seems to be the point of cocktails.” Has anyone ever seen him and Viz‘s Mr. Logic in the same place?

But it was when talking about the food that Fort really came into his own: his uncle is Great British Menu judge Matthew Fort, but the apple has fallen a long old way from the tree. I loved the way he put mocktails and palate cleanser in inverted commas, as if to say “this is what the kids are calling them, apparently”. Fresh oysters and Reading town centre were apparently “two terms that aren’t exactly associated with each other” – why am I not surprised that Fort had never heard of London Street Brasserie? – but Fort gamely gave them a bash, before “wolfing down” “a couple of tasty potato croquettes”.

The Corn Stores put a picture of that dish up on Instagram a week or so later, patiently explaining that they were in fact pig’s head croquettes, no doubt involving painstaking cooking and assembly. But never mind that, because they clearly didn’t touch the sides for our roving gourmand (perhaps he didn’t even chew). That Fort couldn’t tell the difference between dense shreds of perfectly-cooked pig and, err, mashed potato might be my single favourite thing about him.

The most quoted section was Fort’s baffled encounter with duck liver parfait and brioche. “The idea is you put the parfait on the brioche” he explained, possibly more to himself than the rest of us. I’d like to imagine that an earlier version of the review also contained a paragraph reading “the idea is that you cut the food into smaller pieces using the knife and fork provided, before placing it in your mouth, chewing it with your molars and swallowing in order to allow the process of digestion to take place”. But of course that would mean some editing or proofreading had taken place, and this is Berkshire Live we’re talking about.

And what did Fort make of it? “I quite liked it… I think someone more generally into parfaits would really enjoy it.” “Fine dining anywhere often takes you out of your comfort zone” he added, although Fort’s comfort zone might well begin and end at Gregg’s, or one of those Rustler microwaveable burgers. You know, really fancy shit.

I think it was the Guardian‘s John Crace, or it might have been the Independent‘s Tom Peck, who said that 2020 was the year that satire died. You no longer have to come up with anything yourself, you just have to become a stenographer because the stuff virtually writes itself. So much as I could carry on dissecting Fort’s erudition, I suspect nothing I could say will top the experience of reading it in its entirety.

I’ll leave you to enjoy the rest, including his shock at eating a steak without chips and his girlfriend’s exciting main course, apparently “duck with Aylesbury duck”. That part reminded me of another blinding passage I read in a restaurant review this year, which said “the fish had light and crispy batter which was dusted underneath with Indian spices from the Indian spices. This gave it a subtle spicy flavour, but nothing too spicy”: somebody probably needs to ask Santa for a thesaurus this year.

Some artists create one perfect piece of work and then walk away, knowing they will never top it. I fear Hugh Fort may be such an auteur: I keep looking, but there is no sequel. I’ve read his blistering piece about “the new Hena spice ketchup everybody’s been talking about” (spoiler alert: I don’t know anybody who’s even heard of it) but it’s just not the same.

In it, Fort reviews a curry sauce which, it turns out, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading to see if it’s as good as McDonald’s curry sauce which, of course, you can’t buy in supermarkets in Reading. To cut a long story short, Fort thought the one you can’t buy in Home Bargains was slightly nicer but that neither of them was as good as ketchup – and he used the phrase “to be honest” twice, so you know it’s the real deal. Let’s hope 2021 brings more restaurant reviews from Fort: even the fact that the food was free does nothing to tarnish his brilliance.

In with the new (continued)

Sadly we don’t know what Hugh Fort would make of the other new restaurants to open in Reading this year (just imagine, though), and our influencers haven’t bothered with them yet, presumably because they haven’t been offered the chance to do so for nothing.

Quite a few of them, though, are starting to build some good word of mouth reports. A prime example is Banarasi Kitchen, an Indian restaurant trading out of the Spread Eagle pub on Norfolk Road, between the Oxford and Tilehurst Roads. A friend tells me she has gone there pretty regularly this year and has given it rave reviews, and it coincides with the Spread Eagle starting to make a bit of effort on Instagram: I shall be making my way there to check it out at some point in 2021.

Another pub with a chequered relationship with food is the Fisherman’s Cottage, down by the Kennet on the edge of New Town. It’s most famous for having played host to the superb and badly-missed I Love Paella – they left in acrimonious circumstances in summer 2018 and this summer the old management left the pub. It has now reopened under chef and restaurateur Cigdem Muren Atkins, who was born in Turkey and has run hospitality businesses in the Dominican Republic and Bodrum before pitching up at the Fisherman’s Cottage.

It has real potential – the pub can be a lovely spot, especially in summer – but time will tell whether Muren Atkins can keep enough craft beer available to keep the previous clientele happy while working on a food offering to win over diners. Her current menu feels quite generic, with a mixture of curries, stir fries and standard pub fare (yes, burgers). Personally I’d like to see a few more Turkish dishes on the menu – Reading has never quite anywhere that captures how beautiful that cuisine can be, and you need to head to Zigana’s Turkish Kitchen in Didcot for that.

Or it may be that La’De Kitchen, which opened this year in Woodley, will save me from the questionable pleasures of a train trip to Didcot. Although the blurb describes it as a Mediterranean restaurant the menu on their rather glossy website has loads of Turkish dishes on it – borek, pide, guvec and of course a myriad of kebabs. It turns out that this is La’De’s third branch, the slightly incongruous final part of an unlikely threesome: Muswell Hill, Pangbourne, Woodley. I have several readers who have thoroughly enjoyed takeaway from the Pangbourne branch, despite the slightly sharp pricing, so I shall look forward to trying it for myself.

And you don’t need to head out to Woodley to try a plethora of grilled meats: Tasty Greek Souvlaki opened on Market Place in May, in the old Mum Mum site. Again, I’ve heard plenty of good reports of their food (albeit with one or two detractors) with the giros particularly worth trying, by all accounts. I was on the verge of heading there for an al fresco lunch on one of the last warm weekdays of the year – and writing it up for the blog – when we went into a second lockdown, so it just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully it will still be trading next year when I return to reviewing in earnest.

A new establishment to file under “hmm” is one of the victims, along with HRVY off of Strictly Come Dancing, of the Great Vowel Shortage Of 2020. MNKY Lounge – whose name somehow fails to combine the glamour of Donna Karan New York and the prosaic quality of Alto Lounge – has opened on Erleigh Road where the Fruitbat Bar (and more recently vegan café bar Vego’s) used to ply its trade.

Will this fare any better? I’m not sure. Every time I’ve went past over the summer the tables outside were packed with people drinking but life in Tiers 2, 3 and 4 (let alone the Tier 14 we’ll probably be in by mid-January) may be a different matter. I went on to Just Eat to scout out their menu (their website – yes, it’s another one of those – simply announces that it’s “coming soon”) and I didn’t see anything that looked like it couldn’t have fallen off the back of a Brakes lorry.

Before taking my leave of you, it’s worth reminding you that there are always, always new cafés and restaurants in the pipeline. Nothing ever stands still. So in the New Year we can expect to see Chaiiwala, sometimes apparently described as “the Indian Starbucks” opening on the Wokingham Road just up from I Can’t Believe It’s Not The Garden Of Gulab Gulab Indian Kitchen. Mansoor, my man in the know who introduced me to Cake&Cream and its magic samosas, tells me that Chaiiwala is worth a visit for its karak chai and its chicken kebab rolls: that is recommendation enough for me.

We’ll also see Flavour Of Mauritius opening in the Standard Tandoori’s current location on Caversham Road. Currently a mobile caterer, Flavour Of Mauritius hit the news over the summer when, like a number of other local businesses, they chose to donate free meals to NHS staff, the emergency services and charities helping those in need. I’ve heard positive noises from ER readers who have ordered takeaway from Flavour Of Mauritius in lockdown, so fingers crossed they will revitalise the site and bring something new to Reading’s restaurant scene.

Oh, and Wendy’s is allegedly opening on Friar Street: place your bets on whether we’ll see any enthusiastic Instagram posts about square burgers, the word AD squirrelled away at the very end. And that reminds me that Tortilla has opened on Broad Street, near the Oracle entrance – I should have remembered earlier, but somehow it feels hard to care.

And another Turkish restaurant opened down the Oxford Road in between me starting to write this round-up and hitting the publish button. We also may or may not get a branch of LEON, just like we were meant to get branches of Byron and Busaba a few years ago. If this year has taught you anything, it’s that nothing can be guaranteed to go completely according to plan.

Anyway, that completes the first section of my round-up of 2020. Come back next week for Part Two, when we’ll see if I can sum up how Reading’s restaurants have survived the year without using the word “pivot”. Maybe we can turn it into a drinking game.

Feature: Less than a tenner

Is it me, or did New Year used to be a bit less, well, preachy? Nowadays we’re bombarded with things you ought to do – eat vegan food for a month, or quit drinking, or drink lots of local beer to compensate for everybody who’s quitting drinking. It’s a hard enough month at the best of times – back at work, no longer allowed to eat chocolate whenever you like. Depressed by the scales, depressed by the sales not selling anything you fancy, and it’s so bloody dark all the time. The last thing anybody needs in January, if you ask me, is a sermon.

So I’m not going to do a feature about vegan food in Reading, or where you should go to try beers from our many excellent local breweries, or which tap room is the best. Instead, this piece covers the one truly universal thing about January whoever you are: it’s a long time since the last pay day, a long time until the next and everybody is on a budget. So this feature is about the best food you can get in Reading for not much money, something I hope we can all get behind.

I’ve tried to limit this to genuine stand-alone items. Obviously I could have included plenty of starters, but nobody turns up to a restaurant, orders a starter and leaves. So, ideally, every item on this list could be eaten on its own as the feature attraction, and every one costs less than ten pounds. That does tend to push it more in the direction of lunch than dinner, but there are still at least half a dozen items on this list that you could happily eat for an early evening meal.

Having already decided which dishes I’d include I posed the question on Facebook and got a raft of answers which reminded me just how much good food in Reading didn’t quite make the cut for me. I was sad not to be able to make room for anything from Blue Collar’s Peru Sabor, for anything from Perry’s, Franco Manca, Kings Grill, Bakery House or Sapana Home. That so many good places are excluded, I hope, shows how tricky making this selection was.

Anyway, I hope this comes in handy – all of them have been extensively road-tested by me, and all come highly recommended. Happy budgeting, and good luck if you are forgoing meat, booze or indeed anything else this month. Rather you than me!

1. Chilli beef nachos, the Lyndhurst

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first: no surprises here, especially after I awarded it Starter Of The Year in my end of year awards. But, as I said then, it’s substantial enough to eat in its own right, or to snack on with drinks. Anyway, I’ve said quite enough about these nachos lately, so instead I’ll quote my occasional dining companion Martin: after he had them for the first time last month he said “All I can say is now I realise everyone else is doing chilli wrong. And doing nachos wrong too. Fantastic dish!” And he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s the poor sod who had to endure the unique gastronomic experience of the doner meat nachos at German Doner Kebab. I’ll save you the effort of scrolling down: they don’t feature later on in this list. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

2. Jerk chicken, rice and peas, Sharian’s Cuisine

I’ve never been a fan of CHOW, the Friday street food market run in conjunction with Reading’s shadowy Business Improvement District. I’ve always thought it was a shame the market isn’t run by the better, more imaginative, more Reading Blue Collar Food who operate on Wednesdays in the same location. But what CHOW does have – which always generates huge queues – is Sharian’s Cuisine, and their jerk chicken, rice and peas is a thing of wonder. The chicken is spiced, charred and smoky, you get tons of it and they tell you, ever so nicely, that you’re being a wuss if you opt for the milder of the two hot sauces on offer. The weather isn’t quite conducive to eating it al fresco right now, but just you wait. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Friday lunchtimes only)

3. Chilli paneer, Bhel Puri House

One of Reading’s iconic dishes, and one I’ve been raving about for the best part of six years. Caramelised cubes of paneer, crunchy peppers and spring onion and powerful green chillies lurking in there if you feel especially brave. I went through a phase of cheating on the chilli paneer with the saucier, stickier paneer Manchurian, I even went through a particularly depraved phase of ordering both of them at once. I dallied with the vada pav, too, but I always go back to the chilli paneer. It never lets you down. (Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF)

4. Ajika chicken wrap, Geo Cafe

There are many contenders for Reading’s finest sandwich: more than a few of them feature in this list. But, for my money, Geo Café’s chicken wrap is arguably the best. Georgian food tastes like nothing else you’ve ever eaten, and Georgian flavours transform this dish completely. The combination of fiery spice from the ajika and the pungency of baje (a Georgian sauce made from walnuts) is both otherworldly and habit-forming.

Chicken features quite heavily in this list, but this – made with free-range corn-fed chicken thighs from Vicar’s – is stupendous stuff. A wrap will set you back six pounds. Many would argue that Geo Café’s khachapuri, flat soda bread stuffed with an ingenious blend of three cheeses, should be in this list too, to which I can only say that making these decisions is harder than you might think. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG, daytime only)

5. Curry night, The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst make this list twice because this is simply too good, in terms of quality and value, not to include in its own right. Every Thursday they offer a choice of three different curries, rice and a naan bread and a pint for nine pounds and ninety-nine pence (as you can see, when I went they threw in an onion bhaji in for good measure). The curries are all interesting and miles from kormas and bhunas, with dishes from Mangalore, Goa, Kerala and Sri Lanka, among others. I loved my visit last year, and it won’t be long before I’m back there – so much better than spending a similar Thursday in Wetherspoons making the tills ring and the microwave ping. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG, Thursday evenings only)

6. Tuna Turner, Shed

Another entry which will surprise nobody, and another dish which will probably make the cut if Reading Museum ever does an exhibition on iconic Reading food, the Tuna Turner is a truly legendary toasted sandwich and one of the very best things you can eat of a lunchtime. Superior tuna mayo, sweet slivers of red onion, plenty of cheese and jalapeños – very much the secret weapon – all conspire to be so much more than the sum of their parts. I think it’s something about the way the cheese melts, somehow seeps through the gaps in the sourdough and then forms a beautiful, glistening, caramelised crust.

If you’re there on a Friday lunchtime, and Shed is doing the Saucy Friday with scotch bonnet chilli chicken, rice and peas, macaroni cheese and coleslaw that dish, also far less than a tenner, runs the Tuna Turner pretty close. (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT, daytime only)

7. Lamb kothey momo, Namaste Momo

Namaste Momo is in a funny little spot on the border between Woodley and Earley, an area not blessed with its restaurants. Only one bus really runs that way from the town centre, and after a certain time it only ventures out once an hour. But, for all that faff, I highly recommend a pilgrimage there because their momo are worth it.

They are made by hand and in all their forms – in a hot, thickened chilli sauce, steamed or deep fried – they justify the journey. For me, it’s when you pan fry momo that you get that bang-on midpoint of taste and texture, the contrast of char and chew and the gorgeous filling inside. Speaking of fillings, the minced, spiced, seasoned lamb is my favourite – if it was served as a slider you could sell out any hipster gaff in the town centre. But we all know better than hipsters, don’t we, and these momo are perfect just the way they are. (392 London Road, RG6 1BA)

8. Scrambled eggs, Fidget & Bob

I’ve had some truly terrible scrambled eggs in my time. I once stayed over with a then-friend in Chichester and she microwaved eggs into grey pellets – I gamely ate the lot, because I didn’t want to seem rude, but really it could have been polystyrene and I might have had a better meal. I’ve tried to learn to make them myself, with guidance from the sainted Delia, and they come out okay but not great. The truth is that Fidget & Bob have ruined me for all other scrambled eggs. For five pounds you get three golden-yolked Beechwood Farm eggs, scrambled with probably more butter than I’m comfortable knowing about (that’s the great thing about eating in restaurants: ignorance is bliss) and certainly with more skill than I can manage.

They come with plenty of buttered seeded toast although extras – hash browns, nicely crispy back bacon, that legendary slab of sausagemeat loaf – are all available. They shouldn’t push the price over a tenner unless you’re really going loco, either due to gluttony or a hangover. Another great way to spend less than ten pounds in Fidget & Bob, every Tuesday night, is to go for their quite wonderful char siu pork. (The Piazza, Whale Avenue, RG2 0GX, Tuesday to Sunday)

9. Sweet chilli chicken, Kokoro

One of my very favourite things to eat for an early solo dinner or a particularly indulgent lunch, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a crunchy, sticky, fiery, garlic-studded tub of one hundred per cent fun. A regular sized portion is pretty big and a large portion (which costs a princely additional pound) is absolutely gigantic: both come in comfortably below the ten pound mark.

The quality varies – some batches make your eyes water and your nose run, some are milder. Sometimes you get smaller, crunchier bits of chicken, sometimes they are huge, plump things (but always with that wonderful coating). But even on a relatively bad day, Kokoro’s chilli chicken is a miraculous thing. It comes with rice or noodles – I’ve always found the noodles a bit too much like hard work, but your mileage may vary. Writing this has made me seriously consider having it for lunch today, which I suppose is almost as bad as laughing at your own jokes. (29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY)

10. Challoumi wrap, Purée/Leymoun

To do the confusing bit first: for reasons I don’t completely understand, sometimes Sam Adaci runs a street food van called Purée, sometimes it’s called Leymoun. Purée operates out of a distinctive green van, Leymoun is more nondescript. I don’t know the rhyme or reason of why there are two different names and two different vans. He is at Blue Collar in the market square every Wednesday and CHOW in the same place on Fridays, and sometimes you can find the Purée van parked on Broad Street at other times. But if you’re ever near either van at lunchtime, join the queue and order a challoumi wrap. They cost six pounds, they are absolutely crammed with wonderful stuff and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The chicken is spiced and cooked on the griddle before being finely chopped, and the halloumi is salty but not too squeaky (for a while Sam was having his own Brexit-proof halloumi specially made in London: not sure if he still does). Add the pickles, and the chilli sauce, and the garlic sauce and you have an overstuffed messy marvel of a sandwich where every mouthful gives you something ever so slightly different and you always want there to be another mouthful. “Purée/Leymoun” is also a bit of a mouthful, come to think of it, but it remains a must-eat at lunchtime, even if the van can be a tad elusive. They also do freshly-made falafel which are a beautiful meat free alternative. (Market Place, RG1 2EQ, Wednesday and Friday lunchtimes only. Also on Broad Street: times vary)

11. Com chien, Pho

I quite like Pho, even if I’ve never managed to learn to love the eponymous dish: soup plus noodles just isn’t for me. This means I’ve never developed the fervour for it that other restaurant bloggers seem to manage. But they do have an absolute ace up their sleeve in the form of their com chien, a generous fried rice dish with shreds of chicken, chewy little savoury dried shrimp and many, many flecks of chilli. This dish, sort of a Vietnamese nasi goreng, is wonderful for blowing away cobwebs. You can tell it’s hot because when you order it, the staff invariably ask if you’ve had it before – with the same trepidation barbers used to show when they asked if I really wanted a grade two all over. You can top it with an optional fried egg, but I like it just fine as it is. (1 King’s Road, King Street, RG1 2HG)

12. Samosas, Cake & Cream

I was tipped off by Mansoor, a regular reader, about this place that sold the best samosas in Reading. It is called Cake & Cream, and it’s off the Wokingham Road, just after the row of shops and before the Three Tuns. Their main thing is big, impressive-looking cakes, but they also have a little whiteboard near the front detailing the savoury stuff they sell. Samosas are about 75 pence each, and they also sell pakora, paneer pakora and bhajis by weight, almost like a savoury sweetshop.

The samosas really are everything Mansoor promised they would be: full of a rich and surprisingly spicy potato masala, the pastry spot on and the whole thing piping hot and utterly addictive. They come with a sauce which is tangy, sweet and hot in equal measures, although they’re just as magnificent without it. The service is very friendly and the chap always seems thoroughly surprised to see me – oh, and the pakora are also tremendous. There are tables at Cakes & Cream, and I’m sure some people eat there, but I always take my bag and scarper onto the first 17 bus I can find, counting the minutes until I can tuck in back at home. You get jealous looks from your fellow passengers, although that might just be my imagination. (11-13 St Peters Road, RG6 1NT)