Feature: Al fresco dining (2019)

The thoroughly unseasonal spell of sunshine we had recently got me thinking about spring, waiting just round the corner. Tea and toast in the garden, the magnolia flowering, having a coffee outside Tamp or in the Workhouse courtyard and watching the world traipse past. That in turn made me remember, further down the line, the harbingers of good times ahead: the beer festival weekend; “just the one pint” after work in the Allied Arms garden morphing into a long, messy evening; Saturday afternoons stretched out in Forbury Gardens with a good book; the glorious golden slide into summer.

It’s nearly four years since I last published a feature on al fresco dining in Reading, believe it or not. But, as with everything else in this town, much has changed in that time. Dolce Vita and the Plowden Arms have closed, robbing us of some of the best food for miles around and one of Reading’s nicest sun-bathed spots. Forbury’s and Picnic – which also made my list four years ago – are not what they were. The market menu at Forbury’s seems to get more expensive and less special with every passing year, and Picnic isn’t even open on Sundays any more.

Finding establishments to replace them has been harder than you might think. Reading has some great outside spaces but generally, the places lucky enough to own them do not serve good food. The roof terrace at the Thirsty Bear, for instance, is a nice spot and a natural sun trap, but the pizza’s iffy. The Hope & Bear, the artist formerly known as the Abbot Cook/Upin Arms/Jack Of Both Sides, has a very pleasant garden – if you can get past the hum of traffic from the London Road – but the food has never been anything to write home about.

Then, of course, you have places that do decent food but where the space isn’t quite up to scratch. Many of these are chains: it would be lovely to eat outside at Carluccio’s, say, but that spot on the edge of Forbury Gardens sadly never catches the sun, so what should be a great opportunity to have an Aperol spritz and some antipasti becomes a chilly affair. Similarly, the space out the front of Franco Manca is okay, but hardly inspiring. I still enjoy eating at the Lyndhurst, but that little terrace looking out on to Watlington Street feels a tad lacking, more for a pint than the full dining experience.

For my money, Reading lost its finest al fresco dining spot last year when the Fisherman’s Cottage decided to dispense with I Love Paella. When that happened we lost the opportunity to eat salt cod churros and empanadas, patatas bravas with chicken thigh and piquant sauce and so many other glorious dishes in the sunshine with a pint of something cold, fizzy and refreshing. The pub now gets one hundred per cent of the food takings – bully for them, but I definitely won’t be back. Even if the dishes didn’t taste bad, eating there would feel in bad taste.

All that preamble is to say that the list you’re about to read might be Reading’s best al fresco dining options (or at least a conversation starter: your mileage may well vary) but I have to add the disclaimer that they are far from Reading’s best dining options. There’s invariably a degree of compromise involved – you can have an almost Meditteranean lunch, you can have fantastic food, but you can’t necessarily have both. But on a hot and sunny day, when everybody is in shorts and you have a glass of something cold in front of you, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.

Oh, and since starting writing this feature the sun has gone in and the heavens have opened. I can’t help but blame myself, but I still hope this will come in handy in the months ahead.

1. Bhel Puri House

Small plates in the sunshine.

The courtyard outside the George Hotel, just off Yield Hall Lane, catches the sun beautifully in the summer. By day most of its clientele are enjoying coffee, cake or quiche from Workhouse, and in the evening you’re more likely to see patrons of the hotel bar sitting outside enjoying a pint and a fag. But the real trick – at lunchtime or dinner – is to pop in to Bhel Puri House and ask them to serve you in the courtyard.

There’s very little that can match sitting on one of those benches, soaking up the sun and enjoying Bhel Puri House’s almost-legendary chilli paneer, spearing a cube of cheese on a caramelised strip of pepper before popping it in your mouth. The Punjabi samosas are still as gorgeous as the day I first tried them and the crispy bhajia – thin slices of crispy potato with an almost-sweet bright orange carrot chutney – are equally beautiful.

Last year, as summer was coming to an end, I stopped at Bhel Puri House on my way home after work on Friday and enjoyed the courtyard one last time before the clocks went back. Normally I have a mango lassi, but on that occasion a pint of Estrella from the hotel bar seemed like the only sensible option. I’ll be there again as soon as spring is well under way.

Bhel Puri House, Yield Hall Lane, RG1 2HF

2. Bluegrass BBQ

Reading’s best al fresco brunch.

Another Reading restaurant with a sunny terrace going to waste is bland uber-chain Bill’s. It has a great location next to Reading Minster, but I really couldn’t recommend anybody eats there, not even for brunch. I know it has its fans, but I infinitely prefer crossing the churchyard and going to Bluegrass on Gun Street, which has a terrace by the Holybrook which catches the sun and which few people seem to know about.

Once you’re installed, they do one of the best brunches in Reading. Many like the pancakes, but I’m always drawn to the Smokehouse breakfast there. I’ve enthused about it before but really, it does everything very well: the bacon is smoked, salty, streaky and crispy, the sausages are terrific quality and the hash browns are an absolutely joy, especially smudged with a bit of barbecue sauce before eating. If you’re there in the evening, the brisket chilli is a revelation and I really like the southern fried chicken (although maybe not with the waffles and maple syrup). I can see that dinner in the sunshine with a really good beer could make for a lovely al fresco evening.

Bluegrass BBQ, 15 Gun Street, RG1 2JR
https://www.bluegrass-bbq.com/

3. Côte

Continental, albeit canalside.

There are plenty of Oracle chains with space outside, and come the summer they are frequently rammed. Franco Manca and the Real Greek both have decent outdoor areas, and that’s before we get to the delights of eating outside at Nando’s (chicken thighs, medium, with rice, peas and extra halloumi, garlic peri peri on the side, since you asked), an experience which always feels a little like being on holiday in the UK. Many of the Oracle’s al fresco options – including Nando’s, sadly – can feel a little purgatorial. I do however have a real soft spot for the tables for two right in front of Côte (not, I should add, the ones at the edge of the waterside) where you can sit side by side, drink rosé, eat from the reasonable a la carte or the crazily reasonable set menu, and gaze out on the world.

Côte’s food is consistently good, and you won’t go far wrong there, but the specials are always worth a look (especially if they have skate wing on there, probably the nicest thing I’ve ever eaten at Côte). The charcuterie board is a lovely choice at any time of year, but in warm weather the tuna nicoise salad remains one of the best ways to feel slightly virtuous while eating out. Sitting with a view of the canal (technically a river, but if it looks like a canal and feels like a canal…) watching a parade of frazzled shoppers-to-be wander past shouldn’t really work, but for some reason it does. On a good day, when you have one of those tables and the sun is beaming down, you can feel like one of the luckiest diners in Reading.

Côte, 9 The Oracle Centre, RG1 2AG
https://www.cote.co.uk/brasserie/reading

4. London Street Brasserie

The original and best.

The only restaurant to make my list both in 2015 and today, London Street Brasserie has a nice outside area looking out on the river (and the often less than salubrious goings-on near the manky car park on the opposite bank). But that aside, it’s actually quite an attractive decked area which catches plenty of sun, and as the evening light starts to fade there are blankets to keep you warm. Many years as Reading’s fanciest restaurant (a title which has only really been challenged in the last year or so) means that in some respects the food is secondary to the whole experience. As with Cote there’s a set and an a la carte menu, but the better option is nearly always the set which offers an impressive range at a reasonable price: eat there at lunchtime or before 7pm to take full advantage.

Over the winter I became very attached to their haggis and duck egg on toast with HP jus – Reading’s ideal breakfast, disguised as a starter – and the fish and chips, also from the set menu, remains one of my favourite main courses at any price point. The a la carte always feels like more of a gamble at prices which are beginning to feel a little on the steep side for what you get, but the salt and pepper squid is a reliable dish and it’s hard to go wrong with venison and (yet more) haggis. The only thing that stops me gushing about LSB, apart from the pricing, is the consistency: it’s definitely a place which has the occasional off day, but at its best it’s still one of Reading’s finest places to have a meal in the open air.

London Street Brasserie, 2-4 London Street, RG1 4PN
http://www.londonstbrasserie.co.uk/

5. Thames Lido

For burning calories vicariously.

I have struggled to love Thames Lido, and I haven’t quite managed it yet: on every one of my three visits there’s been something wrong, either in terms of service, food or value for money. On one visit the gin and tonic was spendy and unspecial, on another the set menu was a little bit mingy for the money and on my last visit, the ox cheek (allegedly a signature dish) was claggy and undercooked. The service has always been consistent only in its inconsistency, although with Alex – who used to charm the socks off everyone at Mya Lacarte – now on board, that might have changed.

I know I sound like I’m moaning, but here’s the point: when I had lunch there last summer it was such a lovely spot that I put my reservations about the food to one side. The sun was shining, the surroundings were Instagram-perfect (there’s a reason it shows up there so often), my Spanish cider was cold and crisp and watching people braver than me doing lengths somehow helped me to work up quite an appetite. It simply is a gorgeous place to eat lunch, provided you relax your standards somewhat, and probably the single best view of any restaurant in Reading. I think it succeeds despite, rather than because of, its food, but I seem to be swimming against the tide in that respect. It’s the only swimming I plan to do, anyway: I’d much rather sit in the warm, order something nice and leave all that to people better qualified than me.

Thames Lido, Kings Meadow Park, RG1 8FR
http://www.thameslido.com/

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Feature: Al fresco dining

No new review this week I’m afraid, because I’m taking my first week off of 2015. Instead, you get a feature: I’ve had a few people express interest in ER features from time to time, so this is the first of its kind.

I’m very lucky that I get to eat out often and write weekly independent restaurant reviews; I genuinely believe that the only way restaurant reviews can be totally impartial is if the person writing the review is also the person paying the bill. But I’m also painfully aware that eating out is a luxury that not everyone can afford. This week, I’m donating the cost of the meal I would have eaten to Launchpad, Reading’s homeless charity which does excellent, tireless work which is needed more now than ever. ER is free to read and it always will be – but if you felt like donating even the smallest amount of money to Launchpad too, I’d really appreciate it and I’m sure they would too. Normal service will be resumed next week – until then, on with the feature.

Summer is around the corner – the Reading Beer Festival always feels to me like the first sign that it’s on the way – and that always makes me think about the delights of eating outdoors. We all daydream about barbecues, we have our tea and coffee at pavement tables people-watching and relaxing and suddenly a whole different criterion comes into the decision-making process when you’re deciding where to eat. After all, it would be a shame to have lunch or dinner cooped up when it’s glorious outside.

It really frustrates me that good al fresco dining spots in Reading are few and far between. The town seems to be full of blind spots where the sun just doesn’t shine, and many of the plum spots are filled by disappointing chains. Bill’s, for instance, has an absolutely gorgeous space outside which is a magnet for UV rays but the food doesn’t live up to the setting. It’s quite nice for breakfast (eggs sunny side up in more ways than one) but otherwise it just doesn’t do it for me. The Riverside gets lots of sun and many of the venues have decent outdoor seating but it’s hard to be excited by them – the little tables outside Cote always look inviting, but All Bar One, Bella Italia, Pizza Hut and Nando’s aren’t quite so alluring.

So – and I might be jinxing the summer of 2015 by even saying this – the days are long, the shadows are too, it’s short-sleeves weather and you’re ravenous. Where to go?

1. Dolce Vita

It did cross my mind to pick the balcony at Jamie’s Italian, looking out over the throng of Oracle shoppers. But, for food and service, Dolce Vita easily has the egde. It’s as close as you can get to the Oracle view without actually being in the Oracle, tucked away from the hubbub. The balcony area extends out on two sides of the restaurant and the menu is equally sunny with Mediterranean food – and some more leftfield choices with traditional British and even Asian influences – and friendly, charming Greek service. The set menu, which is often on song, offers great value and a surprising range of options. When I sit outside at Dolce Vita I can almost convince myself that I’m on holiday, especially if I’m drinking a pint of Peroni or a fresh, fruity glass of rosé.

Burrata

2. The Plowden Arms

Ideally one would arrive at the Plowden in an open top sports car, passing some of the rolling green hills that the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border has in spades. The generous garden at the Plowden offers a lovely view across the countryside with added waitress service and decent umbrellas, should you be more English rose than suntanned millionaire. The food here ranges from substantial and traditional to delicate and sophisticated (and the kitchen is consistently brilliant at all of it) but everything is fresh, creative and sometimes based on old English recipes, in case you fancy a side order of education. Having your dessert outside by candlelight, the last rays of the sun not long faded, is a pretty magical way to finish an evening.

Lamb

3. Picnic

Picnic has one of the best spots in the centre of town, having taken over the old Jacobs shop eight years ago. The tables outside catch plenty of sunshine (especially early to mid-afternoon) and, provided the wind isn’t blowing a gale, it’s a great place to enjoy lunch and some of Reading’s best people watching. The salads have always been the draw here – leaves and couscous with a weekly range of toppings – and although I’ve found the interior much harder to love since they moved everything around, it can’t be denied that it has freed up the space for the kitchen to add yet more interesting variations on that theme (that said, I still have a soft spot for their roast chicken and pesto). If you scoff at salad, even in summer, there’s also a lot to be said for their cracking Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, from award winning Green’s of Pangbourne. Oh, and the cakes are magnificent: good old-fashioned Victoria sponge and terrific, moist lemon polenta cake are my favourites. All that and a view of Munchee’s opposite (what more could you want?) – no wonder, whenever I bag a table outside, I feel so reluctant to leave.

4. London Street Brasserie

London Street Brasserie has probably the nicest terrace in town, alongside the Kennet. When it catches the sun it really catches the sun, and in summer the menu – always nicely seasonal – really rises to the occasion. There’s nothing quite like making inroads into a crisp bottle of white and enjoying a half pint of prawns, easing off the head and shell before dipping that firm flesh into their peerless garlic mayonnaise (writing about doesn’t even come close: I’m hungry now). I generally find the set menu more reliable than the a la carte here (the fish and chips is another favourite of mine) which makes it perfect for a boozy weekend lunch, although if it’s not quite sunny enough or the afternoon is waning, they also do a nice line in chequered blankets and patio heaters. LSB is a good example of how the summer can change everything – on a winter evening it probably wouldn’t make any of my top fives, but when the sun is out it’s hard to beat.

LSB7

5. Forbury’s

Forbury Square is one of the prettier, quieter outdoor areas in town and Forbury’s really makes the most of it (and in some style, too). Unlike the unluckily positioned Carluccio’s – which always feels like it should be sunny but never is – it is nicely lit and, unlike Cerise, the seating is plentiful and comfortable. If you can manage to stick to their set menu (a challenge that many have failed, me included) then a three course meal can set you back as little as twenty pounds per head – and even less if you’re lucky enough to be there on a weekday lunchtime. Make sure you add some bread, though, as their sourdough is heavenly. Oh, and wear your best sunglasses and pretend you’re on the French Riviera. Air kissing optional.

Venison

6. The Allied Arms

What is ER on about? you’re probably thinking. The Allied Arms is just a pub and it doesn’t do food. I know, I know, but bear with me. I picked this tip up from friends of mine a couple of years ago and it’s a cracker; although the Allied doesn’t do food, they don’t have a problem with you consuming food from elsewhere on the premises. So, on a summer night when the Summer Lightning or the Thatcher’s Gold is flowing, instead of wandering off to a restaurant just get someone to watch your table, pop next door to Pizza Express and then return with your Pollo Ad Astra or American Hot. It’s worth it for that first bite of pizza. It’s worth it for the crispiness of the pepperoni or the salt bomb of anchovy. But, more than anything, it’s worth it for the looks of envy you get from everybody else in the pub who wishes they’d thought of it. Last time I checked, the Allied even kept a pizza cutter behind the bar, although if word gets out they might start charging people to use it.

If you like this and you’d like to read more of this sort of thing then let me know in the comments, and if there are any particular subjects you’d like to read an ER feature on then do say!