One thing that always strikes me about Reading is that many of the people who proudly call it home weren’t born here. Whether you came here for university and never left, settled here for a job, ended up here because you found love or – like me – wound up in Reading because your parents moved here for one of those reasons back in the Eighties, Reading is full of countless stories about people who made a life here, on purpose or accidentally. Frequently it’s the latter – you always think that one day you’ll go somewhere else, but something about the place gets its hooks into you and somehow, magically, one day you realise that it’s your place. It’s where you belong.
Our independent restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are great examples of that. They all have a story to tell, whether it’s Blue Collar’s Glen Dinning coming here from nearby Didcot, just down the road, Nandana and Sharat of Clay’s settling here after living in India and London or Geo Café’s redoubtable Keti, who moved to the U.K. from Georgia and somehow found herself living, of all places, in Reading. Imagine a Reading in a parallel universe where all those people made different decisions and took their considerable talents elsewhere. Actually, don’t: it doesn’t bear thinking about.
I saw this too, back when I organised readers’ lunches, before the pandemic. ER readers are a fascinating bunch – and I’m not just saying this because they turn up to my lunches – and many of them have moved to Reading, sometimes fairly recently, and are finding their way, looking for their place in things. Reading has so much going on (it did, anyway, before the pandemic, and no doubt will again) and yet it’s not always obvious or easy to find. You have to put the work in. But it rewards the investment: a great and growing food scene, plenty of culture and theatre, history, architecture, wonderful pubs and plenty of breweries. We Reading folk are a lucky bunch.
For me, that mixture of our history and all those who positively choose to live here, roll their sleeves up and make it a better place is what makes Reading so special. It’s something that people who live to run the town down will never comprehend. They sneer about the mosque, or flytipping, or any of a hundred other petty niggles and they don’t see the town for what it really is: a well-educated, pro-Remain, anti-Tory, polyglot, highly skilled place full of possibility. Not perfect – nowhere is – but with plenty of character, and always wanting to be better.
There was a time, a while back, when Reading was especially attractive to a different kind of settler. We were first in the queue for all sorts of interesting businesses, drawn in by our proximity to London and our highly qualified workforce, even before Crossrail was a thing. I still remember Reading getting the first Bill’s outside West Sussex, and how exciting that was. Actually, my memory even goes back as far as our first Pret, and our first Carluccio’s: believe it or not, people were excited about those, too.
But then we were in line for all sorts of other exciting restaurants – Honest Burgers and Pho chose to have some of their first branches outside the capital in RG1. It looked for a while as if Byron and Busaba would open here, too, and even London’s high-end Peruvian restaurant Ceviche, surreally, was touted for an outpost in Reading. We never got the Wahaca many people so badly wanted (or the branch of Le Pain Quotidien I quite fancied), but we got a Malmaison as a consolation prize. There was a period where Reading went from “it’s all just chains” to “we get the best chains”. With rents pricing many independents out of the town centre, it seemed as much as we could hope for.
I don’t know when this changed – at some point since 2016, when things started their slow dive into the slough of despond – but somewhere along the way we became the first in line for a very different kind of restaurant. We’re no longer a logical extension of London, more the landing ground for American chain restaurants. Five Guys in the Oracle was the harbinger for all that, but in the last few years the rate of change has accelerated. We got a Taco Bell, we got a Chick-Fil-A, we are getting a Wendy’s later this year. And for the latter two, Reading’s is (or was) the very first branch to open in the country. Are we Reading folk really a lucky bunch? Is this going to Make Reading Great Again?
Anyway, Chick-Fil-A rightly closed in short order after boycotts and protests about their antediluvian approach to LGBT issues, and last month another chicken chain, Wingstop, opened in its place, that weird upstairs location at the front of the Oracle that also played host to vegan junk food restaurant Miami Burger. Wingstop is another huge American chain expanding into the U.K., and – guess what? – Reading’s is the first branch outside London. There have been queues outside since it opened (of customers, rather than protestors) and so I decided to order some on a miserable Monday night, partly out of morbid curiosity and partly because both Zoë and I have a long-standing love of fried chicken in pretty much all its forms.
Wingstop is only on Deliveroo, and their menu is pretty limited. Chicken comes three different ways – wings, “boneless” and tenders. The middle one is the most misleading – “boneless” implies boneless wings, and indeed the Wingstop website refers to them as boneless wings, and I was taken in by that. But the small print on Deliveroo, which I only read after the fact, points out that they are “100% all-white breast meat, 0% bones and 110% flavour”. So that’s nice.
Effectively they mean that they’re nuggets, which are inherently boneless. But rather than be honest about that, Wingstop has chosen to commit the grammatical crime of converting the word “boneless” from an adjective to a noun. If I hadn’t been fooled I’d have ordered wings, even though they aren’t especially my bag, but there you have it. The real choice, such as it is, is what particular flavour you want one hundred and ten per cent of: Wingstop’s chicken comes in ten different flavours, from their original coating and their signature lemon and pepper all the way through to Mango Habanero or Brazilian Citrus Pepper.
It wasn’t clear from Deliveroo whether these were a coating or that they were covered in sauce, although the Wingstop website suggests that six of them are “wet” and four of them are “dry”. I can see why they didn’t include this on Deliveroo: “wet and boneless” describes some people I’ve met over the years but hardly summons up images of anything I’d want to order from a restaurant. Anyway, you get two flavours with an order of nuggets or wings and one with chicken tenders, irrespective of how many you order.
We ordered some nuggets, some tenders and some fries and our order came to thirty-three pounds, not including rider tip. If that sounds like a lot, in fairness we did get a lot of nuggets and tenders, and two portions of loaded fries: on the other hand, if we’d given in to the temptation to get some churros for dessert we could have spent even more.
I suspect that many of you have an idea by now of the way this is going, even without a rating of the bottom of this for you to scroll down to. But you know far better than I did when I placed my order: I always try to go in with an open mind, and the prospect of a chain restaurant only doing a limited number of things did rather raise the hope that they might do them well. And, as I said before, I do have a real weakness for fried chicken – and that even includes KFC, or did until last year when I decided I’d rather try and support more independent businesses.
Everything was quick and unfussy, which always makes this paragraph a short one. We ordered at ten past seven, the rider was on his way twenty-five minutes later and within another five minutes he was at the front door. He had two orders for Wingstop in his insulated bag, so bear in mind that if you live further out of town your rider might well make another stop before getting to you. I don’t know who was getting the other order but whoever they were, as it turned out, they have my sympathy.
Everything was in cardboard packaging which I imagine was recyclable, apart from the dips which were in little plastic tubs, and everything was hot. And now, because I can put it off no longer, let’s talk about how it tasted, and how little it tasted of.
The bonelesses (let’s call them nuggets from now on, or things will just get silly) were dull, dry little pellets of chicken with nothing much going for them. We had a dozen, which very quickly felt like too many, half in their original seasoning and half in “Louisiana rub”, which sounds like a skin condition you might pick up in New Orleans. The latter was meant to be dry, but they were coated in some kind of random hot sauce, for no discernible reason. They tasted mainly of acrid, slightly vinegary heat which did its best to conceal the lack of flavour underneath.
The original seasoning was probably the best of the bunch, but even then it was surprisingly bland: it tasted much the way that Colonel Sanders’ unique blend of herbs and spices would taste after going through the wash half a dozen times. It brought to mind really good fried chicken, but only in the sense that you’d eat it and then think “this is nothing like really good fried chicken”. We dipped the nuggets in a blue cheese dip which had a faint, unwelcome whiff of acetone and a ranch dressing which answered the question “what would mayonnaise without a personality taste like?”
We’d ordered the tenders in lemon and pepper, which is supposedly Wing Stop’s trademark coating (not especially fun fact: the UK master franchise is called Lemon Pepper Holdings). They tasted, to me at least, like something you might buy from a supermarket and crisp up on a baking tray in the oven, on autopilot, daydreaming about eating something better. And that’s the worst thing, because I suspect they were nutritionally far worse for you than that. I really resent wasted empty calories at the best of times, but this just felt like a waste in every sense.
And this really was salty, so salty that you could almost feel your oesophagus starting to wrinkle like a slug under the onslaught of sodium chloride. Everything was so greasy, too. With both the nuggets and the tenders it didn’t feel like the restaurant had properly shaken them off before putting them in the box, to the extent where there was a grim slick of oil on the paper lining the bottom, and the pieces closest to it were actually soggy rather than crispy.
I haven’t mentioned the chips, so to give credit where it’s due: these were outstanding. Only kidding! They were cruddy as well. I’d chosen the “buffalo ranch” fries, which were dusted with a hot red powder which tasted as if it might be made from depleted uranium, more of that screechingly sharp hot sauce and, just for fun, the ranch dressing I’d felt so ambivalent about. Again, they were crudely salty, as if getting them to taste of salt constituted making them taste of something. The cheese fries were allegedly “smothered with aged cheddar cheese”. Looking at the picture, I would say “smothered” is poetic licence and that mature cheddar cheese doesn’t melt like that or take on that weirdly synthetic, plastic sheen.
I didn’t like Wingstop much. Can you tell? Aside from the ten gimmicky flavours, the crimes against grammar and the slightly disingenuous menu, I think the most damning thing about it is that whatever it was aiming to be, it failed. Truly it was neither one thing nor the other. If you decide, one night, that you have a real hankering after lemon and pepper chicken, you’d be better off with Nando’s. If you wanted salty, crinkly-edged pieces of fried chicken, Wingstop is nowhere near as good as even the most ordinary KFC. It almost made me wish I’d tried Chick-Fil-A: they might have been rampantly homophobic but I can’t imagine their food was duller than Wingstop’s.
And that’s just talking about the chains. The joy of Reading is that we don’t have to settle for chain restaurants. Bluegrass BBQ does reasonably good fried chicken, and on the occasions where the Lyndhurst has it on the menu theirs is superb. Even Kungfu Kitchen has dabbled with fried chicken in the past and yes, theirs was also miles better than Wingstop. But I’ve saved the best til last. If you get yourself to Blue Collar on a Friday lunchtime, shortly after this review comes out in fact, you can join the queue for Gurt Wings and get the best fried chicken in Reading.
They’re here every week and if wings are your thing they absolutely have you covered. They also do beautiful chicken tenders and, at the moment, cups full of soy marinated crispy Japanese popcorn chicken thigh. They make all their own sauces, and their buffalo and blue cheese will make you weep with gratitude (although my personal favourite is the habanero syrup). Four tenders and a shedload of deeply addictive tater tots will set you back nine pounds. For much the same price you can have three iffy tenders from Wingstop and a portion of underwhelming fries.
Gurt Wings are based in Swindon and most of their beat is markets and pubs in Wiltshire and Bristol. But best of all, and bringing us full circle, they always spend Fridays in Reading. And that’s because Glen Dinning, that chap from Didcot I mentioned at the start of this review, decided to set up the best street food market for miles around here in Reading – and that decision, years later, brought us Gurt Wings. See? All is not lost. You just have to remember that for every Wingstop, there’s an equal and opposite Gurt Wings, gravitating towards this town just like all of us. Maybe Reading’s still got it, after all.
24a The Oracle, Reading, RG1 2AH
Order via: Deliveroo only