TGI Fridays

There are plenty of reasons to take against Matt Rodda, my local Member Of Parliament. His faintly gormless look at photo opportunities, for one. His position on Brexit – I’m sorry, I went there – which contains more fudge than Thornton’s and ignores the strongly held views of his constituency. His ineptitude at social media, where he never engages with anyone and sometimes manages to post photographs the wrong way round (he used to be a journalist, apparently: an old media one, I’d guess). And of course there’s the matter of his robotic Twitter style where every description of an event starts with “Good to”: Good to show support for school meals, says one. Good to talk to Katesgrove residents, says another. I dubbed this “Rodda Syndrome” on Twitter and after that he started to mix it up – some Tweets began “Important to”, others began “Interesting to”. It’s a nice try, but I’m not convinced that Rodda’s Twitter feed would pass the Turing Test.

So yes, I have a number of misgivings about my local MP, but the biggest is that he is responsible for the review you’re reading today.

Well, not entirely, because I rather brought it on myself. It happened on the 8th June last year, election day. I headed to the church on Watlington Street to cast my vote (more in hope than expectation) and then I went home, fetched my suitcase and made for the station. I was going to Paris for my first ever solo holiday, my post-divorce present to myself and the opportunity to reclaim one of my favourite cities, to make sure it didn’t become inextricably linked to memories of my marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

Fast forward to about midnight and I was back in my slightly cramped hotel room, several red wines to the good having had a truly repellent meal. They’d plonked me up at the bar on a seat which might as well have borne a plaque saying “exploit the solo tourist”, the plates were small and yet the terrine, which looked like Pedigree Chum, was far too big. I grabbed some chocolate, crisps and a bottle of Orangina from a little Carrefour on my way back to the hotel and when I found the TV in my room had BBC News 24, I realised I’d be able to hear the dulcet tones of David Dimbleby and see the results come in. I’ve stayed up and watched every general election since 1992 and continuing that trend – albeit on the other side of the Channel proving how big, brave and independent I was – made me feel a little less lonesome.

By the small hours, exhausted but undaunted, I and a small number of other Reading Tweeters were staying up for one reason and one reason alone: to see if Rob Wilson would lose his seat. It was very far down the list of Labour targets, but suddenly there was a buzz that we might see Wilson deposed. We don’t have enough time to go into all the reasons why I thought that would be Reading’s Portillo moment (although let’s not forget his nine pence expenses claim for a taxi ride which was physically impossible) but, emboldened by the spirit of revolution – and clearly not rehydrated enough by the Orangina – I took to Twitter. “The exit poll has Reading East falling to Labour. If that happens, I will review TGI Friday”, I said.

Whoops.

I’ve never forgotten my promise, however hard I tried, so on a Monday night towards the end of the year I showed up at TGI’s Oracle branch to finally keep my word. Picking an accomplice for this review proved difficult: originally I had suggested making it a big party to celebrate Wilson’s downfall, but when it came to it that felt needlessly cruel to my readers (and the admin involved in writing up all that food didn’t appeal). Instead I took my friend Sam, a long-standing reader of the blog with extensive experience in hospitality and, more specifically, of working front of house in chain restaurants. Surely, I thought, Sam could help me take a fair and balanced approach to the flagship outpost of one of Reading’s most prominent chains.

“Have you seen Pulp Fiction before?” chuckled Sam as the waitress seated us in a little booth for two, all leatherette banquettes with a good view of the restaurant. Sam is an extremely amiable chap who sounds as posh as you like and, despite only just being in his thirties, can inexplicably get away with calling everybody “kiddo”. He was still sporting a Movember moustache (“it’s on a week’s probation” he told me) and the overall effect was somehow more Battle Of Britain pilot than best-avoided uncle. Actually, despite it being ersatz in the extreme I somehow admired the fit-out of TGI Friday. Everything looked polished and fake without being cheap.

A chorus of “Happy Birthday”, led by the serving staff, erupted at a nearby table. It wouldn’t be the last of the evening.

The menu made decisions surprisingly difficult, but not in a good way. I tried very hard to overcome my preconceptions when looking through it, but it seemed like such a cookie-cutter approach to American food that I found it hard to care. Burgers, ribs, fajitas and tacos were all present and correct, and there were frequent references to TGI’s “Legendary glaze”, which may or may not have been a reference to the expression of the waiter who brought us our first beers. The menu was broken into sections with names like “Rib, Dip, Hooray!” and “Love Me Some Chicken”, which was bad enough but some of the names of the dishes genuinely made me want to get up and leave. Particular offenders included the “Gravy Seal”, a burger which had had the kitchen sink thrown at it and was apparently “a tasty triple trip over sea, air and land” and the “It’s Mine, Nachos!” about which no more need be said.

“I’ve decided” said Sam. “It’s got to be the Warrior Burger.” I knew this was likely: Sam had been talking about this life choice for about two weeks in the run up to our visit. I ummed and aahed and then I saw and heard a spectacle at a neighbouring table closer to the pass which made matters more straightforward; a plate was put down in front of a diner with a sizzle audible from some distance away, and smoke filled the air. Another glance at my menu revealed that this was the “Sizzling Crispy Duck Fajita”, and so my decision was made.

“Good choice, kiddo” said Sam, necking a hefty swig of his Sam Adams. I looked at my Budweiser, one of the only draft beers on offer, and took a sip. It tasted of Budweiser. I made a mental note that more of it might be required.

At this point you are no doubt expecting me to detest every single thing that followed, so allow me to confound both of us by telling you that the first of our two appetisers wasn’t bad. The sesame chicken strips were a hit with both Sam and I: a reasonably generous helping of chicken with a little crunch, some heat from the chilli flakes and some sweetness from that Legendary (I can’t stop capitalising it, because that way it’s more obviously their word and not mine) glaze. The extra dish of dipping sauce, which I think was also glaze, was more than anybody needed, and a mere taste of it confirmed that it was Dignitas for tooth enamel. None the less, I liked this dish: the fried chicken at Soju it wasn’t, but we still polished it off in a state of mild surprise.

The other starter, loaded potato skins, had to be done; I suspect that it’s been on the TGI menu since time immemorial, a 90s time capsule in gastronomic form. The menu said they were “potato skins filled with melted cheese”, and the last time I saw a fib of that magnitude it was on the side of a bus: the skin wasn’t crunchy and moreish and barely featured in the dish. Nor did the melted cheese. Some of the skins had very little: “filled” wasn’t the right description, and “meanly sprinkled” would have been closer to the mark. The predominant feature of the dish was in fact the flesh of the potato, which means they were less potato skins and more just chunks of potato. We’d chosen to have them with bacon, but it was more like highlighter-pink indeterminate mince than lovely, crispy, salty bacon. The whole affair contained more flesh and gammon than the average Question Time audience, and was about as appetising. The sour cream gloop in the middle did nothing to improve matters, and nor did the token spring onions.

“Well, it’s not terrible so far” I said, trying to put a brave face on things as we sat there for what felt like quite some time waiting for them to take our empty dishes away. Terrible was not far away, because split seconds after they were whipped off the table in a monosyllabic fashion our main courses arrived. My duck was set down in front of me completely devoid of any sizzle, smoke or steam, a moment even more lacking in theatre than the renditions of “Happy Birthday” at the other tables (two and counting).

“I’m really sorry” I said, because I felt one of us ought to apologise for what I was looking at, “but this isn’t sizzling.”

“Oh, it definitely is” said the waitress, trying to style it out. There was a pause while I tried to make up my mind whether it was worth explaining what the word sizzling really meant. It probably only lasted ten seconds but in my mind it felt like easily five minutes of awkward silence. It was eventually broken by the waitress.

“I mean, if you touch it you’ll find it’s really hot.”

I looked at Sam, Sam looked at me. Our expressions mirrored one another, and we sat in silence while the waitress brought the rest of our food and left us to it.

“What was that about?” said Sam. “That was like hearing Trump talk about the crowds at his inauguration.”

It was true: there was something post-truth about what had just happened. With hindsight, I actually think that it might have been for the best that my duck arrived without any smoke and mirrors, because it made it easier to get right to the heart of the matter, namely that it was truly awful. It was sinewy, and a struggle to get much meat off the bone apart from the breast, which had a weird, cotton-woolly texture. It was topped with a bizarre salsa which looked a little like finely diced vomit (and, I suspect, more of the Legendary Glaze) and sat on a bed of onions which had no hint of caramelisation, on account of never having sizzled.

This was a dish that really didn’t know whether it was Tex-Mex or Chinese, so decided to fail dismally at both. There were tortillas which were thick and more like cardboard than the thin pancakes which might have worked, and shredded cucumber and spring onion to make the cognitive dissonance even worse. Finally, there was more of the gloopy Legendary Glaze, although this time it had an odd lumpy texture like frogspawn, or a very loose stool. It was sweet to the point of offensiveness, and after I’d assembled a couple of fajitas my fingers were so sticky I wasn’t sure they’d ever be clean again. It could have been worse if I hadn’t had a spoon to dish up the glaze, although admittedly I’d had to ask nicely for one of those (how exactly did they imagine I was going to do it?). By the end I was reduced to scraping all the crud off the duck, eating it on its own with a knife and fork and realising that even that couldn’t rescue matters.

This dish cost seventeen pounds fifty. I thought of all the times I’d had delicious confit duck at Cote, a couple of doors down, for considerably less money. Then I thought of what else seventeen pounds fifty could buy you in this town and I started to feel quite angry, although it could have just been a sugar rush from the Legendary Glaze.

“This is the worst crispy duck fajita I’ve ever had.” I said. “Of course, it’s also the best and, if I have my way, it will be the only crispy duck fajita I ever have. Also, this really isn’t a restaurant for diabetics.”

Sam’s Warrior Burger was no better. It managed to simultaneously be overcooked and lukewarm, which takes some doing but really shouldn’t be considered an achievement. The patties were a tad grey and nothing about the dish looked appetising.

“It’s been cooked with one purpose and one purpose alone” said Sam, “and that’s to eradicate the risk of anybody getting food poisoning.” It didn’t feel like an ambitious mission statement.

“Not a fan then?”

“No. All these whistles and bells like the mozzarella dippers are just there to draw attention away from the poor quality meat.”

“So how much of this do you reckon was previously frozen?” I asked, reckoning that Sam knew a bit about that kind of thing.

“Most of it. Probably the burgers, definitely the mozzarella sticks and probably the bread too. The fries are okay, I suppose, and that dip” – Sam gestured at little dish of what looked like mustard – “isn’t bad. But really, it isn’t good at all.”

The Warrior Burger costs over fifteen pounds. “Maybe lots of people eating here have vouchers” said Sam. Either that or a lobotomy, I thought to myself.

Unable to finish my meal, and eventually bored of the staff’s complete unwillingness to take our empty plates away, I wandered upstairs to wash my hands obsessively like Lady Macbeth until no trace of the glaze remained. The upstairs, almost as big as the downstairs, was completely empty (“there was no upstairs when it was Tampopo” said Sam, sagely, “so god knows where the staff get to change or relax or keep their stuff now”).

Coming out of the bathroom, I discovered a voicemail on my phone from TGI Fridays asking why I hadn’t shown up for my table and whether I planned to. “We’re very busy and we can definitely give the table to somebody else” said the voice huffily. I looked at the deserted tables around me and I wondered whether I’d wandered into some kind of dream sequence. Maybe I hadn’t actually gone to TGI Friday and none of this had ever happened, I thought. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to scrap the review and take Sam to eat somewhere better, like literally anywhere.

Back at our seats our crockery and cutlery was still in front of us. I told Sam about my voicemail.

“That sums this place up” he said. “It’s all so half-arsed. I mean, did you notice the state of the tables and chairs out front on the Riverside when we walked in? If this was my restaurant and the front looked like that, I’d sack myself.”

The waiter took our plates away and asked if we fancied dessert. It was tempting to see if there was anything more sugary than the food I had already had, but morbid curiosity is no justification for throwing good money after bad.

“No thanks mate” said Sam. “I think we’ll just finish our drinks and get round to asking for the bill.”

The waiter wandered off, got the bill and slammed it wordlessly on the table in front of us almost immediately. Finally we had something in common: he was as keen for me to leave the restaurant as I was. But there was one final quirk to the service when the waiter discovered that we planned to pay by card. He came over with the card machine, entered the amount and then wandered off, leaving us to stick our card in and enter the PIN. This struck me as a novel approach and different from literally every waiter and waitress I have ever encountered. Dinner for two came to sixty-seven pounds, not including tip, and it was only Sam’s generosity and good humour that meant that we tipped at all. Personally I would have just paid, departed and then left them a voicemail explaining that I wasn’t going to tip them, but with hindsight I’m glad Sam prevailed.

“The thing is though” said Sam, “the service really was poor. I know some of this is the kitchen’s fault, and some’s the menu’s fault, but the waitress should never have brought a sizzling duck dish that wasn’t sizzling.” And he was right, because even if the food had been middling and indifferent (I should have been so lucky) the service could still have improved matters considerably. It was a meal with no care factor evident anywhere.

There was time for one last sting in the tail, because as we were finishing our drinks Sam examined his pint glass. There – close to the bottom, on the inside – was a grim-looking black smudge of goodness knows what.

“What’s that?” said Sam in horror. We examined it, neither of us wanting to touch it.

“I have no idea, but when the pint was first poured it was probably even bigger. Most of it has probably, err, dissolved.” I realised immediately after I said it that this wasn’t helpful.

“Oh well, I could do with losing some weight. This just wasn’t how I planned to do it.”

Afterwards, commiserating in the pub, I told Sam that I thought that TGI Friday was like the WH Smith of restaurants: I couldn’t understand why it still existed, because you could get everything it did better somewhere else. If you want cocktails you should go to Milk and if you want burgers, you should go to Honest. If you want ribs, you should go to Bluegrass and if you want fajitas you should go to Mission. If you want crispy duck fajitas, you should see your doctor.

But it’s worse than that, because not only do other places do this food better but, without exception, they are cheaper. I could cope with expensive and mediocre, and I could just about cope with cheap and bad, but the combination of costly and diabolical leaves me baffled. Who eats at TGI Fridays these days? And one other thing: this isn’t about snobbishness, it’s about standards. Earlier in the year I went to the Beefeater on the Bath Road, with my family. It wasn’t my choice, and in the run-up I did make a few unworthy jokes about the evening that lay ahead. But actually, the service was lovely, the food was okay and the steak itself was rather nice. I went away feeling a little ashamed of myself, but at TGI Friday I just went away feeling dirty and exploited (and not in a good way, either).

So there you have it, my final review of 2018 is easily the worst meal I’ve had all year and one of the very worst meals I’ve had in over five years of writing this blog. Thank you for reliving it with me (don’t have nightmares) and I only have one last thing to say. It’s this: good to never have to go to TGI Fridays ever again. Important to avoid it for the rest of my days. Thanks a bunch, Matt Rodda.

TGI Fridays – 3.6
Unit 8, The Oracle, RG1 2AG
0344 2646052

https://www.tgifridays.co.uk/locations/get/Reading%20Oracle#/

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Brewdog

Regular readers might remember that I first attempted to review Brewdog about three months ago, unsuccessfully as it happens. I came, I saw, I was told they couldn’t even take orders for at least thirty minutes and I sodded off. To the Real Greek instead, in fact, where I had a surprisingly enjoyable meal with my friend Steve. He still messages me occasionally just to talk about sausage (the one at the Real Greek I should say, although I think Steve has a soft spot for most sausages, so to speak).

I decided I would leave Brewdog for another day when my frustration had subsided and I’d forgotten some of the faux wackiness which had slightly got my back up – the almost illegible menu and the zany pun-ridden dish names like “Hail Seitan” and “Clucky This Time”. So I turned up with my old friend Mike on a Monday night to check it out, hoping for better luck this time.

Much was different from my last visit. In May, Brewdog had been open less than two months and there was still a huge buzz about the place. It had been fuller and louder, whereas going back now it was definitely a quieter proposition – although that might also be because I went on a Monday. Another difference was that last time I turned up on spec, whereas this time I had had already booked a table.

The site has a chequered history. It’s been the Litten Tree, a properly purgatorial chain pub known to many Reading residents of a certain vintage as the “Shitten Tree”. It’s been RYND, with beautiful interiors, rock-hard cheap seating and bandwagon-chasing knock-off American barbecue food. And most recently it’s been Public, a venue whose selling point – if you see this as a selling point – was to have board games, fussball tables and pool tables. I imagine the trendsetters went there but wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Sun, on the opposite side of the road, with its thoroughly charming bar billiards table: nowhere near ironic enough.

RYND, for all its faults, did a beautiful job of exposing the brickwork and then Public cocked it all up with cheapo tiles and wood panelling, so it was lovely to see that Brewdog had restored the room to something like its former glory. The large central room does feel like a beer hall, with long tables and – no surprises here – industrial light fittings. I’d asked for a booth, and it would have been nice to have been seated at one of the ones in the main room to feel more like part of things, but instead they put us in the smaller area off to the left, very much the overflow car park of the restaurant.

On my last visit, poor Steve and I waited at our table in bewilderment for easily five minutes before realising that nobody was going to come to ask us what we wanted. At the time, I wrote this off as my mistake, thinking that Brewdog was far more like a pub than a restaurant. But another difference with this visit was that a very friendly, smiley waitress came over and asked us what we’d like to drink. I have no idea whether that’s because it was quieter, or because we’d booked a table or for some other reason, and it slightly bugs me that I can’t tell you which of my two visits was more representative.

The menu was, well, burgers and hot dogs. And two salads. I couldn’t help thinking that Brewdog might have put more effort and imagination – albeit misplaced – into the names of the dishes than the dishes themselves. I had my eye on a burger from my extensive research – the “Jackpot”, with its winning combination of black pudding, chorizo and blue cheese – but I was also determined to let Mike pick first. I’m lucky that people want to come out on duty with me, so I always try to make sure they aren’t eating their second choice of starter or main.

“I quite fancy the ‘Chipotle Chorizo’,” said Mike, which made perfect sense: his mum is Spanish, after all.

“That’s fine” I said through gritted teeth, dying slightly inside as the prospect of sampling the Jackpot receded into the middle distance. “I’ll just have one of the chicken burgers instead. I love southern fried chicken.”

My first choice of chicken burger would have been the “Buffalo Chicken”, but we’d also decided to have some of the buffalo cauliflower, so I ended up going for the “Cluck Norris”: southern fried chicken and avocado. I had a sneaking feeling I had picked the menu’s equivalent of a chicken korma at this point, but the die was cast. Besides, why whinge about it to Mike when I could bide my time and instead complain to literally dozens of readers? Think of the delayed gratification, I told myself as I drank my pint.

I suppose I should at least attempt to talk about the beer, so here goes: there are a whole range of Brewdog beers on tap along with others in bottles and a range of other guest beers. Nearly everything crosses the five pound a pint Rubicon which, in fairness, probably stopped being any kind of meaningful threshold at some point last year; nowadays you just pay whatever they charge you and if you wince when they tell you how much your round is, you’re either in the wrong place or pubs just aren’t for you. The menu helpfully made suggestions about which beers paired well with each burger (Mike followed this advice, because he’s that kind of person and I didn’t, because I’m not).

Mike declared himself very satisfied with the Punk IPA and the Dead Pony, the latter specifically chosen to go with his burger. “They sell Brewdog on the continent”, he told me (Mike spends most of the year swanning around Europe running coach tours: I like to think he’s like a twenty-first century Robin Askwith, although the lack of stories of swordsmanship suggests this might be wishful thinking), “but it’s really expensive over there.” The punchline was left hanging in the air: I couldn’t be bothered to claim it.

My beers, from the outer reaches of the list, were more interesting I thought, although that doesn’t guarantee that my descriptions of them will be. I had a pint of Lighthouse by Windswept which I really liked, a “Kolsch style lager” (it means it’s kind of German, apparently – you know, like the Royal Family) which was crisp, clean and just the right side of the dividing line between bland and delicate. The Windswept website says it’s best enjoyed after abseiling or archery, which strikes me as a shame because it means I’ll never get to enjoy it in optimum conditions: never mind, I’ll live.

I followed it up with a pint of “#MashTag2018” which seems to be a beer that’s part crowdsourced through polls every year. The 2018 version, which presumably was chosen by Russian bots, was infused with hibiscus and yuzu and I liked it a great deal; the sharp citrus added by the yuzu made it smarter than the average beer. Mike had a sip and decided to order a pint of himself after he’d lapped me. He then decided that it was more fun to sip a little of it than to wade through a pint of it, which I figured served him right. Karmic payback for stopping me hitting the Jackpot, perhaps.

The burgers at Brewdog cost between nine and ten pounds and fries (or sweet potato fries) are extra, so in terms of price it’s probably largely on a par with Honest. It’s taken me until this point in the review to mention the H word, but they were very much in my mind as I had my dinner because, for better or worse, 2018 is the year that they’ve become the benchmark for all burgers in this town.

Here’s something you’ll rarely hear me say: the problem with my chicken burger is that it had too much chicken. It’s honestly true – the unremarkable-looking seeded brioche had two large coated chicken breasts in it. That might have been a dream come true if the coating had tasted of anything, but in fact it had almost no flavour at all. A real shame, because it looked the part and the texture was great, but in terms of taste it was like a mirage of KFC. This also meant that the whole thing was unbalanced because the things it really needed – the avocado, the coriander, the Cajun mayo – simply couldn’t put up a fight against all that bland fried chicken. With proper coating, less chicken and more of the rest it could have been world-beating, but as it was I actually left some of it. A knife stuck needlessly out of the top, Excalibur-style, and I couldn’t tell whether it was decoration or punishment.

Mike’s “Chipotle Chorizo” was better, but still unspecial. The burger itself – very much cooked medium-well – was crumbly and dry and left me, again, thinking wistfully of Honest at the other end of town. The chorizo was by far the best thing in it – coarse, juicy and piquant – but the chipotle mayo didn’t add a lot and the padron peppers felt a bit random. There was one in the burger and another impaled on top of the bun – that knife trick again. I felt like Mike had got the better deal, but only in terms of shades of meh. Speaking of meh, the fries were wan and disappointing, and I didn’t have any desire to finish them all. Mike had upgraded to the sweet potato fries – they cost fifty pence extra – and this was money well spent, although probably money better spent would have involved not having fries at all.

The bright spot was the buffalo cauliflower, which we both agreed was quite the nicest thing we ate all evening. Big firm florets in a hot, sour glaze, and easily more interesting than the feature attraction, a scene-stealing bit part. But even this wasn’t perfect – I liked the coating but I’d have liked it to be crunchier and stick to the cauliflower a bit better. And, when it came to it, we paid eight pounds for it, so it really wasn’t much cheaper than the burgers. Perhaps by this point I’d just run out of magnanimity: it’s distinctly possible. There was a vegan dip with it, which tasted like a photocopy of salad cream and might have appealed, if you were a vegan.

This is all getting a bit crotchety, isn’t it? I should perhaps focus on the service because it was properly lovely. Our waitress (or, according to the bill, “server”) was likeable and cheery without ever seeming fake or making us feel like miserable old shits, not that we needed any help in that department. Our bill for two came to just shy of sixty pounds, excluding service (and the menu, randomly, also gives you the option to buy a pint of Punk IPA for the kitchen: I’m not sure that would have improved matters, but it might have been worth giving it a whirl). At the time that didn’t feel like a lot, but looking back it feels like money extracted somewhat by stealth.

It’s probably obvious by now that Brewdog wasn’t my bag at all, but what surprises me is that I honestly expected it to be better. It has a small menu and I thought sticking to a few things might mean they did them well, especially when you think about how considered their brand is and how much attention to detail they’ve put into the building, and the fit out. So it’s disappointing that the food was so drab; if I wanted that kind of meal I’d go to Honest, and if I wanted that range of beer I’d walk slightly further out of town and make for the Nag’s Head.

Of course, it’s possible that Brewdog was aiming for the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where beer drinkers and food fans meet, but somehow I doubt it. It felt like the food was just there to tick a box rather than to properly complement the beer, and I found that a little sad. It felt a lot like a slightly less corporate Oakford Social Club, but when you strip away the beards the experience is much the same. What Brewdog really highlighted, for me, is one of the big gaps in the market left here in Reading. Since I Love Paella left the Fisherman’s Cottage, punters have been left with a pretty stark choice: you can have a fantastic range of well-kept beer or you can have brilliant food, but – for now at least – you can’t have both.

Brewdog – 6.2
11 Castle Street, RG1 7SB
0118 9568755

https://www.brewdog.com/bars/uk/reading

Honest Burgers

I’m no expert on Where Reading Is Going. I read our “Vision For 2050″ (which seemed to have precious little to do with Reading) and was none the wiser. I don’t understand what “Reading UK CIC”, “Living Reading” and the “Business Improvement District” actually are, or what they’ve achieved, and what with having an actual job I never get to attend cultural talks at 6pm on campus or the First Friday Club in Brown’s listening to the movers and shakers.

I’ve never been to the Reading Cultural Awards or the Pride Of Reading Awards (Danyl Johnson’s one guaranteed gig every year). I wasn’t on the bus to Tate Modern recently to join a discussion about the arts in Reading, almost exclusively peopled by Reading folk, in London. I have no idea why we keep appointing people from out of town to run our cultural events instead of our excellent home grown talent. Answers on a postcard for all of the above, please, to the usual address.

It does strike me though, in my ill-informed way, that Reading’s at a bit of a crossroads. What kind of town do we want to be? We could try to emulate somewhere like Bristol, with its blossoming cultural scene, superb market, brilliant food scene and countless independent shops. I love Bristol partly because it doesn’t try to be a lesser clone of anywhere. It ploughs its own furrow and – this is something Reading could really learn from – is fiercely proud of its culture, its history, its traditions, even the accent.

Alternatively, we could simply become Zone 8 – added to the Tube network through Crossrail, with all the London chains expanding here and all the trends eventually arriving here too, a few years after they’ve stopped being hot. With the snazzy new Westgate Centre up the road in Oxford, we finally have some local competition. We may have a Franco Manca, but they have a Pizza Pilgrims. Oh, and Oxford has a Leon and a Thali Kitchen, neither of which currently operate here. The big brains of Reading must worry about how to guarantee their supremacy (it all reminds me of the legendary Reading On Thames take on Downfall).

Where does Honest Burgers fit into that narrative? Not another chain, said some people when they announced they were coming to Reading. Not another burger restaurant, said others. But Honest is a more interesting beast than that. For a start, if it is a chain it’s a very small one – predominantly in London apart from a branch here and in Cambridge. The expansion seems slow, careful and considered rather than the result of a huge injection of capital and a relentless business plan (the way that all chains tarnish).

Their story’s an idiosyncratic one, starting in Brixton Market, getting a huge publicity boost from shrinking violet Jay Rayner, and sticking to some resolutely uncommercial decisions from day one, most particularly to make their chips on the premises every day. The other interesting thing about Honest is their commitment to localism – working with producers to offer a special burger at each of their outposts, exclusive to that branch. That extends to Reading, where they’ve worked with Two Hoots Cheese and Nomad to supply Barkham Blue and red pepper chutney for a Reading burger. They also approached Wild Weather Ales, who brewed a special King St Pale for Honest: it’s served at the restaurant and a few other Reading pubs.

In the interests of full disclosure, I had a few dealings with Honest in the run-up to their opening. I recommended local suppliers to them (including Two Hoots and Nomad), told them about our great pub and café culture and pointed them in the direction of other websites like Explore Reading which covered their launch so well. But the only freebies I accepted from them in return were prizes in the competition I ran in December, because I wanted to reserve the right to visit them on a weekday night, my trusty sidekick Tim in attendance, and decide for myself what Honest added to Reading’s culinary scene. Further evidence of Zone 8, or a different kettle of fish altogether?

Honest’s respect for the town extends to the building they’re in. They spoke in interviews about falling in love with the space – half Brutalist, half Victorian – and they’ve done a terrific job of turning it into a restaurant. It’s a building I walked past countless times without noticing it but now it’s hard to imagine it was ever anything else, let alone the branch of Barclays I opened my first account in over twenty-five years ago.

The main dining room is broken up beautifully into sections – booths around the edge for two and four people, all perched at windows looking out on to the street, long tables for solo and communal dining in the middle and more conventional seating (and banquettes) further up. The bar area – up a steep set of stairs at the Market Place end – looked a lovely place to spend time, although it was empty when I visited. The quality of the work is really impressive – striking light fittings rather than tired exposed bulbs, a gorgeous herringbone parquet floor running the length of the room and attractive hexagonal tiles marking out the perimeter where the booths are.

By the time I arrived Tim was already seated at the set of tables nearest to the pass and, above the racing green tiles, I could see burgers ready to be taken to customers. There were only a few chefs on duty, all rush and fuss, but even watching them you got an idea of just how well-oiled a machine Honest’s kitchen is. It helps that the menu is on the border between simple and simplistic – a chicken burger, a vegetarian burger and half a dozen beef burgers, all served with rosemary salted chips. Add a handful of sides, a selection of sauces and that’s your lot.

“Lovely in here, isn’t it?” said Tim who’d been to Honest a few times already and was enthusiastic about accompanying me on this trip. “I like to say it’s hip without being hipster. You can use that in your review.”

I figured I better had: it was about the third time he’d said it in the past few weeks. I also tried a sip of his beer, the King Street Pale.

“Isn’t it great? It’s like alcoholic Lilt.”

“Well, I guess. But it still tastes like beer.” I said, waving someone down and getting a pint of lager: Fullers Frontier, which was perfectly pleasant and just about under a fiver. Tim did the face that meant You’ll never understand beer, and I in return did the face that means I know, and I’m fine with that (we’ve perfected those over many pub and restaurant trips over the years).

Tim initially wanted me to order the Reading burger. I can kind of see why – it had local roots, it sounded very nice and, I suppose, I had a small hand in it. I decided against it for a few reasons. It felt too obvious, for starters. Also, I knew all the other reviewers would try it, and I like being different. But most significantly, all of Honest’s blurb was about the beef, so I wanted to try the burger in a more traditional setting, to taste the ingredients singing with as few backing vocalists as possible. So I went for the Honest, which is their equivalent of a bacon cheeseburger.

Tim, who had already tried a couple of things on the menu, decided to order the special, the “Disco Bistro”. By the time this review goes up, you’ll have about three days to try it before it’s replaced by something else, but I figured it was a good shout because, again, it says good things about Honest that they’re always experimenting (besides, there’s no arguing with Tim once he gets an idea in his head).

This really is fast food; our burgers arrived less than fifteen minutes after we ordered. My first bugbear was that it came on an enamel tray with a knife but no fork, although we requested them and got them very quickly. Without a fork I’d have needed far more napkins than the handful at the table. And although there was a knife I’m not sure it was really needed as my burger was just the right size – and depth – to pick up and eat with your hands, which feels like a rarity nowadays.

The patty was really rather good. Beautifully seasoned, with just a little salt coming through in each bite, perfectly pink on the inside but properly cooked and with plenty of char on the outside. Honest makes much of the fact that their beef is chopped rather than minced and it shows in the texture – coarse without being mealy or crumbly. The decision to use good mature cheddar was also a welcome one: I know bright yellow American cheese is authentic, but it’s always left me cold. The brioche was firm enough to hold together and made eating the burger really easy.

So far so good, but for me the Honest didn’t quite work. I’d have loved onion in it, but instead it (and the basic burger) come with caramelised red onion chutney. The sweetness was cloying and felt like a bum note. Similarly the pickled cucumber could have been brilliant if it had lent a sharp, vinegary tang but instead was sweet and inoffensive. I found myself wishing their classic burger was just a little more classic.

Tim on the other hand had gone for a full whistles-and-bells, kitchen sink burger. The “Disco Bistro” had pineapple and bacon jam, burger sauce, cheddar and pink onions. It sounded like it would either be triumph or disaster: Tim loved it.

“This might be the best burger I’ve had here.”

“It’s not too sloppy with the pineapple jam?”

“No, not at all, and the brioche holds it together beautifully. Those pink onions are amazing, and you get just enough bacon in the jam.”

I also really enjoyed the chips. A lot of reviews I’d read said they were too salty, and I’d had reports to that effect, but on the night I visited they were about right. I’d have liked more rosemary coming through, but you couldn’t argue with the texture or the quality of them and they were especially good dipped in the bacon gravy. Yes, we ordered bacon gravy: a recommendation of Tim’s from a previous visit.

“It’s a lot nicer than last time I came” he said. “It’s thicker and better for dipping.”

Bacon gravy is such a beautiful concept that its existence is almost more important than minor details like what it tastes like. I liked it but I wasn’t completely bowled over – it was still a little thin, if salty and meaty (and I wasn’t sure how much of it was bacon – the menu says it’s bacon gravy, the blackboard says it’s “beef and bacon gravy” and it felt more beef than bacon to me). The other issue with it is that it comes in a shallow enamel dish which means it goes cold fast, something you could probably say about most of the meal. In fairness, Tim and I had a good go at making sure none of it had the chance.

The onion rings were more successful – huge hoops of onion and batter, perfect on their own, let alone dipped in the gravy. A note of something in the batter – possibly fennel seed or cumin – added a little complexity and, impressively, they didn’t feel heavy or greasy in the slightest. We shared a portion of these, and by the end I’d say we were nicely full without being unpleasantly stuffed. If I’d had room I might have gone for a salted caramel milkshake, but I figured there would be other times. Dinner for the two of us came to almost bang on forty pounds, not including tip.

I haven’t mentioned the service, but it was unobtrusively good. The restaurant was very full on a weekday night – buzzy but not deafening – yet the staff never seemed fazed at all and did a good job of looking after a large amount of tables without letting anything slip. Honest have clearly put work into this, and I appreciated the fact that the staff were friendly without being cheesy or overfamiliar, or upselling, or any of those other bugbears that so plague casual dining. Hip without being hipster indeed: perhaps Tim was right.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of burgers or the burger trend (it’s just a sandwich, as I like to say), and I went to Honest curious to see whether they could do enough to overcome that. I’m delighted to say that they did. Honest is a very particular type of restaurant – it’s not one to linger in, and their emphasis probably is on getting you in, feeding you from a relatively limited menu and getting you out again. But to their credit they do that without making you feel like a commodity or making the food into an afterthought: I admire that about them.

Normally in this situation I would say “it’s not for everybody” but actually, Honest has pretty wide appeal. I could see myself eating there pre-theatre, grabbing a quick meal on my way home from work, meeting up with a friend pre-pub or having a big lunch, and that’s before we get on to the very tempting-looking weekend brunch options. I do wonder what it will be like come summer, and how exactly the top bar will end up being used on evenings and weekends, but it definitely adds something to Reading. I’d say it’s far and away the best burger in Reading – miles better than 7Bone, and if I was Handmade Burger Company right now I’d be very nervous indeed – but moreover Honest is somewhere you might actually visit in its own right.

I don’t know what the future holds for Reading – whether we’ll ever strike out and celebrate our identity the way Bristol or Brighton do or whether, under the business-centric influence of our nebulous quangos we’ll just become a creeping extension of London. But I hope Honest heralds the shape of things to come, and if we do get new restaurants they’ll pick up a little of what makes Reading so special. After all, the guys from Honest came here and fell in love with the Nag’s Head – and those are exactly the kind of restaurateurs we want, if you ask me.

Honest Burgers – 7.3
1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
0118 3593216

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

Richfields Deli

Normally I end the year with my annual awards. It’s a great opportunity to round up the year in restaurants and tell you my favourite starter of the year, my favourite main course, the whole shebang. Not this time, though, because it hasn’t been that kind of year: I had nearly twelve months away in retirement and finally came back in the summer, two (count them!) house moves and many life changes later. So instead you get one last review from me but, because this time of year is always a reflective one, there’s a bit of navel gazing to get through first. Sorry about that: I’ll try to keep it brief.

This year has been full of wonderful discoveries. The ever-changing menu at the Lyndhurst, for one – a recent visit featured a terrific crab and leek gratin with a parmesan crust, just crying out to be forked from the ramekin onto toast oozing with butter. Pretty much anything at Namaste Kitchen, my restaurant of the year, from firm paneer in a light spiced batter to the best chow mein I think I’ve ever eaten (I went last weekend only to find they were too busy to fit me in – I’ve never been so pleased to be turned away from a restaurant in all my born days). Or, of course, the continuing brilliance of Georgian Feast, whether it’s their beautifully tender lamb and tarragon stew offset by sharp plums, their glorious spiced chicken thighs or the khachapuri, soda bread stuffed with a blend of three different cheeses, one of Reading’s food wonders (and just as good heated up in the oven the next day with a hefty helping of Branston pickle, take it from me).

But the year has also been full of other brilliant experiences, all of which have made me love this town and its community even more. Blue Collar turned Forbury Gardens into the best place in town on countless sunny summer weekends. The Reading Fringe transformed the town into a hotbed of high and low culture: I watched Born To Sum in the Rising Sun Arts Centre with my totally baffled friend Dave, and skulked on the sidelines of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything at Public, desperately hoping not to be forced to participate (“I loved it” said my mother afterwards in the bar, “all those angry young people in smoky rooms, it took me right back to the Sixties”).

And there was more. I spent a Bank Holiday Sunday in the Retreat at their impromptu cheese festival, the table in the back room groaning with cheeses from all over Europe, home made black pudding sausage rolls there too, and I wound up sitting on the bench outside passing round a bottle of Sauternes to friends and strangers alike. I sat in St James’ Church and took in the sweep and ambition of Matilda The Empress, a production which redefines the kind of thing Reading can offer. I finished the year at South Street watching Singalong-A-Muppet Christmas Carol, preceded by the chaotic spectacle of one half of Shit Theatre crossing the stage on the back of makeshift camel John Luther while Frankie’s “The Power Of Love” played in the background. It was one of those times when I wished I’d been on drugs: at least I’d have had an excuse.

Oh, and I sat in my garden in the morning sunshine, drank tea, ate toast and Marmite and read my library book. Such a small thing, maybe, but nonetheless a moment of peace which didn’t always seem on the cards this year. Another thing to be thankful for.

And, of course, I started reviewing again. That’s another area where I need to be thankful to lots of people – to everyone who came back after my hiatus and read, retweeted, commented or said such lovely things on social media. To Pho and Honest Burgers for working on reader competitions with me so I could finally give something back to you all, and for all of you who entered those competitions. Last but not least, I owe a big debt of thanks to everybody who came with me on duty and helped me to review a restaurant: from beer friend Tim to meat fiend Ben; from my wise and occasionally withering mum to girl about town Izzy; from old friend Mike to new friend Claire. I couldn’t have done it without them – and who knows who might get pressganged (or asked nicely) in 2018.

For my final review of the year, I wanted to find somewhere that sums up what I always look for in an establishment – somewhere small, independent and distinctive, somewhere that deserved more exposure and a wider audience. Somewhere good in the less fashionable parts of town, where the rents are lower and where it’s easier for interesting things to evolve and develop (it’s no coincidence that most of Reading’s best independent restaurants grow and prosper away from the town centre).

The place that jumped out of my list, which had been mentioned by a few people on Twitter, was Richfields Deli, a little joint on the Caversham Road just down from the Moderation. As I understand it, it used to just be a café doing sandwiches, but it expanded and reopened early in 2017 and when it did, so did the menu, offering “Breakfast, Brunch and Street Food”. Leaving my reservations to one side about serving street food in a building (let’s be charitable, as it’s Christmas) it looked interesting, so I turned up, shaking the rain from my brolly on a dreary Sunday afternoon. I had my friend Tim in tow – he used to live nearby, and said he had happy memories of the place.

My first impressions were good. It is a surprisingly spacious place, which has been opened out into a front and back room and it’s all very nicely done with wood floors, tasteful blue walls and some very fetching art hung up (I would quite happily have taken some of the more abstract examples home with me). A long bar connected the two rooms, with some attractive-looking cakes on the counter and a blackboard above with an extensive list of drinks, shakes and smoothies. Many of the tables were occupied by friends and families, enjoying brunch. I also noticed from another chalkboard that Richfields sold an impressive range of local beers, although it seemed a bit baffling to do so when the place closes late afternoon.

The menu was so big that it would probably take two or three visits to get a representative impression. I worried that it was too big – a good brunch section, grills, salads, sandwiches and a range of burritos. I was still unconvinced that it constituted street food but it was hard to dispute that the menu was definitely well-travelled: pancakes and maple syrup from the States; brisket and kimchee from Korea; tandoori chicken roti and a full English breakfast. On another day I might have ordered any of those things, but the Gaucho cheesesteak sandwich was calling to me. I love a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, but moreover the menu had just enough hints that the dish might be special – the steak was from Jennings, just across the bridge, and it had been marinated in chimichurri. Tim was also tempted by that dish, in which case I might have had the halloumi and Portobello mushroom burger with lime and chilli dressing, but ultimately he settled on a classic cheeseburger. “I can’t help it,” he said, “I really fancy a burger.”

But first, the drinks. Tim had a large coke, which gratifyingly came in the iconic glass bottle rather than from a can or a siphon. I had a large latte – I approached it with no great enthusiasm, and I’d probably have gone for a mocha if it had been on the menu, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It didn’t taste burnt and was nicely balanced: not one for purists, so not in the same league as places like Tamp or Workhouse, but a really pleasant coffee. Better than Costa, for starters, and streets ahead of the milky grimness I’d endured at Tipsy Bean a few weeks back.

While we waited for our sandwiches I enjoyed relaxing at my table, catching up with Tim who had all sorts of gossip, and checking out my surroundings. There was a twinkling white Christmas tree in the corner and the whole place had an atmosphere I really liked. Not scruffy, not trying too hard, not trying to mechanically extract hard currency from hipsters or students, just calm, pleasant and tasteful. It made me realise how rarely, in the box-checking world of food trends, you come across a place like that.

“The owners aren’t in today,” said Tim, “it’s even better when they are. They’re a lovely couple.”

I also checked out the food at the other tables, because that’s something I struggle not to do, and I found I had more food envy. The breakfasts looked marvellous – big thick rounds of black pudding, nicely cooked sausages, caramelised on the outside, and fried potatoes which looked like they’d been cooked from scratch rather than tipped out of a bag in the freezer.

“The breakfasts are really good.” said Tim.

“Better than Alto Lounge?” I asked. One thing I know about Tim is that back when he lived round here he did love an Alto Lounge breakfast.

“Yes, even better than that. Although Alto Lounge does this fantastic sausagemeat patty, I can’t get enough of those.”

Just as I thought my hunger would completely get the better of me, our food arrived. My sandwich was a thing of real beauty: a generous, nicely baked baguette absolutely crammed with steak, cheese and peppers. The picture might not do it justice, and makes the steak look a tad grey, but it really wasn’t. You got lots of it, and it was tender and delicious. If I was being critical, I’d have liked it to have more chimichurri to lift it, but even so it was really difficult to take exception to it in any way. I ordered extra onion rings and they were little compact things (like you used to get from the supermarket) rather than big greasy battered hoops of onion with the batter falling off. If anything, that made me love them even more.

“These taste like those onion ring snacks you get in the shops” said Tim, spot on as usual. Again, this was really no bad thing.

Tim had gone for the burger with jack cheese (rather than blue cheese) and it looked pretty good from where I was sitting. There was the regulation standard issue brioche bun, burger sauce spread on one half, and the patty seemed decent. There was also gherkin – always a favourite of mine – and Tim had ordered onion rings, although it was a little disappointing that they were served on the side, rather than on top as the bacon or cheese would have been. I think Tim had food envy at my sandwich, but even so he seemed happy enough with the burger. I didn’t get to try any, but it looked good and although not served pink it seemed perfectly cooked in the middle, not dried out or grey.

“Is it as good as, say, the Oakford?” I asked him.

“Oh, it’s better than the Oakford.” he said between mouthfuls. “I just wish it was a bit bigger.”

It was an interesting point. The burger was nine pounds and came with fries, which made it reasonably competitive but possibly on the slightly pricey side given the size of it (that said, there’s a lot to be said for a burger you can actually eat with your hands). My sandwich, which I really enjoyed, was ten pounds and however much I liked it I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also say that it was a bloody expensive sandwich.

Service was kind and friendly – ever so slightly amateurish, but in a way I found impossible to dislike. It took a while to figure out that you have to order at the counter, so we sat there like lemons for a bit with staff wandering past our table before figuring that out (they were very apologetic when this became apparent). They totally forgot to cook our fries, and the waiter said “sorry, I’ll just put them under”, wandered off and came back with them piping hot about five minutes later. They felt shop-bought – nice enough, but having seen the fried potatoes I’d hoped for better. But when a place builds up goodwill you can get away with slips like that, and I found I really didn’t care about the mistakes. I was comfy and cosy, the rain was battering away on the pavement outside, Christmas was around the corner, I was having lunch with a very good friend and I was eating a truly splendid – if costly – sandwich. Lunch came to just under twenty eight pounds for the two of us, not including tip. It cannot be denied that it was a pricey lunch, and that’s probably one of the only reasons the number at the bottom of this review isn’t higher.

So, Richfields is almost the perfect example of the kind of place I’m looking for when I review restaurants and cafes. It’s independent, it’s small, it deserves more recognition and it’s in an unsung part of town (even more unsung now Papa Gee has upped sticks and moved to Prospect Street). But then Papa Gee kept going for ten years just down the road, so maybe there’s enough local custom to keep Richfields in business. I did find myself worrying about it slightly – the Mod next door does proper sit down lunches, the Gorge is competition for breakfasts and, on Sundays at least, Georgian Feast does a chicken wrap which is probably better and cheaper than anything you can get at Richfields. I have a sneaking feeling there will be fewer independent restaurants in town this time next year, so more than ever we need to spend our money to preserve the kind of town we want to live in. I’ll make an effort to go back there for brunch next year, for exactly that reason. I hope Richfields has a happy and prosperous 2018 – and actually, that goes for all of you too.

Richfields Deli – 7.1
211 Caversham Road, RG1 8BB
0118 9391144

http://richfieldsdeli.com/

Competition: Honest Burgers

Regular readers might remember that back in August I ran my first ever readers’ competition in association with new kid on the block Pho. They contacted me in the run up to opening their Reading restaurant, initially asking if I wanted to go in and review them based on a comped meal. I said no, and instead we ran a competition together judged by Claire, the editor of Explore Reading. It all went swimmingly, and ER reader Aden had by all accounts a very nice meal there with three guests of his choosing. I’ve still not been on duty (I plan to turn up when they least expect it) but the nice thing about Reading is that there’s more access to reviews than ever before, so you can see perspectives on Pho here, here and here: a mixture of comped reviews and those where the writer paid her way, so you can decide which is more to your taste.

Anyway, Honest Burgers contacted me recently with a similar offer, and again I said that I couldn’t take them up on a comped meal. What became clear though, from my correspondence with them, was that they have a commitment to Reading’s independent scene unlike most chains I know of: their Reading branch, only the second outside London, will serve a special burger incorporating Barkham Blue from just down the road and roasted red pepper chutney from Reading’s very own Nomad Bakery. There will also be a special pale ale from nearby Wild Weather Ales which can only be found in the Reading branch and selected local pubs (I get the impression they rather enjoyed the process of researching it, and became quite a fan of the Nag’s Head into the bargain: this lovely piece by Wild Weather gives you some idea). Not only that, but Honest have also shown an interest in Reading’s independent websites, giving this great interview to Explore Reading in the run-up to them opening on Monday 18th December.

Anyway, more importantly they’ve also decided to team up with me to give ten readers the chance to win a pair of the Reading special burgers and a can of the Reading exclusive King St Pale from Wild Weather. Not a bad Christmas present, eh? Now, I like to make people get creative and work a little for competition prizes rather than just do a prize draw, so here’s what you need to do to win:

I want you to send me a haiku about Reading – to ediblereading@gmail.com – by 11.30am on Friday 22nd December.

Haiku are dead simple: they just have to have five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line and five syllables in the third and final line. They don’t have to rhyme or anything, and they just need to capture a moment or something about Reading, whether it’s the grand majesty of the Maiwand Lion, the frustration of being stuck in the traffic on the IDR for the four thousandth time, the buzz and bustle of the Oxford Road or the joy of spotting Reading Elvis in town waving his LP. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with, and with ten prizes up for grabs your odds have to be pretty good, right? And really, don’t be shy. It’s just a bit of festive fun: nobody is expecting you to channel Basho or capture a sense of perfect Zen stillness in Caversham, I promise.

As usual an excellent competition prize requires an excellent judge and I’m delighted to say that John Luther of South Street has agreed to step in and judge this one. As the man responsible for programming at South Street, bringing the best and most innovative theatre, live music and comedy to Reading, John’s artistic credentials are second to none and I can’t think of anyone better to pick the prizewinning haiku (and, if you win and can’t decide who to take with you, I hear he’s really keen on trying the new burger: just saying).

Only one entry per person, but otherwise the usual terms and conditions apply: the judge’s decision is final, no correspondence will be entered into, the price of your burger can go up as well as down and if you enter after the deadline your entry won’t count but you may still be charged. Other restaurant bloggers are available. Thanks again to Honest for working with me on this. I really hope you give this a go in the run up to Christmas – how long can it take to write seventeen syllables? – and wish you the best of luck.