Feature: Table for one

What a difference three years makes: back in 2015, when I last posted a guide to solo dining, I waxed lyrical about it as an experience but, truth be told, I didn’t do it that often. Now and again when my spouse went away on business, mainly, or on the odd occasion when I had a day off to myself, but my experience of it was more limited than my paean of praise made it sound. It probably shows in the piece, because – despite my best intentions – it read more as advice and consolation for those who found themselves unfortunate enough to be eating alone, rather than a celebration of the joys of a table for one.

These days I have a far richer experience of eating on your own, at all points on the spectrum. Separation, divorce, self-discovery, solo holidays, working out that some of your friends aren’t actually friends at all: all that Eat Pray Love bullshit has many effects but one of them, for me, was to give me a far better understanding of the benefits of going to a restaurant accompanied only by a copy of Private Eye (and my phone, for when the cynicism gets too much). Fast forward three years, and I’ve eaten on my own all over the place.

I’ve been jammed in at the bar at a hot – in both senses – packed no-reservation London place on a weekday lunchtime. I’ve spoiled myself by ordering from the a la carte menu at Nirvana Spa, in my fluffy white robe, peering at my paperback between courses. I’ve dined at Pierre Victoire, pretending to pay attention to a magazine while really people watching North Oxford’s finest eating and chatting, imagining all those different lives intersecting, albeit briefly, with mine. And last year I spent the best part of a week in Paris on my own, reinventing old favourites and discovering new ones. A good table, a good view, a good glass of wine and a good book, alone but not lonely; I might not have learned to completely love eating alone, but I certainly came to appreciate it.

Closer to home, there’s a lot to be said for a table for one and lots of occasions where it can be a positive pleasure. The quick solo meal on the way to meet friends in the pub, especially people from the “eating is cheating” brigade (just me, maybe, but I’ve always found that a dreary philosophy to live by). The drawn-out lunch on a Saturday when you have the day to yourself. Or even just the moment – and this might just be me – where I get off the train at Reading station (or Gare Du Ding, as I keep calling it) and I just can’t be arsed to cook. The sun is shining, I have nowhere in particular to be and I think how nice it would be to treat myself before heading home.

Not only has my life changed a lot in the last three years: Reading has too. Two of my choices last time around are not currently trading. I Love Paella has left the Fisherman’s Cottage (in contentious circumstances: less said about that the better) and Dolce Vita has left Kings Walk, forced out by a greedy landlord who wanted to make more money. If Namaste Kitchen was still running its menu from earlier in the year it would have made this list, because I couldn’t imagine anything finer than going there and having a beer, a plate of paneer pakora and a chicken chow mein (one of the joys of eating solo, in a small plates restaurant like Namaste Kitchen, is not having to share food for once).

And of course, I still miss Georgian Feast (the artist formerly known as Caucasian Spice Box) back when they cooked from the Turks Head. It became a regular ritual for me to head over there and eat on my own for the first half of last year: meatballs, spiced chicken thighs, sharply dressed salad and cheese bread – oh, and a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple. At the time I was living in a truly awful one bedroom flat, and it felt like having friends cook for you which, after a while, I suppose it sort of was; sometimes you can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it treats solo diners.

The other way that this list has changed since 2015 is that it reflects the rise of what, for want of a better phrase, I would call the Good Chain. Smaller, smarter chains are coming to Reading and they can often provide a little bit of the intimacy of an independent restaurant with some of the polish you associate with a bigger establishment. I make no apology for including so many of them here, because I’m interested in good restaurants – and good restaurants to eat alone in – and it’s not my fault that Reading doesn’t yet have the kind of independents, especially in the town centre, that get this stuff right.

I eat alone less often these days than I used to, nowadays, but a good meal alone is still a wonderful act of self-care, provided you pick the right venue. No quibbles about splitting the bill, nobody judging you for ordering too much, or having the expensive wine. No rush, nobody to please but yourself, and all that people watching. So here are my current recommendations – I hope they come in handy, and if you’ve always considered eating out on your own a step too far I really would encourage you to give it a try.

1. Bakery House

The perfect combination of food and anonymity.

I’ve grown to love an early evening meal alone at Bakery House. I sit facing out into that long, slightly chilly room, sip on an orange Mirinda (it’s basically Tango) and wait for the food to arrive. Some days I’ll munch on maqaneq: little, punchy sausages – you get an awful lot of them. On others I might go for the smooth, rich houmous beiruty, glossy and packed with tahini, beautiful piled on a big bubble of pitta, fresh from the oven.

That done, I can look forward to the main event. I tend to order the lamb shawarma – a big mound of intensely flavoured shreds of lamb, with garlic sauce, chilli sauce and terrific vegetable rice. But then there are also the delights of the boneless baby chicken, all charred skin and tender meat, a holiday on a plate. What could be better than being so transported?

The service at Bakery House can verge on standoffish, grumpy even. In other contexts that might be frustrating, but there’s something oddly comforting about how anonymous you can feel eating there. They don’t care whether you’re in a big group, on a date or alone, they’re simply there to bring you food and to leave you in peace. They’re like the barber that knows better than to talk to you when he’s cutting your hair, and some of my happiest, most meditative meals have taken place at Bakery House.

Bakery House, 82 London Street, RG1 4SJ
http://bakeryhouse.co

2. Cote

Three courses, because you deserve them.

Cote, for me, is for the full solo three course experience. Sitting on the banquette looking out into the room is one of the best, most uplifting ways that you can say “I deserve this”, whether you’re ordering from the set menu or the full a la carte. The latter sometimes has some brilliant specials – confit duck, perhaps, or the rare treat of a skate wing swimming with butter and festooned with capers (there isn’t much in life that rivals flipping a skate wing over halfway through eating it and realising that you have the thick side yet to come).

The set menu really comes into its own on summer days, when you can sit at a little table outside, with a view of the canal. I like to drink a Breton cider, crisp and almost sweet, and watch the world go by while I make my choices. Some of the dishes are good, and some are great, but all are stupidly reasonably priced, and the act of eating before 7pm means that you’re likely to be finished before the light has faded and the best of the evening has gone. I used to think “if I tried hard I could imagine I was in Paris right now”, but these days I think “I’m so lucky to live here.”

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

3. Franco Manca

Comfort food, elevated.

When it comes to comfort, little can top cheese on toast – and if anything can, it might be Franco Manca’s sourdough pizza. I have a real soft spot for their anchovy and caper version (ask for extra anchovies, because although Franco Manca is very reasonably priced you do to some extent get what you pay for). That said, their standard margarita is also worth a go, topped with whatever extras they have on the menu that day (the picture above, coppa and Ogleshield cheddar, was a particular high point). Oh, and have a blue cheese or pesto dip, because it really does transform the whole thing.

Franco Manca is perfect for a quick stop, but it’s actually not hard to make it more of a treat. Some of the starters – especially anything with mozzarella (smoked or otherwise), burrata or fennel salami – well worth lingering over, as long as you can overlook the fact that most of them are stuff you’d put on a pizza taken off a pizza and served cold on a plate instead. I can, anyway. And finally, the chocolate ice cream is pretty decent as is my personal favourite, a crafty affogato.

When I first reviewed Franco Manca I liked the food and was sceptical about the room, mainly because it was impossible to hear your dining companion. It turns out that really isn’t an issue when you go on your own, which means that what could be a wall of noise becomes a strangely comforting hubbub. Sitting outside, on a summer day, is also a lovely thing to do.

Franco Manca, The Oracle, Bridge Street, RG1 2AT
https://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading

4. Honest Burgers

Meat and potatoes.

I said the Good Chains had this eating alone business down pat, and you would struggle to find a better example of that than Honest Burgers. Much has been made, quite rightly, of what a beautiful job they did with the interior. And plenty has been written about the virtues of the Reading burger, making the most of our local suppliers. Not to mention the King Street Pale, a truly wonderful beer which even I, more of a lager fan, can neck by the pint.

Well, yes. But for my money, the best thing to do at Honest is forego the Reading special and whatever the flavour of the month is and let Honest do what they do best, which is serve cheeseburgers. I go for their most basic burger, topped with cheddar, and that way you can really taste the quality of the beef, the char of the crust, the hint of salt.

Your mileage may vary, but in any case it really is another fantastic venue to eat well and unfussily, especially if you have somewhere to go shortly afterwards. My stepfather has got into the habit of grabbing an Honest before taking in a movie at Vue, and he is a man who knows what he’s doing.

Honest Burgers, 1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB
https://www.honestburgers.co.uk/locations/reading/

5. Kokoro

Dinner on the run.

Kokoro is an illustration of what I call the “yaki soba effect”. Back when I used to go to Wagamama, I always ordered the yaki soba, a big heap of noodles with chicken and prawns and pickled ginger and plenty of good stuff. It never let me down, and became my takeaway of choice for a while. Then I decided I really ought to branch out, but every time I did my meal was plain disappointing – and, usually, I had to watch someone else eat yaki soba in front of me while I pretended to enjoy chicken katsu curry (a dish which always looks a tad too scatological for my liking).

Kokoro is the same – it’s all about the sweet chilli chicken. I mean, just look at that picture up there. Look at it! Doesn’t it make you peckish? A glossy, fiery deep red sauce (and these days they give you enough to coat the rice or noodles) with clearly visible garlic – the best kind of garlic, if you ask me – and piece after piece of tender, crispy-coated chicken. They serve it in either a medium or a large cardboard tub: the medium is quite big enough for anybody, but the large only costs a pound more. The whole thing comes in at the six or seven quid mark, and it’s one of the very best dinners on the run Reading has to offer. You sit at a basic wooden table, polish it off and watch other people come in and place their orders – usually for the sweet chilli chicken, unsurprisingly.

Last time I went, I decided to try the chicken curry instead. It had lots of tender, chicken thigh cooked into strands. It had an anonymous brown sauce which tasted largely of nothing. It was, in short, not the sweet chilli chicken, and that’s when I realised that I won’t make that mistake again. Kokoro also sells chicken katsu curry, but who on earth orders that? People who don’t like the yaki soba at Wagamama, I suppose.

Kokoro, 13 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1SY
http://kokorouk.com/

6. Sapana Home

Because the best things come in multiples of ten.

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Ten pan-fried chicken momo cost six pounds fifty at Sapana Home. They come on a plate, clustered round a little dish of hot dipping sauce, and when you have them pan fried they have a slightly caramelised exterior which seals the deal. A plate of Sapana Home’s momo, I think, can gladden even the heaviest heart. My favourite momo is the fifth one: before that, they pass too quickly and you eat them almost without savouring them, whereas after that you are maybe a little too aware that your pleasure – as most pleasures do – is inevitably coming to an end.

There are other dishes there I recommend, if you’re feeling greedy. The chicken fry is wonderful – pieces of chicken, spring onion and tomato with that same hot sauce. The chow mein, which is fundamentally the chicken fry plus noodles, is also splendid. And if you feel more adventurous I heartily recommend the samosa chaat, a glorious four-way pile-up involving samosas, yoghurt, crispy noodles and red onion.

Late 2016, when I took a break from reviewing restaurants, was a pretty bleak period in my life. Nothing was going right, and when I finished work and got back into town on the train I really didn’t want to go home any time soon, much of the time. What got me through many difficult days, back then, was a plate of momo at Sapana Home. It’s a little place, and it’s best to sit upstairs if you can, where there is daylight. The service is brusque but not unkind. There was a period when sitting there, eating momo and listening to the oddly comforting (if mindless) strains of Heart FM was truly my happy place.

If any further illustration was needed, it’s this. The photo above was taken last night: writing this made me want to go back, so I did. Things have changed a little since I last went: the music was classic Bollywood rather than commercial radio, and the momo (they now do lamb too, although I didn’t order them) were slightly less packed with filling, lighter and more delicate. It was like seeing an old friend after a while and realising they’ve lost weight. I did, for a moment, consider putting Kings Grill in this sixth spot instead. But I’ve kept Sapana Home on this list – it may be mainly for sentimental reasons, but momos six to ten were still as bittersweet.

Sapana Home, 8 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
http://sapanahome.co.uk/

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Franco Manca

I’ve long enjoyed referring to Reading as “Zone 8”, and one of the most significant developments in Reading’s restaurant scene during my time away was this description becoming less and less of a joke. Reading’s always been a chain magnet, but the latest wave of new and imminent arrivals has a distinct whiff of the capital about it: The Real Greek, The Botanist and Comptoir Libanais are already here; Pho, Honest Burger and Byron are on their way. A big Pret has sprung up just opposite the train station, too: by the time Crossrail gets here, people might alight at Reading and be unaware that they’re not in Kansas (or possibly Camden) anymore.

The one I was most excited about was the arrival of Franco Manca. For years I’ve been complaining that Reading could do with a really good pizzeria to rival the likes of Bosco in Bristol or The Hearth in Lewes. Then I discovered Papa Gee and found that I didn’t feel quite so deprived but even so, Franco Manca (along with the likes of Leon and Le Pain Quotidien) remained one of the chains I most wanted to see make it out west to Reading. I’ve been going to Franco Manca, in Brixton and Battersea, for many years and I’ve always loved their sourdough pizzas, gorgeous burrata and short unfussy wine list.

Initially they were going to open in the basement of Jackson’s, which I thought was a magnificent idea and a terrific way to bring a buzz to one of Reading’s most iconic buildings. But I guess they lost patience or got an offer they couldn’t refuse, because instead they have taken the Oracle’s shekel and opened where the Debenham’s restaurant – never reviewed on the blog, due to what I can only describe as a shocking oversight – used to be. It’s right next to The Real Greek, which extends the riverside and creates a little enclave for shoppers and diners to descend upon (it’s working, too: when I tried to book The Real Greek for a Saturday night to take my family out for dinner I was told it was already solidly booked.)

The space outside is nicely used and if the weather had been better I’d have been sorely tempted to eat in the sunshine, but I visited on an inclement weekday so I found myself waiting for a table to become available (in the spirit of another London trend coming our way, Franco Manca doesn’t take bookings). I managed to nab a table in the corner of the room, nearest the window, which gave me a good look at the room. It’s a big space: all square tables, wooden school-effect chairs and bare lightbulbs, the walls covered in what appeared to be upcycled pallets, no soft furnishings and nothing to absorb sound.

What this means is that, even tucked away in a corner, the experience was a cacophonous one. I’d come to Franco Manca with my friend Tim and the whole evening was marked by both of us constantly having to lean across the table and say “What?” “Pardon?” or “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to repeat that. Again.” The irony: here we were in a room full of young chatty diners and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more geriatric. It’s the first time I’ve seriously considered taking an ear trumpet to a restaurant (although, depressingly, I doubt it will be the last).

The menu is a short one – a small range of starters (or “Bites”) and seven pizzas, two without a tomato base. The specials board lists some extra starters, two special pizzas – one meat, one vegetarian – and an array of extra toppings. I was a bit confused by the flip side of the menu which talks about all of Franco Manca’s ingredients but doesn’t make it clear whether you can order those as extra toppings or not, but maybe I’m just getting old and finding hidden complications in a very simple menu (an unwelcome theme is emerging here: have you noticed?).

While we waited for our order to arrive, Tim and I enjoyed something from the compact and bijou drinks list. There are a handful of wines, two beers and one cider (described as “No Logo”, presumably a tribute to Naomi Klein’s late 90s anti-consumerist classic). I had the cider, which was pleasant – sparkling and cold but with a slightly agricultural hint. The waiter brought it over without a glass and I had to ask him to come back with one, but not before my request was met with a slightly vacant look. Perhaps all the hip gunslingers drink straight from the bottle (and, for that matter, can understand every word spoken by the person opposite them).

Tim, last seen on this blog enduring the culinary Vietnam of a trip to Cosmo, is a Beer Expert. He has forgotten more about beer than I’ve ever known (although that’s not saying a lot: he probably forgets more about beer in a single day than I’ve learned in a lifetime). So I’m well used to him putting on his Serious Beer Tasting Face, taking a sip, knotting his eyebrows, smacking his lips afterwards and pronouncing it “okay, I suppose”, as he did here.

“Of course, they say it’s no logo but it’s by Shepherd Neame”, he added. “It might go better with the food, to be fair.” I nodded sagely, pretending to understand what he was talking about – a look I’ve perfected over many evenings spent hearing Tim wax lyrical about the Citra hop (whatever that is: I thought it was a dance from the Twenties, but apparently not).

My starter was uncomplicated and delicious, a wooden board with four thick, generous slices of coppa and a ball of mozzarella perched on some salad. I yield to nobody in my love of mozzarella served before it’s been ruined by heat – so cold, clean and fresh-tasting! – and this was a pretty joyous example. I also love coppa, beautifully marbled pork shoulder which I’ve always found more interesting than Parma ham (how I miss the days when you could buy it from the deli counter at Carluccio’s). Again, this one was damned fine. And you could quibble about how this was a triumph of buying or assembly rather than of cooking if you really were so minded, but to me it was a triumph of eating, which is far more important. Decent value at six pounds, too.

“You’re going to describe that as ‘generous to a fault’, aren’t you?” said Tim. “You always say that in your reviews.”

“Well I’m not now.” I said; later I looked back, and it appears that I do indeed always say that.

Tim was faced with something altogether more baffling. The specials board had described it as “Gloucester old spot baked sausage”, which could potentially give you the impression that what turned up might resemble, you know, sausages. But the use of the singular, with hindsight, was a clue. Instead, what Tim got was a slab of sausage meat that had been baked with a tomato sauce and dolloped with what might have been crème fraiche. The sausage meat was lovely – coarse and shot through, I think, with a smidge of fennel. But it was an odd dish and I’m not sure Tim would have ordered it if it had been more accurately described (perhaps as middle class sausage McMuffin only without the muffin, or Millennial meatloaf). Half the fun of sausages is the contrast in texture between outside and inside (I like mine like mummified fingers, personally) and that was missing here. Tim looked enviously at my starter, and I gave him some coppa and mozzarella to apologise for ordering better than him. If anything, I think it made matters worse.

The pizzas took longer to arrive than I expected, which was no bad thing although it was characterised by a bit more ineffectual service. I’d ordered a dip for my crust (or “cornicione” as the Franco Manca menu likes to call it) and there was some general chaos about which one I’d gone for – pesto, since you asked – which even led to the manager having to come over and ask me what I’d ordered. She was quite brilliant, bright and personable – but if anything, that just highlighted that the rest of the service had been a bit… well… I’m struggling to find a more appropriate word than “gormless”, so let’s just leave that there.

If I won the battle of the starters, I think Tim did better on pizza. His was a pretty classic combination – tomato sauce, mozzarella, and (according to the menu) both dry and semi-dry chorizo. And it looked good, although I did have some reservations; maybe I’m just greedy but it felt a little light on chorizo and what chorizo there was was so unevenly distributed that it looked like it had been dropped onto the pizza from a great height by someone with their eyes shut. Again, I wondered if I just wasn’t cut out for this new devil-may-care attitude and perhaps literally nobody else would be bothered by this. What can’t be denied, though, is that it was tasty: the crust was bubbled, blistered and light, the base top notch.

“Can you tell the difference between the two types of chorizo?” I said to Tim as he hoovered up his final mouthful.

“Yes.” he said. “One of them is short and fat and the other one is wide and thin.”

“Helpful stuff, Tim. I’ll make sure I put that in the review.”

My pizza, by contrast, just didn’t work. I went for one without a tomato sauce base and instead it came with yellow tomatoes, buffalo ricotta and spicy lamb sausage. It looked unbalanced to me when they put it down in front of me and it tasted unbalanced too: the tomatoes were sweet, the ricotta was sweet and although the sausage – something a bit like merguez – was genuinely fiery and delicious there just wasn’t enough of it to counteract everything else. Again, everything looked assembled at random and in this case it made for quite an unattractive pizza, with the sausage unpleasantly reminiscent of droppings and the ricotta looking disconcertingly like cuckoo spit (hungry yet?). The pesto dip was an excellent idea but in execution it just lacked enough salt and parmesan to offset the oil.

On a previous trip to Franco Manco just after it opened I had been absolutely enchanted by a lemon and rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt and honey, which has to be one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I tell you this because, in keeping with the rest of the evening, they had taken it off the menu for this visit. So we skipped dessert, cut our losses, paid up and beetled off to the pub. The bill came to just under forty-two pounds for two, without tip. Both pizzas, and this will give you a clue as to Franco Manca’s popularity, clocked in at around eight pounds.

When I go for dinner on duty with a companion, I like to play little game at the end. We text our rating out of 10 to each other simultaneously, like some kind of digital gunfight, and compare notes. Tim’s rating was nothing special: he wasn’t impressed with Franco Manca. He said the food was good but not good enough to overcome the room and the service. He’d sooner go to Papa Gee, he said, and of course I felt a little bit proud of him for that. It quite outweighed his shortcomings when it came to describing chorizo, which after all is a niche skill in anybody’s book.

It might surprise you, based on everything that’s gone before, that I feel a little more kindly disposed to Franco Manco than Tim was. Restaurants are good at different things, and some restaurants can be good despite excelling at something which isn’t necessarily my thing. And there is a lot to be said for Franco Manca if you’re grabbing a quick meal in the centre of town, or you’re on a budget, or if you really like pizza. Or if you’re considerably younger than me (many people are, these days), wear a snapback indoors and don’t mind raising your voice to have even a rudimentary conversation with your mates. Or, now I come to think of it, if you want to eat somewhere good in the Oracle which isn’t Cote. The pizza, as long as you pick the right one, is good enough to overcome a multitude of sins, and next time I go I’ll stick to the tried and tested classic of anchovies, olives, capers and basil. Personally, I can see myself heading there at lunchtime on a sunny day, or having an early dinner there before ambling off to the cinema or Tuesday Music Club at the Global Cafe, full and happy, ear trumpet stowed away in my satchel.

Franco Manca – 6.8
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952086

http://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading/